PIPE DREAMS AND SLIPPERY SLOPES: Calling all crackpots! If you’ve got a half-baked, hair-brained scheme for creating rain and making the desert bloom, it’s high time to haul it out of the closet. I say this because we’re fast approaching California’s age-old collision between population growth and water supply. And Santa Barbara will definitely be affected.
On the growth side, we have all the usual suspects and then some: The State of California has decreed the County of Santa Barbara must change its zoning to accommodate our fair share of the Golden State’s projected population increase, real or imagined. Then there are builders, developers, and architects who never saw a rolling oak savanna they didn’t think would look spiffier with a few thousand red tile roofs sprouting up. And finally, there are the County Administrator types excited to create new urban population pod clusters-they, however, prefer the term “village”-in the hope they will generate more tax revenues than costs.
On the drawing boards across the county-either in the form of annexations, sprawl, leapfrog development, or in-fill-are plans for thousands upon thousands of new homes. And despite all the warm and fuzzy talk about housing our firefighters, teachers, and police officers, precious few of us will able to afford any of them. On the flipside, we have one increasingly stubborn fact. Water. It’s always been the key factor in governing the rate of growth in California. When we have it, we grow; when we don’t, we stay put. Back in 1991, Santa Barbara voters figured they repealed the laws of nature by voting to import State Water. That vote approved the expenditure of about $600 million in bonds-for which we county rate payers cough up $50 million a year-in order to build the pipes, pumps, and generators needed to piggyback water from 500 miles away into our parched spigots. It’s been almost 10 years now that State Water has actually been flowing into Santa Barbara County. In that time, many of us have entertained the dangerous delusion that the water supply is reliably infinite and infinitely reliable. Guess what? Neither is remotely true no matter what drugs you take. This rude awakening is coming to us courtesy of climate change and global warming.
It doesn’t matter if you think sun spots are to blame or human activity; the facts show the ’90s were the hottest 10 years in the past 1,000 years. There’s no sign things are cooling off in the new millennium, either. Last year, Europe experienced the hottest winter in 700 years. The western United States has been in a protracted drought for the past 15 years, and Los Angeles, home to nine million very thirsty people, is in the midst of “extreme drought conditions.” Global warming means hotter winters, thirstier plants, dryer rivers, less snowpack in the Sierra Madres, and less water in the State Water Project. Add to that a few endangered fish-like the Delta Smelt-standing between us and Northern California’s water, and no wonder a superior court judge ordered the State Water Project temporarily shut down this summer. Even if those pumps were ultimately turned back on, that remains a very big, hairy deal.
By contrast, we’re doing great here in Santa Barbara County, But that all may change if we keep approving development based on the expectation that the State Water Project can deliver what’s promised.
In the meantime, it’s time to get seriously wacky. It’s always worked in the past. During the most recent drought, serious-minded men carrying serious-looking briefcases talked seriously about using “fog nets” to corral the fog and distill its bodily essences into potable water. We also heard schemes of stealing the runoff from Canadian glaciers and shipping it to Santa Barbara via tanker. Frankly, I like the idea of using a giant plastic water bottle instead, except City Hall just passed an edict saying it would no longer purchase water in plastic containers. There were, of course, the usual conglomeration of cloud seeders and rain dancers looking for a government grant. Taking the prize for originality was a company proposing to create artificial tornados that would effectively suck the rain intended for other communities to Santa Barbara. Naturally, the drought didn’t end until we approved expensively redundant plans to build both State Water and a new desal plant. None of this, I have been assured by a spooky shamanistic drummer I know, had anything to do with ending the drought. It was his strategically intoned prayers that delivered us from the infernal dryness. And who am I to say he’s wrong?
All this pales in comparison to the sci-fi extravagance of water supply plans hatched in the late ’60s and early ’70s. For example, serious consideration was given to building a nuclear-powered desalination plant up by Hollister Ranch. Those plans were shelved when PG&E decided to locate its nuclear-power plant by Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County instead. (Such was the optimism in atomic power back then that state engineers seriously considered using miniature A-bombs to blast the trenches and holes in the ground necessary for the construction of the State Water Project in the first place.) A company from Florida, Astro Research, promised to provide all the “pure odorless” water we could possibly drink by zapping our sewage water with gamma rays. The town’s mothers and fathers balked however, when they read that gamma rays were responsible for turning poor Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk. We’ll be hearing about similarly grandiose schemes in the months to come, but by then we’ll be too freaked out to think they’re funny or cute. Some Cassandras have suggested our water managers need to start putting on the brakes now, so we don’t come screeching to a halt later. But that’s the craziest idea of them all.