Peter Gleick on the California drought

Dr. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif.Last week. Peter Gleick was a guest on the syndicated weekly radio show, Sea Change Radio, where he discussed California’s drought.  Here is a transcript of the program:

Alex Wise, Host:  2013 was the driest year on record in California, and the state’s snowpack is at 12% of what it should be.  Considering that this state alone houses an eighth of the U.S. population and maintains over 25 million acres of farmland with a GDP larger than that of Canada, the current California drought reaches well beyond the borders of the Golden State.

Today on Seachange Radio, I talk with Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute.  We discuss the realities and implications of the current water crisis, how better agriculture policy may help lessen its impact, and look at some of the innovations that have been developed in other arid geographies.

Peter, you are an expert on water and climate issues and a Californian.  Why don’t you first tell us what California is going through right now in terms of its water, in terms of this drought, and what that means for everyone around the country.  Why it is important beyond California’s borders?

Peter Gleick: Indeed we are going through a drought – a particularly bad drought.  It looks like we’re entering really the third year of below normal precipitation and runoff, and of course we have higher temperatures as well from climate change.  We have droughts normally, we have floods normally – it’s a naturally variable climate in California as it is really everywhere.

But this is an extreme drought, and it’s going to have impacts on urban water use.  We’re not going to have as much water in our cities to do the things that we would like to do.

It’s going to have an impact on our agricultural production.  California’s a big food growing state and 80% of the water we use in a normal year goes to agriculture.  There are going to be limits on what we can grow and where we can grow it this year.

It’s going to have impacts on our ecosystems.  Our ecosystems are already enormously stressed by the human use of water that takes water that those ecosystems used to rely on – our fisheries, our salmon runs, and our wetlands.  There’s always pressure, competition if you will, between the cities and farms and ecosystems and that’s going to be particularly severe this year as well. 

What it means for the rest of the country is in part, probably higher food prices for some of the things that we produce and export, but it also means a growing awareness, not just here but elsewhere, that we really ought to be doing different things about our water management and our water policy.  I think all of those issues are going to come into play this year.

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“The current drought is deeper than we’ve experienced in the last 150 years in some ways, and it’s imposed on a system where we’ve put in place all of these really big demands for water as well, so we aren’t going to have enough water to do all of the things that we would like to do.”[/pullquote]

From your perspective, do you view this drought as a cyclical thing or is this somehow related to man-induced trauma of the environment?

Peter: That’s a great question and it’s a difficult question.  We have droughts and floods normally, we have a variable climate.  Obviously California’s had droughts periodically and we have wet years and dry years, like everywhere. 

We also know, however, humans are now changing the climate.  We know that climate change is real.  The scientific community is very strong consensus about that, and one way to phrase it is that we’re now as sure that humans are changing the climate as we are that smoking tobacco causes cancer – it’s that degree of certainty. 

We also know that as the climate changes, our weather will change.  The weather is just the short-term manifestations of climate; climate is the long-term average of our weather.  We know temperatures are going up, we know sea level is going up, and we know precipitation patterns are changing in parts of the world, so the argument is not ‘is this drought caused by climate?’ – nobody argues that. 

But more and more what we have to realize is that all of our weather, to some degree, is now influenced by our changing of the climate.  Temperatures are higher than they otherwise would have been and that means a bigger demand for water.  We know that higher temperatures mean that the precipitation we get in the mountains is more likely to be rain now than snow and it’s going to runoff earlier. That means a changing in the timing of water availability, so this particular drought may be influenced by climate and it’s certainly what we’ve got to start planning for in the future as the climate changes get more and more severe.

It’s fairly depressing to think that we may run out of water, but at least that’s the view that man has had some kind of impact on it and there are some ways that we can change it.  I read a link that you had shared on twitter – and people should definitely follow you, it’s @PeterGleick – it was a Mercury news article by Paul Rogers talking about some of the long droughts that California has had in the past, back 1500 years ago – droughts that lasted a couple centuries.  We’ve actually had a pretty good run here in the last 150 years, although right now this drought is the worst in California’s recorded history.  Is that correct?

We measure droughts differently and in different ways.  Droughts are really a combination of what nature gives us and what humans want.  So this is a drought because it’s dry, we’re getting less rainfall than normal, but it’s also a drought because our demand for water is much larger than what we’re going to get, so really it’s a combination of the natural situation but also the infrastructure we’ve built and the economy we’ve built. 

There is evidence in the paleoclimate record – that’s the record of ancient climates that we figure out from looking at tree rings, sediment cores and pollen records that tells us what kind of vegetation we had 1000 years ago of 5000 years ago –  there is evidence of longer, deeper droughts a long, long time ago, but of course, we weren’t around then. 

