Sea Change Radio transcript: Parched: Peter Gleick on California’s drought

Dr. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif.On September 2nd, Dr. Peter Gleick was a guest on Sea Change Radio to discuss the drought.  Here’s what he had to say:

Host: As Californians continue to look beseechingly to the skies for signs of any kind of rainfall, the effects of this drought are indeed far reaching. The policies that emerge from this disastrously dry year may ultimately alter what foods we eat, where we build new homes, and even what sports we play. Earlier this year, we heard from the president of the Pacific Institute, Peter Gleick, as he told us of the critical nature of this drought, even in its early stages. Today on Sea Change Radio, I speak again to Dr. Gleick for an update and to get a glimpse into the future of what a permanently drier California might mean for us all.

I want to welcome back to Sea Change Radio, Peter Gleick. He’s the president of the Pacific Institute. Peter, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Peter Gleick: Thanks for having me.

Host: The last time we spoke this last winter, there were lots of dire predictions of about a continuing dry spell in California and those forecasts have become reality as the drought continues to worsen. First, can you give our listeners around the country a quick update on where things stand for California right now in terms of its water management issues?

Drought monitor CAThe short version of that is we’re in a really deep hole. The longer version is that our rainy season goes from October through the winter to perhaps March, and when we last spoke, it was already looking like it was going to be dry on top of couple of previous below normal years, and that’s the way it developed. It’s been extraordinarily dry and the state has seen its drought classification expand in terms of area, so now 100% of the state is in drought. In terms of severity, we’re now in largely what we call extraordinary drought. That’s worse than severe; it’s quite remarkably dry.

And not only has it been dry, it’s been extremely hot as well, which is a climate change issue, and the combination of that and the combination of the fact that the last couple of years have also been dry means we’ve really drawn down our reservoirs, our soil moisture’s really disappeared, our groundwater aquifers are being overpumped, and people are calling it the worst if not one of the worst droughts on record and there’s no end in sight.

Yes, it’s pretty dismal. How much water does California have left? I’ve seen ranges that are quite wide.

That’s a tough thing to answer. We do know that our rainy season starts again in October. We’re going to get some precipitation in the form of snow and rain; we don’t know how much. If it’s below normal, that’s even more pressure on the existing system. If it’s normal, we’ll barely scrape by because even in a normal year, there’s really not even enough water to go around. If it’s a really wet year, we have an opportunity to satisfy needs next year but also potentially to recharge groundwater and to refill some of our reservoirs. We’re not going to run out of water; there will be some water next season. There is a little bit of water left in the reservoirs and then we have this underground system, we have groundwater in our aquifers. Some of that water is laid down over hundreds and hundreds of years; it’s a huge resource, but it’s being very heavily overdrafted, so the issue isn’t are we going to suck it dry, but the issue is if it’s a dry year next year, are we going to be able to maintain the demands at the current level? I think the answer to that is going to be no.

I wanted to read Jay Famiglietti’s Op-Ed in the LA Times, and he says, ‘The harsh reality is that everything here was fine; we used to have a lot of water in California but now we don’t. Without a few successive winters of above average precipitation, we have only enough water in storage to get through the next 12 to 18 months and that’s it. Beyond that, many of our state and local water managers have thrown up their hands because they just don’t know where our water will come from.’ Now someone hears 12 to 18 months, try to explain to our listeners what that really means.

Oroville Houseboats

Lake Oroville, August 2014, Photo by DWR

I’m not sure where the 12 to 18 months come from. What Jay is looking at in part is the amount of water that’s in our surface storage reservoirs, which are the artificial reservoirs we built to deal with this kind of thing. We have variable rainfall and precipitation normally – we have wet years, we have dry years, so we built a lot of storage to store water in the wet years so we can use it in the dry years. The last three years have been dry and those reservoirs have gotten us through a lot of that and permitted us not to take the actions that I think we probably should have been taking. We continued to deliver water even those it’s been very dry, drawing down those reservoirs. They are pretty far down now.

Now, we will get some water in the winter that will satisfy some of the demands next year. We’ll draw down the reservoirs to their ultimate limit if we have to, but when there’s not enough water to fill a reservoir, then ultimately the bathtub’s empty. Those reservoirs may have served their purpose but they don’t help us any longer. We do have groundwater. We have a lot of groundwater potentially if we’re willing to spend the money to drill the wells and pump it out, but even that’s not sustainable. Again, imagine a big bathtub, and if you take more out than you put in, the level drops and it gets more expensive and difficult to find. It’s like living on your savings account without recharging it and that’s what we’ve been doing the last several years at a minimum.

I’ve read, that these things can go in decade long cycles, up to 3, 5, even 10 years. Who are we to believe, Peter?

