Letter from California (Part I)

Dear Reader,

As you likely know, we’re experiencing an epic drought here in California, the worst in the state’s history. Last week’s snowpack measurements came in at 80 percent below last year’s record low peak snowpack measurements.

But as I look around, life continues as normal—unbearable traffic; talk at my café of startups, seed funds and stock options; and grocery store produce sections bursting with fresh (mostly non-local) fruits and vegetables.

Some of my daughter’s middle-school-age friends can’t believe that I rarely drive Charlotte to school, forcing the able-bodied child to walk 30 minutes in the Mediterranean-like climate, trudging through tree-lined streets and dodging lycra-clad joggers and middle-aged walkers of pure-bred dogs who often wield two or more leashes at once, all the way to to her well-funded and well-equipped school in tony Los Altos. I could explain to these middle schoolers that I do neither Charlotte nor them any favors by burning fossil fuels to transport her to and from school. I could say their generation will have to deal with the effects of climate change when they are my age. I could talk about future bleak projections. The thing is, climate change is here now.

On the water front, here’s what we (mostly I, and as you read on, you will understand why if you live with a teenager…) have been doing at home to conserve:

1. MK put a pebble-filled, 1/2-gallon jug in the back of the toilet to reduce the amount of water per flush.

2. We have followed the “if it’s yellow let it mellow” rule for as long as I can remember. My mother last visited California in 2004 and I remember well before that her horror at our unflushed toilets.

3. I keep a bucket in the shower. When it’s full, I use the water to flush the toilet (if it’s brown). This may not be the most elegant solution but it’s no hardship whatsoever to store my bucket in the bathtub behind the shower curtain instead of under my sink.

4. I wash dishes by hand. My dishwasher no longer works well and besides, it guzzles more water than washing by hand does. I have been looking for a metal basin to set in my sink for soaking and rinsing dishes. This would help further reduce my water consumption in the kitchen.

5. When I return home from the farmer’s market, I wash and prep lots of the produce I’ve bought. Rather than washing off fruit and vegetables under a running tap, I clean everything in bowl or large pot filled with water. I start with the cleanest produce such as oranges or strawberries. I wash those, remove them and add something a little dirtier, such as lettuce. I clean that and move on to carrots or radishes, finally ending with potatoes. I then take the dirty water outside and water my Bougainvillea, lemon tree or other plants, which are only about 20 to 30 feet away from my kitchen.

washing produce
Washing lots or produce in a large bowl rather than under a running faucet conserves water

6. This may be TMI, but I no longer shower every day. Here in North America, we almost pathologically kill bacteria, both bad and good. We eat dead, pasteurized food, slather our skin with chemical-laced hand sanitizer and bathe compulsively. We need to question so many of our habits, including frequent bathing. Daily showers strip your body of beneficial bacteria that help kill the bad bugs. I usually shower every other day or so. On the days I don’t shower, a damp cloth swiped on my underarms, privates and feet suffices. I haven’t washed my hair daily for a few years and it looks just fine.

7. Okay this definitely is TMI. I recently started to save my urine. I know you just cringed but hear me out before you close your browser window. Urine contains nitrogen and benefits plants. It also helps break down compost faster. Why waste one resource (urine) and waste another precious resource (water) in order to make the act of wasting that first resource possible? Thanks to Annie at the fabulous blog Kitchen Counter Culture for enlightening me on the benefits of urine (and for the suggestion of a post about the drought). I might be able to convince my older daughter of the benefits of urine when she returns from university later this month but Charlotte has already announced she’s moving out.

The drought has received more media coverage than usual in just the last week, thanks to Governor Brown’s executive order mandating a 25 percent reduction in water consumption. So at least we’re now having a long-overdue conversation about the drought and climate change. As I rode my bike through Palo Alto yesterday, I noticed that most lawns had gone the way of many farmer’s fields in the Central Valley—fallow. I did see one ostentatiously lush lawn edged with equally lush shrubs and dotted with pastel-colored flowers. I couldn’t help but wonder how much that homeowner’s citation will cost. I hope a gray water system accounted for such greenery.

Ironically, thankfully, it’s raining outside as I type this.

~ Anne Marie

Next post: the drought, agriculture and what you can do to help California.

30 Comment

  1. I’m on twelve acres in Southern Oregon, where we have had almost no snow on our mountains. Awesome post, filled with great ideas!! Poor Charlotte. I’ve got my males all peeing outside here; my twelve year old son regularly pees on my compost piles! Containers in the shower, including one hauled out right away with the “not hot yet” water saved for the washing machine!

    I was just thinking of you; my little newspaper asked me to do a piece on zero waste! I might have to add some of these ideas!

