This story originally appeared in TomDispatch.
“Lisa, the whole reason we have elected officials is so we don’t have to think all the time. Just like that rainforest scare a few years back. Our officials saw there was a problem and they fixed it, didn’t they?” — Homer Simpson
On June 24, 2008, Louie and I curled up on the couch to watch seven of the nation’s foremost water resources experts testify before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.
This was a new experience for us. For my part, the issue to be addressed–“Comprehensive Watershed Management Planning”–was certainly a change of pace from the subjects I ordinarily follow in Judiciary and Intelligence Committee hearings. I wasn’t even entirely sure what a “watershed” was. I knew that, in a metaphorical sense, the word referred to a turning point, but I was a bit fuzzy about its meaning in the world of hydrology. (It’s the term used to describe “all land and water areas that drain toward a river or lake.”)
What was strange from Louie’s point of view was not the topic of the day but that we were stuck in the house. Usually at that hour, we’d be working in the backyard, where he can better leverage his skill set, which includes chasing squirrels, digging up tomato plants, eating wicker patio chairs etc. On this particular afternoon, however, the typically cornflower-blue San Jose sky was the color of wet cement, and thick soot was charging down from the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. Sitting outside would have been about as pleasant as relaxing in a large ashtray.
It would have been difficult, on such a day, not to think about water.
June 24, 2008: Water on the Brain
In California, of course, it was the lack thereof. Thanks to the driest spring on record in many areas–including in San Jose, where record-keeping began in 1875–the whole state was parched. Far worse, large chunks of it were burning. To be precise, on June 24, there were 842 wildfires blazing, the result of “dry lightning,” which–I’ve now learned–happens when conditions are so dry that the rain never makes it to the plain. It evaporates in mid-air.
In the Midwest, on the other hand, water was everywhere, cascading across the land and through towns; or it was threatening to do so, as terrified homeowners and volunteers desperately hoisted sandbags onto levees that were failing, due to forces as powerful as the mighty Mississippi and as seemingly innocuous as burrowing muskrats. The flooding had been going on for weeks, killing dozens of people, displacing thousands and causing billions of dollars of crop, building and other damage. With California burning and Iowa underwater, the Red Cross national disaster relief fund for 2008 was already entirely depleted, although six months of potential weather devastation of various sorts still lie ahead. The balance, its finance director had announced, was “zero.”