A Letter from the Drought Emergency in California

What to do whether you live in California or not

On Monday, the drought emergency in California expanded to include 41 of 58 counties, with further expansion likely. This spring—one of the warmest and driest on record—portends another disastrous fire season. If you live here and don’t already have an air purifier and masks—no, not those masks, these masks—buy them now. But you might still need those masks too.

The current state of affairs in California


So what can we all do about the drought?

Join a climate-focused organization

While difficult to imagine, the climate crisis will only worsen droughts and other severe weather. We have the tools to mitigate the climate crisis but we lack the political will to put those tools into operation at the rapid pace necessary. Join a group fighting for change and get involved. Don’t like marching in the streets? Participate in other ways—draft newsletters, update websites, raise money, call politicians, write letters. Just some organizations to choose from are:

Pre-Covid march in 2019

If you live in California, conserve water

Actually, do this if you live outside of California as well.

If you have an old water hog of a toilet, put a brick in the tank to reduce the amount of water required per flush. Keep a bucket in the shower to fill while you wash and save the water to flush the toilet. Follow the “if it’s yellow let it mellow” rule—horrifying to some yet standard operation here in the golden state (gold as in the hills, silly). Or just go outside. Yes, I said it. Urinate outside on the compost heap. The nitrogen-rich urine will do wonders and the little boys in your life will happily oblige.

Shower less often. I proposed this several years ago during our previous drought and probably horrified people. But during Covid, many people have been showering less. If you work from home, never break a sweat and never see anyone, why waste water showering every day? Daily showers strip your body of beneficial bacteria that help kill the bad bugs. You probably don’t smell anyway.

Even before the pandemic, I usually showered only every other day or so. (“I showered less before showering less was cool!”) I’m showering a little bit less than that now. On the days I don’t shower, a damp washcloth swiped where necessary keeps me socially acceptable. My hair dislikes daily washing. One of my children shaved her head at the beginning of the pandemic. Now that is zero-waste hair care!

Tear out your thirsty lawn and replace it with drought-tolerant plants. If you don’t live in California, consider doing this anyway and grow food. You’ll have access to delicious fruit and vegetables plus you will save money, get gentle exercise, cut your waste, reduce your dependency on corporations to feed you and learn a useful skill to pass down to generations who will need it.

Although I am happy to incorporate water-conserving practices into my daily life—I find them easy enough to do and they save me time and money—ordinary citizens like myself do not consume the majority of water in this state. Urban areas of California account for only about 10 percent of all water consumed.

Wherever you live, do not waste food and consider the water footprint of foods

According to the NRDC, almost 40 percent of the food we produce in this country goes uneaten. That wastes about 21 percent of all of our agricultural water usage. Wasting food wastes water.

While not wasting food, also consider going easy on the beef and dairy. This website shows the water consumption required to produce various foods. The site uses metric measurements so keep in mind that 1 gallon contains nearly 4 liters.

  • 250 ml cup of tea: 30 liters water

  • tomatoes: 214 liters water per kilogram

  • 250 ml glass of beer: 74 liters water

  • 125 ml wine: 109 liters water

  • 125 ml non-American-size cup of coffee: 132 liters water

  • 250 ml milk: 255 liters water

  • potatoes: 287 liters water per kilogram

  • oranges: 560 liters water per kilogram 

  • apples: 822 liters per kilogram

  • sugar (from sugar beet): 920 liters water per kilogram

  • bread: 1608 liters water per kilogram

  • rice: 2497 liters water per kilogram

  • ground nuts in shell: 2782 liters water per kilogram

  • cheese: 3178 liters per kilogram

  • chicken: 4325 liters water per kilogram

  • beef: 15415 liters water per kilogram

  • chocolate: 17196 liters water per kilogram (please don’t shoot the messenger)

If you live in New Jersey, or Canada, or England, or China, do not buy our food, buy your local food

I might be banned from my state for this suggestion, but why do we grow so much food in California, only to transport it elsewhere, even in summer months when “elsewhere” can grow its own food? And why do we raise cattle in a desert? When we export water-intensive products, we export water. We have none.

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