As the world looks toward the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris in December, it would serve us all to reflect on California.
When I moved to California in August 1991, the state’s five-year drought changed the most mundane aspects of life. Throughout my East Coast childhood, this is how I learned to brush my teeth: Turn the knob on the sink, place the toothbrush under the running water, brush, spit, brush again, spit again, place your Dixie cup under the running water, rinse your teeth, gargle, spit, use the running water to rinse the sink of all your spit, then — and only then — turn the water off.
I performed that basic ritual during my first week in Los Angeles. My roommate scowled. She had moved to LA years before and had lived through the state’s drought. Over the course of those five years, every resident of California had taken ownership of the state’s dire situation by altering the daily routines of their lives.
Common measures included: placing bricks in the backs of toilets to use less flushing water, only flushing once or twice a day, only using the absolute minimum amount of water necessary to brush one’s teeth, cooler time-tight showers, and the list goes on.
History records my first months in Los Angeles as the tail end of the state’s late 1980s drought. People danced in the streets of South Central, East LA, and Santa Monica as El Niño’s waters soaked cracked earth in late 1991. But as citizens of a state in crisis, our shared sense of duty had transformed small changes in daily routines into a collective culture of conservation. In fact, to this day, many Californians still practice those same measures.
But it’s been 24 years since those dire days and California is fighting again, slugging into its fourth year of another drought. But this one is different. This is the worst drought in 1,200 years, according to a study published in the American Geophysical Union journal.
Standing in a brown field that should have been packed with several feet of snow on the first day of Earth Month, California Gov. Jerry Brown said: “It’s a different world. We have to act differently.”