More on the literary heritage of Santa Ana winds, and fire

Laura Bliss turned to Joan Didion today to help make sense of Santa Anas, and fires, in our beloved Southern California:

For all the praise of its “perfect weather,” L.A. is often seen as a city created in defiance of the laws of nature. Before flooded Houston acquired a similar reputation, critics argued that parched, hilly, quake-prone Los Angeles should never have been built where it is: The land is too dry, the earth too unstable. In pop culture, the hubris of its existence brings spectacular punishment—witness L.A. split open by earthquakes, destroyed in alien attacks, consumed by fire. Dubbed the “Devil Winds” in legend and literature, the Santa Ana is an old fixture of this trope, mythicized as a force of insanitymurder,and suicide. “The violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability,” Joan Didion wrote in Slouching Toward Bethlehem. “The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

Writing for the Atlantic’s CityLab, Bliss talks of viewpoints, and lessons:

For those in East Coast cities in particular, perhaps, it will stir up a certain moralism about where cities should and should not be—reminiscent, perhaps, of how hurricane damage was often characterized as karma for overdevelopment in Florida and Texas. Why were people living there to begin with?

Undoubtedly, California’s fires have lessons for urban planners: Some of the foothill communities burning this week have recently developed further into the wild-land interface, inserting homes into fire-prone areas. Zoning and other land-use policies may need to be reexamined, among other ways leaders must prepare for and mitigate the effects of an always-burning future, as the warming atmosphere fans Santa Ana flames.

And Faith Kearns, with Didion as well, in a smart take on how this year’s California fires are undermining our sense that we’re in charge:

There is no doubt that this disaster has deeply tested our assumptions about how we live with wildfires, notably the idea that we can control them. From Houston to Puerto Rico to here at home in California, disasters are revealing new ground that is paradoxically both shakier and more solid than it once seemed. We may find our footing by finally embracing the fact that we can’t always be in charge.

And this, which it took a bit for me to dredge from distant memory. It’s from John Rechy’s L.A. novel Bodies and Souls, in which the Santa Anas and their fires were a sort of central character:

John Rechy, Bodies and Souls, 1984

Some thoughts on disaster journalism, fire, Southern California, and resilience

Fire Heads For Valley

This conversation triggered by Faith Kearns’ comments about memories of Santa Anas got me thinking about an old piece I wrote a while back and never published. I didn’t publish it because the editor I was pitching didn’t want it, but in retrospect I’m glad it never ran. It seemed ill-timed then, and on a morning when we’re glued to our screens watching fire in the Southern California of my childhood, it makes a point that’s as ill-timed today, but that needs to be made. So here goes, with some tweaks to bring it up to date….

One of the problems in the perception disaster journalism gives us of disasters is the narrowness or broadness of the lens with which we view things. We see the fire, but not the not fire. This biases our understanding.

The news across the Southern California of my childhood was stark in the last days of September 1970. A fire that had ignited in Lytle Creek Canyon, in the mountains north of what is now Rancho Cucamonga, was growing. Forecasters were predicting fierce Santa Ana winds.

Living in Upland, at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, the Lytle Creek fire was our fire. I know now that there were many fires burning in those apocalyptic weeks across Southern California, but from the vantage point of our childhood, there was only this one. Chaffey College, where my father taught art, was in its path. As the winds kicked up the afternoon of Oct. 1 and fanned the flames, school disbanded early. My friends and I walked the few blocks home from our sixth grade classroom at Valencia Elementary School under a sky that seemed ablaze, the sun red-orange color through smoke fanned toward us by the hot dry winds.

Dad’s school evacuated too, and my sister, Lisa, and I remember packing the car to evacuate. Dad and I climbed onto the roof to wet down our wood shingles as we watched the fire burn through the afternoon and into the evening across the hillsides above our suburban corner of paradise, watching the chaparral that was our childhood playground go up in flames.

Lytle Creek was our fire, but of course it was not the not only one. By one count 773 wildfires burned across Southern California in those remarkable two weeks from late September through early October 1970. According to a history by emergency manager Dale Rowley nearly 600,000 acres – more than 900 square miles – burned, destroying 722 homes and killing 16 people.

