Guest contribution by Stephanie Moret, Pacific Earth Institute. This piece first appeared in the Winter 2010 EarthMatters Newsletter. Stephanie Moret lives in Santa Barbara, California and leads the Pacific Earth Institute.

Southwesterners are bonded by our recognition that water is a precious and scarce resource.  Our climate ranges from semi-arid in the north, arid in the central and southern regions, to Mediterranean along the Southern California coast.  As a people, we share common stories shaped by our reverence of water, by living with a dynamic hydrologic regime, and by the successes and failures of our forebearers to reshape an arid landscape to include water.  The complex system of physical, biological, and social interactions influencing water resources has modified our fragile western ecosystems, where recovery from degradation can take hundreds to thousands of years; and where expectations of what is ‘normal’ change with each generation.

In spite of the parched surface that constitutes much of our region, our mountains are blessed with precipitation; and, beneath us, water that has percolated through the land for millennia moves through vast underground aquifers.  While we may only get a few inches of rainfall each year, it often comes all at once, prompting both disaster warnings and gratitude that our reservoirs and aquifers will be partly replenished and another drought staved off.  Our civilization has been created by harnessing mountain streams behind dams, pumping our limited groundwater, and conveying these waters vast distances to support expanding populations.

Mark Twain is believed to have penned the West’s signature quote, “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”  The original brawls over agricultural water rights have evolved into legal challenges to balance the needs of agriculture, industry, development, and natural habitat while maintaining a clean, sustainable water source.  As we realize that many of our successes in controlling water have resulted in environmental losses, Westerners’ actions, as individuals and as a society, are beginning to focus on understanding and working with the natural system to capture, store, and safely release water to mimic natural processes as best we can.

Water awareness is a conscious and evolving dynamic in Southwesterner’s lives because our lifestyles accommodate a landscape that is characterized by drought, flood, and fire—and an ecosystem that has evolved to adapt to these conditions.  We revere water bodies as our gathering places, be they lakes, reservoirs, rivers, oceans, or swimming pools.  We share food with friends amidst the sound of splashing as we seek respite from the heat with a cool, delicious dip.  For many of us, our natural water holes are dry by June.  My childhood friends and I would rescue tadpoles from the same drying streams that we built dams and swimming holes in during the spring; and then watched swell in the winter, muddy and laden with scoured vegetation.

Water-wise Southwesterners carry water on their person, conserve water in their homes, plant drought-tolerant landscapes, and know that a storm in distant mountains can ravage a sunny plateau in seconds, easily filling an arroyo or a graffitied storm channel.  We are aware that we live in a dynamic landscape and that our ability to control Western water is tenuous.  Perhaps because of this, water is our common bond.