It’s dry.

At the end of January, I visit Sacramento, California for four days.  The moment I step out of the airport terminal at 9:30 p.m., I feel that all is not as it should be.  I grew up in the Sacramento valley.  In January, the weather should be rainy, overcast, maybe windy.

My mother and brother pick me up at the airport, and in the car the drought is the main topic of conversation.  When I step out of the car in one of the city’s famous tree-decked neighborhoods, I smell the acrid scent of a heavy layer of smog.  The temperature is a spooky, not-normal 60 degrees.  Dry leaves fallen from the huge trees have turned to dust underfoot.  My mother hacks and coughs because of the dust and smog.

“It hasn’t rained at all for 51 days,” my stepfather says.  He has a long memory of the local weather; he has lived here since the 1960s. The governor of California declared a drought emergency and asked people to voluntarily cut back water use by 20%.

What does reducing water use by 20% mean? my mother wonders.  It means watering the lawn with their lawn sprinkler system only about every 10 days.  The lawn grass is thin and dry.  They do not have a dishwasher, but wash dishes in the sink, using an environmentally friendly dishwashing soap.  We start transferring the used dishwater into a bucket to pour it on the roots of the roses, geraniums and raspberry bushes.

We turn off the water when we brush our teeth, and flush the toilets less often, unless what occurred requires flushing.  Run the washing machine with full loads only – check.  Don’t wash the cars or hose down the driveway and sidewalk – check.

When we walk the dog and find ourselves crossing a soaked sidewalk next to someone’s emerald green front lawn, I feel resentful.  Don’t the occupants of that house realize the seriousness of the water situation?  Water for drinking, washing and medical uses is more important than their green lawn.

I remember the western Washington drought of 1987.  We took brief “Navy” showers, and stopped watering the lawn, which turned brown and looked dead.  We collected water from warming up the shower, and from dishwashing, and used it to try to keep the most valuable landscape plants alive.  I had no vegetable garden that year.  It took care and dedication to achieve our goal of using less than 60 gallons a day, but we did it all summer.  Our water agency applied large surcharges for excess water use, to make people comply.


Ripples on a section of dry lake bottom near Folsom Dam, east of Sacramento. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

If it doesn’t start snowing in the Sierrias soon, California is in for a tough summer.