Apr 17, 2015

A Native Son's Complaint

It's come to my attention that I complain a lot about the place I live: Palo Alto, the Bay Area, California. Actually, I love it here. I was born here — Stanford Hospital, that is. Yep, that makes me a “California native,” just like Eschscholzia californica. It also makes me a “Native Son of the Golden West,” even though I’ve never really considered joining that club.

I was moved from our Portola Valley home at the ripe age of 3 and raised in a desert. No, really, a real desert. Las Vegas. A real real desert, both culturally and environmentally. (Ironically, California hit a drought shortly thereafter, and the grove of Monterey pines hugging our old back yard dried up like so much tumbleweed.)

Being a smart child, as soon as I was old enough I moved back here — Stanford University, that is. I can’t quite say I sucked the marrow out of my time there, but I do still bleed Cardinal red. I fell in love with the palm trees, the redwood trees, the eucalyptus trees; the vernal sunlight glinting off of Lake Lagunita (yes, children, once upon a time this lake contained water!); the morning fog, and the evening breeze that rolled in reliably enough to make the 4pm windsurfing class legendary. 

When it was time to leave The Farm and ply my trade in advertising, I was advised to "move to New York." "Or Chicago." But California poppies don’t do well in urban jungles or subzero gales. So I moved to San Francisco. I learned a little more about fog there; but all my complaints about Winter in July were forgotten once October rolled around, with its miraculous Indian Summer that lured me — and the rest of The City — out to stroll and dine and people-watch and generally do what young urban professionals do on balmy autumn evenings. 

SF was perfect for me: diverse but not overwhelming. Class without mass. And, a seemingly infinite reach with virtually no sprawl. Just 49 square miles, if you believe the guidebooks, yet just outside my door I discovered unbelievable food and wine… unreal beaches, forests, parks and islands… and unimaginable art, architecture, and artifacts from a very young state’s very rich history. I surfed the tidal wave of the dot-com boom with one foot in the past and another in the future. My journey had taken me from the desert to an oasis.

I was married in Sonoma, amidst grape vines and blue oaks and cattle, the scent of sage scrub blending with the sea air. Later, the urge to spawn brought a salmon-like pull back to my own birthplace, and I became a homeowner right back in, yes, Palo Alto. One and a half blocks from Stanford, in fact; close enough to hear The Band rally Branner or stroll over to Sunken Diamond for an evening game. And here in Palo Alto I’ve not only made my homes and raised my children, but also built my landscape design business, which connects me intimately with all the natural wonders of the place I live. 

I tell you about my history and love affair with the Bay Area for no other reason than to help you understand why I am so cranky about living in the Bay Area. It is precisely because I love it here that my heart breaks to see companies along California Avenue overwatering their oversized lawns in the midst of our worst drought ever, threatening to turn us into the desert I thought I left. My soul aches as old buildings — not glamorous, perhaps, but undeniably full of character — are ripped down and replaced with yet more glass and steel shoeboxes. My old office was in one such building, with a violin teacher for a neighbor. The building is gone, as is Larry. Tech offices. We — the people who live here, who love it here — are losing our home. Foreign investors pay ungodly amounts for properties they don’t live in and couldn’t care less for. Our Golden State is shriveling and browning just like the raisins so famous in my advertising days.

Lake Oroville, pre-drought and now (credit: Getty Images)
And the worst part? The worst part is that we are doing it to ourselves. We remain silent while our city officials permit the so-called “development” of generic office buildings even as existing structures sit vacant. We plant sprawling, gratuitous lawns no child will ever play on. We hire garden janitors who blow away all the nutritious organic matter our plants drop, then scatter fertilizer on the naked ground, then irrigate until water and fertilizer run off the soil and down the gutters. We drive too much, spend too much, use too much and think too little. We are making our Bay Area — the one we love, the reason we moved here, the only one we’ve got — extinct.

In younger years I happened to visit Los Angeles — okay, Santa Monica, but really, it’s all L.A., right? — on a day the winds were blowing just right and you could see the  mountains risen against a blue sky while standing on the beach. I was stunned. And I realized, this is what the earliest generation of Angelenos saw; in fact, it’s probably why they moved here. I would have. But then they brought their cars; and their neighbors brought more; and soon, the very thing that drew the crowds became shrouded in smog, almost a myth: the thing everyone believed was there but had never seen, except on those rare days when the winds blow just right.

