Walking in Hope

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead, author and anthropologist

The Walking Water pilgrimage has been likened to the use of acupuncture, where a localised application of needles has the potential to offer immediate pain relief and stimulate healing throughout the body, sometimes even ending long-term suffering.

Mono Lake in its moody magnificence

Mono Lake in its moody magnificence

It is a form of alternative medicine developed by the Chinese more than two thousand years ago that aims to bring the body back into balance by creating a free flow of energy – and maybe it is time to call upon all the ancient and modern wisdom we can. The obvious analogy is that the actions of a handful of modern pilgrims – combining hearts, minds and feet in an educational journey and walking prayer – could create a ripple effect among people and places throughout the land and possibly even the world.

Alan Bacock of California's indigenous Big Pine Paiute tribe has suggested: "Prayer is an important way to prepare."

Each of us is seeking to be an ambassador, walking for and with water. Each must also ask ourselves why we are doing this, who and what we are doing it for, and how our combined actions and learnings might serve all of life, as we explore and co-create a new story in which there is enough water for all.

Alan Bacock

Peacemaker Alan Bacock of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe

It is a journey of hope backed up by recent science that indicates there is in fact enough, if only we find a new way of being in relationship to water and each other. Perhaps that means not blocking the passage of water that has flowed freely and abundantly for millennia, nor using hoses to wash cars or driveways in areas of extreme drought.

For me it is already a journey questioning my old ways. I knew that eating beef was hugely harmful to the planet because of the massive water footprint of meat farming, apart from causing suffering to animals. But I'd never stopped to think about the fact that I was wearing water.

According to Stephen Leahy, author of Your Water Footprint, it takes more than 7,600 litres of water to outfit me in a new pair of jeans and 2,460 litres to add another cotton T-shirt to my wardrobe. And that morning cup of coffee requires 140 litres of water that is used to grow, process and ship the coffee beans.

Perhaps the most startling fact I uncovered is that the water footprint of a bottle of cola is 175 litres – so drinking one bottle is like consuming 350 bottles of water!

So how serious is our global water crisis? Very, it seems!

Arid countryside

The First People of Owens Valley had had no concept of property or water rights

All living things need water and humans can survive little more than three days without it.

Already 1.2 billion people live in areas with chronic water scarcity, while another 2 billion are affected by shortages every year. By 2025 three in five people may be living with water shortages.

The 2014 Global Water Summit concluded that shortage of water is the biggest challenge the global economy faces. It predicted that within the next 10 years everyone on the planet will experience some serious water-related event – a shortage, a flood, an infrastructure failure, interruption to business or economic disruption.

So we need to reassess our relationship with water and remember that the Earth is literally a closed system, like a vessel in outer space. As Stephen Leahy explains: "Water cannot be manufactured. It can only be moved around. We're very good at moving water around by using pipelines and canals. We're not so good at acknowledging that moving water around always means that some other place will then have less water." (Your Water Footprint by Stephen Leahy, Firefly Books, October 2014)
On 1 September a group of us gather for a journey through inner and outer landscapes that will hopefully lead to greater understandings. Walking Water is a three-year pilgrimage, that's divided into three sections, following the natural and manmade waterways from the source in the Owens Valley to the place of end use – the Greater Los Angeles Area that's home to around 18-million souls.

Image of old car tyre in desert

Los Angeles prospered while the Owens Valley suffered the ‘theft’ of its water

The first leg will take us around 320km (200 miles) from Mono Lake, one of the country's great photographic icons, to Owens Lake, that was a vast perennial lake that had held water for at least 800,000 years. But all that changed disastrously a century ago. In 1913 water from the Owens River was diverted to satisfy the thirst of the growing city of LA and by the mid 1920s the lake was dry. To make a dire situation truly desperate, billowing windblown dust clouds containing a number of carcinogens turned it into a respiratory nightmare for residents.

Luckily, the upstream Mono Lake was ultimately spared at least part of this ecological and social disaster, but not before a protracted legal battle.

In 1941 LA's Department of Water and Power began diverting tributary streams from Mono Lake to meet the city's ever-growing water demands. Deprived of its freshwater sources, the volume of Mono Lake halved while salinity levels doubled and the intricate ecosystem began to collapse.

If something was not done urgently, Mono Lake was destined to become a lifeless chemical sump.

In 1978 local citizen David Gaines formed the Mono Lake Committee and began talking to conservation clubs, schools, service organisations, legislators, lawyers and anybody who would listen. Membership quickly grew to 20,000 concerned individuals leading a fight to save the lake.

Old beach sign at now dry lake

This was the turn off to the beach of what is now a dry lake

While it wasn't possible to stop all the destruction, it is a story with a happy ending and a history that continues to be written. The Mono Lake Committee successfully sued the powerful water authority to limit diversions, seeking a reasonable compromise rather than stopping all diversions.

It was an action founded out of a love for this remarkable and beautiful place, rather than any wish to fight LA. And their legacy shows that a group of concerned people can come together against seemingly insurmountable odds, find a solution and make a difference.

In 2013 a statement from the LA City Council proudly declared: "The completion of the LA Aqueduct 100 years ago is a significant historical event that led to the growth and prosperity of Los Angeles and Southern California."

The flipside of that story is instead of prosperity it marked a century of devastation for the Owens Valley since LA stole the water from the white settlers, also marking 150 years since the settlers stole the fertile lands and irrigation ditches from the Paiute people.Alan Bacock says that until the arrival of the first settlers in 1860, the ancestors of the Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley had lived lightly upon the land and in harmony with their environment through a lifestyle based on traditional subsistence. The most important food item was pinenuts gathered in the mountains.

These first people, who believed the Creator placed them there eons ago, lived sustainably and with a huge respect for water – until suddenly the settlers took ownership of the lands and used them in ways incompatible with the traditional Paiute way of life, making peaceful coexistence impossible.

Dry lake bed

Dry lake bed

Not only were his people grappling with alien concepts of property and water rights, but the loss of food control and resulting starvation were precursors to the Owens Valley Indian War fought between the Paiute and the US Cavalry in 1862-1863. "Today we share our story in the hope that one day justice will be granted for our people and the environment."

He sees Walking Water as a healing journey in which to engage with communities along the way and build bridges between the people of the Valley and LA.

"LA is influential," he stresses. "If you grab the hearts of those in LA, you grab the hearts of the world."

Geoff Dalglish
As our PR Geoff is representing the community during the Walking Water pilgrimage.

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