May 4, 1998
Essayist Richard Rodriguez considers water and California.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, Pacific News Service: After a long, long, wet winter, spring has come to California with particular beauty and poignancy this year. Everywhere in California, a state of accustomed to brown, one sees green. For tiresome months there have been warnings of El Nino, big trouble brewing off the coast of South America. Given the mass media's inclination toward hyperbole, we were told for dulling months to expect a calamity on the order of a medieval plague. California, it's true, suffers many natural disasters.
We are most notorious for earthquakes and fires. There have also been famous floods. But in this part of the country the worst calamity is not water but her terrible sister, drought. The cultural historian, Bernard DeVoto, once smartly observed that the West begins where the average rainfall drops below 20 inches. For the last 200 years the story of the American West could be written as a story of water. The story of our greatest western city, Los Angeles, for example, is a story of crooked land deals in the desert, dams built miles away, rivers diverted, lakes depleted.
REPORTER: David, we're in Woodland Hills over the Ventura Freeway. You can see the traffic in front of us is coming to a standstill here. There's a lot of rain still coming down and a lot of problems.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Last fall the rains began and then the rains continued, and the earth would not hold. Houses built precariously on the sides of cliffs fell into the sea. Houses built on flood plains were washed away. Lives were lost; crops were lost. Houses fell to the implacable will of mud. I do not think, however, our wet winter will be remembered as a very great disaster. For one thing the reservoirs are too full this spring.
Much worse than too much rain is the loss of drinkable water all over California, all over America. We do not trust the water from our kitchen tap anymore, and with reason. It used to be we Americans assumed the purity of our drinking water. Bottled water was something people had to drink in other parts of the world. I remembered growing up in the Central Valley of California, believing there was nothing as sweet and as pure as valley water and how good it was, whereas, now, now everyone I know boils their tap water or we drink water from bottles. The favored foreign brands are French and Swiss or water from Canada, or we drink water from wooded and peopled parts of America.
One sees people walking down the street with water in hand. It has become for my generation almost our middle aged baby bottle, our security blanket, our superstition. Maybe because our sense of pollution is so acute we need the assurance of water to wash away impurity and to ward off eventual decay. At my gym men and women with bodies that rivaled Greek ideals spent hours sweating and then drinking water. In ancient religious societies people confessed their sins to a priest to feel cleansed. Now, as healthy body has replaced the pure soul, we drink water. California was settled in defiance of the limited water supply. Extravagantly, we denied the limited rain. In this demi-paradise we planted golf courses in the desert floor and dug swimming pools in Beverly Hills. We grew rice under cloudless skies near Sacramento.
This spring California resembles Scotland, though every native Californian knows to expect a dry future, after all a drought can be as near as next year. The green hillside is lined by the tender knowledge that we do not--after all--live in paradise. What was Shakespeare's line: "Golden lads and girls all must like chimney sweepers come to dust." It's true. There is not enough bottled water to keep the body builders in Gold's Gym safe from coming dry winter, not enough bottled water to keep the foothills in California green beyond this brief, lovely spring. I'm Richard Rodriguez.