“Be ashamed.” That was the imperative my grandmother used when she thought one of my siblings or I had done something wrong. What brought my grandmother to mind were recent reports in the press of “lawn shaming” or “drought shaming,” particularly of celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Barbra Streisand. Aerial photos of their lavish Southern California estates indicate that their expansive landscaping remains green and lush in California’s driest year in recorded history. For that, they should be ashamed.

One article talked of how wealthy California residents in general, especially down south, are less inclined to conserve water during our ongoing drought because levying fines for overuse offers no incentive for them to conserve simply because they can easily afford to pay the fines. This assumes there is no reason for them to conserve water beyond the financial consequences.

It was suggested that water agencies might convince some residents in wealthy neighborhoods to host “garden parties,” presumably in their lush, green gardens, to educate their friends and neighbors about the moral implications of using more than their fair share of water. Why would wealthy people be unaware of the moral implications of being water hogs in the first place? Could it be they have no shame?

As I wondered if all rich people are morally vacuous, my thoughts gradually turned to the right and wrong of converting rangeland, in spite of the drought, to water-intensive nut orchards and vineyards, especially in neighboring Stanislaus County. It is believed the conversion of more than 30,000 acres in Stanislaus County since 2001, primarily to almonds, has contributed to domestic wells going dry and impacted residents’ quality of life. There has been a loss of historical ranching and a loss of the natural benefits associated with rangeland such as habitat for threatened and endangered species, clean water and air, view-sheds and carbon sequestration.

Though a property right, I can’t help but think that planting almond orchards on rangeland and pumping massive amounts of groundwater to irrigate them may not be moral within the context of the drought. The profitability of almonds is, of course, what is driving their proliferation. But when does morality trump profitability? How much will another man’s profits benefit the family whose well pumps nothing but sand? Yet, perhaps more importantly, will the man who profits at his neighbor’s expense feel ashamed?

There are some who think the prolonged drought in California and other western states is an opportunity. It will raise awareness of where our food comes from and how much water it takes to produce it. “Western water scarcity has drawn attention to the fact that California produces half the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the nation, and heightened concerns about the sustainability of industrial agriculture in a warming world,” wrote author Cynthia Barnett in a recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece. An environmental ethicist said the issues associated with the drought “are both ecological and moral.” In other words, how good must an almond taste to justify the social and environmental repercussions of groundwater over-pumping in a catastrophic drought?

In Valley Springs, there is currently a potential assault on our water supply from the proposed hot asphalt batch plant at the Hogan Dam rock quarry owned by Ford Construction. Though Planning Director Peter Maurer determined that the asphalt plant was permitted by right under the existing zoning, his decision has been appealed by MyValleySprings.com, a local nonprofit, and by the Calaveras County Water District due to a host of potential negative impacts such as increased truck traffic, air pollution, noise and water contamination.

In its appeal letter, the district said the multiple negative consequences of the asphalt plant “could reasonably include, but are not limited to, contamination of district drinking water sources in the Calaveras River.” The contamination of drinking water is a particularly disturbing possibility in a drought. Even if the asphalt plant was permitted under the existing zoning, is it morally right to contaminate drinking water in order to produce asphalt? Are property rights superior to the right of the people to live in a world that provides them with clean water?

Questions of morality in regard to land and water use are not new, of course, but the drought seems to be bringing them into sharper focus. Perhaps it’s time to put the emphasis less on what is legally permissible and more on what is morally attainable.

Muriel Zeller is a poet, writer and Valley Springs resident. Contact her at murielzeller52@gmail.com.

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