"Daddy, what did 'rain' look like?”
It didn't take long for people to forget, and as years went by, to have been born and grown without ever having seen it. Occasionally, but less and less, rare sprinkles blew through, but never enough to register in any real way. The scientists and historians had warned that not so long ago, many decades, even centuries, had gone by with little or no real precipitation in the West. A half-century of relatively wet winters had fooled humans into believing “'twas ever thus,” but then a more normal climatic pattern reasserted itself. In the meantime, however, California's human population had ballooned from the centuries of small settlements along rivers and coasts to tens of millions of people clustered in huge megapolitan sprawling cities linked by crammed asphalt “freeways” that were all too often far from free, and more like the slow-moving clogged arteries of far too many of the creatures sitting frustrated in stalled gas-guzzling smog-spewing vehicles.
It was back to the era of “normal water.” We'd been warned. From Native American prophecies to hippie poets to PhD-packed scientific panels, we knew it was coming, or should have. But we ignored it. What do to, anyway? And those whose paychecks depending upon that ignorance were all too happy to help us continue on as if nothing was happening.
"Daddy, what did 'rain' look like?” I wanted to turn on the computer to show her some videos of storms and showers and umbrellas and flowing creeks and green fields, but electricity had grown so prohibitively expensive after hydroelectric power became rare and costly that we had to reserve all such use to essentials. Besides, the heated huge computer servers were now overheating and overloading more and more, with frequent shutdowns of internet access. Newspapers had of course folded up and blown away in the wind, so news from far and wide could be hard to come by. Big gatherings — festivals, sporting events, Burning Man, and the like — became rare as they required too much water and gas and other resources to justify.
As for limiting water consumption, we actually had no choice anymore, as the real rationing had begun years ago. Not only did the “step-pricing” make exceeding one's measly allotments punitively costly, but if you were a repeat offender your water was cut off completely for a time, and then a longer time, and then permanently. The lines downtown for the weekly water trucks grew longer with each passing season. Cops stood by to control the lurking violence and thievery, with photos nationwide of water-lines reminiscent of breadlines in previous depressions and wartimes. On the few rivers still flowing and the shrunken reservoirs and lakes used for water, gunboats patrolled the shorelines, on the watch for illegal diversion and pilfering. Occasionally one could see a decaying body on the shore, left as a warning.
As for agriculture, the wineries were among the first to go, being deemed “luxuries” as well as high-water consumption — along with flower-growing and some edible plants like strawberries. Gone. Beer soon became a luxury as well, with water being the most expensive ingredient. Cannabis growers, accustomed to off-the-grid illegal water use, held out longer but soon most of them were out of business as well. Tales of full-scale water warfare featuring heavy armaments out in the woods spiked, then subsided as there was nothing left to fight over. Eventually, only the very rich were meat-eaters, as producing those animals for slaughter used many times the water of any edible plants. In this way, at least, we became more like the rest of the world's humans. And many of us lost weight and felt better, other than the persistent thirst. There's always — well, sometimes — a silver lining.
Thirst is interesting. One can go weeks without food — especially if starting out corpulent — but only days without water. Rationing ratcheted many down to the minimum required for hydration. At some point, real or imagined, one starts to feel the dehydration in one's bones. We were taught to sip our rations carefully, to hold it in our mouths and saturate our tongues before swallowing. Maybe that helped. But we had to be careful to hide from the sun, to rest during the ever-increasing heat whenever possible, to minimize our bodies' needs for more water. Everybody knew what everybody else was feeling — a sort of just-below-the-skin need and panic, close to the edge of true danger.
We stank, but almost everybody did, so that didn't matter so much. A weekly shower was all that was legal, and a one-minute one at that. The new meters shut off the flow after that. One got good at soaping up and then jumping in for a rinse. Short hair became the fashion on both men and women, to minimize the grease factor. Clothes were hand-washed and sun-dried, and never entirely clean. But again, when such things are universal, it doesn't matter so much. Over time, even patchouli oil became less objectionable.
It became even more an era of forced migration. The vast human sprawl of the Southern part of the state became what it was always destined to be — unsustainable. The era of profiteering building with the assumption of plentiful cheap water was long gone. Vast tracts of suburban homes and mini-malls were being reclaimed by tumbleweeds and wind-blown dirt. Many cars were left behind as well, rendered useless by the ever-increasing cost of fuel and oil and yes, water. Bugs, reptiles, and rodents had a field decade plundering the troves of wasted junk food left in and around the dwellings. Fires became more and more common, until there was no such thing as “fire season” anymore — it lasted year-round.
As for all those other non-human species, their “age of extinction” was well underway before the era of normal water returned, but their declines accelerated. Mammals retreated further into the wild, due to being more aggressively hunted by humans and needing to find more remote water supplies. Birds likewise became less visible, and likely less plentiful. The “winners” seemed to be, yes, the insects and reptiles and rodents, plus a few of the more resourceful, tough flying critters like vultures, ravens, and the coastal types — gulls, pigeons, and others who could live on most anything. But even they clustered and fought around water sources, more all the time. As for pets, most of them had gone feral to survive, with only the scariest of guard dogs deemed worthy of the minimal water and food needed to sustain them.
And humans? Many, if not most, continued the long trend towards resembling other, meaner creatures. One started to assume that pretty much everybody was packing some sort of weapon. And to be more careful about what one said, about looking anybody in the eye too long, about showing off more than a canteen full of water. Cars were broken into all the time if a larger stash of the clear stuff was visible, or suspected. Restaurants — the few surviving ones — had 24-hour security to thwart the late-night water robberies. Those who owned land with a still-producing good well needed similar protection. Again, bodies were buried in all manner of unmarked graves.
Meanwhile, in the shrinking once-and-future ghost towns once known as “capitals,” the elected and de-facto and armed leaders struggled to understand, or, all too often, not to understand. The private powers-that-be lobbied them for more than their fair share of H20, and things got ugly. Dams were dynamited in the middle of the night when corruption was finally exposed. Private militias, some hired by industries and some by local governments, did battle or threatened to do so, usually via standoff but sometimes with bullets and worse, over disputed waterways and pipelines. Nascent businesses, now subsidized at last, worked desperately on things like desalinization of sea water, even with the knowledge that such advances would never really suffice.There was no technological fix for the fix were were in. Like most any other species, our own was going to have to follow the population curve back down, on a long slow — if we were lucky — slide down to some number that worked. We were only at the start of that. Today was probably a picnic compared to what was coming. It was not going to be pretty. It was being called karma or prophecy or just scientific reality, depending upon who was talking loudest. The religious loudmouths were having a field day with it all, for their own purposes. Sinner or not, I was old enough to not expect to be around for the worst of it, or maybe just hoped that was so. But...
"Daddy, what did 'rain' look like?” I sat for a quiet minute, thinking of how to describe it one more time, conjuring a vague fading childhood memory. But my mouth was parched and I did not want to waste too much breath, drying myself out even further. I reached for my canteen, unscrewed the cap, and holding it carefully, bent it to her mouth. She was an accident, a product of momentary passion and forgetting and denial and idiot policies that mandated her birth no matter what her mother or doctors said would be best, and she never should have been born in these times. I felt guilt each time I looked at her. But I loved her vastly nonetheless, and although she did not say so, I knew she was thirsty.