Rainfall the previous six months had been the second lowest on record across Southern California. The arrival of the Santa Ana winds, a hot bolt out of the desert, gave life to one of Joan Didion’s most famous descriptions of life in Southern California. “[T]he violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability,” Didion wrote in 1968. “The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

The last few years in Southern California have been like that. Last year the Blue Cut Fire again burned again through Lytle Creek, and this morning we watched our screens spellbound as the Skirball Fire tour down the 405 and into Bel-Air, burning the jockeys off of rich people’s lawns, to borrow the memorable words of Frank Zappa. We are reminded of Didion’s powerful description of Southern California’s fragility. But is “fragility” the right way to think about this?

Drawing on the work of ecologists, scholars who study “resilience” look to the ability of a human community to absorb a shock and retain its basic structure and function. By that measure, in the nearly five decades since Didion wrote those words, Southern California has demonstrated that it is anything but fragile. Fires, fueled by drought and a warming climate, have beaten us at our margins again and again. They will ever do so, because we have built cities in Southern California and across the West is places prone to fire, extending ourselves into the inevitable wildland urban interface.

But the city I grew up in, Upland, ever threatened by fire at its margins, has retained its basic structure and function, has thrived as a human community in the decades since the Lytle Creek fire. It is a story repeated across Southern California. Even as fire batters us, Southern California has retained its basic structure and function in the decades since dad and I sat on the roof hosing down the shingles and watching the hillside above our house burn. Disaster journalism shows us those burning margins, as it should, and life there is terrifying. But they are only the margins.

This is not to minimize the suffering of communities and ecosystems hit by wildfire. But we should not extend our fear from stark headlines and smoke on the horizon to a broader fear that Southern California as a whole is, as Didion wrote, “close to the edge.”

“do not bombard people with evidence”

Students in next semester’s University of New Mexico Water Resources Program core curriculum will be reading this new paper by Paul Cairney and Richard Kwiatkowski:

To communicate effectively in policymaking systems, actors need to understand how policymakers process evidence and the environment in which they operate. Therefore, we combine psychology and policy studies to produce a three-step strategy. First, do not bombard people with evidence. Human beings have too much information to process, and they use heuristics to filter information to make decisions quickly. Synthesise and frame evidence to help you tailor it to the ways in which policymakers demand and understand information. Second, find the right time to act. Timing matters during key individuals’ patterns of thinking and the alignment of conditions in political systems. Third, engage with real world policymaking rather than waiting for a ‘rational’ and orderly process to appear. To present evidence during mythical stages of a ‘policy cycle’ is misguided, and to ‘speak truth to power’ without establishing legitimacy and building trust may be counterproductive. Our overall message is pragmatic, not Machiavellian: effective communication requires the suppliers of evidence to see the world from the perspective of their audience and understand the policy process in which they engage.

The course’s primary goal is to teach the students basic systems modeling techniques, both hydrologic and economic – linked. But I’m adamant that our students understand that their technical work is intrinsically part of a political and policy ecosystem – that there is no technical work on its own, unencumbered by the messy world of how humans actually use it.

We’ll be modeling the Gila River in New Mexico, which right now is about as messy a political and policy ecosystem as a body of technical work can encounter.

Taking applications for fall 2018 if you want to join us!

stormwater is not wasted water

Albuquerque sewage treatment plant outfall

Albuquerque sewage treatment plant outfall, one of the largest tributaries to the Rio Grande

When we talk about capturing “wasted” water for use – stormwater, sewage treatment plant effluent – it’s important to think about where that water is going now, before we start capturing it.

Often, it’s into a river. So capturing it and putting it to use for some human purpose is depriving the river of that water.

Here’s Matt Weiser on the Los Angeles River example:

A new report from the University of California, Los Angeles Grand Challenges program puts the conflict in stark terms: if all the currently envisaged stormwater capture and groundwater recharge projects go ahead, the L.A. river will be completely dried up, leaving no water for wildlife and recreation.

As Matt’s story points out, this doesn’t mean don’t do it. It just means being mindful of the tradeoffs.

