16 Multi-Benefit Resources


Ensuring Water Conservation and Efficiency Programs Are Accessible to All—In California and Beyond

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Ensuring Water Conservation and Efficiency Programs Are Accessible to All—In California and Beyond

Morgan Shimabuku, Pacific Institute Senior Researcher 
Jessi Snyder, Self-Help Enterprises Director of Community Development 

Key Takeaways: 

  • Ensuring water conservation and efficiency programs are accessible is a challenge worth tackling to save water and money, especially for households and communities that need it most. 
  • Funding these programs can be a challenge. This blog looks at state and federal opportunities, with a focus on California, where the legislature is considering a $200 million budget item for two low-income, direct-install water conservation programs. 
  • There are several barriers to implementing water conservation and efficiency programs that are accessible to everyone. But there are already many creative solutions to overcoming these barriers to create access for people of all incomes. 

Californians and others in the Western United States need to save water. This is true now amidst a historic megadrought, and it will continue to be true when this drought ends.  

But many water conservation and efficiency programs aren’t accessible to low-income households. This is in a nation where, in 2020, 18.4% of households earned less than $25,000 per year, which is just under the federal poverty level for a household of four people. Research has shown that hard-to-reach groups, such as renters or low-income families, are less likely to participate in these programs.  

This challenge is worth tackling. Making such programs more widely accessible would both help those struggling to afford their utility bills and save water. Notably, these water savings would occur immediately and into the future, helping provide immediate relief for households, as well as building long-term water resilience and contributing to system-wide affordability. 

The challenge: Multiple barriers to water conservation and efficiency programs 

There are several barriers to ensuring water conservation and efficiency programs are accessible to all. These include: 

  • Not designed for limited-income customers: First, some utilities have strong conservation and efficiency offerings, but these programs are not readily available to customers with low to no income. As an example, rebate programs require participants to purchase new, efficient devices and then wait weeks to months before being partially reimbursed or given a credit on their utility bill. For those with limited income, bearing the cost upfront is not always possible and is a deterrent to participation. 
  • Narrow eligibility requirements limit participation: A second type of barrier exists when utilities have low-income-specific efficiency programs, but they have narrow or burdensome eligibility requirements that limit participation. Renters and people living in multifamily housing are more likely to have lower incomes than those living in single family housing. Yet, many programs are not available to people in multifamily housing, in part because they often do not pay their water bill directly. Also, onerous proof-of-income requirements can create barriers to participation in these programs.  
  • Lack of capacity to offer programs: A third type of barrier, common for customers of small water systems, is that some water utilities lack capacity and resources needed to offer any water conservation and efficiency programs. This challenge is most apparent in rural communities, but also can be found in small urban systems.  
  • Trust and cultural barriers: Finally, trust and cultural barriers may exist for some customer groups, especially those that have been historically marginalized or left out of conservation and efficiency efforts. 

Good news: Solutions exist  

The good news is that there are creative solutions to overcome these barriers. These include: 

