The Art of Dish Washing with Charlie Toledo

Have you ever washed dishes with Charlie Toledo? You learn what Water is Sacred means. She wipes the dish using as little water as possible with soap that will not contaminate the water and then carefully rinses. You do not wash: you witness. She does the work, making sure Water is properly treated.

How would things be different if we all adopted practices that respected Water? Washing dishes with Charlie has changed my way of treating water in my home, and just in time, too! The drought and the continued pumping and drilling of wells around us have drained our sub-basin acquirer to the point that, for the first time last year, we had to truck water to our ranch. Necessity also changes our ways.

Eight years ago, in the fall of 2014, California’s water bond Proposition One was on the ballot and, subsequently, overwhelmingly won. I interviewed Charlie during this period for a series of articles about Water. I am copying below one of these interviews. Charlie’s prescience in these matters of water security shines through in these interviews. Eight years later, the drought is worse. We appear to be still doing the things that got us into this mess in the first place: in other words, business as usual. Daily we read hair-raising stories about Water:  “Officials fear ‘complete doomsday scenario’ for drought-stricken Colorado River” (The Washington Post, December 1, 2022); “Drought Alters Landscape: Rural Communities Will Bear the Brunt” (The Napa Valley Register, December 1, 2022). Rural wells are going dry, and we keep permitting more and more projects and hotels. Spots of the Napa River are drying in the summer near deep project wells. Our Napa sub-basin has been in overdraft for years now. 

I remember Charlie’s words, words that have become mantras. Water is Sacred. Water is Sacred. Maybe it is time we all repeat, all together now: Water is Sacred. Water is Sacred.

Interview: Charlie Toledo on California Water Legislation, October 2014

Patricia: We have a water bond on the ballot in California in the November 2014 election, and there’re three new state groundwater monitoring laws that are going to go into effect on January 1, 2015. I would like you to give us some of your thoughts about these plans and about what is being done.

Charlie: I think what is being done and what indigenous people would like to see being done are two different things. What’s changing that’s good for native elders and native people like myself is finally a hard look at the massive, massive amounts of water from Northern California being transferred to Central and Southern California. That put things off balance. Water is a living being and where water goes and what it does when it falls from the sky, and it rolls down the creeks, rolls down the mountains from the creeks, and the creeks flow to the river, the river to the sea: All of that is part of that continuum of a healthy body.

Looking at water as a sacred body—that is what is being put out by the indigenous people right now. What would it be? Like a campaign, really. In advertising, you have to get a little jingle that you have to repeat over and over. So what we were saying that didn’t really work is, “Water is a living being. Water is a living entity.” That seems too complex. Now people are just saying, “Water is sacred. Water is sacred. It is not a commodity. It should not and can not be bought and sold.”

So looking at water as sacred: when you look at the water bond [Proposition One], I agree with the Sierra Club position that some of those things in the proposition are really good, like the restoration of watersheds and regional water management, storm management and groundwater management.

But the damming, storing, or transporting of water is harmful. [One-third of the bond money could be used for damming and transporting water.] What’s happening now is the end result of a hundred years of mismanagement. We created a system that was very brilliant. It’s amazing that in the 1800’s they engineered this project to store water and transport it hundreds of miles into desert areas. But it’s not sustainable.

I spoke last time about the headwaters going dry. That headwaters is where the water is born. It’s like the brain of the body. So when the blood stops going to the brain, it doesn’t take long for the body to die. Usually about three to five minutes. Maybe ten minutes depending on how fast (much) blood is being drained. So now the headwaters in seven places I know of are going dry. They dry up at the end of the season, and now, with the drought, that’s critical.

Even without the drought, this was already happening. The current water management system is not reaching its end point of sustainability. The real solution is that water has to be managed regionally. Just like we were talking about emergencies. Emergencies need to be handled by neighbors and neighborhoods in the counties. The discussions that I’ve been part of are, in part, where the state is coming to that waters have to be managed regionally and not be transported. So there is a movement that I think is important to access groundwater. To ensure, somehow, the quality and safety of the groundwater being used.

