When I came to the Diocese of Sacramento in 2007, I was often greeted by the statement, phrased as a question, “So you’re from Southern California, right?” This was then rejoined by the accusation, “You’re one of those who take all our water for your pools.”
Having been in the window seat of a plane many times as it took off from or landed at the Orange County airport, I could see where one would get that impression. Sunlight glistens off of pools in many of the backyards of the homes in Irvine and Newport Beach surrounding the John Wayne Airport. This appears extravagant for a region known as semi-arid with relatively limited rainfall.
Renowned writer and Sacramento native, Joan Didion, wrote an essay on the California water system, entitled “Holy Water,” included in The White Album (1979). In it she attempted to explain the intricacies, excesses and many precarious balances that circulate water throughout the whole state, making it possible for us to open a faucet of water. The concerns with which she wrote her aquatic reflection more than 30 years ago have become a prevailing daily anxiety today.
While living in Orange County, I received my first glimpse of the complexity of providing water when staff from the Orange County Water District (OCWD) made a visit to my office at the pastoral center. They wanted my support for a campaign to convince immigrant communities that it was safe to drink the water. At that time, many immigrant families habitually purchased bottled water because in their places of origin the water was not safe to drink. They presumed the same was true in California, and continued the practice of purchasing water for cooking and drinking. The staff of the OCWD wanted to change this.
During the meeting they proceeded to tell me about all the steps taken to purify and recycle local wastewater and so replenish the vital groundwater basin. This large underground aquafer provides a significant portion of the water for the residents in the northern and central parts of Orange County. Maintaining the water volume and purity of the basin was also essential because the basin was connected to the Newport Back Bay and other coastal intrusions where seawater could seep into the basin contaminating the county’s water system.
The Newport Back Bay is a small marsh habitat where the natural and human inhabitants struggle to coexist. Underneath the tranquil tidal pools a diluvial shoving match was constantly in motion. The presentation of the OCWD awakened me to the precarious nature of the environmental balance and how risky human indifference can be.
Subsequent to their presentation, on daytime flights leaving the Orange County airport, I regularly looked out the window to gander at the Newport Back Bay and wondered about the muddy subterranean drama going on below. On flights returning to Orange County, from my window, I would scan the course of the normally bone-dry Santa Ana River to find the sink holes where water during the too few occasions of rain would be diverted so that it could slowly soak into the groundwater basin.
The visit from the OCWD opened my eyes to the amazing web of connections with the natural world through which I walked mostly as an unaware and unconcerned consumer. The Southern California region is a dense urban environment whose fine coastal conditions are largely taken for granted. Freeways, synchronized traffic lights, large climate-controlled malls and offices lull many residents into believing we can climate-control the environment as well. After the OCWD visit, I was dissuaded from the naïve, arrogant presumption of environmental control. I now turned the faucet with a new sense of mindfulness.
Since coming to Sacramento, I have learned even more about the water that flows through the natural and constructed veins of the California landscape. The Sacramento region holds a complex network of rivers, levees, canals, dams, lakes and reservoirs. All these components bring life to the mountains, fields, cities and towns in the region, then flow south to the other rural and urban areas throughout the state. They also serve as a thoroughfare of life bearing a variety of fish, fowl and other creatures from the sea to inland habitats then back again.
Through the years living in Sacramento, countless times I have traveled over the Yolo Bypass by way of Interstates 80 and 5. Lately the bypass looks like a large lake holding water to keep the low-lying parts of Sacramento from flooding. At other times the bypass is green with rice sprouting up from the murky, muddy lands. Migrating flocks swoop in to feast and frolic while commuter traffic rumbles in and out of the Capital city.
Some time ago, I was driving down from a confirmation Mass in Greenville into the Sacramento Valley. I stopped at a promontory twist on the road to take in the view. In the fading afternoon light the floor of the valley shimmered like foil. Rice fields all across the valley were flooded with water soaking the young seedlings. In time, these same fields would become a verdant, copious canvas.
Such moments give testimony to the wondrous ebb and flow of water. These quiet epiphanies of “holy water” now seem more precarious and precious. The climate-controlled technological culture in which we live may have tipped the climate to extremes we are less able to predict or control.
Joan Didion’s reflection on “holy water” recognized the little appreciated worth given to California’s aqua gold. As we struggle to hold it and keep it, by its very nature water still slips and seeps through our hands, reminding us that we are just the stewards, not the masters of creation. Faith in an almighty Creator should give us reason to see the precious holiness of this life-giving liquid creature. Discovering the God-given holiness of water may help us understand why we bless it in our many sacramental rites. These humble ritual gestures acknowledge what God intended from the very beginning, when the Spirit of God hovered over the waters in the very first moments of creation.
“O God, whose Spirit in the first moments of the world’s creation hovered over the waters, so that the very substance of water would even then take to itself the power to sanctify.” (From the blessing of baptismal water at the Easter vigil)
Let us learn to be better stewards of this gift so we may continue to enjoy water’s power to sanctify us and our world.