Ghost Motel

Homeless campers at the site of the old Zia Motor Lodge, Central Avenue (Route 66) in Albuquerque

One of my many book ideas is The Decline of a Good American City, a loving but sad tribute to Albuquerque. I’m not sure if the premise is right, and I’m not sure if a not-optimistic framing is of any use whatsoever, whether it’s right or not. So I’ll probably never write this, but I was thinking about it on my morning bike ride.



the abundance and diversity of water birds in Phoenix

My “natural” versus “not natural” categorization sometimes blinds me to the ways of urban nature:

The development of Phoenix has, perhaps counter-intuitively, increased the total water permanence throughout the city when compared to the surrounding desert. This helps explain how Phoenix’s discrete blue spaces are able to subsidize such high levels of waterbird diversity and abundance. As long as the local habitat feature has the characteristics needed to support the community, features of the surrounding urban matrix are relatively unimportant.

That’s from “Waterbird community composition, abundance, and diversity along an urban gradient” by Andrade and colleagues in the latest issue of Landscape and Urban Planning. They surveyed birds in Phoenix, drawn by the water laid out upon the land. Birds are no dummies – where there’s water in the desert, they congregate.

We need to come to terms with the fact that we’re using less water

tl;dr Western water policy and politics has to come to grips with the fact that overall water use is declining, not rising, as populations and economies grow.

The longer version….

Looks can be deceiving.

Two years ago, when I was deeply immersed in the act of writing my book, I had an incredibly important conversation with Emily Davis, my Island Press editor. I’d been sending her draft chapters and, in the way of the best editors, she offered a gentle insight into something I was doing that I hadn’t seen myself.

One of the keys to successful communication, in any form or forum, is to try your hardest to understand what the people you’re communicating with already know or think about the topic at hand. What Emily saw me doing, without realizing I was doing it, was repeatedly addressing the beliefs/ideas/expectations I expected my audience to hold – starting with what they knew or believed and heading off from there into new territory. Over and over, she saw me debunking what I thought were myths.

My very particular memory of that conversation includes an embarrassingly theatrical detail of where it took place – sitting in a room at the Planet Hollywood mega-casino/hotel in Las Vegas, looking out the window at the fountains of the Bellagio. The myth was that Las Vegas was on an inevitable trajectory to outgrow its water supply. The reality was the conservation was more than offsetting population growth, with no end of either trend in sight.

Here’s how that ended up looking in my book:

Despite the rhetoric of imminent doom, the math is inescapable. From 2002 to 2013, the greater Las Vegas metro area grew by 34 percent to a population of more than 2 million people. During that same period, its use of Colorado River water—its primary source of supply—dropped by 26 percent.

Las Vegas was not a cherry-picked exception here. I chose it carefully as a case study for my book because it is representative of what is happening across the West.

The year since the book came out has been a remarkable experience, as I’ve traveled the West watching my ideas interact with the world. In dozens of public talks, I’ve had a similar experience – I throw up a few slides with graphs of the decline of water use in Las Vegas, and Phoenix, and Albuquerque, and Las Vegas, and Phoenix, and Yuma, and Imperial, even as population and economic productivity grow – and the common response is, “Wow, really?” Followed by the questions. The most common audiences have been water wonks, but these discussions often (as often as I can make them) include water-concerned non-wonks as well.

I was thinking about this challenge this morning when I read this in an otherwise great blog post from Michael Campana. He’s quoting here an anonymous correspondent, someone who obviously has thought a lot, and well, writing him about groundwater science and policy in New Mexico:

Water consumption will increase as long as populations and development increase, but water resources are finite.  It is inevitable that demand will exceed supply at some point.  To approach and manage that point in a sensible and equitable manner will require reliable data.  Long term data collection is needed to establish a historical baseline and emerging trends.

Yes, long term data is needed to understand trends, to make the best use of science to inform policy decisions about water. But one of the critical pieces of this is the need to understand that the data clearly points to the fact that water use is going down. In New Mexico, from whence Michael’s correspondent writes, water use peaked in 1995, according to the terrific USGS Water Use in the United States datasets.


