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Californians need to step up, author says

New York Times best-selling author and investigative journalist Charles Fishman spoke Thursday in the Peters Educational Center about the drought in California, calling for action at both a community and statewide level to bring change to one of the worst droughts in state history.

“If we want the future that we hope to have, we need water leadership,” Fishman said. “We need to take water seriously. We need the same creative, imaginative, determined kind of approach. Whatever future you imagine for California requires that kind of creativity.”

Fishman, who has spent the last 20 years trying to get inside, understand and explain organizations from NASA to Wal-Mart, got his start in water coverage noticing a Fiji water bottle in a hotel room six years ago.

“Fiji water changed my life. When I got home I did a little research, and at that moment, 53 percent of the people in Fiji did not have clean drinking water,” he said. “So you could check into a hotel room in Miami,  Florida, or walk into a 7-Eleven in Florida, or a supermarket in Atlanta, Chicago or Detroit, and you had easier access to clean drinking water from Fiji than the people who live in Fiji.”

So naturally, Fishman said, he went to Fiji to pursue more information and wrote a story about bottled water in the United States and where that passion came from. The interest for the story was so strong, Fishman said, he wrote an entire book about water.

When he visited California three years ago, he said it was a perfect opportunity, noting that even the weeds here are dead.

In the last five years, Fishman said, he has visited some of the most water desperate countries in the world, from Australia to India to Lake Mead, Nevada.

From his experiences studying water at a global level, Fishman said that Californian’s are behaving against the grain for the industriousness they have shown in the past, and that they need to learn from their mistakes. Californian’s aren’t the only ones who have faced droughts before, Fishman said, and like other countries and cities within the United States, have the ability to grow and change.

“I don’t think you are acting like the Californians that we and the rest of the country knows and loves and relies on,” he said. “You are the state, you are the people who gave us the space program. You are the people who have given us the full digital age, which has revolutionized virtually every corner of the country.”

“But you don’t have any of that for water. You seem baffled, almost paralyzed by the drought, some Californians are literally indifferent.”

In his extensive studies, Fishman said, he has learned that all water problems are solvable, and says that the problem lies not with the water itself, but with the people.

“The hard part with water problems typically is not the water, it’s the people. It’s understanding the culture that is having the water problem, the communities within that culture, and the frictions and tensions that community faces, and how to resolve those to move everybody forward.”

Water literacy, Fishman said, has become a part of the problem.

“For most of us in the developed world, the water system has become invisible. You turn on the tap and expect the water to be there. We are water illiterate. We have no idea where our water comes from. We have no idea who gets it for us, and I think that invisibility and that illiteracy is really hurting us.”

He used the example of Las Vegas—the driest city in America, that gets less than 4.5 inches of rain in a year, and yet is what Fishman calls the smartest water city in the nation.

“The amount of water Las Vegas gets was set in 1965 for a city of 30,000 people, and it has not changed,” he said. “So the question arises, how do you grow from a city of 30,000 people to a city of 2 ½-3 million people, without getting a single new gallon of water?”

Fishman said that the answer to this question lies in water management. Over the course of 30 years, the city of Las Vegas has created new rules and restrictions, including removing lawns and replacing them with native plants—$40,000 an acre in which the city will pay. Other restrictions include golf courses with strict water budgets, specifying the types of nozzles that can be used to water plants on lawns and even creating a water police force with 11 officers who patrol the city and control regulations.

Through regulation, Fishman said, Las Vegas recycles 93 percent of its water that goes into the drain, using the same quantity of water every year.

“That’s how you grow a city, you clean the water,” he said. “They’re still using way too much, but they’ve conserved. That’s what smart water looks like.”

Fishman said that results aren’t immediate—that nothing will change in the first year, or even in five years, but in 30, has changed not just the way locals used water, but also people’s attitudes and beliefs about water and conservation.

Fishman also noted the ease at which communities can blame one another, rather than focusing on creating a real solution to the problem at hand.

“All those people who have moved into a period of water innovation have moved to a culture of water consumption to a culture of water productivity. Not how much water do I need, but what is it I do with the water I get,” he said.

He notes nationally companies who are taking the initiative to be more water efficient, Ford, Campbell Soup, Co. and IBM amongst them.

They keys to changing water culture and water practices, Fishman said, are leadership and cooperation, vision and conversation.

“You cannot transform water practices without transforming the culture of an entire community. You have to take a step back and reinvent it for everybody, so that there aren’t really winners and losers,” he said.

Fishman commented on ineffective leadership in California and that, as a community, Fresno has an obligation and responsibility to demand leadership from state officials. He said creating a conversation and working together with community leaders, urban leaders and big farmers is crucial to finding a way to talk about fixing the water system in the state.

“The water system is broken. It’s not meeting our current needs, and it’s certainly not ready for the future. We don’t have the solution, but it’s your job to create the mission towards finding a solution, and we need you to do it fast,” he said.

Fishman said he is optimistic about the water crisis in California and said he knows a solution can be achieved.

“Today in 2015, the whole country uses less water than it did in 1970, not per person, but total,” he said. “The country is 50 percent larger, the economy is three times larger. Every gallon of water we use today does three times the work that a gallon of water did in 1970.  Dramatic progress is possible, but you have to got to insist on it.”