If you've read the Bee over the past few months, you've been hit over and over again in the head with two major themes:
-California is in the middle of a serious drought
-Air quality is worse now than it's been in years
The two are linked of course, and are the result of long-term weather patterns; the same system that is keeping the rain away is stagnating the air. The problem is that many local planning decisions can help alleviate these concerns, but instead, local government turns a blind eye and makes it worse.
It seems like only once it's too late to make a meaningful change is when the people are called to act.
Let's start with water, which will probably be the headline throughout 2014.
And Fresno and Los Angeles now have more in common than dirty air. Both endured their driest calendar year on record.
This is no typical rainfall time in California, however. Fresno has only 3.01 inches of rain this year, falling well short of its lowest previous total of 3.55 inches in 1947. The average annual rainfall in Fresno is 11.5 inches.
Even stranger, San Francisco -- averaging more than three inches of rain in December alone -- has only 3.38 inches for the entire year, meteorologist Dudley said.
Perhaps more unsettling is the Sierra snowpack, where about 60% of the state's water resides each year. The snowpack is less than 25% of its average size.
The current lack of rain is not a surprise. Last year was dry too. The forecasts show no change. We should be worried, especially about this:
Reservoirs, the state's drought buffers, are dropping. The largest reservoir, Shasta in Northern California, is only a little more than one-third full, which is 58% of average for late December.
And yet water usage is going on as normal. No drought has been called. Lawns continue to be irrigated multiple times a week. Sidewalks everywhere drenched by broken sprinklers. Gutters filled by waste. Indeed, the lack of rain means even more water use, as the sprinklers can't be turned off on account of rainfall.
If attention is given to thee problematic activities, it will be when it's too late to make any meaningful change.
Worse, long-term city planning policies call for more of the same. You know those useless berms of grass and shrubbery that front every strip mall? The 30 feet between the sidewalk and the 7-foot soundwall separating an avenue to the homes?
That landscaping is never used. No one sets up a picnic there. No one tosses a ball, reads a book, or plays with the dirt.
It's there for the visual delight of motorists, greenery that constantly gets watered so those driving by have something pleasant to look at.
It's a waste. And it's required by local government.
To build in Fresno, or Clovis...or anywhere, one MUST build a landscaped area no one will use and constantly water it so it always looks nice. Regardless of how dry the reservoirs are, and the lack of snow on the mountain.
Farms will lie fallow to ensure that these lawns look green
It's not just the city that calls for massive waste of water. I recently highlighted the Westlake project which will involve building a massive artificial lake so that a developer can sell "lake-front homes." There is no natural source of water, so the lake will receive water piped in, where it will sit, evaporate, and need to be constantly replenished.
The city sees no problem with this, and supports the project.
There ave been no calls for conservation when it's clear to anyone trouble lies only months ahead, and no changes to ridiculous planning policies that will simply make the situation more grave for decades to come.
Mind you, this is the city that had to be forced kicking and screaming into actually charging its residents for the amount of water they use. It's not just Fresno though. Las Vegas, which depends almost entirely on Lake Mead also takes the approach where they ignore any water problems until they go away. Yes, they've been forced to be more restrictive with their landscaping, but nothing is asked of the massive tourism industry aside from tiny "help us conserve water" signs in hotel bathrooms.
That city is spending close to a billion dollars to build a "third straw" to suck water from the very bottom of the reservoir. Rather than deal with the fact that the city is using more water than is available, they're spending the money to make sure they can suck every last drop dry. And then? There's no plan, just hope.
Air quality also shows the lack of thinking about the future. The air quality has been terrible for the past month, with the exception of two days when a "storm" came in and blew the bad air out.
Air quality improved, and so, wood burning was allowed. Yes, even though any wood burnt on that day would just linger in the air until the next wind event, it was allowed until the accumulation got too bad. Now, of course, it's banned again.
It's another example of waiting until it's too late. "Air quality is bad don't burn wood!" - doesn't it make more sense to prevent the wood burning that causes the air to get bad in the first place?
Instead, we deal with this, every day.
There's planning problems again of course. Wood burning doesn't have as big effect as the cars do. Again with the Westlake example, approving more auto-oriented developments just mean more driving, more poor air, and more advisories to stay at home.
On the business side, it's the same thing. More and more drive-thrus keep popping up - every bank, coffee shop and restaurant seems to have one these days. As I've talked about before, when those in charge call a bad-air day, they encourage people to abandon activities like biking, rather than having the power to shut down drive-thrus and the wasteful idling. Starbucks and friends don't care that the idling cars are cutting days off peoples lives - they have convenience to sell.
Electric vehicles? Nope. Fresno stills lags the state and country in infrastructure for EVs. I need to check on Blackbeards again, but last time I was there, what was supposed to be the first public charging station in the region was a year behind schedule. On the plus side, I did see a Fed-ex eelctric delivery van the other day.
Every few months, the internet lights up with news stories about how cities in China have dug themselves into a massive hole, because they have out of control pollution. People shake their head and call it a shame that the country is making the same mistakes the west did 100 years ago, rather than learning from the past.
While Fresno has nowhere near the levels of pollution as China, the air quality in the valley is still hazardous and leads to deaths. While we wonder why China can't seem to think outside the short term, the reality is that local politicians and bureaucrats can't either. The valley has experienced serious drought before, and had to deal with massive economic consequences. The valley has also had decades of bad air, but the lesson doesn't seem to get through.
This summer, if the drought continues, and you hear some official call for a voluntary program that helps people reduce their landscaping water use, remember this post, and ask them where they were when conservation should have begun - before water levels reached hazardous levels.
Happy new year.