A Water Feature in the Desert

My father and I have an ongoing disagreement thinly veiled in a joke. It has to do with a water feature he installed in the backyard of his southern California home. To my dad, who grew up sailing along the Chesapeake but has spent the last two decades in the desert, the fountain is an open line to the tranquil rejuvenation of flowing water. To me, it’s a blatant oversight of a serious environmental issue.

Water Feature“And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years.” – John Steinbeck, East of Eden

His feature sends Colorado River water, piped on a 444-mile-long aqueduct across a state in which less than half the land currently retains more than 2 percent soil moisture, in a consistent trickle over a pile of basalt before collecting in a small pool and recirculating. In a region that sees an average summer temperature around 98 degrees and about 11 inches of rain a year (compared to the national average of 37 inches) the fountain has the potential to lose as much as 0.75 inches of water to evaporation each day.

Also, it looks like troll vomit.

Far from a climate change skeptic, my father argues that he avoids running the fountain during the hottest times of day and whenever he’s not home to enjoy it. He points out that when we lived In Tucson, Ariz. he landscaped the yard with native plants and replaced any grass with gravel. This stream, he says, offers a small, but meaningful reprieve. But I wonder, is a faint trickle of water in the backyard necessary at a time when California’s water reservoirs are at record lows and wildfires are ravaging the tinder covered hills?

A third of a cubic inch of water a day does not seem like the end of the world. I waste at least that much uselessly cleaning sriracha from a shirt that will inevitably only attract more sriracha. But when I visit his sunny SoCal abode, sip local wine to the sound of the trickling fountain, and walk the neighborhood streets in the afternoon as seemingly choreographed lawn sprinklers cough a rainbow over eight-by-ten-foot patches of pristinely manicured grass, I am brought face-to-face with the reality of the crisis we are in. The U.S. Census reported about 13.8 million housing units in California in 2013. If each of these had a water feature like my father’s, the state would lose close to 45,000 gallons of water a day from Troll Vomit fountains alone.

We all walk the line between what we want and what we need; what’s good for us and what’s good for the planet. Every species affects its habitat. The impact any one species should have on its environment is debatable. Nature, as a concept, is subjective. What’s not debatable, however, is that humans affect their world on a larger scale than any other living creature — often in ways we don’t even realize.

This blog is a look at the choices we make and how they affect our world.

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