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Sex and the Environment: Is the Perfect Drought Sexy Enough for People to Care?

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You’ve probably heard of the perfect storm, if only because of the George Clooney movie. Clooney is sexy in the same way that Leonard DiCaprio is sexy. They are both behind environmental concerns. The term “perfect storm” has entered our everyday lexicon, thanks to Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.

In the case of the 2000 movie, The Perfect Storm, with Clooney as a scruffy, down-on-his-luck captain of a small fishing ship, weather has perhaps never been so sexy since Raquel Welch was a weather girl. Welch was raised in San Diego. She was Miss San Diego and a weather forecaster at a local San Diego TV station before she became a sex symbol of the 1960s and 1970s.

Sex sells, but by paying attention to sex (to Paris Hilton and her sex video, to Paris Hilton and her sexy burger ad, to Brittany Spears and her lack of underwear, to senators playing footsie in public bathrooms, and to bitter divorces between the rich and famous), we’ve missed some rather unsexy news that is a world-wide: Water matters and our water supply is in danger.

By our water supply, I’m not talking about drought and famine in distant countries and regions in Africa. I’m not talking about pollution in the streams and rivers of a China rushing into industrial hell as it races to make cheap goods for the United States and other wealthy nations. I’m talking about drought here in the US. I’m talking about towns that have run out of water – like the town of Orme, Tennessee, or the small town of Ramona, in Northern San Diego.

I work at a large and largely successful dot-com, and while we were fumbling around trying to help our fellow Californians with donated money and goods, I kept on hearing intelligent people saying the firestorms were unpredictable. That’s why we didn’t have a plan of action.

My co-workers had never heard the warnings about the “perfect drought,” yet I’m sure they’ve heard about Brittany and K-Fed, Halley Berry and her pregnancy, and the problems of Dafur. Most of them had heard of or seen Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and are all behind environmental concerns. Most people in California are. Still, the term “perfect drought,” and the implications of it, never entered the minds of these people. It’s not been a secret.

According to an AP report published on CBS News, “Unusual temperatures in the Indian and Pacific oceans set up the perfect conditions for drought stretching nearly around the world in 1998-2002, climate researchers report.” What couldn’t be explained in that 2003 article was the persistent dry conditions in the west.

In April 2007, Bettina Boxall wrote about the “perfect drought” hitting California. “Nature is pulling a triple whammy on Southern California this year. Whether it’s the Sierra, the Southland or the Colorado River Basin, every place that provides water to the region is dry.”

Officially, Southern California is in the eighth year of a drought. The affable weatherman, Dallas Raines, wrote for ABC on Sept. 6, 2007, that the perfect drought could last 100 years. In year eight, we have millions of dollars in lost crops. In September, he was writing about fires raging out of control, and this was before the mid-October Malibu fires started off horrific weeklong firestorms raging from Malibu to the Mexican border.

By then, Griffith Park, in the middle of LA County, had already had a fire and Lake Tahoe in Northern California had a fire that destroyed 200 homes. Ventura County was still battling the Zaca fire at the time of the article. The fire started on July 4th, and was finally contained on October 29th.

What is a perfect drought? “The idea of a perfect drought plays off the idea of a perfect storm,” said Glen MacDonald with the Department of Geography at UCLA. “It’s a convergence of natural or man-made effects that lead to a somewhat unexpected, but catastrophic result.” UCLA is, of course, in Los Angeles. The lowest snow packs on record were in the Eastern Sierras, where Los Angeles gets most of its water. Lake Mead, which is in Nevada, was at less than half its normal levels, according to Raines, and still the water saving measures were voluntary.

How far away is Los Angeles, and indeed, all of Southern California from running out of water – like in Orme, Tennessee, where Mayor Tony Reames turns on the water for three hours each day.

After the fires, availability of water was a problem because water is needed to fight fires, leaving low levels. In addition, if the electricity is cut off, the pump stations may not be up, even after the evacuees are returned – as was the case with Ramona. Want to see things get ugly in America? Cut off our flushing toilets, flowing sinks, and showers. Ramona residents turned their water meters back on after district employees had turned them off, and some people had even taken water from fire hydrants.

Carl Bernstein (as he’s been promoting his new book about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., the Democrats’ leading candidate), has complained about an “idiot culture” in which news resources have been devoted to the lifestyles of celebrities. Bernstein and Bob Woodward were at the Washington Post when they broke the Watergate scandal, leading to then-President Richard Nixon resigning from office.

Al Gore, with DiCaprio, has made environmental concerns a hot, even sexy issue. Clooney does his part by driving an electric vehicle. DiCaprio has made a movie and Al Gore has taken it global and reinvented his career. Yet, just as in the case where dolphins and pandas capture the public’s heart and then their dollars as opposed to the less sexy and just as endangered white rhino, environmental concerns follow the trend and are easiest to join if it involves something and someone far away.

Care about the pandas in China, the whales in the ocean, and the penguins Antarctica, but not the endangered California clapper rail. We need to be concerned about what we can do, now, in Los Angeles, in California or in the US, as we enter a drought and continue to live in a drought. The solution isn’t as simple as carpooling or bringing your own shopping bags.

For Americans to rise to action, we have to be willing to recognize the problem, even if it isn’t sexy, even if it isn’t as easy to understand and resolve as some celebrity driving drunk or driving without a driver’s license. This is year eight. Are we going to wait to be prepared in year 10 or when we only have three hours of water each day? What will it take for Californians, and indeed, all Americans to understand we can’t waste water and how wasting water is leading us toward disasters? Ignorance isn’t bliss. In California, ignorance can be a firestorm that lasts for weeks or months.

The Clooney movie was based on Sebastian Junger’s 1997 book by the same name of a true 1991 incident resulting in deaths of the crew of the Andrea Gail. The 1991 perfect storm wasn’t predictable; it wasn’t something that could be seen coming. A perfect drought is something that has been predicted, but so many people seem unprepared, and I don’t see our government working toward any plan.

Does the “perfect drought” need a novel about the fire-related deaths we’ve already had and then a movie with a sexy star to get attention?

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  • robert v sobczak

    Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead can hold 5 times the capacity as Hoover Dike’s Lake Okeechobee. Both are at historic lows: Lake Okeechobee at a 2-year historic drought, down 5 ft, and Lake Mead at a 9-year drought, down 100 ft. View a hydrograph comparing Lake Okeechobee to Lake Mead over past 15 years and more at South Florida’s Watershed Journal.

  • What continues to amaze me is that despite historic lows, the commercials and public service announcements I hear and see just politely ask Californians to conserve water. I think about 70 percent of water usage by a homeowner is for landscaping, notably the very, very thirsty lawns. What will happen when we run out of water?