One of the things that had never been done in California to date was the registering or monitoring groundwater for regional sharing. What is unfortunate is California is predominately— three quarters— desert. The whole Central Valley. The whole southern part of the state is an extreme desert. So it would not, and can not, support the life forms that it has right now. The major cities. Los Angeles, Fresno, Bakersfield. All of those cities, even Santa Barbara, are just out there on a desert rim.

What will happen, and has happened historically, is that there will start to be population shifts. People say that can’t happen. Humans have been on the earth for a hundred thousand years. What we’ve always done, collectively, is move around. If there are water shortages, if it gets too cold, if it gets to this, to that, the people move. A mass movement to urban areas has occurred in the last thirty years globally.

Most of Los Angeles is less than thirty years old. [In 1900, the Los Angeles census was 102,479. In 2006 – The city population was 3,976,071. Los Angeles County’s population was 10,245,572, by far the nation’s largest county. Most of Fresno is less than thirty years old. That’s not even one person’s lifetime. So we can’t attach huge emotional attachment to the places. Part of what will happen is that either we’re moving the water or we’re moving. Our lives are dependent on water.

I think what’s really, really important, and what is being stressed in the discussions I’ve been in, is the restoration of the riparian corridors. Which is trees. Trees hold the water in place. They attract rain. They block evaporation. They do all kinds of things that are very, very important to water conservation.

The way that we’ve been using water is unsustainable. We need to cut our water usage by 60%. I used to think 40%, but now I think 60%. In January 2014, Governor Brown asked people for voluntary water conservation of 20%. Most communities have conserved 6-10%. I think we need 60%.

My suggestion has been that we have to start shutting the water off. Just have water available two or three hours a day. Then that will make people realize that our relationship to water in this generation, which I would call from 1850 to 2014, has been out of balance. We think of water as free. We think of it as this waste product. We allow the rainwater to rush down gutters. We’ve asphalted areas that used to absorb water and conserve water within the Earth. All of those practices need to stop.

Using water to wash off a driveway, to water a golf course: those practices can stop. I think most of us, knowing the severity of coming out of this denial, this huge, huge denial that we are in, will adapt our behavior quickly if we can understand the crisis. I think that most people do not understand the crisis level.

Patricia: These are radical ideas.

Charlie: They are.

Patricia: Knowing what you know from having been on various boards: Are these ideas going into our committees and lawmakers?

Charlie: I have seen Governor Brown at all these meetings where Native American Elders and multiple generations of Native Americans have gathered. He’s right in the middle of it, and he’s listening. He’s scared. He knows. People have been attacking him. His comment several months ago, probably in the early spring of 2014, “I can’t make it rain.” He understands it’s more than just rain. It’s water management.

I sit on a state advisory Board that functions as a consumer oversight. When I started bringing this up three years ago and asking questions, people were thinking, “No. You’re fanatical.” Now that’s not the thought anymore. People are realizing, “OK. This lady’s not crazy. This system is not sustainable.” What they are coming to is that water has to be managed regionally and much more conservatively.

Patricia: Now, when you say regionally, what would be a region? What does that look like?

Charlie: It would probably be a watershed. You think of Napa. I think Napa has seven watersheds.

A watershed is where the water comes from the sky. Where it runs down the hills. Where it springs from the ground for any spring. What water’s available? There are aquifers. Las Vegas has an aquifer. Unfortunately, they’ve just about tapped it out in less than twenty years.

They’ve used water in ways that are not sustainable. So their aquifers are going to be dry. Los Angeles still has aquifers that they can use.

So the watershed is usually based on how and where the water flows.

Patricia: It’s not unlike local food supplies.

Charlie: Exactly. Exactly.

Patricia: Yes.

