In Greenhouse California, the Hissing of Summer Lawns Fizzles While Races for Senator and Governor Quietly Take Shape

04/05/2015 12:00 am ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

She could see the Valley barbecues
From her window sill
See the blue pools in the squinting sun
Hear the hissing of summer lawns

Joni Mitchell
"The Hissing of Summer Lawns"

One of the most curious staples of suburban American living, the lawn, seems to have had its day in California, victim of the Golden State's deep-seated drought.

With voluntary cutbacks coming up short of the need, Governor Jerry Brown has ordered a mandatory cut of 25 percent on water use from 2013 levels.

"People should realize we are in a new era," Brown said at a mid-week press conference for the annual measurement of the crucial Sierra Nevada snowpack, standing on a patch of dry grass on Echo Summit that would in the past have been be thick with snow at this time of year. "The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past."

The Sierra snowpack, responsible for about a third of the state's water supply, is at five percent of its historical average, a new record low surpassing last year's 25 percent previous low.

Governor Jerry Brown ventured to Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada mountains to demonstrate the incredible disappearance of the snowpack crucial for California's water supply.

Brown's order does not apply to agriculture, the only sector which has suffered serious economic losses from the drought, having lost key supplies of water in previous years. But Brown did order ag to present a detailed explanation of its uses of water. Some crops are probably no longer appropriate to California in the greenhouse era.

Nor, it would appear, is the lawn. With rising post-World War II affluence, the lawn -- a fetish of 18th century English aristocrats eager to show that their landholdings could be used for strictly symbolic and social purposes -- became an integral part of burgeoning suburban American homesteads.

As appealing as those little slices of England may be -- though they look unintentionally comical from an airplane view -- lawns have been flourishing in a state where much of the land so sprawlingly developed is naturally little more than desert. Which is to say, not at all like England.

So the "hissing of summer lawns," the phenomenon so memorably noted in Joni Mitchell's 1975 song and album, caused mainly by sprinklers and, occasionally on especially hot days, by evaporation, probably won't be heard much longer.

While California's water lifestyle becomes somewhat more frugal, long-anticipated races for the state's very top offices are proceeding in a much more muted and low-key fashion than many expected. Ambitious youngish pols and their acolytes had complained about the stranglehold that septuagenarians Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have long had on California's two seats in the United States Senate. And, after a couple of them tried to run against Brown in the 2010 Democratic primary for governor, the complaint extended to Brown's renewed and just extended governorship. Brown ended up clearing the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2009.

Now state Attorney General Kamala Harris -- the only statewide Democrat who barely won in 2010 -- is the clear early frontrunner for the retiring Barbara Boxer's seat in 2016. Several Democrats, including former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and billionaire environmental crusader Tom Steyer -- looked like they were about to run but then demurred.

Indeed, the race that is more underway than any other is for the termed-out Brown's governorship in 2018. Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom has already declared. Villaraigosa, urged on by Latinos who sense a lack of clout commensurate with their numbers, is actively exploring the race. And former state Controller Steve Westly, an ex-eBay honcho-turned-greentech venture capitalist, met with key backers recently in Silicon Valley to discuss a reported gubernatorial campaign. A lot can happen in an open primary with that three-way dynamic. Republicans? Er, not so much.

Harris said she'd be a "fighter" like the liberal Boxer, but has had very little to say publicly on the issues. Neither did any of the others who took a pass on the race, though Steyer talked about climate change. L.A. Congressman Adam Schiff and Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, who've also had little to say of substance, are taking hard looks at the race.

Harris has actively ducked press questions on the issues, especially the controversies over Iran, Israel, nuclear weapons, jihadism and so on which are driving much of the national debate.

It's understandable that state-level politicians aren't as conversant with national and world issues but, folks, that's the job if you want to be a U.S. senator.

And it's not as though California's supposed next generations of leaders haven't had plenty of time to educate themselves while they've been complaining about the older politicians declining to retire. Boxer and Feinstein were both first elected to the Senate in 1992.

Which gets at the other potential 2018 race. If Dianne Feinstein, who broke her ankle on an easy hike along Lake Tahoe I was on a few years ago steps away as many expect in 2018 at age 85, after 26 years as a senator, a great opportunity to influence the national debate opens up. For someone who has something to say, that is.

If Feinstein retires, Brown has a pretty clear path to the Senate, where he can champion his future-oriented agenda and star on the national TV shows, if he wants. Brown turns 77 on April 7th, a birthday he shares with longtime friend and backer director Francis Ford Coppola. But he can do more pull-ups than I can and can probably beat me in one of his regular three-mile runs. (On the other hand, I'm sure I can smoke the governor in a 40-yard dash.)

This, of course, assumes that Californians can live without lawns. They should be able to, though the New York Times may think otherwise.

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