    1. The snow-free mountains just look eerie to me. That’s great you have a whole team peeing outside. It is definitely easier for men and I think they tend to be less squeamish about going on the compost pile. Poor Charlotte is right. She had hoped for a normal mother…She was laughing when she announced she’s moving out though. Yes, please use some of these tips in your paper 🙂

  2. Great post, Anne Marie. I became fascinated by the horticultural uses for urine (particularly mens’) back in 1992 when my Cabrillo Collage professor educated us about it. But the modern taboo is strong – a student who peed on the horticulture department’s compost pile was expelled. You can scientifically explain to people how they are not eating urine in their vegetables but it’s hard to get past the current mind set. It’s going to take a lot of education, so I’m impressed to see you bring this up.

    1. Thanks, Trish. I can’t believe a student was expelled for going on the compost :O That’s crazy. He was helping speed things up. You’re right about the modern taboo. I just hope my mother doesn’t read this post. She’ll be completely horrified. I predict this and other taboos will fall to the wayside in the coming years and decades as we relearn how to live.

  3. I knew the snow was 80%, but didn’t know that last year was a record low. I pray for all beings… I concur that daily showers are not necessary. My skin feels abused after soap (even natural soap) and water. We do the flush if it’s brown thing, and I can say that my toilet bowl is not suffering stains after 18 months… I will use the idea of 5 gallon bucket in the shower to catch the not-yet-warm… Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you Aggie. Yeah, last year was a record low and this year is worse 🙁 You know, my skin used to be very itchy and now it isn’t. It didn’t dawn on my until I read your comment that it must have been the soap drying it out and making it itchy. I’m glad you like the bucket idea. It’s such a simple, easy thing to do.

      1. Madeleine says:

        It may not have been the soap drying out your skin, it may have been the chemicals they add to the tap water. As for soap, I read many years ago that you shouldn’t soap your whole body as it strips the skin’s acid mantle and also lowers immunity. I have followed that advice, only soaping the ‘important’ bits, and have soft,trouble-free skin.

        Madeleine

      2. Oh I do that now too, Madeleine, just the three main parts get soap now 🙂 I have to say my skin feels so much better and I hadn’t really noticed or thought about it before today.

  4. I’m located in Fresno and it’s sad to hear about the farmers woes. A few I’ve talked to at the Farmers Market won’t be growing specific crops due to them being water hogs.
    What I can’t figure out is why we’re still cited for dead lawns here in Fresno. I think at this point in the drought it should be mandatory.
    I thought I was the only one who follows the mellow yellow rule lol. Thanks for the tips, I’ve got some new routines to put in place!

    1. Wow, you’re cited for dead lawns? That’s crazy. People with dead lawns should get a prize. That has to change. I feel bad for the small farmers like the ones you talk to at the farmer’s market. My next post will focus on food and the drought. I am happy to reduce my water usage and the tips I posted are easy to do but why doesn’t Big Ag have to make sacrifices? Why are we planting almond trees like crazy and depleting the water table to keep them alive?! It’s madness! Did you get rain down there today too?

      1. Yes on the rain here!! Thank heavens!
        Yeah, you would think since we’re located literally right in Ag central lawn dying would be a no brainer. I’m REALLY worried about the Sierras, I just know there will be some huge fires this year.
        Heck I’ve never even been able to afford most nuts. Why have almonds gotten so popular do you think? Almond milk and such?

      2. Oh I know, the fires have me worried too. California is like a giant tinder box. I’m not sure why almonds are so popular now. I found this explanation: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/08/06/the-rise-of-the-american-almond-craze-in-one-nutty-chart/

  5. Here in my part of Australia we have record low rainfalls and had the hottest Summer I can remember.

    Could I add to your wonderful water-saving tips, only wash your clothes when they are actually dirty. I usually leave my apron on at the dinner table if I’m still wearing my work clothes so that they stay clean, and have designated gardening clothes that I can keep wearing even if they are dirt-encrusted!

    Thanks for your inspiring blog, this is the first time I’ve commented.

    Madeleine.x

    1. Thanks for the nice compliment and those great tips, Madeleine. Besides conserving water, the nice thing about washing clothes less frequently is, well, you do laundry less frequently!

  6. The dire droughts in California have made it to the news here.

    Despite being an island known for rains, ironically Britain also regularly suffers from draughts, especially in SE England. Hosepipe bans are common most summers. I suspect many of the causes are the same. Not just changes to climatic weather patterns but over-consumption (mostly waste) and overdevelopment. SE England is very built up, new developments but also people decking over their back gardens or paving over front gardens to turn them into drives (ubiquitous cars again, sigh!). This means much of our normal rainfall does not seep into the ground to become groundwater but runs off (via old, overworked drainage system) into sea. Alas, it’s lifestyle choices and aspirations that are partly to blame.

