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Shaming your neighbors on social media won’t solve California’s water crisis
Here’s the real reason behind California’s deadly drought.
Of the remaining 20 percent, six percent goes to industry, government, and commercial uses. Individual households account for just 14 percent—a drop, so to speak, in the bucket. Those concerned about the state’s zero percent snowpack, rapidly shrinking reservoirs, and desiccated landscape should be casting their eyes at California’s Central Valley, beating heart of the state’s agriculture and thirsty guzzler of natural resources.
The problem with California’s agricultural sector isn’t just that it consumes water extremely inefficiently, with little regard to the rest of the state and the potential tragedy of the commons unfolding. It lies in a sense of entitlement embedded within the state’s water policy, one that encourages farmers to believe that they have a right to waste water—because the state, like others in the West, views the resource as a use it or lose it proposition.
As Abrahm Lustgarten at ProPublica reports:
[Ranch manager Bill Ketterhagen] knows his fields could thrive with much smaller amounts of water—he’s seen them do so in dry years—but the property owners he works for have the legal right to take a large supply, and he applies the water generously. … Under the provisions of these measures, people who use less water than they are legally entitled to risk seeing their allotment slashed.
In April, Governor Jerry Brown ordered historic water restrictions across the state, mandating that the state reduce water usage by 25 percent and implementing high fines for waste. Individual counties and cities also instituted their own restrictions to toughen up, primarily on residents.
Farming doesn’t have to be so wasteful, and the drought doesn’t need to bring the state’s agricultural industry to its knees. Dry farming, an ancient practice used across the Mediterranean and still in use in some regions today, relies on extremely limited water use to grow commercial crops. Farmers see lower yields, but in a tradeoff, fruits and vegetables are actually more flavorful, because they’re not loaded with water. Think of a farmers’ market tomato bursting with rich, dense flavor versus a watery, mealy grocery store version.
The determined refusal to avoid the abuses of the agricultural industry is reflected in #DroughtShaming, a frivolous, pointless, and unproductive act. Advocates argue that it’s educational or an act of protest—the lawns of the rich and famous are a particular target, with their gross excess highlighting class divides in the golden state—but it’s a waste of the Internet’s tremendous power and resources.
In addition, many of those involved in drought shaming freely post addresses or identifying information of private homeowners and renters—some of whom are actually required to maintain their lawns under the terms of their leases—which poses a significant safety risk.
A photo posted by Joshua (@ebbflowin) on
Cities are encouraging people to rat out their neighbors for water waste, and some are down with drought shaming on social media, too—though not all. Rudy Valles, a California Water Service district manager, told Bakersfield Now:
A good neighbor will go knock on the door and will say, ‘Hey, did you know you have a leak on your sprinkler? Did you know your sprinkler’s been running for the last hour? Do you know there is a state reg now?’ Going by and shaming each other, that’s the wrong way to do it.
The notion that finking makes good neighbors is likely to be especially unpopular in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, where water waste is often associated with marijuana cultivation. Calling water officials on a suspicious neighbor can be a very bad move without knowing what lies behind that tall fence.
Encouraging individual households to save water certainly doesn’t hurt, and educating people about how to prevent water waste, including with sassy campaigns like San Francisco’s, is a good idea. Civilian water usage is definitely a concern, and cutting back will help the state in the long term, but California’s residents have a monumentally outsized view of how much individual water use matters.
Drought shaming could be turned into an incredibly powerful social media campaign if organizers took on industrial agriculture, pressuring state legislators to rein in water use on the part of California farms. The myopic focus on what the neighbors are doing is a classic instance of missing the forest for the trees. California needs to fix its water problems, and the solution lies in major overhauls to farm policy, not whether someone is taking five-minute showers.
A photo posted by @mjonas85 on
Instead of #droughtshaming individuals, social media should be singling out @driscolls or @harrisranch, and people like Senator Cathleen Galgiani, chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture. California does have a water problem: Let’s make sure we lay it at the feet of the right people.
S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with regular appearances in the Guardian, AlterNet, and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith also serves as the Social Justice Editor for xoJane and will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.
Photo via pyxopotamus/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.