In response to my decoupling spiel, I have become accustomed to many common whadabouts:

  • What about this particular geography (say, for example, rural groundwater pumping in the southern San Joaquin Valley), or this particular category of water use?
  • What about St. George Utah? Isn’t their water use going up even as they want to take more water out of the Colorado River?
  • Yeah, but how long can that continue? Won’t conservation bottom out?
  • What about climate change? Won’t that continue to reduce available water supplies?
  • What about the non-rich parts of the world?

My answer to the whadabouts is generally, “Yup, that’s an important question.” Most do not yet have good answers. But it’s important to consider those as genuine questions, to be studied as we look at future water policy, not as reasons to simply ignore decoupling and continue to assert that water consumption will inevitably increase as long as populations and development increase.

Maybe in the long run they will, but that’s the question we have to ask, not an answer we can just assume.

Iron, plastic, and big pipe’s battle to replace your municipal plumbing

Hiroko Tabuchi has a fascinating piece in this morning’s New York Times about a battle underway to determine whether gazillions of dollars in infrastructure spending to upgrade America’s municipal plumbing is spent on iron or plastic pipe.

It features a couple of issues I love to talk about with our University of New Mexico Water Resources Program students:

  • rent-seeking behavior
  • scientization

Because it is an area where decisions are made by governments, and therefore influenced by political processes, water policy is a classic playground for what economists call “rent-seeking behavior” – attempts by individuals or firms to profit by influencing government decisions in their favor, rather than by making products that consumers want to buy. Here’s Tabuchi:

How the pipe wars play out — in city and town councils, in state capitals, in Washington — will determine how drinking water is delivered to homes across America for generations to come.

This lobbying war is playing out via a classic case of “scientization” – attempting to win a battle by claiming the scientific high ground:

Plastics are an obvious replacement for the country’s aging pipes. Lightweight, easy to install, corrosion-free and up to 50 percent cheaper than iron, plastic pipes have already taken the place of copper as the preferred material for service lines that connect homes to municipal mains, as well as water pipes inside the home.

Still, some scientists warn that the rapid replacement of America’s water infrastructure with plastic could bring its own health concerns.

The “scientization” hypothesis would predict that those who favor iron for economic reasons (because they sell iron pipe!) are more likely to find the “plastic could bring its own health concerns” argument persuasive, while Big Plastic will raise concerns about the problems of iron pipe.

I’ll leave a reading of Tabuchi’s story as an exercise for our students, to see if the scientization hypothesis is supported.

New USGS data shows municipal water use, including in the West, continues to decline

The latest USGS data on water use by U.S. municipalities shows a continued decline, despite a growing population. This not just a decline in per capita use, though it is that. But per capita use continues to drop faster than population is rising in most areas. Brett Walton has a nice summary of the findings, and the full datasets for 2015 are here (and here for past datasets, for you enterprising Water Resources Program students who want to dig in).

But, importantly, as Walton points out, this is not happening everywhere:

According to the USGS report, which uses data from state agencies and water utilities, per person water use increased in the states of Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Most of these states are in the American West, and three are in the upper basin of the Colorado River, where there is strong debate about whether to increase water withdrawals from the shrinking river.

This is interesting. In the Lower Colorado River Basin – California, Arizona, and Nevada – water use is down. With the exception of New Mexico, in the Upper Basin it’s heading up.

Some highlights:

  • New Mexico, population rose 2 percent from 2010 to 2015, while water use dropped 10 percent.
  • Albuquerque, population rose 4.6 percent while water use dropped 10.8 percent.
  • Maricopa County (greater Phoenix): population up 9.3 percent, water use down 3.6 percent.
  • Clark County, NV (greater Las Vegas): population up 7.4 percent, water use down 1.6 percent.
  • Los Angeles County: Population up 9.7 percent, water use down 8.4 percent.
  • San Diego: Population up 14.1 percent, water use down 14.5 percent.
  • Salt Lake County: Population up 7.4 percent, water use up 33.3 percent
  • Washington County, Utah (St. George area, where Utah wants to build the new Lake Powell Pipeline to remove water from the Colorado River): Population up 12.4 percent, water use up 11.7 percent, and per capita water use a hefty 318 gallons per person per day (more than double Albuquerque’s).