Dr. Gleick shares his vision for a sustainable water future for California, and gives his recommendations on how to achieve it
At the February 27th Planning and Conservation League annual symposium, The Future Is Now, panel discussions and presentations focused on land use, water, and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The Planning and Conservation League is a non-profit organization that works in partnership with many other organizations to promote sound planning and responsible environmental policy at the state level.
The luncheon keynote speaker was Dr. Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute. In keeping with the symposium’s theme of articulating a sustainable future for California, Dr. Gleick articulated his vision for a sustainable California one hundred years from now, and then gave his recommendations for how the state can get there.
Here’s what he had to say.
“The theme for today’s conference is the future is now, and what I’d like to do is I’d like to offer a vision of water in the 21st century. If I can quote from a tribute to a famous hydrologist, Abel Wolman, he envisioned a world in which the most basic of necessities – water – would be safe and plentiful for all peoples of the world. I also think this is a world worth envisioning and striving for, as is a world where all of the rest of our water challenges above and beyond safe water for everyone are also met and achieved, so what I’d like to do is I’d like to offer such a vision, a vision of a sustainable future. That requires that all of you imagine yourselves not here at the 2016 PCL conference, and not 50 years from now, but 100 years from now at the PCL 2116 conference, a century from now.
Now let me start by saying this is not a vision of where we are going, necessarily; it’s a vision of where we want to go if we had a choice, and frankly the whole point of this, the whole point of everything that all of you do every day is that we do have a choice. We have a choice, and the decisions we make about things we choose to do today and in the near future affect where we’re going to be 100 years from now.
I’d also like to present this vision with a caveat; my crystal ball is no clearer than yours. Dante in his epic political commentary, The Inferno, places fortune tellers and prognosticators in the fourth level of the eighth circle of hell, and for those of you who remember your Dante, the eighth circle of hell is really far down there. That was bad. And presumably climate modelers and weather forecasters and economists would also be there. Now don’t worry, Dante also had special circles of hell devoted to lawyers, and so there’s probably no one in the room who gets off scot free on this.
So here is the future of water.
A view from the year 2116
I’m tremendously honored to be speaking with you today in the year 2116 at the PCL Annual Symposium. I’m of course not here in person. I’d be 160 years old this year, but I’m presenting through my holographic avatar, because of course years ago I uploaded my brain into the GPIC, the Google Personal Identity Cloud. Please adjust your virtual reality glasses since of course none of you are here either. You’re somewhere else, probably in your pajamas in your living room.
I’m especially delighted to be able to offer some thoughts about how sustainable management and use of water was finally accomplished in the 21st century. We solved the world’s water problems and we should be proud. I know it’s hard for many of us to understand or imagine the horrible conditions in 2016, the water crises that our ancestors 100 years ago had to deal with and had to suffer, but let me describe for you what it must have been like in 2016 for those of you who are not students of history.
If you can believe it, in 2016 they were dealing with water scarcity at the local and national levels. Water contamination of the worst kinds, from industrial and human wastes. Challenges to the production of food and the goods and services that we all consumed 100 years ago. Ecosystem destruction and degradation. A growing conviction that climate change was going to force them to throw out all of their oldest assumptions about how to manage water resources and social and political challenges, including fundamental threats to local politics as well as national and international security from disputes over water.
Perhaps the worst and the most egregious problem 100 years ago was the failure to meet basic water needs for safe water and sanitation for everyone on the planet. In 2016, hundreds of millions of people lacked safe water, and 2.5 billion lacked access to adequate sanitation services worldwide. Even in California, which then was still one of the 50 states, many thousands of people lacked access to safe drinking water, especially in farmworker communities in the Central Valley. As many as 2 million people worldwide, mostly children, died of preventable but not prevented water-related diseases. It was barbaric. It was inexcusable even then, because the technology, the money, and the way to solve that problem was well understood, but we didn’t solve that problem until the middle of the 21st century, and indeed now, safe water and sanitation, which is a human right, is available to everyone on the planet.