What we really care about is the record that we’ve had for the last 150 years and the infrastructure we’ve built to deal with it, and in that sense, the current drought is really, really bad.  The current drought is deeper than we’ve experienced for the last 150 years in some ways, and it’s imposed on a system where we’ve put in place all of these really big demands for water as well, so we aren’t going to have enough water to do all of the things we would like to do.

Jerry Brown, Governor of California, just recently declared a state of emergency based on the drought conditions.  What does that mean?  It hasn’t had the same impact on a population as it had in the 80s and the early 90s.  Are there steps that people can take that will really make a difference, and what do you attribute this drop in consciousness to?

Partly because of the system we’ve built, because of our reservoirs, because of our mixed set of water sources, some of us get water from rivers and some from groundwater and some from rain and some locally and some through big infrastructure projects that we’ve built – we’ve been somewhat insulated from droughts.  We can have a drought for a year or two and people can sort of ignore it.  People can get by without any serious cutbacks, and what we’re seeing now is the third year of a drought, it’s getting worse and worse. 

Inforgraphic from the Pacific Institute Click for a larger size.
Infographic from the Pacific Institute
Click for a larger size.

I do think there is now a growing public awareness about this.  We had probably the driest January on record this month.  If the drought continues, then there will be more public awareness.  There will be more and more programs put in place to ask for conservation and efficiency improvements to change the way we do things.  Farmers are making decisions right now about what to plant and how to grow what they are planting, and how to irrigate what they are planting.  Some of those decisions are going to be dependent upon what they think their water availability is going to be.  So part of it is awareness is growing.  We’ll see how bad it really gets.   

But the other part of it is that the Governor’s declaration in some senses was unnecessary.  We didn’t need a Governor’s declaration to tell us we’re in a drought.  We know we’re in a drought and there are things we should be doing, with or without state insistence or requirements or pleading.  But the government’s declaration also does free up some options.  It gives them the ability to provide emergency financial relief in certain circumstances to facilitate transfers from one water user to another.  There are some good things in the Governor’s declaration, and there are also, I would argue, some worrisome things that I wish the Governor hadn’t done, but we’ll see what the reaction’s going to be, depending on how dry it continues to be.

In terms of consumers of water, the citizenry – let’s leave agriculture out of the conversation for now – where are some of the areas that people can still make a difference?  I know bricks in the toilet were a thing of the 70s, 80s and early 90s, but toilets have changed their volume.  What are some of the ways that people can do the most to save and conserve water in their home?

Let’s split this into two pieces.  There’s enormous potential for conservation and efficiency, even despite the improvements we’ve made over the last couple of decades.  On the urban side, the residential, commercial, and industrial side, there are two ways to think about it. 

One is the short-term temporary responses that we’re asked to do, changes in behavior for example, during severe droughts.  The voluntary cutbacks that tell us don’t wash your car as often, or at all, or don’t water except every other day or don’t water at all and let your lawn go brown, or take a shorter shower. Those are behavioral changes, and they are short-term and they have the potential to save 10 –  15 or even 20% depending on how enthusiastically people adopt them. 

The second though is more permanent changes in infrastructure, and you mentioned toilets, and toilets are a good example.  The largest user of water in our homes is typically our toilet. In the old days, 20 or 30 years ago, the average toilet used 6 gallons every time we flushed it.  The new modern, more efficient effective toilets use 1.6 gallons or even less every time we flush it.  So that’s a permanent change in efficiency.  It lets us do what we want which is get rid of our waste with much less water, and that’s an efficiency improvement and it doesn’t require a change in behavior and it’s a permanent improvement.  And there are lots of potential in that area as well.  A lot of us have modern efficient toilets but there’s still lots of old inefficient toilets and washing machines and shower heads out there that could be and ought to be replaced.  And the drought is perhaps an opportunity to once again pay attention to some of those more permanent improvements in efficiency that have let us do the things we want with less water.

Let’s turn to agriculture.  You mentioned that our agricultural industry consumes approximately 80% of the state’s water use.  But in the same breath, it only accounts for around 3% of the economy, according some calculations.  How do we rectify that disparity?

By some estimates, our agricultural sector uses 80% of the water that humans use in California, and the other 20% goes to industry and commercial and residential use.  It is a very small fraction of our total economy – it’s certainly under 10%, depending on how you measure it, maybe under 5% of our economic productivity.

But California is a wonderful place to grow food and our farmers do a wonderful job at producing an enormous amount of the food – the fruits, the nuts, and the agricultural production that the rest of the country and in fact much of the rest of the world consumes.  So no one is arguing that we shouldn’t grow food in California.  I think the question moving forward in the 21st century really is how can we have a strong and healthy agricultural economy, grow food in the Central Valley and the other parts of California where it makes sense to grow food, but do it as efficiently as we can to free up water for other economic values and to free up water for ecosystem protection, which are also important things to us. It’s a balance, really. 

