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Pacific Institute Insights is the staff blog of the Pacific Institute, one of the world’s leading nonprofit research groups on sustainable and equitable management of natural resources. For more about what we do, click here.

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    Huffington Post: Our Disappearing Snows: Climate Change and Water Resources

    by Peter Gleick, President

    September 19, 2014
     

    As the Earth has warmed over the past 30 years, the global water cycle has begun to change. In particular, our snows have begun to disappear. The implications for the water systems we’ve built and operate are vast and pervasive. And despite decades of research, observations, and outreach to water managers, we’re not ready.

    Nearly three decades ago, as a young graduate student at the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley, I published initial results from the core of my doctoral dissertation to integrate regional hydrologic models with output from the three major general circulation models of the climate in operation in the United States. Those models — the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) model under the direction of Dr. James Hansen, the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Model (GFDL) under the direction of Dr. Syukoro Manabe, and the model developed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) under the direction of Dr. Warren Washington — were still too coarse in spatial resolution to provide much detailed information on the effects of climate changes on regional and local water resources.

    My modeling produced some disturbing results with implications for the future of water resources availability and management in the western United States and regions around the world dependent on snowfall and snowmelt hydrology: global climate changes and especially the rising global temperatures would have dramatic impacts on the timing of water flows in rivers and the extent and duration of mountain snowpack. In 1985 at a conference on arid lands in Tucson, Arizona, I published the following:

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    Response to Washington Post Article “Water Utilities Charge More to Offset Low-Flow Toilets, Faucets and Shower Heads”

    by Heather Cooley, Water Program Director

    August 20, 2014

    A recent Washington Post article erroneously stated: “Federally mandated low-flow toilets, shower heads and faucets are taking a financial toll on the nation’s water utilities, leaving customers to make up the shortfall with higher water rates and new fees that have left many paying more for less.” The article tackles an important topic, albeit one that is all too commonly misunderstood. Two key facts are frequently missing from these discussions:

    • Fact #1: Water Conservation and Efficiency Reduce Long-Term Costs

    Most areas have already developed the least expensive water supplies, and the next increment of supply is considerably more expensive. Water conservation and efficiency improvements are the cheapest, fastest, and most reliable “new supply.” Moreover, efficiency improvements save energy, reduce water and wastewater treatment costs, and eliminate the need for costly new infrastructure. This saves the customer money in the long term.

    When it comes to looking at the relationship between the cost of water and conservation, the key question is “how much would we be paying for water if we had not conserved?” A recent study by the City of Westminster, Colorado tackled this question, and their answer is compelling. In 1980, the City’s per capita water use was 180 gallons per person per day (gpcd); conservation programs, progressive pricing policies, and national plumbing codes reduced per capita demand to 149 gpcd in 2010. If water use had stayed at 1980 levels, staff estimated that the City would have had to secure 7,300 acre-feet of additional water supply, requiring $591 million in new infrastructure costs and $1.2 million per year in operating costs. They estimated that, without conservation, the average single-family customer would pay combined water and wastewater rates that are more than 90% higher than they are today.

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    What about Desalination during the Drought?

    by Amanda Pebler, Communications Intern

    August 13, 2014

    When discussing the current drought in California, there is often talk of desalination and its potential to increase our freshwater supply. Desalination, the process of removing salt and minerals from saline water, seems like an obvious solution to the drought and ongoing water scarcity concerns because it is a reliable, drought-proof water source. Indeed, fourteen new desalination plants have been proposed along the California coast and one is under development in Carlsbad. For many, this may seem like an answer to the “exceptional drought”. As consumers, it may also seem like a way to help us avoid making lifestyle changes, such as Governor Jerry Brown’s call for Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent. But while desalination may be a reliable option, the answer is much more complicated.

    One of the greatest issues with desalination is the cost associated with these projects. A new plant may cost upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars to build (a billion in the case of the Carlsbad facility), plus considerable cost to run the plant.

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  • slow-the-flow

    Planning For Rain: Why Storm Water Management Matters during the Drought

    by Paula Luu, Communications Manager

    July 31, 2014

    slow-the-flowIt’s been weeks, even months, since some parts of California have gotten rain, and it’s likely it will be a few more months before rains return. Water districts across the state have imposed mandatory and voluntary water restrictions to encourage water conservation and efficiency, but there have been fewer discussions around what and how we can prepare for the upcoming rainy season  during the drought. 

    Stormwater runoff is generated when precipitation from rain and snow hits impervious surfaces such as roads, rooftops, or parking lots and is not absorbed into the ground. Instead, this water picks up trash, metals, chemicals, and other contaminants as it makes it way to our waterways. Due to concerns about flood damage in urban areas, stormwater was traditionally viewed as a liability, and urban areas were designed to get stormwater out to waterways as fast as possible. In California, stormwater typically bypasses water treatment plants, and as a result, is a major source of pollution in our rivers, streams, and ocean.  

    There are many opportunity costs associated with the traditional stormwater management, but the biggest one that concerns our thirsty state is groundwater recharge. By moving water away from the people and places that need it, stormwater cannot percolate into the ground and replenish water we keep drilling deeper and deeper to reach.