That’s certainly true. There is record from the paleoclimate record that is looking at ancient climates, looking at tree rings, looking at soil patterns, and pollen records that give some hints of the extent of past wet years and dry years going back 1000 years or longer in California. We do see in that record fairly long periods of drought have occurred in the ancient past; in the distant past. Of course, we don’t know if we’re in a long term cycle because we never know if these droughts are going to go on until they end. We don’t know if next year’s going to be wet or dry. We’re not capable of predicting that.

This is a very dry year; the last three years have been dry.   If you actually go back a little farther, ten out of the last fourteen years have been dry, so I think we’re getting a little bit of an eye opener here in the extent to which and how we think about drought. It’s no longer enough to think about this as a short-term problem. This is a long-term problem. And it’s worsened by the fact that even in a normal year now in California, there’s not enough water to go around to meet all of the demands. We’ve given away water rights to five times the average flow of water in California.

Now, everybody knows not everybody will get everything they want, but even in a normal year, we’re having trouble meeting our demands for urban and agricultural and environmental water. All three of those things are important and so the drought is sort of a crisis, but it’s also an indication of things to come.

What is environmental water?

Shasta Lake on August 25th, 2014 on the Sacramento River Arm of the lake.

Sacramento River flowing into Shasta Lake, August 2014, Photo by DWR

In the 20th century, the way we thought about water was figuring out how to supply human demands for water – Urban demands for homes, industry, commercial use, institutional use, and agricultural demands. California is a fantastic place to grow food – the climate is wonderful (normally), and the soils in the Central Valley are superb. Agriculture takes a tremendous amount of water that we use as humans. But we didn’t’ think about the ecosystem demands for water – the water required to support fisheries and our wetlands and the flyways for the massive Pacific bird populations that move up and down our coasts in the fall and then again in the spring. And because we didn’t think about the environment, we took water out for human uses and we caused a lot of very serious environmental damage.

In the 20th century, we didn’t’ know about the importance of that or we didn’t care and that’s no longer true. Ecosystem demands are now an important part of the conversation about water policy in California and the western part of the U.S. as a whole, and frankly globally, and so we’re thinking about how to balance those three demands – the agricultural, urban, and environmental needs for water and to protect fisheries and to restore river flow and river health. It’s not an easy answer how to do those things all within the limited water that nature provides us, but we know we can’t ignore those demands any longer.

Can you talk about some of the saner water policies either in other governments or in other states that if we had been following this here in California, we might not be in this pickle … ?

The definition of sane water policy is changing over time. Again in the 20th century, smart water policy was designed by engineers primarily and urban planners, and the purpose was to satisfy whatever human demands came along – to build the infrastructure, to move water around, to treat water, and we built a lot of very important vital water-related infrastructure in the 20th century.

But conservation was never really an element of that, right? It was just, ‘let’s turn the spigots on and make sure everyone has enough’.

That’s right, when there was enough to go around, it wasn’t a problem. We didn’t have to think about efficiency and conservation; we didn’t really have to think about ecosystems. But unfortunately, there are real constraints, and the 21st century has got to be a period of time when we acknowledge that we’re running into the limits of a whole range of things.

This isn’t just a water issue; there are limits to our ability to modify and insult the climate, and that’s what the climate change debate is all about. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re actually influencing the climate. We’ve gotten to the point in our water systems where we’re at we call ‘peak water.’ We might want more water out of something like the Colorado River, which is the major river in the Southwestern U.S., but we already use it all, and we can’t have any more. And when we reach these kinds of limits, peak limits on groundwater extraction when it’s non-renewable, you run into limits and economic and environmental limits. Then you have to start to rethink what you do.

Our water policy in the 21st century has got to shift from a focus on finding new supply to a focus on really long-term sustainable management, and that includes demand management and efficiency and it includes innovative new ideas for supply. There may be no new water out of the Colorado River or out of our groundwater aquifers, but there are a lot of new supplies in terms of recycled water and reuse of water. We spend a lot of time and money collecting wastewater and we treat it to a pretty good standard, and in the past, we’ve thrown it away. But that’s a new source of supply that increasingly agencies are looking at. Stormwater capture and reuse is a new source of supply. Desalination is a potential new source of supply with its own economic and environmental challenges, but there are a whole new set of ideas out there that I think are really going to be valuable for us.

CA Landsat shaded reliefSo obviously California is different than many other states and even countries because of its wide ranging topography, population centers, agriculture, and overall water demands, but are there templates from other countries that we can look toward for solutions, Peter?

The good news is that there are really innovative things going on all over the world, even in California in terms of improvements in efficiency and the way we use water, and in terms of smart meters for monitoring water use and giving feedback to customers about that water use so they can change their technology or their behavior. Singapore has been a world leader in expanding the use of recycled water for all sorts of purposes up to and including potable reuse, actually treating water to a perfectly potable standard, incredibly high quality standard, and considering it for potable reuse.

