Obi Kaufmann doesn’t want to piss anyone off. He just published a book about water in California, and, still, he believes he can avoid alienating people. The most likely path to a consensus, he says, is fostering a sense of wonder and curiosity about water, the enabler of all things good in California. A painter, author and lifelong outdoorsman, Kaufmann will soon have a chance to test his ideas in front of an audience of seasoned water warriors. That’s because he’s coming for a talk in Monterey County, a place where agriculture leaders, environmentalists, developers and other interests collide, sometimes spectacularly.
Kaufmann’s new book is called The State of Water: Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource. He is under contract with Heyday Books to publish four more titles on California’s environment, all within the next two and a half years. That type of deal represents major publisher confidence. Kaufmann earned it after the success of his first book, The California Field Atlas, a 2017 work with illustrations and inspired text that managed to transcend the genre of nature writing.
Weekly: You describe yourself as a naturalist. What does that mean exactly?
Kaufmann: I am a naturalist in the old sense, in the way that Alexander Von Humboldt or even Charles Darwin described themselves… not necessarily a scientist but hands-on, going out there. There is an adventuring quality to my work. Based on my book’s title, you might think it’s a dry read, but I like to think of it as having more drama and real-world romance. I am out to write a story.
For someone who relishes creativity and contemplation, you’ve given yourself quite a workload. What drives your diligence?
Oh, it’s my life! I am an artist. Ever since I was a little boy, I always imagined that I would someday have the coffee table book that would say “The Art of Obi Kaufmann” across it. And I got that but it’s not a piece of decoration. It’s a book with a certain amount of utility, a handbook of conservation, an inventory of the biodiversity we have left.
My work also has a hopeful tone to it. Listen to the media too much these days and you might be concerned that we’re not going to survive until next Tuesday, let alone 100 years. My study is what character California will have regardless of the urban veneer that we have so successfully erected. I am about starting the discussion of what our continued residency looks like over the next 1,000 years.
Hold on. We have some serious water problems to solve right now.
Right. The basic premise of this book is that if we’re not talking about conservation, we’re not having a very good discussion about California water. We’ve got enough storage and conveyance. We’ve got 1,400 named dams and we’ve got only bits of rivers that remain wild. This book is my exercise in just running the numbers. I am an artist and a backpacker. I am not a lawyer, policymaker, farmer or scientist.
Well, as you may know, in our region, we are looking at a desalination plant to replace the water we’re now pumping from the Carmel River. What’s your perspective on that?
I love the idea of a technological fix. [But] there does appear to be something prosthetic about technical fixes for ecological problems. It doesn’t get to the core of the problem. Desal now is energy-intensive and if this energy is coming from fossil fuels, we might be kicking ourselves.
How do you talk about using less water without ticking off a farmer, for example, and generating more gridlock?
It’s a hard call because I do understand the tradition of California agriculture. I am super impressed the more I’ve studied it – how we have tricked this ecological zone into thinking it’s something it’s not. [But] California agriculture is only 3 percent of the state GDP, which comes as a shock to many people. We’re spending over 80 percent of our water for 3 percent of our GDP. I’m not out to make an enemy or tell farmers what to do. I’m just looking at the numbers. Everybody wants to use water in a strategic way. We’ve got some severe challenges coming toward us. Let’s work it out together. I’m not here to proselytize a nature-first agenda. I am here to question what will be lost if we just go for endless growth. For example if we lose salmon in California, I think it would just be a tragedy for our character.