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    The Multiple Benefits of Water Conservation and Efficiency for California

    by Heather Cooley, Director of the Pacific Institute Water Program

    July 29, 2014

    California farmers have made great progress in updating and modernizing irrigation technologies and practices. For example, in 1990, more than two-thirds of California crops were flood irrigated. By 2010, that number had declined to 43% and is likely even lower today. During that same period, the percent of land irrigated with more efficient microsprinklers and drip irrigation increased from 15% to 38%. These improvements are one of the reasons that California remains among the most productive agricultural regions in the world, producing more than 400 different farm products.

    percent-irrigated-cropland

    Note: These data do not include rice acreage, which is grown using flood irrigation. If rice acreage were included, the percent of crop land using flood irrigation would be higher.
    Source: G.N. Tindula, M.N. Orang, and R.L. Snyder. 2013. “Survey of Irrigation Methods in California in 2010,” ASCE Journal of Irrigation and Drainage Engineering 139: 233-238.

    But despite past efforts, great untapped potential remains to use water more efficiently. Water efficiency – defined as measures that reduce water use while maintaining the benefits water provides – has been shown to be a cost-effective and flexible tool to adapt to drought as well as address longstanding water challenges in California. Moreover, today’s investments in efficiency will provide a competitive advantage in the future and ensure the ongoing strength of the agriculture sector in California.

    Water-efficiency improvements provide multiple benefits. …»

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  • Q-mark

    GreenBiz Blog: The Three Questions You Need To Ask about Assessing Water Risk

    by Jason Morrison, director of the Pacific Institute Corporate Sustainability Program, and Sissel Waage, Director of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services at BSR (Business for Social Responsibility)

    July 28, 2014

    Q-markDo your company’s risk assessment processes consider water risk for every major capital decision, as well as operational management and supply chain partner screening? If not, it is time to call a meeting to revise business risk assessment and management procedures.

    The business case is now clear. For example, as quoted in the Ceres report “Murky Waters? Corporate Reporting on Water Risk” (PDF), the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission homes in on material risks as: “Changes in the availability or quality of water … can have material effects on companies.” JPMorgan’s “Watching Water” report (PDF) states: “In many situations, the risk of business interruption due to water scarcity appears to be on the rise, making contingency planning more important.”

    A UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate report explains that “inside the fence-line” approaches are inadequate: “The simple measurement of corporate water use and discharge does not provide a complete picture of a company’s water risks or impacts. … As such, understanding and managing water risks requires companies to assess watershed conditions” (emphasis added)…

    Read the full blog at GreenBiz.

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  • These signs are common along Highway 5 in California’s Central Valley, especially where junior water-rights holders have land that won’t get water during droughts. Ironically, this one is placed right in front of a newly planted almond orchard.

    National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Why Has the Response to the California Drought Been so Weak?

    By Peter Gleick, President

    July 20, 2014

    In the past few weeks, I have had been asked the same question by reporters, friends, strangers, and even a colleague who posts regularly on this very ScienceBlogs site (the prolific and thoughtful Greg Laden): why, if the California drought is so bad, has the response been so tepid?

    There is no single answer to this question (and of course, it presumes (1) that the drought is bad; and (2) the response has been tepid). In many ways, the response is as complicated as California’s water system itself, with widely and wildly diverse sources of water, uses of water, prices and water rights, demands, institutions, and more. But here are some overlapping and relevant answers.

    First, is the drought actually very bad?

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    Over Twenty-Five Years Later, How Does the Drought in California Compare?

    By Amanda Pebler, Communications Intern

    July 20, 2014

    “Future droughts are likely to cause still more severe impacts to California’s environmental resources.” -1987

    “The drought is not over. Without doubt, another dry year would result in much more severe situation than California has experienced thus far.” -1991

    In the midst of the California drought and the hot summer months ahead, more data and public information are needed about what to expect and what are our options for action. The Pacific Institute works to give the public and policymakers the ability to access the latest data on the California drought and have been doing so for over 25 years. Recently, two past reports from the Pacific Institute regarding the California drought that occurred in the late 20th century have been released online. Even then, the drought warned that future impacts would be more severe than ever before. For those who have wondered how the current drought compares to those of the past, these are fantastic resources that give insight into previous drought conditions and how California responded.

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    Can We Reasonably Expect the Private Sector to Advance Sustainable Water Management? Should We?

    By Peter Schulte, Research Associate

    June 16, 2014

    Over the past several years, the CEO Water Mandate has articulated to businesses why and how they can advance sustainable water management by making their own operations more efficient and by contributing to watershed efforts to promote sustainability. This is a proposition that some, especially a segment of the NGO community, are skeptical of. Many of these concerns are outlined in a paper from the Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU) entitled Conflicts, Companies, Human Rights and Water—A Critical Review of Local Corporate Practices and Global Corporate Initiatives.

    This week, the Mandate released a discussion paper – in collaboration with WWF International – that tackles these claims and shines a light on why we believe they are largely not true.

    Let’s go through these contentions one-by-one: …»

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    A Tale of Two Farms: How Water Efficiency Could Help Drought-Proof California Farms

    By Heather Cooley, Director, Pacific Institute Water Program, and Claire O’Connor, Senior Attorney and Agricultural Water Policy Analyst, NRDC Water Program 

    June 10, 2014

    This article is cross-posted at the NRDC Switchboard.

    For many California farmers, this growing season has been the “worst of times”. While all of the state is in the midst of a severe drought, conditions are most acute in the state’s most productive agricultural region.

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