We can also celebrate having conquered water related diseases that were common in the early years of the 21st century. We’ve completely eliminated dracunculiasis or guinea worm. In the 1950s, there were 50 million cases a year of guinea worm. By 2015, there were 22 cases worldwide, and it was completely eliminated a few years after that, an effort I would note that the former president Jimmy Carter led. The malaria vaccination program has reached everyone and that scourge has been eliminated now.
In 2016, some of the most serious water problems were related to the destruction of aquatic ecosystems because of the overallocation and use of water by humans. Believe it or not, in the 20th century, allocations of water and assignment of water rights paid no attention to the environment. No consideration of the needs of fisheries or wetlands or bird migratory patterns, and no surprise, bad things happened.
We know better now, but we’re still dealing somewhat with the consequences of those bad decisions around the environment. The Aral Sea was destroyed, dozens of endemic species found only in the Aral Sea were driven extinct. The Colorado River, the Yellow River, the Nile – many rivers around the world didn’t reach their Deltas in the early part of the 21st century, but now all of them have been rewatered. The ecological disaster of the Salton Sea that started in 2025 has finally been addressed. Many West Coast fisheries have been restored, and healthy salmon runs have returned to many rivers, although it’s been a long time since anyone has seen a Delta smelt or a winter run Chinook salmon.
There were also serious problems of violence over water worldwide. Water and water systems were targets and tools of conflicts; groups and regions and nations fought over access to water. In the twenty-teens, the civil war in Syria was partly triggered by water shortages and impacts on the agricultural production in Syria, and migration of people to the urban areas of Syria, and the economic failures. In early 2016, millions of people in New Delhi, India were cutoff from water due to social unrests and attacks on water delivery systems.
Of course we know that as the twentieth century rolled on, climate changes got worse and worse with greater and greater impacts on water resources. The great California drought from 2012 to 2025, followed by the great floods of 2026 and 2030 and years after that, the disappearance of most of the snow from the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, and rising sea levels all led to radically altered water laws, water management, water technologies, coastal development, planning rules, and so on. Today those rules have changed, and we’re managing our water resources more and more effectively every day. Most important were efforts to figure out to share not water but the benefits that water provides, which is what we decided we really cared about.
With access to safe water guaranteed, the commitments to protect ecological values guaranteed, and with stronger institutions to handle water disputes, water related violence is a thing of the past. The Israelis and the Jordanians have a water agreement that has lasted 100 years. Water from solar-powered Palestinian desalination facilities in Gaza are now supplying the new server farms and nanochip factories there. South Asia has strong agreements about how to share water resources from the melting Himalayan mountains. I’m certain that as soon as the last US and Russian forces leave Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, there will be a water sharing agreement there as well, involving the Turks, the Kurds, the Shiites, the Sunnis, the Iranians, the French water companies, and the Chinese.
The great nation of California has tackled its water problems in a way admired by much of the rest of the world, with farmers and city dwellers alike working together. For California, by 2016 it was increasingly clear to many water experts that efforts had to be refocused away from the idea of water supply to improving the efficiency of water use. Vast quantities of water in 2016 were being used wastefully and inefficiently in every sector of the economy. Part of the problem was the way water was priced. Part of the problem was the way water rights were allocated historically. Part of the problem was the way water was managed. Part of the problem was that the wealthiest users in California paid almost nothing to use very large quantities of water, often potable water, on patches of unproductive ornamental grass, which they called lawns at that time, while some of the poorest people paid far too much relative to their income for intermittent supplies of water that were often of inadequate quality. Some farmers paid almost nothing for water; others paid much more and that helped encourage conflict over water in the agricultural sector, it helped encouraged production of food, but it encouraged waste and inefficient agricultural use of water, and that of course has now been reversed as well.
There’s been a successful efficiency resolution, not just in California but worldwide. Water is properly and equitably priced so that water uses are efficient and all basic needs are met at an affordable price. The productivity of water use has gone way up. Water using appliances are efficient, agriculture produces much more food with less water, and our goods and services are produced with less impact on ecosystems.
Part of this efficiency revolution involved finally monitoring, measuring, and reporting all water use. Again if you can believe it, in 2016, water use and water quality were often not measured and not monitored. Groundwater basins weren’t completely mapped or hydrologically assessed for their sustainable yields. As a result, a substantial proportion of California’s agriculture in 2016 and agriculture worldwide was produced by unsustainable overdraft of groundwater, and indeed by 2016, food production started to slow in the Great Plains of the United States and the Central Valley of California, in Northern China and India and elsewhere before rationality returned and groundwater was carefully regulated.
