Archive for February, 2013

Note: My hometown of Davis is currently voting (by mail) on a large and expensive upgrade to our city’s water system.  If approved, we would begin, for the first time, drawing water from the Sacramento River and mixing it with water from our deep aquifers to supply our water needs.  I support the project for reasons I will not go into here.  I offer this piece as a complement to our local discussions about water–some lessons I have learned about water along the way…

I remember the first time I really started thinking about water. Despite growing up in the riparian beauty of the Pennsylvania piedmont where water ubiquitously ran through open fields, I had never really thought about it as a source of life. A trip into the edge of the western Sahara—over the stricken landscape of Mauritania—changed that. It came on the tail end of a decade-long drought in in the mid-1980s and was occasioned by a proposed nutrition intervention that required us to assess the nutritional status of children in villages along a band of dying oases on the fringes of the sand and rock. This trip made me really think about water for the first time.

Local guides led us through shifting dunes to arrive in exhausted ancient salt-trade-route towns to weigh kids whose lives were draining away in the sand. I say “draining away” literally because many suffered from dehydration brought on by chronic diarrhea and misguided feeding practices that indicated that food and drink should be withheld from children suffering from diarrhea.

As a 20-something soon to be father, I was not prepared for what I saw: little bodies literally shriveled to nothing due to a lack of the most basic ingredient of life. Many died of malnutrition. Others of shock induced by severe dehydration. Seeing anything so stark will make one think about water.

On that same trip we arrived in the hometown of a local nurse who was traveling with us and he excitedly told us about some improvements to his home—including a new “shower room” he had installed. He encouraged us all to use it when evening came and I, for one, was excited to finally be able to wash the dust of a three-day trip off my skin. When my turn came he ushered me (with some ceremony) into a room made of packed earth. A candle burned on a holder (no electricity out here); a simple drain was built into the floor; a clean, if small, towel hung on a peg and, in the middle of the floor sat a teapot no larger than my hand containing the water for my shower.IMG_0605

Though I had no idea how to do it then, I learned over time how to scrub the essential areas with a pittance of water while leaving the non-essential ones covered in a fine layer of dust that made my mien indistinguishable from my traveling mates. A shower in a land of no water is a fine luxury indeed.

In that land I traveled to towns that contained hand dug wells over 150 feet deep. Some of these had dried up, collapsed on themselves or been spoiled when an errant calf fell into them. In most places these wells represented the sole source of water for the populace and whole villages ceased to exist due to their loss. In one out of the way place at the end of a desert track of sand (we used to say of such places: “this may not be the end of the world, but you can see it from here) we found a town in which the well had collapsed but the villagers had found a small cleft in a rock with a replenished spring some 50 feet down. The only problem was, the cleft was only large enough for a soup-can-sized receptacle to be lowered into the water. And so the villagers took turns day and night dipping the can, pulling it back up and repeating the process to meet the basic water needs there. Water for survival…

And at the end of the dry season—called locally the season of “ends that can’t be joined” (the time when last year’s grain simply will no longer stretch to meet the harvest of the new crop), I drank tea made of camel’s milk which was more plentiful than water as the dromedary yielded up the last of what she had stored in her hump; a hump that would slouch over until the rains came again and its replenishment could take place. Tea made of salty camel’s milk—one can acquire a taste for that.

In those days—and for many years after—I hardly ever stopped thinking about water: how to live with a limited supply, how to harness the little that falls to grow crops or replenish underground aquifers, how to encourage moms not to withhold it—but actually give more—when a child has diarrhea.

Whatever becomes of Davis’ water project I am glad that this campaign has made us think and talk together about this resource that we all too often take for granted. No, we do not live on the desert’s edge and we will not “run out”. No, we will not have to make the tradeoff between drinking and bathing ourselves.

But it seems that we could spend more time thinking about water as the precious thing it is rather than as a commodity for which we simply need to get the price right. A basic human need should never be commodified because our use of it should never be without deep consideration. Water is part of our “commons” and we should manage it together with care.