And again, sort of like the urban sector, the agricultural sector has made a lot of improvements in the last several decades.  We’re growing more food with less water.  We see a shift away from flood irrigation to sprinklers, or from sprinklers to precision drip.  We see a change in cropping patterns over time, but a lot more could be done.

Such as …

For example, even today, even with the improvements that we’ve seen in the agricultural sector, probably 40% or more of the ag land in California is still flood irrigated.

What does that mean?  Is that similar to what I’ve seen in Japan where they grow rice?

Rice is obviously a crop that requires flood irrigation where you flood the fields, but many other crops are still flood irrigated as well that don’t require flood irrigation that could be on sprinklers or drip irrigation.  There are probably 10 or 15% of our orchards are still flood irrigated which is unnecessary and inefficient.  You lose a lot of water to unproductive evaporation in those basins and that could change. 

And we still grow a lot of crops that are very water intensive – cotton, rice, alfalfa, irrigated pasture that use a lot of water and produce less revenue to farmers than vegetable crops or fruits and nuts.  So over time, I think we are already seeing and we should continue to see shifts in agriculture that hopefully let us have a strong agricultural economy but perhaps free up some of the water for other uses.

I am almost afraid to open up this Pandora’s box, but let’s talk about some of the political infighting over water in California.  If you’ve driven on Interstate 5 from Los Angeles to San Francisco, you’ve inevitably encountered a lot of signs from angry farmers decrying that Congress created this dust bowl and plenty of sore words for Nancy Pelosi in particular, I’ve noticed.  Where does the complaint stem from?

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]I think the question moving forward in the 21st century really is how can we have a strong and healthy agricultural economy, grow food in the Central Valley and the other parts of California where it makes sense to grow food, but do it as efficiently as we can to free up water for other economic values and to free up water for ecosystem protection, which are also important things to us. It’s a balance, really.[/pullquote]

That complaint stems from the belief that federal protections for ecosystems are depriving some farmers of water that they think they ought to be able to use.  It’s the sort of classic conflict between human uses of water, in this case agricultural uses of water, and natural ecosystems. 

We’ve put in place at the federal level a few protections for our natural ecosystems.  The Endangered Species Act which says ‘thou shalt not let species go extinct if you can help it,’ has been applied nationwide to species that are threatened, but in California, many of those are fish species.  There have been in the last decade or so a few efforts to restore a little bit of water to natural ecosystems that farmers either think they ought to get to use or used to use, and so that’s really the heart of the complaint. 

It’s misguided in the following sense: most of our water is local, the federal government has nothing to do with it, but it’s also misguided in the sense that the amount of water that’s been restored to ecosystems is pretty small.   It’s actually relatively tiny, and it really wouldn’t make a difference in bridging the gap between the amount of water we would like to use if water were unlimited and the amount of water we’re able to use because water really is limited. 

I would also argue that that stems a little bit from general anti-government feeling in the Central Valley anyway, and it’s been played up by some of the local Congressman and some of the local political representatives as a way to gain political support among their constituents. 

We’ve spotlighted here on Seachange radio in the past the battle between oil extraction and pumping water into the ground to try to get every last drop of fossil fuel out of the ground.  Their increasing demands for water and farmers.  Does that play into it as well, that complaint from the farmer, or is that maybe an issue that they are missing?

This is sort of a new issue.  It’s an interesting one and we’re actually doing some research on this now, looking at the water requirements for oil and gas operations and potentially the water requirements for expanded oil and gas, fracking or other kinds of methods to expand production in the Monterey Shale, which is California’s version of the Marcellus Shale back in Pennsylvania, and the Bakken in North Dakota.  There is interest in exploring whether or not we can produce more oil and gas, and that requires water. 

I actually think that the amount of water required for those operations at the moment is pretty small, and that’s not really the big point that we should be focusing on.  I’m much more concerned about the potential for oil and gas operations to threaten groundwater resources.  When you expand production of oil and gas, you drill a lot more wells. If there are well casing failures, there’s a risk that you can contaminate groundwater with the chemicals used in the oil and gas production process.  Failure rates on wells are very low, but they are not zero, and I think much more attention needs to be paid to understanding the failures that are likely to result, where we’re likely to expand production, the kinds of chemicals that are involved, and what the risks to groundwater are likely to be. 

I think that’s an unknown risk and it’s a potentially serious one that’s worth a lot more attention than we’ve given it in the past.