    PS – Like you I don’t believe in daily showers. A wet flannel shifts more dirt that mindlessly standing under streaming water.
    PPS – Yes, our forbears new a thing or two! What remains of agricultural land around Greater London is some of the most fertile in the country due to centuries’ worth of urine and night soil being barged to those areas. Now we use vast amounts of water and energy to dispose of useful resources, and waste more resources making synthetic fertilisers out of valuable oil. Utter madness! The one that really gets me is wasting potable water (ie highly treated water) to flush the loo.

    1. Yes, overconsumption has something to do with it here. We are depleting our ground water for crops and also to raise cattle in a desert. Talk about madness. In the CAFOs south of me, the manure piles up in cesspools that are a natural disaster waiting to happen. So rather than raise cattle humanely and use their manure to replenish the land, we’ve come up with this “solution” so we can consume more of what we don’t need. But I’m preaching to the choir 😉

      I am with you on the craziness of wasting potable water for the toilet (and everything else)! I wish all new home construction here would require gray water systems. Why waste all the water from the bathroom and kitchen? Now there is a business to go into in California right now!

  7. PPPS – I’m sure your daughter will survive. In years to come she may even remember these practices as character building 😉

    1. Thanks, Meg. I hope so 🙂

  8. good rave – wierd cause it is raining here now and torrential in the night but as you know drought is a big deal in this country and there are areas under drought while we here are having a moist time. go figure.
    I also agree climate change ( not happy with this wordage either) is happening right now .
    did you know urine is also a good medicine. I taught the girls despite ooh yuk mum to put pee on their bites mossies etc and it once helped send excema on its way – of course now I hear them tell others to pee on it and it will stop itching.
    of course our citrus love it…
    sorry to hear about your drought and isnt it odd when the immediate world around you just looks the same.
    sandra

    1. Thanks Sandra. I am just getting started with my rant 😉 I hope other states and countries will heed our hard lessons learned here in California. For one, capture all of those torrential rains!

      My kids are too old to convince of the benefits of urine but I will try. I have heard that urine is good for citrus. I have a lemon tree in my yard that I’ve been pouring it on occasionally. I think I read once a week tops.

      I agree it feels odd that everything looks normal around here. But when I see pictures of our snowless mountains and half-empty lakes, I know I’m living in a mirage!

  9. My husband has worked for environmental nonprofits his entire career, with 17+ of them being focused on water issues. We’ve long practiced water conservation – from our multiple rain barrels for the garden, planting only natives in our yard, to having low flow toilets and shower heads in the bathrooms. I do use the dishwasher, but we only run it when it’s full – usually every other day. We have a front loader washing machine that consumes less water than a top loader – not that I do laundry that much. We do tend to go for fresh dishtowels daily, but our cloth napkins get quite the workout before being thrown down the laundry chute.

    1. We didn’t have much rain this year but I wish we had had a rain barrel for the little bit we did have. I do much of the same as you though, including the napkins. I’ll use the same one several times before washing it. I don’t like doing laundry anyway 😉

  10. Thank you so much for writing this. Each of your points is so valid and so reasonable considering what we are up against planet-wide, not just in California. It all comes down to personal responsibility and you are living proof of that. It is so refreshing to see more people taking things into their own hands and being the change they wish to see, and sharing it publicly to inspire others.

    1. Thank you for your nice comment 🙂 All of these tactics are easy enough to do. They don’t feel like a burden and in fact, all the steps I’ve taken to simplify my life have improved it immensely!

  11. So grateful we are blog-buddies, and for this terrific post! Drought isn’t our issue in SoFlo at the moment. Our water supply is threatened by waste, agriculture run-offs, salt intrusion (sea level rise), fracking (unless we can stop it), and corrupt state leadership. Conservation really counts here, and your tips are excellent, and the comments helpful, too. Under these circumstances, there is no such thing as TMI :).

    1. I’m also grateful, and thank you! That’s what I figured about the TMI. This is no time to be timid. Your government officials can’t even say the words “climate change” now, correct? And I read that something similar is going on in Wisconsin. It’s madness! The intensive agriculture is a huge problem here too. It’s not how we’re supposed to do things and it’s coming back to haunt us. But we can change our ways.

  12. Big water saver- turn taps off when brushing teeth. Full a cup with water and use that to dunk your toothbrush in & to rinse.
    In my part of Australia we’ve not long come out of a couple of year drought (some parts are still in drought). We used pretty much all you’ve outlined above. When we showered small children would hop in, we’d use a timer & have the bucket to collect water for the plants.
    It’s funny, you get so used to water restrictions that even when you are out of drought you still use the water saving methods

    1. Thanks for that tip, Sarah. That’s a great idea to keep a cup in the bathroom for toothbrushing. I’ll start to do that. You do get used to these measures. They aren’t difficult to do.

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