As an early morning runner I see first hand our disregard for this singular source of life. I see many gallons used for what appears to be the end of watering our concrete sidewalks and asphalt paths. I see many more gallons poured with apparent abandon on over-watered and stressed trees. And I far too frequently cross greenbelts soggy with chronic overwatering. I see my own wastefulness of running the water until the warm stuff from the other end of the house reaches the faucet in my bathroom.

I have now lived long enough to see armed conflict over water. In this state it is at the heart of many of our most troubling public conflicts—and has been for generations. With populations increasing and periodic droughts a certainty here (as they always have been), the conflict is only set to increase around water. If we cannot move the debate away from our “rights” to use it in any damn way we please, in any amount we desire (but always at an affordable cost, of course), we will not be well prepared to deal with the real conflicts that lie before us.

So, I just want us to think about water. About water as a source of life. About water as a resource for a sustainable community. About water as a precious thing we can care for so that its availability remains reliable to our children’s, children’s children.

My time on the desert’s edge made me mindful of the beauty and dearness of water and I don’t ever want to forget that.

NOTE: A slightly different version of this article was published in a local newsblog in my hometown.  It is one of those rare postings in which I actually talk about bikes! It is important to note that the “end” I am trying to reach through this recommendation is NOT, as the article seems to imply, a certain transportation mode share shift to more walking and biking.  Those are merely means to other ends including better health, cleaner air and fewer carbon emissions.  And, for those who care about such things, I think this provides a nice example of the kinds of decisions that need to be devolved to local entities so that local goals can more easily be met.

I recently had the opportunity to take a course offered by the League of American Bicyclists entitled “Traffic Safety 101”. I am an experienced cyclist but I took this introductory course to better equip me to work with children in Davis on bicycling safety. Part of the course involved practicing various skills on an active roadway in Roseville, CA. I do not know Roseville well and had never cycled there. Parts of Roseville are “poster children” for the concept of sprawl. The city features wide, multi-lane boulevards, a large and spread out set of shopping destinations and, because it sits astride Interstate 80, several large on/off-ramp “cloverleaf” areas. Our practice cycling took place in one of the shopping districts around I-80.Roseville

We practiced things like “taking the lane”, merging with traffic to make turns, and avoiding the dangers of poor road design (yes, most non-cyclists don’t understand that a road designed for cars can be terribly dangerous for a cyclist—and not just because of speed). As an experienced cyclist I don’t get nervous in too many riding situations. But the practice ride through Roseville was very disquieting for me. It was not only no fun, it was at turns challenging, nerve wracking and downright scary. Merging to make turns was daunting and there were several times when I nearly needed to stop my bike because I was approaching my turn but could not get a car driver to allow me to merge into the traffic flow.

In analyzing the experience afterward it became clear that a key problem was that the speed differential between the cars and bicycles was simply too great. But it was not just the speed differentials. I routinely cycle a local county road (CR99) and the speed differentials on that road are much greater than those in Roseville. It is not uncommon, for example, to be pedaling along at 15-17 MPH and have cars whizzing by at 55-65 MPH. While not the most enjoyable riding, the differentials are not too troubling. The reason is that on a rural road a cyclist does not need to make many bicycling maneuvers.

In contrast, to get around Roseville (or any suburban or urban environment) to do the normal kinds of activities cyclists need to engage in—shopping, running errands, commuting, going to meetings—requires using an array of bicycling maneuvers: turning frequently and changing lanes a considerable amount. In such environments speed differentials matter much more because of the need to interact with traffic much more. A cyclist needs to “negotiate” with auto drivers on a regular basis in order to get where they need to go.

Now imagine you are NOT an experienced cyclist. How much more daunting might speed differentials be to you? Even if traffic levels are not as high as in Roseville, might you not be discouraged from riding if you were not comfortable with your ability to make a turn in front of and across traffic because of the speed differentials? Recent research [1] indicates that cyclists avoid roads with high traffic intensity (a combination of volume and speed) and routes that require them to make frequent left turns. In correspondence with one of the authors about the research I raised the question about whether speed differentials discourage people form choosing the routes that require left turns. While the author acknowledged that the research field is too recent to demonstrate that conclusively, she did note that my “hypothesis about left turns is accurate.”