There was even an attempt to use food crops to produce liquid fuels to power antiquated gasoline-powered transportation at an enormous cost to water. The impact of those decisions on food production and on water use turned out to be unsustainable. It took a few years to figure that out and change policies. One key turned out to be not letting the Iowa caucuses go first in presidential primaries (laughter). But the world then made a huge investment in additional productivity around food and precision irrigation technology, and ultimately in the elimination of the gas powered automobile. Looking back it’s easy to see now what a terrible idea the gas powered automobile was, sort of like western lawns.
It has of course helped all of our water problems, and I would argue all of our environmental problems, to have a world that shifted from growing population to shrinking population. Many of the environmental crises of the 20th century and the 21st century were closely tied to rising population pressures. Some of the new challenges of course are around opportunities and challenges dealing with shrinking populations, but that’s a challenge for today’s 22nd century world.
Here’s another fact about 2016 that may shock you. People actually spent vast sums of money to buy small quantities of water in little plastic bottles when they could get safe water from the tap at a tiny fraction – a thousandth of the price. Archeologists digging through our landfills still find a layer of plastic from that time, and sociologists have proposed a theory that this layer of plastic bottles was actually an intentional form of early carbon sequestration because of the strong correlation between the time when bottles started to appear en masse and the first realization that we’re going to have to deal with our carbon problem in our atmosphere. Another theory was that the layer of plastic is the result of a temporary form of mass hysteria and mass culture driven simultaneously by growing fear of tap water and by brainwashing from unregulated advertising. Now of course high quality affordable tap water is available to everyone and that kind of advertising is prohibited.
Not all of the news is good, and I don’t want to be a 22nd century Pollyanna. Some of the gains achieved by sustainable water management and use have been lost as climate change has gotten worse. There are few people alive today who have ever seen a mountain glacier. Glacier National Park has been renamed Glacierless National Park. The last person to go downhill skiing in a resort officially created for that purpose, that archaic sport, is now a grandmother. The winter Olympics have been permanently relocated to the Antarctic.
We saved coastal ecosystems by restoring natural flows and functions but then lost many of them to inundation from unavoidable sea level rise. Many major cities around the world are having to relocate and were trying to figure out how resettle climate refugees from Florida, New Orleans, and other coastal cities. Floods from increased precipitation and increased intensity of storms continues to be a major killer of people worldwide.
Fortunately, we’re now moving aggressively to solve the climate problem as well, and all water managers and planners understand that they have to integrate climate change into all of the management and planning that they do. As a result, we’re well along the path to sustainable water management and perhaps 100 years from now at the next 100th celebration of the PCL symposium, our own ancestors will look back at the folly of our own time and shake their head in wonder.
Recommendations for achieving the vision
OK, welcome back to 2016 and our own time and the beginning of this story. Please understand, this vision is not necessarily where I think we’re going; it’s not necessarily the world we’re going to get. I could perhaps more easily or more depressingly have drawn a picture of the world in 2016 that looked quite different that’s a projection of where we’re going. Not where we want to go but where we we’re going. Perhaps we can see that future more clearly.
But that’s a dismal future and it’s a future we don’t have to accept. It’s a future we don’t have to go to if we have a choice, and as I argued at the beginning, precisely we do have a choice. Those are the choices that we have to deal with today that determine where we’re going to be in the future, and so I’d like to finish the last portion of my talk by talking about the pieces that we’re putting in place now or that we need to put in place to move to that positive vision for the future, that soft path for water, as I like to describe it.
1.First of all, our water crisis is not because we’re not smart enough, because we don’t have enough money, or because we don’t have enough water.That’s not why we have water challenges today. Absolute water scarcity is not our problem. Yes, there are regional problems with water availability, but I would argue nevertheless that there’s no place on the planet that doesn’t have enough water to meet basic human needs for water and sanitation.
