Saturday, July 19, 2008 | Exequiel Ezcurra serves as provost for the San Diego Natural History Museum, directing its scientific research programs. He’s also the curator for an exhibition about water that opens at the museum Saturday. The exhibition, Water: H2O=Life, runs through November, and highlights the challenges facing water supplies across the globe. It explores the history of the relationship between people and water, from humankind’s massive infrastructure investments to the role played by wetlands.

The exhibition features a California-specific display that examines the multitude of issues facing Southern California’s water supplies. We walked through the exhibit with Ezcurra and talked to him about the parallels of water challenges across the globe, how San Diego’s water consumption relates to the world and why the city of La Mesa has a beef with Ezcurra’s desiccated landscaping.

What do you hope to convey to the people who visit?

The exhibit was developed by a group of 11 different museums. We got participants from all over the world. It was interesting that people from places as different as Sao Paolo, where it’s wet, California, where it’s dry, Ontario or Singapore, they all had the idea that a water exhibit was important because they felt their region was facing problems with their water supply. That gave us an impression that we are facing a global problem. Different cultures are feeling that their ability to provide their population with enough water and good, quality water is decreasing, and they have to do something about it.

You will see examples along the exhibit from all different parts of the world. And that is something that I thought once the exhibit was finalized that could be a problem for us. That visitors from Southern California could get the false impression that water problems are something that happens to Brazilians or Singaporeans — not something that happens in the United States. So we did an add-on exhibit, Water: The California Story, where we basically show that all these concepts and the problems and challenges associated with the sustainable use of water also occur in California.

Studying water supply issues, it’s fascinating that the story line about water and water supply is repeated in much the same way here as it is on the East Coast, in Mexico, in Bangladesh. There’s the common thread of the challenge of water supply and human existence.

Absolutely. Absolutely. There is a beautiful book written by Baron Alexander von Humboldt, a German naturalist who visited South America and Mexico in the late 1700s. And when he visited Mexico City, he wrote something in a beautiful book called “The Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain.” And in the essay, Humboldt wrote — it’s long, but the general concept is: These guys are crazy.

They’re having problems with water, they’re making drainage canals to get rid of water that floods the basin, making all sorts of efforts to prevent flooding, and they’re investing huge amounts of money to fix it by transformation of the environment and technology. And they don’t realize that the problem is that they’re cutting all the forests in the mountains around them, and that’s what’s flushing water, every time it rains, into the basin. He said if they understood this properly, they’d plant forests, protect their mountains, and learn to live with the wetlands.

This was written in 1794. When you read it, it seems as if it was written yesterday. For 220 years now, all the efforts of the administrators of Mexico City have been to fix the problem through dams, canals, drainage systems.

If you look at that paradox, it’s repeated over and over and over again. Very often, the solution to water problems is just learn to live with it, and live within your means. When we have in practice embarked in huge endeavors of technology and investment — like pumping water hundreds of miles and over mountains — with very mixed success.

USA Today, a week ago, had a short paragraph about the Arizona water commission saying they’d produced a plan … to install a nuclear plant in the Gulf of California to run a gargantuan desalination plant that will provide Arizona with all the water it needs. I read that, and immediately got Humboldt in my mind.

In California, it’s been the multi-billion-dollar water infrastructure bond.

That’s exactly it. Those are also things we discuss in the exhibit: The cost it actually has to apply technology in such a bad way. The Three Gorges Dam in China, and the extinction of the river dolphin (there).

And there’s that parallel. They have the river dolphin, we have the delta smelt.

Yes, and in the delta of the Colorado, there’s a small porpoise, the vaquita porpoise, that’s going to extinction. An unexpected and unpleasant byproduct of the damming of the Colorado River.

You talk about the parallels between water use and water concerns 200 years ago and today. Have we learned lessons in that time?

It is not all bad news. The big modulator of that question is who are you making reference to when you say “we.” If you look around in every country, you will find regions or societies that use water sustainably and well. And you will find regions or societies that are sailing straight for catastrophe.

How are we doing here?

Not too well. The bad news is that we’re using water unsustainably. The good news is that there seems to be a growing awareness that that’s so. A lot of people are working and fighting to restore a more sustainable relationship with our wetlands and water system. There are some wonderful projects in San Diego, like the Cuyamaca Water (Conservation) Garden. At the same time, the other day, I went to a development in Rancho Santa Fe. There’s still a lot of poorly planned, excessive use of water. I even have my own grudge. I got a letter from the city of La Mesa, saying that we are a hazard because we have too many dry things in the yard. Not everybody understands the philosophy behind efficient water use. But I see a lot of people in California concerned about this.

Tell me what connection you hope to draw for visitors with the Colorado River Delta. It’s one we’re interconnected with, but I don’t think many people here connect their water use to the Sea of Cortez.

Exactly. The basic message behind the (California-specific) add-on to the exhibit is that in 21st century, still, the water we use comes from nature, it comes from the wilderness, like the Colorado River, the Sacramento delta. The environment, to keep healthy, needs water to maintain its life-supporting functions. Water comes from nature, but nature also needs water. Nature is a valid use of water. That’s the main storyline we’re telling in that add-on exhibit. There is a lot of material about the delta and what it means and why the preservation of whatever remains is still important. Not only for the sake of nature, but also for our own sake.

— Interview by ROB DAVIS

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