New water cultures
The right to water is the most basic human right. Water is the lifeblood of the planet, and the fight for water is a social justice struggle at the intersection of political power plays and environmental science. This struggle is fought by people in China, Guatemala, and India being displaced by giant dams, by farmers in California’s Central Valley who are being poisoned by agricultural runoff in their drinking water, by traditional fisherfolk fighting for the return of migratory fish blocked by mega-dams around the world. This page explores how U.S. residents can create new cultural relationships with water through dialog, writing, theater, eco art, and our daily water use.
The writings, plays, dialogues, and strategies collected on this page grew from our desire to craft a new water culture in our corner of Dam Nation. This project began with essays in “The Guerrilla Greywater Girls’ Guide to Water”, drew on our individual and collective explorations of our water sources and infrastructures, and has continued through the anthology Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground, which links personal use and community watershed relationships inextricably with the most gargantuan official water projects. Other works by Greywater Guerrillas and our collaborators that aim to spark dialog on community strategies for building new water cultures include the Change of State play “Take This House and Float It Away”, “The Gold Fish, or, Straight Flushes for the Manifestly Destined”, July Cole and Cleo Woelfle-Erskine's one-act slapstick about salmon migration, “If you live in Dam Nation,” July and Cleo's live-action visual tour of the water grid, and the book Community Strategies for Environmental Health by Dam Nation contributor Jeff Conant.
We also facilitate workshops and dialogs on how to build just, sustainable, decentralized water systems, please contact us if you are interested in this.
Between Storms: Thoughts on sustainable water cultures (excerpt)
By Cleo Woelfle-Erskine
In the Bay Area, during a rainy week in December, friends (and strangers) tell me “We need the rain.” In Oakland, as in every major California city, no summer rain waters our gardens or feeds our municipal springs. In California, rain is useless for agriculture, murderous in flood control channels, and toxic once it hits our streets. Do they reckon, prosaically, that Oakland rain means Sierra snow, and thus water for winter and summer gardens? or hope to dampen late-smoldering fires? Maybe my friends crave a connection with the weather here, where no one takes dip in the creek or a sip from the spring.
From time immemorial, storms sculpted waterways through ranges from the Siskiyous to the San Gabriels. Storms slid coastal hillsides into rivers. Floods reworked shifting riverbeds, signaled spawning (salmon in the Klamath, steelhead in the Matilija), and built roiling ramps over waterfalls. Sausal and alamo along all the little creeks grew roots to chase the ebb flow. Storms buried the high mountains in snow that, melting, transformed creeks into rivers, rivers into torrents, the Central Valley into a marshy maze, and made Tulare an inland sea.
These landscapes have vanished from collective memory. If we know them now it is through disaster: the 1997 and 2004 levee breaches in the Delta; the 1938, 1952, 1969, 1983 and 1998 floods that conjured Tulare Lake in Kern cottonfields; the Sacramento and Los Angeles floods (in 1983 and 1934, respectively), when the rivers jumped their banks and drowned the outskirts of their namesake cities.
The dams have been built, the hills stripped, the delta drained and left to oxidize and subside. But this history lives in the sediment pulse from hydraulic mines moving slowly down Sierran rivers, in the fractured ground atop depleted aquifers, in our mercury-heavy blood. So far in California nothing has stopped the incremental damage or begun repair of degraded places. As long as this legacy of California’s colonization and industrial development is forgotten, the future must deepen the damage past the point of reversibility.
In the high stakes game of California’s water, the water underground wagers culture change against Dam Nation’s proposed and decaying infrastructure. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power complied with the Mono Lake decision through conservation strategies both micro-infrastructural (think low flow toilets) and cultural (the slogan “Don’t let L.A. drip dry” impressed me at age 6); L.A.’s Department of Water and Power currently promoting conservation over desalination and more dams. On the other side, Governor Schwarzenegger and others are banking mostly on infrastructure, pushing for a peripheral canal in the Delta and $3 billion for new dams.
During the fight against Itoiz Dam on the Rio Ebro, Spanish economist Pedro Arrojo-Agudo challenged Spanish citizens to imagine and build a “nueva cultura de agua”—a new water culture—in which people's connections to their local water sources and cycles radically transforms habits of water use. "There's a song in Spain that says, ‘El cariño verdadero ni se compra ni se vende,’” he remarked. “True love cannot be bought or sold. We have a lot of values in the world that are not counted in the market.” As Californians discover the histories of the Colorado delta, Glen Canyon, the Winnemmem homeland on Shasta river, and the wetlands fringing the San Francisco Bay—all now hidden beneath the artifacts of Dam Nation—we may decide they possess essential value.
Arrojo-Agudo’s beloved Ebro has only one dam, Itoiz. In Spain, the fight against Plan Hidrológico Nacional, which would add 120 more, catalyzed citizens’ desires to take a new path. In California, where nearly every river is “fully appropriated,” a new water culture must shrink our watershed to where we can walk its ridges and follow the rain when it falls. Until the rain regains value, it won't fill our cisterns, water our gardens, or feed our springs.