I would also argue that absolute water scarcity is not our problem in California. California is a pretty water rich place. My colleagues and friends from the Middle East, they come to California and they look at the water we have in California; they don’t understand why we have a water problem. They look at our deserts and they think, this isn’t a desert, you have vegetation in your desert. Absolute scarcity is not California’s problem.
Even during drought years, we have a pretty large amount of water within limits, and it’s really a challenge of recognizing and understanding those limits that is part of our problem. We’re a rich world: we’re rich in money, we’re rich in education, we’re rich in ingenuity, and often we’re rich in goodwill. Those things like water are not always evenly distributed, but the uneven distribution of those things gives those of us who have more of those things a special responsibility, and in California, we have more of those things than much of the rest of the world. I would also argue that the amount of money required to solve our water problems – either basic human needs for water or ecosystem protection – is a lot less than the amount of money – the cost to our economy, the cost to societies – of failing to solve those problems.
We’re intelligent beings. We’ve decoded the human genome; we manipulate substances at the subatomic level including genetics; we’ve eliminated some diseases permanently and we’re going to eliminate more. We’re using smart machines and technologies to explore the universe around us. Ironically last year, the first clear evidence of flowing water on Mars was detected. We’ve seen venting water from the moon Enceladus which is a moon of Saturn. We’ve had telescopes detect water molecules in galaxies billions of lightyears from here. We’re smart enough to figure out solutions to our water problems.
2.Second, we have to rethink supply. You may have heard me say this before. The commonly held assumption that a few more dams or tunnels or groundwater wells will solve our problems once and for all is wrong. It’s not just not right; it’s wrong. There is certainly a need for new supply, especially traditional supply, especially in some other parts of the world, and even there I would argue that those traditional approaches ought to be approached in a little non-traditional fashion, but there is a need for traditional supply in places around the world. But in places like California with extensive existing infrastructure, even if we could find a place or the money or the political will to build traditional new supply options, I would argue that at the end of the day, our problems around water are going to look pretty much the same as they do today. So that’s not enough.
There are other ways of thinking about supply, and there are other kinds of water infrastructure that really are vital and that we need to invest in and that we need to expand. Look at Flint, Michigan. We have to continue to protect our tap water. We have to continue to invest in the urban infrastructure that we invested in 100 years ago that got rid of cholera and typhoid and dysentery in the cities of the United States, but that we’re not investing in. We’ve failed to invest in that infrastructure and our own pipes in California, our delivery systems, our treatment systems, public trust in that infrastructure drops. Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose. We have to invest in existing infrastructure and maintain it, and we have to improve the existing infrastructure.
At the same time, there are great opportunities for alternative ways of thinking about supply. Conjunctive use of groundwater, surface water and groundwater together; these alternatives required an investment in infrastructure. The appropriate use of treated wastewater. Better capture, storage, treatment, and delivery of stormwater, and when less costly alternatives are tapped out to the extent that they are, when they have been pursued, things like desalination may ultimately be appropriate in certain circumstances.
3.Third, we have to rethink demand. Demand is a piece of this puzzle. The demand for water is not immutable. It’s not fixed. It’s not inevitably going to grow with population and our economy. That assumption, which I was taught as a hydrologist, as water managers are taught, as people who still do water projections assume – population is growing, our economy is growing, the demand for water has to grow – that’s not true any longer. The dynamics of demand are changing quite dramatically.
Our goal is not to use water. I hinted at this at the beginning. Our goal is to obtain benefits from water use – food, clean clothes, sanitation services, and all of the things that we want from society – the goods and services you want, most of them require water, but most if not all of them require less water than we use to do those things. Let’s focus on what the benefits are and figure out what the most efficient effective sustainable ways of providing those benefits.
That in part means rethinking the efficiency of water use: reducing waste, improving management and delivery. What is the best possible sign of this is that this is already happening, and the truth is it’s been happening for decades. The United States uses less water today than we used in 1980 for everything. California uses less water today then we used in 1980 for everything, and population is growing and our economy is growing. And that’s a change in the structure of our economy and it’s improvements in efficiency and it’s new standards for appliances and it’s a lot of things that many people in this room have been working on for a long time.
