The New York Times reports that our title character, the Wet Prince, has been using an average of over 30,000 gallons of water a day from a single residential hookup. That’s well over an acre-foot a week, enough to liberally irrigate several acres of corn. The Wet Prince and his profligate neighbors face no penalties for this waste, even in the midst of California’s ongoing drought, because Los Angeles’ poor and middle classes have been conserving with such austere gusto that they’ve brought the city’s total water consumption below the state-mandated reduction threshold. Meanwhile, equally austere customers in Apple Valley, one of the East-of-Eden desert shitholes to which coastal California has been exiling its poors, are incurring crippling fines from the local private water utility. One of the victims of these fines has been showering on alternate days and flushing the toilet only after several uses.
The lesson here is clear: if you’re a rich asshole living off Mulholland Drive, you have the license to use enough water on your estate to give every plant on the property life-threatening water toxicity, and to do so with impunity, but if you’re a poor living to points east, you’ll be penalized even if you cut back your water use so severely that you neglect your own personal hygiene and expose yourself and your family to toilets full of festering human waste.
This isn’t about the drought. It’s about bad policy motivated by a contempt for the poor and a whinging deference before the rich. There have been other, similar vignettes showing that wealthy celebrities in California have been given the dispensation to be licentious with their state’s water while water supplies for the poor and the struggling lower middle class have fallen to dangerously low levels or run out entirely. I’ve read that Kim Kardashian has been using conspicuous water consumption at her estate as a sort of Veblen good, but this is merely obnoxious. The gold medal for pathetic, antisocial wastefulness probably goes to Tom Selleck and his household staff, who were caught pirating water by the tanker truck load from a municipal water district in Ventura County and driving it to Selleck’s estate in a different district. It’s really unbelievable to hear about a wealthy public figure, who presumably knows that he’ll get egg all over his face if he’s caught, and who can certainly afford to hire a duly licensed water supplier to truck water to his property, orchestrate such a pitiful conspiracy to steal from the commons. It’s like hearing that he goes to Skid Row on weekends and mugs the homeless for their deposit bottles.
At the other extreme is East Porterville, a poor Latino city near the eastern edge of the Central Valley, heavily populated by farm workers, where the municipal production wells ran dry months ago, forcing the city government to bring in emergency shipments of bottled water for residents. Many hot takes tried to use East Porterville as an object lesson of the coming calamities of global climate change, but really it’s an object lesson in piss-poor cities getting piss-poor public works. East Porterville’s problem is that it isn’t plumbed into an aqueduct system as a backup for its municipal wells. In a state as riddled with long-distance aqueducts as California, this is scandalous. It’s doubly scandalous in a city that houses so many of the people who keep the whole fucking country fed. The least we can give them is a reliable water supply.
There are other cities with water problems whose geographic isolation makes them inherently more vulnerable to water shortages than East Porterville. Apple Valley, described above, is one. Another is Lake Los Angeles, which isn’t exactly on a lake and is nowhere close to Los Angeles. Both of these cities are sited around low points in the desert where groundwater pools within reach of production wells–usually. 2014 and 2015 haven’t been usual years, and the population of California’s high desert outposts is burgeoning as the working poor, many of them at household incomes that would be perfectly adequate in other states, get priced out of the coastal cities and away from their triplicate and quadruplicate water supplies. Places like Apple Valley, Lake Los Angeles, Victorville, and East Porterville don’t have nearly the same redundancy built into their water supply systems. Urban Los Angeles County is plumbed into aqueducts draining river headwaters as far afield as the eastern slope of the Trinity Alps, the eastern slope of the Sierra, and the Rockies an hour’s drive west of Denver. The water districts that have suffered critical shortages are not plumbed into the state aqueduct system. They’re constrained by local hydrological limits in small basins that have been in severe drought for several years.
Again, this is not an ecological problem. It is an infrastructure problem exacerbated by socioeconomic and civic problems. There are some ugly racial and class undercurrents at play here. The Victorville/Apple Valley area, for example, has an increasingly black population, so Whitey may become recalcitrant if it realizes that its state taxes are being used to hook the Community up to the state water supply. The horrible backstory here is that surely some of these black newcomers were driven out of their old neighborhoods in urban LA (with its reliable city water supply) by ethnic cleansing at the hands of cholo thugs, while the police turned a blind eye. East Porterville, for its part, is all illegals and wetbacks and beaners and so forth; they’re my colleagues, but they aren’t #TCOT’s colleagues, because #TCOT don’t like the manual stoop labor jobs, señor. (#TCOT doesn’t like Whitey dogfooding the agricultural stoop labor, either, which is one reason why I’ve remained accreted to the margins of the industry for so many years.) The thing is, the only way the poor can afford to live within barely manageable commuting distance of the major coastal cities without hotbunking in some de facto boardinghouse is to move inland, often beyond the commuter rail systems.
If you’re thinking, hey, this has probably distorted California politics, you’re right. It’s caused a huge distortion. And what I’ve described so far is just the internal displacement of California’s other-than-wealthy. Millions have expatriated to other states (yes, I used that word correctly). Colorado Springs is swarming with second-order Midwesterners who got priced out of SoCal, or who got sick of the darkies. Northern Idaho, sweet home of the honky, has enjoyed an even more excellent Fuhrman and Friends diaspora. Of course, as Taylor Swift has helpfully advised us, haters gonna hate hate hate hate (I’ve lost count), but much of the California diaspora has been people who just got sick of trying to make ends meet in an increasingly expensive state whose governments are increasingly devoted to the levying of junk fees on productive citizens. I haven’t seen figures, but a significant number of these diaspora Californians must be black or Latino.
Not a whole lot of responsible voters are left in California to try to keep the ship of state upright. It isn’t nearly as bad a state of affairs as the shrillest California-bashers make it out to be (Oregonians gonna hate real hard, especially the ones who are actually Californians), but it’s still bad. The common civic purpose that got California’s world-class statewide water system built in the first place has flown the coop. All too much of what’s left in California’s body politic is an echo chamber of self-dealing twits and wankers. The sad truth of it is that Charlie Sheen has higher priority on the state’s water supply for purposes of bathing in an Olympic swimming pool full of it with rent girls after smearing their shit on his chest than the residents of Apple Valley have to use it to promptly flush their own shit down the toilet, as any normal, minimally hygienic person in the First World routinely does in the absence of artificially induced water shortages.
This is the priority that we, as voters, allow by not keeping California out of the Third World. It’s ours to change, if we can be bothered to care.