Host: How did that get put into place and do you have any idea of what the average Singaporean‘s water bill looks like?

The story in Singapore is that it is an island city-state; it’s relatively small, they have very limited natural water availability. A lot of their water came from Malaysia, which brought with it not just waters but some political concerns about water security. They have a government that is willing to take actions, to charge the reasonable prices for water, and to build infrastructure to treat water to a very high standard, and they worked very, very hard on conservation and efficiency as well, and on education to their population about what their water problems are and what the solutions are and how to move forward, so it’s sort of been a combination of smart technology and smart economic pricing of water and smart communications and education that’s permitted Singapore to really move forward in a pretty effective way to address their water challenges.

But another quick example. Nimibia in Southern Africa has also strongly committed for many, many years to water treatment and reuse because it’s a very water short country and they have very few options. A total different kind of political and economic system than Singapore, which is a pretty wealthy country, but Nimibia’s done a good job in that area as well.

We have to look towards these other innovative countries that may have valued water at an earlier stage in their existence.

Decisions about water or decisions about resources in general are made by countries and states and regions and localities for different kinds of reasons. Sometimes they are driven by economic factors and pricing. Sometimes they are driven by things like absolute scarcity or availability of technology, and sometimes they are driven by social and political preferences.

Can you give us an example, Peter?

For example, a very, very severe drought in Australia, starting in the year 2000, led to the kinds of policy responses that we’re seeing in California now, the ‘we’re going to muddle through’, we’ll draw down our reservoirs, we’ll try and educate the public about conservation and efficiency, but we won’t fundamentally change what we do. But that drought continued. It turned into a three year, then a four year, then a five year, then ultimately, that was a nine-year severe drought, and at the end of that period, the kinds of policies that they put in place were completely different. They had made dramatic changes in public perception about water use, the willingness to give up lawns, and the willingness to fundamentally change water rights, structures between agriculture and cities. They had a really serious conversation about ecosystem protection and restoration.

We’re driven by necessity and the kinds of things we’re doing now in California; they are moving in the right direction, but if the drought continues, I think will see political and economic pressure to do much, much more than we’re doing now, and there’s potential to do much, much more than we’re doing now, that’s maybe the good news.

Can you talk maybe about some of the more effective measures that Las Vegas has taken in terms of water?

Las Vegas has been very aggressive on outdoor water conservation.  For example, they were one of the first municipalities, if not the first, to offer what we now have nicknamed “Cash for Grass” programs to pay people to take out their lawns and replace them with native vegetation – nice gardens, but low water using gardens.

And Los Angeles has just implemented that program right?

And now Los Angeles. Long Beach has implemented it; Los Angeles is implementing it, and as drought gets worse, they are raising the amount of money they are offering, and its beginning to be very effective. That was something that Las Vegas did pretty well. Tucson has also been very good on outdoor landscape and indoor water conservation programs. Phoenix has not been quite as aggressive. It really varies from city to city, depending on their water availability and depending on the local politics and so on. I think there are innovative things going on in a lot different places and really the challenge is to identify them and adopt the ones that make the most sense for wherever you are.

Now I know it’s a first world problem and I know that there’s many more far reaching effects from a drought of this magnitude, and I don’t mean to sound callous, but if you’re looking to invest in a ski resort these days, how much of a role would climate change come into your purchasing decision?

Let me start by saying this. Climate change is real; we see it happening. It’s happening because of human activities. The consensus in the scientific community is incredibly strong on that. We know that humans are changing the climate as much as we know that smoking tobacco can cause cancer.

Sure. We don’t have a climate change debate here on Sea Change Radio.

Indeed, and the impacts of climate change are going to be incredibly pervasive; they are going to be felt by everybody ultimately in almost every aspect of our lives. I’m happy to talk about the ski industry, but we should know that there are much more serious fundamental impacts of climate change that are coming down the road to agriculture, and the coastal communities. The reality is that partly our awareness about these things depends on whether or not they affect things we care about, and affect us personally, and so it’s a perfectly legitimate question because it will be a big impact of climate change, and it will be one that we’ll see pretty soon if we’re not already seeing it.

Outside of California, where are some of the areas, if you were the Governor of the state or the president of a country, and water had not really been a big trouble point for your populace, how is climate change going to affect some unlikely places?

The impacts of climate change will vary enormously around the world. If I’m the president of a country with a very extensive coastline, or a south Pacific island nation, boy would I be worried about sea level rise. That’s a fundamental existential threat; it’s a threat to the existence of my country.

Fresh water and any other resources, just life in that area will be affected greatly, is what you’re saying.

