by Sarah West


I just got back from a road trip to Tahoe, that stunning mountain lake straddling the California-Nevada border in the high Sierras. It’s spring, a time by which winter storms have historically filled lowland reservoirs and capped the high country with deep snowpack. You don’t need me to tell you that’s not the case this year. We drove by nearly empty seasonal lakebeds whose only chance of realizing their full-lake potential is right now; even Tahoe, the second deepest lake in North America, is so low that boat docks loom above sand and rock instead of the clear, sapphire-blue water for which the lake is famous.

And that color (which is still there despite the lake’s low water) is, to our eyes, water’s dream of itself—sparkling in its sequined gown, clear as a soprano’s C. Water so astoundingly blue electrifies the imagination, sends it diving toward rocks clearly visible meters below as if water was sky and our thoughts birds. But to water’s eyes, it is chameleon: hidden in underground reservoirs, it is no color at all; frozen in ice sheets, it is polished steel; flowing through plants, it glows green; rising as steam or falling as finely-cut flakes, it is white as the midday sun.

To a farmer in the Willamette Valley, water’s finest color is chocolate: fertile soil moistened to perfect smoothness—not the dry clods and dust of late summer, not the slick mud of winter, but the bouncy chestnut-brown of living, breathing, humus-rich soil. It’s a color they can see without even breaking through the crust: in the way the weeds explode into life, the way the seeds sprout without doting, in the color of the crops as they glisten a thousand shades of green.

We live in a land of water, and also a land of drought. In emerald spring, it’s easy to forget how the grass will dry down a couple months from now. Historically, our annual summer draught is moderated; though surface water recedes well before the summer irrigation season is over, snowmelt makes up the difference. Climate change threatens to unravel that neat symmetry. Tenacious droughts in the Southwest and California increasingly appear less anomaly than foreshadow of our own not-too-distant future as we repeatedly watch the Cascades’ snowpack dwindle (this year to around twenty percent of its historic average). Maintaining the status quo, we will undoubtedly reach the point of requiring much more water than we have.

On the residential end of the water-use spectrum, there are many straightforward ways to conserve: only run full washing machine or dishwasher loads; don’t water your lawn or, better yet, tear it out and plant a food garden that utilizes drip irrigation, or a xeriscape garden that will eventually require no supplemental water; water your garden with soaker hoses or drip tubing, or (if you insist on hand-watering certain plantings like I do) overhead water in the morning when the least amount of evaporation will occur; fix leaky faucets; install low-flow emitters and appliances; and, for the truly dedicated household, adopt an “if it’s yellow let it mellow” policy (toilet flushing accounts for nearly 40% of residential indoor water use, and averages 3.5 gallons per flush).

Beyond all these important behavioral adjustments, as individuals we can join another powerful collective voice in the conversation. Sourcing the majority of our annual groceries from small, local farms and producers can have a tremendous impact on water conservation. Agriculture is the single greatest waster of the world’s water resources, statistics pumped up by large commercial farms’ mass irrigation systems and focus on cash crops (many of which have particularly high water needs). Smaller farms mitigate those inefficiencies with labor and more expensive materials (such as the installation of drip irrigation tubing), dry farming techniques, and careful variety selection (choosing vegetables and animal breeds adapted to drier conditions means the same good food with less water).

Making observations on the ground instead of from the cab of an air-conditioned tractor, working with soil instead of petro-chemical fertilizers, these farmers will also be the source of adaptations and innovations that follow and respond to the shifting climate. Their research is collective; it echoes the desires of our communities and the features of our landscapes. Supporting their work now means investing in the knowledge (and good food) they can bring to our future.