It’s not however fully appreciated by much of the rest of the world, and I think we could do a better job at explaining that we can do better with the water we’re already using. From July to December of last year in California, in part because of the drought, in part because of the work of water districts, in part because of the work of individuals, in part because of the education and the Governor’s emergency regulations and the State Water Board, we saved more than a million acre-feet of water in our cities alone through conservation and efficiency, a combination of changes in infrastructure, short term behavioral changes and long term changes in outdoor landscaping – more than a million acre-feet. That’s real water that we did not have to deliver that’s still in our groundwater systems and in our reservoirs that if we had used would be gone. Our reservoirs and our groundwater systems would be a million acre-feet lower than they are today because of that alone.
We didn’t have to treat that amount of wastewater or some piece of that that would have been wastewater, and it’s far more water than any new reservoir could possibly have produced much faster and much cheaper. The potential to do more is enormous, even in a place like California where we’ve done a lot of these things.
4.Fourth, we have to protect aquatic ecosystems, including protecting water quality better than we do. Flint, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio and Charleston, West Virginia over the last few years are wakeup calls for our cities. And minimum flows in our streams as examples. Rather than taking more water from our overtapped ecosystems, we have to ensure that natural ecosystems that we depend on for all sorts of other benefits get the water that they need.
No water solution proposed for California should be pursued unless it includes explicit strategies for protecting and restoring California’s ecosystems … Our ecosystems have suffered a century of neglect in California and worldwide. This isn’t a California problem alone, but the recent trend in California away from linking proposed new infrastructure investments with ecosystem protections I think is a step in the wrong direction. We need to link those things formally, legally, institutionally, economically, and in any way we can.
5.Fifth, we have to price water properly. The failure to price water properly leads to bad decisions about investments, it leads to inefficiencies, and it leads to underinvestment. Most of us don’t pay enough for water. But water also has to be fairly priced to protect poorer populations. To encourage efficient use, rate designs have to be appropriate. If there’s anything the last four years of drought have suggested, it’s that we still do not have proper rate designs for our water districts. It also may mean developing certain kinds of markets for water. I’m a fan of the concept of water markets, I’m not such a fan of the practical proposals for them, especially since ecosystems and poorer populations rarely get to contribute in real markets, but some kind of smart water markets may be part of our solution.6.Sixth, we have to expand the way we think about the management of water, about regulation, and about our institutions. We have to improve our old institutions, and maybe sometimes we need to create new ones. We have centralized facilities in California, water facilities of all kinds. Maybe they ought to be accompanied by decentralized and expansion of decentralized water facilities. Water treatment and distribution, for example. We should encourage the move from local water management to regional integrated water management, although that doesn’t always easily work in a place like California. We have to monitor and measure and report all water uses. We have to integrate land use planning and water planning and we have to address growth in a comprehensive manner. CEQA is a piece of that, but there are all sorts of planning pieces to that as well.
We should acknowledge the role and responsibility of governments for protecting the public interest. I realize there’s an anti-government and anti-regulation trend among some of our political parties and interests, that’s fine. But we should acknowledge the role that governments play in protecting the public interest, and that means developing and enforcing water quality laws and standards. We don’t want no water quality laws, we don’t want 50 state laws around water quality, that’s why we have federal laws like the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. They have a responsibility to protect and empower marginalized and disenfranchised communities and we have some of those in California and they are not adequately protected.
A role for government is protecting ecosystems. A role is involving the public in decision making around water. Another role is regulating the private sector’s involvement in water. The private sector has a very important role to play but there is a tension between public and private dynamics here. A role of government is acknowledging and dealing with climate change.
So this is a remarkable time in water policy. We face serious risks, we face a water crisis, we face a fifth year of drought and we had better acknowledge that now. Maybe there will be ‘March Miracle’; the reality is that if we get a March Miracle that really solves the drought, we’re going to have really bad flooding, so I don’t know what you want to wish for, but I think we’re facing a fifth year of drought.
But there are real effective affordable successful solutions to our water problems. There is a transition underway from where we are today to that positive vision in 2116. I think that transition is inevitable. I’m an optimist. People tell me an optimist is just a badly informed pessimist, I don’t buy that. I think ultimately, we are moving toward a sustainable future and the trick is for all of you to help that happen fast enough to avoid the bad things that we know we want to avoid.