Opening speech for the community conference, “How blue is your valley? Your voice, your future”; held April 24,2015

Opening speech for the community conference, “How blue is your valley? Your voice, your future”; held April 24,2015

Category : My speeches

Welcome to the conference!  I want to thank Roger Moore and the Environmental Section of the State Bar for inviting me to speak today, and I want to thank all of you for coming to find out more about my favorite subject, water.

My name is Chris Austin, otherwise known as Maven, and I publish a website called Maven’s Notebook dot com, which is dedicated to following California water news.  On my website, I track the latest water news and information from around the web, as well as provide original coverage of meetings, conferences, and seminars the other media outlets don’t cover.  I also post breaking news.  I strive to make Maven’s Notebook the most comprehensive, up to the minute, resource for California water news and information.

Maven’s Notebook is actually my second water website; I’ve been following, writing, and aggregating California water news and information online since 2007.  I’m rather passionate, some might say obsessed, with following California water news.  I’m often asked how I ended up doing what I do.  Like many women, I paused my career to have children, and after a few years when I wanted to return, I found much had changed.  So it just sort of worked out that I stayed at home.  But as a former career woman, I really needed something more to do.

So I began writing for a local citizen’s journalism website, and ended up writing an article about our community’s water supply.  As I was doing my research, I remember saying to my husband one night, “I wonder what would happen if I became real smart about water.” And so I went about doing just that.  I read books, followed the news, read numerous reports, and started my first water news website.

Through the years, I subjected my husband and my two small boys to an informal education on California’s geography and water infrastructure.  We went on numerous road trips; as toddlers, my boys frolicked by the side of farm fields while I took pictures of the Semitropic Water Bank; as young kids, they saw harvest time in the Imperial Valley.  They’ve been as far south as the Salton Sea, and as far north as Lake Oroville; they’ve seen Hoover Dam, Imperial Dam, and many miles of the California Aqueduct.  We’ve driven extensively through the Owens Valley in search of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and I’ve even driven the family minivan across the dry Owens Lake bed.  Twice.

Indeed, it was a sad day, when they figured out that Mommy’s short cuts weren’t really all that short, and that other families actually vacationed at Disneyland.

So if you ask my now-teenaged boys about all those trips and they’ll roll their eyes at you, but at least they understand that food just doesn’t come from the store, and water just doesn’t come from the tap, although it certainly doesn’t get them out of the shower any faster …

California faces many challenges in managing our water, even before the onset of the drought.  Continued population growth, increasing demands, climate change, aging infrastructure and other factors were already putting pressure on scarce resources, and the drought has only exacerbated the situation.

Now, I really don’t think that California is going to dry up and turn into a dusty uninhabitable “Mad-Max” hell-scape as some apocalyptic headlines might lead you to believe.  I do think it will rain again, although maybe not next year.  But we are going to have to make some significant changes in the way we manage our water in order to adapt to what may be a drier future.

California water is complex, and hard for newcomers to grasp.  The onslaught of coverage of the drought in the national and international press demonstrates how hard it is for outsiders to understand just what is going on in Crazifornia, with much of the coverage lacking real perspective or proper context.

Articles with outrageous headlines have blamed the drought on a variety of different things.

You can pick your villain:  The farmers, the environmentalists, the Democrats, the regulators, especially the Executive Director of the State Water Board, the water exporters, Westlands, Stuart Resnick, wealthy cities, desert cities, Southern California.  If that’s too personal for you, then pick a thing: bottled water, lawns, swimming pools, golf courses, endangered species regulations, Delta smelt, beef, alfalfa, rice, almonds, or marijuana.

Ad lib: Has anyone else noticed no one is picking on the grapevines?  So, we’re mad about the nuts, we’re mad about the pot, but we’re just fine with the wine … hmmm… (pause)

And there’s no shortage of solutions:  Cutback farmers, cutback urbans, cutback on environmental flows, conserve more water, recycle more water, capture more stormwater, raise rates and fine water wasters, build some desal plants, build some tunnels, build a canal to the Midwest, Captain Kirk says build a pipeline to Washington!  There are numerous high-tech desal processes being promoted, there’s now something called ‘atmospheric water generation’, and there’s a start up company called “Rain on Request” that says it can do exactly that – although it’s never quite really done so.

Water and drought make for complicated public policy and scientific debate, and nuances do matter greatly.  This media coverage does have real consequences for all of us, because it influences not only what our own residents perceive about the drought and how the state is responding, but it reverberates across the nation, back to Washington, DC and indeed, around the world.  All eyes are on California: the breadbasket of the nation, the tech innovator of the world … what are we going to do?

Unfortunately, despite the pundits, there are no easy answers for the water challenges our state is facing.  There is no ONE thing we can do that solve it all.  It’s going to take a multitude of solutions.

Going forward, this is all going to require careful thinking and smart spending.  So if we are going to make the best and smartest decisions, we’re going to need informed and engaged people, which is why I am happy you are here today.

So how can you learn about water?  How can you get the best information?

The first thing I suggest is to start local.  Know where your community’s water comes from and how it gets to your tap. Take the time to understand the problems and threats to your water supply; become educated on the possible solutions.  Be knowledgeable and involved in the water supply that you depend on.

Then look beyond your community to what’s happening across the state.  Our interconnected water system can move a drop of water from Redding to the border of Mexico, and from the Sierra to the sea, so in a way, we all are connected.  Learn about the statewide issues by attending conferences and seminars like this one and following the news.  You have a great resource here in town with Mark Grossi at the Fresno Bee, who is one of the top water journalists in the state.  And of course, I invite you to check out my website, Maven’s Notebook dot com. (cheeky smile)

And then most importantly, share this information with your colleagues, your neighbors.  Help them to understand the complexity and read between the headlines to tease out what the real meaning is.

At its core, California water policy is really about allocating water between three user groups: agriculture, urban dwellers, and the environment, and there’s nothing simple about that.  Hard choices, painful choices lie ahead.  We must learn about the issues, struggle with the complexities, and work to ensure the outcomes are fair.

Back at the start of my journey eight years ago, I said to my husband, “I wonder what would happen if I became real smart about water.”  And over these past years, sometimes I have thought, what the hell did I get myself into … but I can’t say I’ve regretted it; in fact, I am passionate about what I do.  I find it endlessly fascinating, with twists and turns, and there’s always something more to learn.  And so as you start your journey today, or perhaps continue along a journey you’ve already started, I can only hope you will it as challenging and enjoyable as I have.

Welcome to the conference.  I hope you enjoy the day.  Thank you!