There are 30 miles of ocean between Marina del Rey to Catalina Island’s mooring field at Two Harbors. Further east if you were to launch a boat at Glen Canyon Dam on a once and now no more full Lake Powell you would travel 186 miles end to end. At 7.5 knots you will make the trip out to Catalina Island in four hours. The trip from one end of Lake Powell at this same speed would take 25 hours.
Last Friday’s hazy air shrouded our view of Catalina. We couldn’t see the island until halfway out on our trip across. Coastal ocean sailing differs from boating on a lake, sea state plays a bigger role, faraway low-pressure systems can send steep swells, crew can be wearied by rough water, and if another swell is coming from another direction the passage may become difficult to the extreme.
Gales can sweep across the desert and make navigation on Lake Powell all but impossible. Messing about on water with a boat is never risk free. Imagining taking a round trip from one end of Lake Powell to the other would take two days of nonstop sailing and motoring. The same roundtrip to Catalina would require 8 hours, one-sixth the amount of time. Big water can swamp the imagination, it is just too big to grasp.
The ocean between Los Angeles and Catalina can reach depths of 3000 feet. Lake Powell at its deepest measures 404 feet, but on average is just over 130 feet. For air breathing terrestrial types both body’s of water are experienced at their surface. Imagining that I am sailing in deep water concentrates the mind, this is when a sailor spitball’s their vessel is taking on water and since death is so permanent and life so sweet perhaps you might want to come up with a to-do list of ways of staying in the game. Prior to sailing to Catalina, the skipper and his second in command made sure the bilge pumps worked and that the through hull fittings weren’t leaking. There’s a longer list and more thorough inspections are part of responsible boat preparation.
Life aboard a saltwater sailing craft equipped with a functioning watermaker is mind altering. The vessel Spirit when making water can produce 150 gallons in a few hours’ time. Besides making water for drinking and cooking there is water for showering, and for spraying off the topsides and deck. Making water doesn’t cost much once you’ve decided to install a watermaker, this initial acquisition cost is the biggest expense of all, it makes no sense not to put the watermaker into service once installed.
Desalinating water takes a lot of energy. Aboard Spirit there is an electric generator that is switched on to provide power to the watermaker. Every other day the generator is started to top off the batteries and to fill the water holding tanks. The diesel generator burns about ½ gallon of fuel per hour.
Rural desert dwellers sometimes need to clean up their residential water supply. If the water is really contaminated distilling is necessary, most of the time reverse osmosis systems will do the trick. In Arizona their water board survey teams have studied bringing desalinated water up from the Sea of Cortez by pipeline. This would be useful for residents and useless for agriculture because of how expensive the water would be to desalinate.
In Dubai the United Arab Emirates operate large desalination plants, but then they also are sitting atop some of the largest oil reserves in the world.
As conundrums go, and the drought in the American West is one hell of a nettlesome problem there are simply too few skilled multidimensional scholars capable of grasping both the magnitude and complexity of the challenge.
Crossing by sailboat from Los Angeles to Santa Catalina Island only hints at the enormity of what civilization is grappling with. Setting aside the technical challenges and finding the courage to face the economic and political compromises has so far proven utterly impossible.
Long ago John Wesley Powell surveyed the Colorado River and concluded that there was not now nor would there ever be enough water for large scale farming. His advice was ignored, our state and national leaders buckled under pressure and have for a century bumbled and stumbled along until now. Both Lake Mead and Lake Powell are 25% full and expert water surveyors working with climatologists put the odds of these two reservoirs ever being topped to full again at a probability of zero chances. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton coming back from the dead and happily remarrying is as likely.
Spurring the states to act the Bureau of Reclamation had urged negotiators to come up with a new voluntary plan. The Bureau set a deadline that has come and gone, and negotiators were unable to agree on anything. Instead, this slow-motion climate related dire circumstance that is already altering the fated promising lives of 40 million citizens rests like a gigantic bowie knife on the neck of the American West’s future.
I keep reassuring readers that the residential water supply isn’t the main source of the problem, it is what is going to happen to the farmers and ranchers, and the tumult that will result. Political leaders’ careers will hang in balance, lawyers will haggle in court for decades fighting over water that no longer exists. Nobody wants to settle, everyone wants to fight, and the real nightmare scenario are the senior water rights holders in rural farming communities going to court to cut off access to water for the millions of residents in Tucson, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. This is how water law is settled. The courts have no choice but to follow the law as written, likely it is a lifetime appointed judge that will incur the wrath of any water user that comes out on the short end of the stick. The losers will not just lose access to water, but they will lose their livelihoods too.
“Nobody can tell anybody nothing.” The miserable rotten truth of the matter is agriculture has been hell bent on using water, and they’ll irrigate old school style, like same as 10,000 years ago, gripe bitterly about being asked to change crops or try using drip irrigation technology.
Because of the size of this problem, if you’ve ever gone from Los Angeles out to Catalina that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface to how big this mess is. It’s so big most of us have not the scale of imagination to visualize the colossal pickle we are all in.
Pretty near as best anyone can tell what is happening is that the whole stinking pile of stakeholders are holding onto hope. If we could just wait it out, hope it will rain, that the reservoirs will fill and that the region can just continue on business as usual.
What comes next is unthinkable, but that is what is on offer, a crisis of such magnitude it blows our minds. Policymakers at the Pentagon are one agency that understands. If millions of acres are pulled from production, then add the continued chaos at the border, the weather continues to get hotter and dryer— that’s a combustible confluence of trouble that could trigger what is described as a region of a country that descends into chaos and becomes ungovernable. A long slow utterly ungovernable storm tossed ride on a boat is an unpleasant bit of passage making. Navigating through this peril with blinders having kicked the can down the road until the bitter end has trapped the stakeholders across the American West into a boxed canyon— the game is up, and the time of reckoning has arrived. We can do this, we just can’t keep doing this the way we have— while we can we might choose to take the path of good governance— that’s what we pin our future on— the hope we can make some sense of all this water that’s gone missing and still manage our affairs peacefully.