Charlie: Then that’s one of the things that’s come up that I think is important. One of the brilliant Commissioners of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has made this connection. She is at the forefront of all of this thinking. She’s an amazing commissioner for the CPUC, and she talks about the nexus of power. That who are using the most power are the energy companies. Electricity uses lots of water. They are the main consumer of water in the State of California. Furthermore, the biggest use of electricity is water. So water uses the most electricity. The transportation and storage of water use the most electricity in the State of California.

She calls this the nexus of power. That we have to break that nexus of dependency. Somehow stop using so much water to generate electricity. Stop using so much electricity to transport and store water. That’s where it comes to a regional idea. Then when I say the thing about having water available two hours in the morning and two hours at night, people from Mexico say, “That’s how I grew up. That’s how I live.”

People from Africa say, “Well, we only get it once a day for twenty minutes.” Then you use that water for the rest of the day. In places like Bali and throughout Asia, many have to collect their own rainwater. Then once during the dry season, they can have water delivered to their cistern. So whatever water they have, they must manage it throughout the year. Each person or each family is responsible for his/their own water. That’s how it is in most parts of Africa.

People have to haul their water. Usually, young girls haul water. That’s maybe five gallons of water. That’s the family’s water for the whole day. That person might spend three hours gathering and hauling the water. So the fact that we would have water on tap is still much easier than two-thirds of the world.

National Geographic just did an article on water. The whole western part of the United States is in severe drought. And then there’s the issue of global water shortage. These ideas may seem radical, but as time goes by, they’ll seem less and less radical, and people will regret how we’ve wasted water. We can still conserve it if we realize, “Well. Water is a limited resource.” The thought in the legislative battles is we’re going to share the water that we have.

Some people say, “No, we’re not.” People will start hoarding water. Do you want to live and watch everyone else in the state go dry? I think it does shift our thinking to sharing the water and using much, much less of it than we use and have used in the past forty and fifty years. We won’t bathe in huge bathtubs of water.

Patricia: That sharing is not regional. It’s still moving water.

Charlie: That’s where I’m thinking that people will start having to move from the cities. Like the earthquake we just experienced: We can talk about the permanence of the material world, but the material world is not permanent. Like the tsunamis in Japan: I mean, that village was gone, and the people aren’t going back in there. China, when they had their huge earthquakes. Because they’ve had their huge migration into cities in the last fifteen years, after a major earthquake, a lot of people just went right back to the rural areas. They walked right back home.

I think that is what we’re going to see. For fifty years, we have seen mass migration from rural to urban areas. Most of the population used to live in rural areas everywhere in the world. Now there’s been a transference to living in crowded, dense places in the cities. I think that might just reverse. People will leave and live in smaller communities. Or else, as I said, water will just be used very differently.

One of my friends, a Native American Elder, has been working on these water issues with me for the last thirty years. He now understands what Mark Twain said, “Whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting.” We’re going to move back to the concept that water is very precious. That every drop of rain is very important. Then along with that, as I said, we can’t talk about water without talking about trees. The trees attract the water, they attract the rain, and they hold the water in the soil. There are places like Findhorn and garden projects in Ireland and England where their gardening practices revived water.

Golden Gate Park in San Francisco: That’s a place where people thought, “No, you can’t grow in the sand dunes.” Doing that conscious, sustainable farming and gardening that you’re familiar with. That you can create food and water in places where it wasn’t. All through the deserts of Afghanistan and Western Asia where there isn’t water. The oasis becomes very sacred. People might live on a gallon of water for a week. Which is a much different relationship than we have now.

I think we can do it. As humans, we have the capacity to adapt and change. So I think that’s what will happen. 

Charlie Toledo, Executive Director of the Suscol Intertribal Council in Napa, CA, helped author the Watershed Development plan for Napa County in its seminal years, 1992-1995, and more recently serves on the State Low Income Oversight Board, a committee of the California Public Utilities Commission. For more than 30 years, she has served as a peace activist, community organizer, and healer, dedicated to preserving Native American culture and building the cohesiveness of indigenous groups in the Napa area.