It was a sweltering day — almost 100 degrees. The midday heat radiated off the pavement at the Santa Rosa farmer’s market, where a Cotati mother named Dawn recounted how much her 1½-year-old son enjoyed frolicking in the yard months earlier.
That was before the severity of the drought had become clear to her. Before she and her husband stopped watering the lawn. And before she put away the Slip 'N Slide.
During warm spring days, the boy she now screened from the sun delighted in splashing around on the plastic sheet and running in the supple wet grass.
Now, along with being forced to cut back on water for everything from landscaping to washing dishes, the drought has eliminated letting the hose run for simple summer fun.
It’s not their biggest problem. Dawn said she “freaked out” when her toilet tank recently stopping filling all the way. “Oh, no!” she thought. “What’s going on?” Her mind immediately turned to their groundwater well. She’s tried three well and pump companies, but no one has time to come check it.
Even that, she said, doesn’t compare with what others are going through. She said her heart “goes out to all the farmers and growers who have to worry because they don’t have any water.”
Like many Sonoma County residents, she has found that some of life’s simplest and most satisfying pleasures have gone the way of the region’s water supply. As Labor Day approaches and ushers in thoughts of fall, an accounting of summer comes up short.
Like the backyard sprinklers and park splash pads that were off limits this year, many of the diversions that distinguish the languid days of summer have been altered or flat out torpedoed by drought.
And as those diversions have fallen by the wayside, so has the sense of freedom, awe and serenity, that go along with spending time outdoors and out-of-touch.
With lakes and rivers shrinking and parched forests breeding wildfires on an unprecedented scale around California, opportunities to explore, experience and return to nature have continued to narrow, upending plans and subverting expectations.
Camping trips have been scheduled, rescheduled and canceled; boating, scaled back; fishing refocused or put on hold because of shriveled streams.
Many have scratched plans for a “last hurrah” of summer over the long holiday weekend, as wildfires exploded around the state, clearing out the Tahoe Basin, closing national forests and filling vast areas of California with caustic smoke.
And there’s a sense of déjà vu, as each year’s fire season becomes more extreme. Anxiety mounts as air quality declines and people catch shower water in buckets and let lawns grow brown at home.
After a pandemic year that shattered all norms and underscored the critical need for time surrounded by nature and the elements, even the most outdoorsy among us don’t feel entirely at home outside these days.
“I like to go float out on the lake and decompress,” said Santa Rosa resident Paul Lusnia, 56. His family’s annual trips to Donner Lake near Truckee were canceled last month even before the start of the massive Caldor fire that threatened Lake Tahoe’s southern shore.
“I can’t decompress if I’m looking up at the sky and it’s like an L.A. air quality alert,” he says.
Celeste Thomas, 70, usually seeks serenity closer to home, using her Sonoma County Regional Parks pass liberally to hike through the area’s scenic landscapes.
These days what had been a source of inspiration and relief instead sparks anxiety, and her photography yields images of crackly, dried trees, bare creek beds and extended shorelines.
She said she’s “never really recovered” from the hit her sense of personal well-being took when she was evacuated from her Santa Rosa home during the 2017 Tubbs fire, and now every dry wind brings up haunting memories.
And the waterways? “It’s just kind of scary when you’re used to seeing the creek with some kind of water in it, and it’s just dry, dry, dry, dry. It’s just a big jumble of rocks in it.”
It worries her more when she sees neighbors overwatering their lawns or appearing to dismiss conservation mandates. And she’s deeply concerned about wildlife.