Remembering the Possibilities on World Water Day

Barbara Kingsolver makes me want to go to Mexico City.  In a recent novel, she describes the floating gardens of Mexico City known as Xochimilco as:

 “…a mad maze of colors and cool water.  Squash and cornfields, floral explosions, with waterways running on a perfect grid between the island fields.  Angel’s trumpets dangle their pink bellflowers over the water, and white herons stand one-legged among the  reeds.  Giant old poplars tower along the borders of each field, shading the watery lanes.  …Some islands have the farmers’ reed-thatched huts built right upon them, with children running and swimming from one to the next, naked as fish.  Women cast lines into the water or hawk jugs of pulque to the boaters passing by.  Every side channel offers another thrilling glimpse, a long ribbon of shining green water overarched with a tunnel of trees.

The passenger boats made for the canals are broad, flat-bottomed trajineras.  Gaudy ducklike things, every one is painted up in red, blue, and yellow, with an arch across the front of each one spelling out a woman’s name in flowers….  The canals were jammed with these boats, all painted with similarly violent imagination, bobbing with couples and families escaping the city’s heat, pushed along by boatmen with poles.  …

It was a wild, floating marketplace.  Men selling flowers, women with giant aluminum pots balanced in tiny boats, pulling up alongside to sell you a lunch…”

The Lacuna, pp. 174-75.

But the floating gardens of Mexico City may be a thing of the past.  The Washington Post recently reported that the gardens are dying of serious neglect amid a collapsing ecosystem.  Excessive water withdrawals, urban sprawl, invasive species, and toxic discharges from wastewater treatment plants all threaten to overwhelm this World Heritage Site.  The Post reports that Mexico City’s environmental secretary says the solutions for saving the floating gardens are well known, “but funding has been elusive and there are too many agencies with too little responsibility, all making promises and passing the blame.”

These threats sound all-too-familiar to those of us who work to save California’s Bay-Delta.  As is the case for Xochimilco, we know what needs to be done to save the Delta.  The question is:  do we have the political will to overcome short-sighted, knee-jerk opposition, like that offered up in H.R. 1837, or will we stay the course to implement real solutions to save this treasured estuary?

The solutions are clear.  In 2007, Governor Schwarzenegger’s Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force made a set of 12 integrated recommendations based on its recognition that:  “The Delta is in crisis, and each day brings us closer to a major disaster.”  Those solutions include recognizing the Delta as a unique and valued place, reducing water diversions from the Delta, and establishing conservation, efficiency, and sustainable use as the driver of California water policy.  At the same time, an interagency team of scientists convened to study the collapse of the Delta’s fisheries, called the “pelagic organism decline” or POD.  The POD studies confirmed that excessive water withdrawals are harming the Delta, along with invasive species and toxic discharges from agriculture and wastewater treatment plants.  In 2008 and 2009, two several-hundred page reviews of the science surrounding the Delta’s fisheries, known as biological opinions, further confirmed these results. Numerous independent reports have echoed these findings, such as recent calls from the Public Policy Institute of California that “(g)iven the extreme environmental degradation of this region, water users must be prepared to take less water from the Delta, at least until endangered fish populations recover.” 

We’re already seeing some of these solutions for the Bay-Delta bear fruit.  Fish populations have begun to rebound, thanks to the protections of the biological opinions. Stakeholders and citizens from around the State are deeply engaged in long-term planning efforts like the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan and the proposed Bay Delta Conservation Plan that will determine the Bay-Delta’s future.  Increased investment in alternative water supplies enables us to reduce the load on our overallocated freshwater systems, and could do much more.    

World Water Day gives us a chance to step back and reflect on the choices that we’re making and what sort of legacy those choices will leave.  Will we allow California’s Bay-Delta go the way of the floating gardens of Mexico City, only to run up against the limits of freshwater withdrawals a few years later, after the Delta ecosystem and industries and communities that a healthy Delta sustains are completely destroyed?  Or will we make different choices now, in recognition of those limits, while we still have the ability to ensure that future generations can experience the joy of eating fresh wild salmon caught just outside the Golden Gate, crunch local asparagus grown in the Delta, look up to see if a cloud has passed overhead when the skies darken with birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway, and waterski in the boater’s paradise that are the Delta’s myriad canals?  The solutions for a restored Delta are there – we simply need to choose them.