Let’s go back to the doomsday scenario of just an extended, extended drought here in California. It’s not a question of running out of water, it’s a question of making water affordable for the way we are using it.  People don’t have to worry about turning on their tap and getting air anytime soon.  Tell us some of the alternatives in a doomsday scenario where we would have expensive water, such as desalination.

Well it’s true that the issue is not running out of water.  We’re not going to run out of water in this state.  We have droughts, we have floods, we have wet years, we have dry years – there’s variability.  The better way to think about it is that we are constrained in the things we can do.  We don’t have enough water to do everything that everyone would like as inefficiently as we are currently doing those things.  There are constraints. 

We can’t grow food everywhere we want and we can’t grow water intensive crops everywhere we want and we can’t run our faucets without running into limits on how much water is available, so in a worst case scenario, if this drought continues and deepens – if we are really in a different climatic regime now, then those constraints are going to get worse and we’re going to have to make more and more difficult decisions about what we do and how we do it and what we pay and how we’re willing to allocate the different, the water available among the different demands. 

If it continues and worsens, I think we’re going to see much more aggressive urban conservation efforts to cut our per-person water use more than we‘ve already cut it, and there’s the potential to do that.  If the drought worsens, I think we’re going to see some real conversations, maybe for the first time, about what we grow and where we grow it.  We might want to give more incentives to farmers to replace irrigation systems or to change crop types to help them make a transition to a drier climate.  We’re going to have to have discussions about providing water rights to the natural environment to protect the natural environment to some degree.

Interestingly, these are the kinds of conversations that they ultimately had in Australia during what they called the millennium drought which turned out to be a nine year drought – a very, very bad, severe drought that started in the year 2000 and kept going, year after year.  They finally they had to have a bunch of conversations about water policy that up until that time, they hadn’t been willing to have.

Speaking of Australia, can you look towards other countries or other urban areas outside of California that have had some exemplary conservation efforts that California could model?

We’ve certainly made progress in California.  Our per capita water use is below what it used to be, we’re improving efficiency all the time, our fixtures are more efficient, but again, there’s a long way to go to be really efficient in California.  Per capita water use in Australia, for example, the amount of water they use per person in residential water use for dishes and toilets and showers and lawns and outdoor landscaping is much lower per person than it is here in California, even where we’ve made progress, so there are examples we can look to.  There are better technologies we can apply.

There are better incentives we can give to homeowners to change the way they use water, and we’re going to see more and more of those during this year’s drought.  Incentives to replace lawns, for example.  Lawns are incredibly water intensive, and yet more water efficient, beautiful gardens are certainly possible.  I’ve gotten rid of all the lawn in my garden.  I don’t have lawn in my garden anymore, and my outdoor water use has dropped enormously, but even I know that I could do a better job in my home cutting water use. I think as water becomes scarcer and we learn more about the constraints and incentives are provided by water agencies, I think we’ll do more of the right thing.

So what are some of the specific measures that they took in Australia to reduce per capital water consumption?

They worked very aggressively to reduce outdoor water use which is really the big one.  Especially in the Central Valley of California, the majority of our residential water use is outdoors.  So among the tools that they used was first of all, they absolute limits on the amount of water you could use outdoors.  They had constraints on when you could water and so on, and that encouraged a lot of people to get rid of their traditional old English-style humid climate gardens. 

So if you were caught watering your garden at the wrong time, you could get fined or something?

You could in some communities.  There was also partly just the public perception that we don’t have enough water for lawns anymore in Australia so if you had a lawn, I think people began to look at you funny.  And so water agencies provided incentives for replacing lawns with drought-tolerant plants.  Los Angeles offers a cash payment to remove your lawn.  Las Vegas pioneered that, they offered awhile $2 a square-foot to get rid of your lawn and replace it with drought tolerant plants or low water using plants.

I know Las Vegas, also their golf courses are using a lot more reclaimed water, right?

That’s another opportunity to replace a very expensive high quality potable water with water that you can use to water a golf course, pretty high-quality reclaimed water, so we ought to be using much more reclaimed water.  The more we can recycle, collect wastewater, treat it to a high standard and then reuse it, that’s in a sense a new source of supply. I think it’s going to be incredibly important in California and I think we’re moving in that direction. That is another good option.

Are people using graywater in Australia as well?

Yes, there are graywater systems where people are collecting the water they use in their own homes that’s not contaminated with soaps or oils or dirt and using that on gardens.  There are new graywater regulations in California as well encouraging people to use graywater.  I just moved a bucket into my shower to capture the water in my shower that’s extra that I can use on my gardens and my plants.

He’s the president of the Pacific Institute.  Dr. Peter Gleick.  Thanks so much for being my guest on Seachange Radio.

It’s been a pleasure.  Thanks for having me.

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The diary of a confessed obsessive-compulsive California water news junkie

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