Yes, that’s right. You asked what do I think about investing in the ski industry. I wouldn’t invest in coastal property either within any foot or two of sea level rise or even larger. Increasingly it’s also apparent that we have a growing problem with extreme events. Storm patterns, storm frequency and intensity, hurricane patterns, and blocking patterns out of the Arctic – as the Arctic disappears, it is causing really dramatic changes in temperature patterns and weather patterns around the world, including in the United States, and we’ve already seen some of those. I would worry about that.

If I live in an area that’s dependent on snowfall and snowmelt, obviously from a recreational point of view, skiing is going to be increasingly problematic but so is water management broadly. The timing of water availability from the mountains, the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada in California, the Himalayas, the Andes, the Alps, is dramatically going to be effected and is already being affected by rising temperatures. As more of what falls out of the sky falls as rain, rather than snow, that’s going to be a water management problem. There are going to be problems with agricultural production – where we can grow what. Yields are going to change; it’s going to be harder and harder to grow certain kinds of crops where temperature limits are a factor. It might be a little easier to grow crops in more northern latitudes although the soils tend not to be as good in many of those places. There are lots of challenges.

Can you speak about our aquifers and the non-renewable groundwater supplies that are being drained at unsustainable rates? How do they work and how long do we have to lean on them as a resource?

We depend on surface water and we depend on groundwater in different proportions around the world. In California, in a normal year, about 40% of our water supply is groundwater that is pumped out of our underground aquifers and badly regulated and monitored. Groundwater is water that’s underground. It got there by precipitation falling on the ground that seeps into the soil and then further down into deeper layers. The geology of groundwater is it’s not a big bathtub down there; it’s not a big pool of water, it’s water that’s in the interstices of the rock and the soils. There are different kinds of groundwater aquifers, but there’s a vast amount of groundwater in different parts of the world that’s been laid down over often millennia, tens of thousands of years, even, as precipitation as seeps into the soil and further down.

So when you drill a well into the ground, sometimes you hit water, and you can pump that water out. Sometimes that water is very high quality because it’s been there for a long time. But if you pump it out faster than nature recharges it, it’s not sustainable, like oil. And the groundwater levels will drop. Sometimes there are water quality problems caused by overpumping of groundwater, and so smart management of groundwater involves understanding what you can take out on a renewable basis and managing groundwater carefully. We don’t’ do that very well in California, or in other places like China or Northern India where our use of groundwater is really non-renewable, it’s unsustainable over the long term.

So Peter, what new water restrictions do Californians have to look forward to as this drought continues?

Well, hopefully it will rain in the coming rainy season, but barring a really, really substantial increase in water availability, we are going to see more restrictions and more changes in water policy and water use. For homeowners, I think if the drought continues, we’re going to see voluntary restrictions changed to mandatory restrictions. I think we’re going to see new incentives to change our outdoor landscaping, which is really a high volume consumptive use of water – efforts to get people to remove their lawns and replace them with much more water efficient gardens. I think we’ll see incentives to swap out inefficient fixtures indoors like toilets and showerheads, washing machines, dishwashers, for more efficient fixtures, and I think we’ll see institutional groups like universities and government agencies removing lawns more and more and outdoor landscaping.  

I think on the agricultural side, we’re going to see more and more fallowing if there really isn’t a lot of water next year. Farmers are going to be forced to pull crops out of production because there simply won’t be enough water to grow all of the crops we like to grow in a normal year or a wet year.

And plant different crops as well …

We’ll see changes in crop types, we’re seeing that already, and we’ll see changes in irrigation practices as farmers figure out how to make their limited allocations of water go farther. That’s an improvement in efficiency and that’s a good thing. We’ve seen changes in that direction already and I think we’ll see a lot more of that.

Peter Gleick, thanks for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Thank you for having me.

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2 comments

  • Assembly Bill 1739 and Senate Bill 1168 are frauds. Giving local districts power to monitor and regulate withdrawal from underground aquifers is giving them no power!!

    Any attempts by local agencies to develop new law on water rights will be met with well-financed law suits, and every water agency is terrified by this prospect.
    Result: Nothing will get done, though legislators will preen themselves that they have enabled local agencies to solve the state’s water problems at the local level.

    Everybody for their own reasons wants this emperor to appear clothed. For openers:
    Farmers & Farm Bureau, because it preserves the status quo;
    Legislators because it appears they have done something;
    Local water agencies, because they can say they have power, but can find reasons not to exercise it;
    Environmental advocates because they can claim success in finally succeeding in changing public water law.

    The only honest approach is to make new State law covering withdrawal from aquifers, based on the concept that nobody owns underground water, because underground water comes from the sky or from infiltration from streams, and flows to whomever pumps it.

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