And so, it’s precisely because I love the Bay Area that I am scared that if we don’t change our ways, we will become Las Vegas, or more likely Los Angeles. A place that people speak of in the past tense, with a certain reverence but also resignation: “Remember when we could see the foothills from here?” “Once upon a time, this lake used to contain water.” 

But we don’t have to live out that fate. We can change our ways. And I love my home enough that I’m going to continue complaining when we don’t.

Apr 1, 2015

Massive Water Discovery Ends California Drought

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - April 1, 2015 - Governor Jerry Brown and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) today lifted the state's drought State of Emergency on the news that an enormous water reservoir has been discovered along California's western border.

Although the exact size of the aquifer has yet to be determined, reports indicate it may be hundreds of miles across and more than 10,000 feet deep, billions of gallons in total. "We are delighted to say, the drought is over," Brown proclaimed at a beachfront press conference, a gleaming drinking glass on his podium. "This discovery will provide enough water for every man, woman, child, farmer, rancher, business, school and park in our great state to live the California lifestyle without ever again worrying whether there is enough water to waste."

California's $36 billion agriculture industry applauded the announcement. "Our crops, orchards and ranches have been in decline for well over a decade now," said Andrew Morse of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). "This [discovery] means we will be able to get back to our business of feeding the world."

Indeed, the state's farmers may be able to not only regain lost ground, but even expand into new markets: low lending rates, coupled with property foreclosures throughout the state, are fueling a new era of agricultural expansion as farmers buy entire subdivisions and convert them to arable land. "We're processing a record number of loan applications," said banker Toiya Dobrov, whose clientele includes family farms throughout the Central Valley. "Water is going to be the new gold."

The newly discovered reservoir
Gov. Brown said the state will petition the federal government for funds to develop filtration, conveyance and distribution systems throughout the state, a further boon to California's economy. "Investing in our infrastructure will produce exponential returns when we give people jobs and deliver water to where they work and where they live." The state already is in discussion with neighboring Nevada and Arizona to export its newfound bounty to those parched regions, and plans are under study for a "main vein" pipeline to route water from California east through the entire country. "This could be the next transcontinental railroad," said Brown, announcing that project bids will be solicited within weeks.

The California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA) and state chapters of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) and American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) also welcomed the news. In a joint statement, the groups say they "look forward to creating landscapes that can gulp rather than sip, that evoke Shangri-La rather than the Sahara. For too long we and our clientele have endured the constraints of a Mediterranean climate; now, with our abundance of sunshine matched only by our access to water, we can live in any garden we desire." No comment was available from the Synthetic Turf Council, one of the few industries analysts expect will not profit from the discovery.

Ironically, the aquifer was discovered by two recently unemployed construction workers, Eric Lucas and Dante Sievers, both of Palo Alto, Calif. Although neither has a background in hydrology or environmental science, both knew immediately they were on to something big last month while visiting the nearby coastal town of Pescadero. "We were just chilling on the beach," said Mr. Lucas. "The next thing I know, Dante is shouting 'Water! Water!' First I called 911," he said, "but we got disconnected, so I called the newspaper" who in turn called the state water agency. Neither man is aware of any plans to name the body of water in their honor.

The sheer size of the reservoir has made mapping of its boundaries tedious, which in turn has inflamed long-simmmering tensions between California and its neighbors. The states of Oregon, to the north, and Hawai'i, to the east, both claim the water reaches into their territories. And in what could turn a domestic dispute into an international incident, Mexico also contends that a portion of the water is theirs, a claim Gov. Brown downplayed. "The proud nation of Mexico and the great state of California have a long and rich history of sharing resources," he said, "and we certainly will work together to ensure an equitable distribution of this resource as well."

The discovery has raised almost as many questions as hopes. One story circulating the Internet claims the volume of water actually could increase over time due to factors related to climate change, to which a DWR spokesman responded "we can only hope." Other critics have noted the water's purity is unproven, and it may be polluted by vegetation and animal waste.

The DWR spokesman refused comment on another allegation, that extreme salinity in the water makes it unfit for drinking or irrigation. "This is a proud day for our state and our nation" said the spokesman. "Let's not let irresponsible rumor-mongering dry up our celebration."