environment | August 16, 2015

Conquering Drought in California: Charles Fishman’s Optimistic NYT Story

Investigative journalist Charles Fishman has this past Sunday’s NYT lead story, and it’s certainly got people talking—hundreds of comments and a storm of social media posts prove that he’s striking at the heart of one of the planet’s most daunting problems. In “How California Is Winning the Drought,” Fishman offers a refreshingly optimistic—even optimistically disruptive—take on California’s battle against water scarcity, arguing that the state is actually getting much of it right. But with every fragile victory, California writes out a roadmap for its own survival—and one we can use around the world. “We know what to do,” he says. “We just have to do it.”

Despite its hottest, driest period and its fifth year of drought, California is thriving. It boasts a growing economy, record employment, and flourishing produce yields. How can this be possible? To Fishman, author of The Big Thirst, it’s because “the state has been getting ready for this drought for the past 20 years.” Farmers investing in drip irrigation use less water and yield more crops than with flood irrigation. Innovative groups like LA’s Inland Empire Utilities Agency and the Metropolitan Water District provide recycled water for millions, desalinating and purifying Pacific water and saving billions of gallons per year.

Fishman’s still careful to note that this “resistance is fragile”—wildfires, extreme deprivation, and unregulated groundwater are far from trivial hurdles. But he points to three lessons the rest of the world can take from California’s war that will help us survive. The first is for cities to view “rainwater, reservoir water, groundwater, wastewater” as all part of one reserve, generating new sources based on reusing what we have. The second reveals certain “absurdities” that require immediate repair: limitless groundwater use for farms, LA’s waste of collected rainwater, Sacramento’s lack of water meters among them.

“And the third lesson,” Fishman says, “is how to use water insecurity to create its opposite. A drought like this one creates the opportunity to change things—even really big things—that couldn’t be changed without a sudden sense of vulnerability.” This vulnerability has inspired new pioneering laws involving groundwater usage, on-site water recycling, and even replacing turf on private lawns.

These are laws created and passed based on urgency. Far from token or symbolic gestures, they are innovative solutions that are having immediate, measurable effects, expressing a shift in attitudes about water’s supreme value. For Fishman, this is the crucial turn. “More than any water conservation practice in particular, it’s that attitude that will save the state—and the rest of us, as well.”

Author of The Big Thirst (the top-selling book on water in the past 25 years) and The Wal-Mart Effect, Fishman speaks about the value of water, and the innovation required for economic survival. To book Charles Fishman for your next event, contact The Lavin Agency.