  • Vouchers replacing rebates: Water utilities already offering conservation and efficiency programs can design them to be more accessible. For instance, instead of offering rebates for efficient device purchases, utilities can provide vouchers at the point of sale. This change would eliminate the need for a reimbursement process, identified as a major barrier to implementation.  
  • Device giveaways and direct-install programs: Another option is to offer fixtures and appliances at no cost for qualified households through device giveaways or direct-install programs. Long Beach Water in Southern California, for example, is piloting a direct-install sustainable landscape program for homeowners living in low-income designated census tracts. Elsewhere in California, the City of Sacramento also offers a free leak-detection audit program that includes free device installations for low-income, single-family households in designated disadvantaged communities. Notably, this program is only offered to homeowners of single-family dwellings. As a result, it remains inaccessible to renters and those living in multi-family housing.  
  • Multi-family housing solutions: While there are several challenges to delivering conservation and efficiency programs to renters and people living in multi-family housing, some utilities are exploring new models related to housing affordability more broadly, adding in the conservation and efficiency benefits. In New York City, for example, the Department of Environmental Protection includes water conservation and efficiency as an eligibility criterion for receiving the Multi-Family Water Assistance Program credit. Housing projects must, among other requirements, prove the average rent is affordable to households earning up to 60% of area median income, the property has been part of certified affordable housing efforts for a minimum of 15 years, all buildings have automated meters, and high-efficiency fixtures are installed in at least 70% of units. These requirements incentivize efficiency improvements and long-term affordable housing in New York City. 
  • Alternative proof of eligibility: To reduce barriers created by proof-of-income, water utilities can accept proof of participation in existing low-income programs such as CARES, Medi-Cal, or others. There is also the option to allow for self-verification of income qualification, with annual audits of a subset of participants to assess validity. A third approach, already in use by Long Beach Water and City of Sacramento, is to create eligibility based on geographic location of a household in a community identified as disadvantaged or low-income through state or federal surveys.   
  • Partnerships with related programs. Another solution that can help reduce multiple barriers to these programs is through partnership with existing organizations already delivering low-income direct-install programs. Partnering with energy conservation organizations, as some water utilities already do, is an effective opportunity to piggy-back on the existing program infrastructure and circumvent the challenging process of income qualification. This can be especially helpful for small water systems with limited capacity for offering their own programs. Energy utilities regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) are required to offer their low-income customers an energy efficiency direct-install program, called the Energy Saving Assistance Program (ESAP). ESAP has delivered energy efficiency upgrades at no cost to nearly 2 million income-qualified households since 2015.1 In some places, these upgrades include water-saving devices as well, although device offerings have been limited. Partners, particularly community-based organizations (CBOs), also offer trust-building opportunities. These opportunities can improve customer communication and recruitment. The Building Blocks of Trust by the River Network and WaterNow Alliance offer key components of successful utility and CBO partnerships.  

Funding opportunities from state and federal governments 

Securing funding for these programs can be challenging, but there are both federal and state funds that may help. From the federal government, funding through state-led Clean Water State Revolving Funds are eligible to provide loans and grants for water efficiency projects 

Some states are making efforts to address the challenge as well. In California, the legislature is considering up to $200 million to fund water efficiency assistance for low-income households. Advocates are proposing to split this funding in two ways. First, $150 million could supplement the energy utility ESAP, growing the program’s water conservation offerings to include, whenever possible, high-efficiency toilets and clothes washers. The other $50 million could fund a complementary grant program at the Department of Water Resources for new direct-install water efficiency programs for low-income households. Advocates estimate these programs could save the state billions of gallons of water per year and save the participating households tens of millions of dollars per year on their water and wastewater bills.  

The power to act 

With water utilities, energy utilities, CBOs, and state and federal agencies all on board, we can create opportunities for everyone to help save water in California and beyond. This will benefit not only the individuals themselves, but also their communities, utilities, and ecosystems. Amid the water crisis, exacerbated by climate change, we must forge these—and other—new solutions to stretch scarce water resources to meet the needs of all water users. 

Self-Help Enterprises is a nationally recognized community development organization whose mission is to work together with low-income families to build and sustain healthy homes and communities. Since 1965, Self-Help Enterprises’ efforts have touched the lives of over 55,000 families. 

¹ESAP statistics provided to Pacific Institute from Ed Osann (NRDC), obtained 4/21/2022 from K. Kulkarni, Senior Regulatory Analyst (CPUC), via email from CPUC. 

 

California non-functional turf irrigation ban provides businesses an opportunity to step up on sustainability

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California non-functional turf irrigation ban provides businesses an opportunity to step up on sustainability  
By Cora Kammeyer and Dr. Sonali Abraham

 

Pacific Institute research finds conversion of CII landscapes to more sustainable landscapes in California could save between 340,000 and 400,000 acre-feet of water per year. 

Key takeaways

  • New emergency drought regulations ban irrigation of non-functional turf on commercial, industrial, and institutional (CII) sites across urban California.  
  • The ban presents a unique opportunity for California’s business community to demonstrate sustainability leadership through proactive drought response.  
  • By transforming to more sustainable landscaping, businesses can contribute to immediate drought relief and long-term water resilience, while achieving corporate sustainability goals, cutting costs, and providing additional community co-benefits.  
  • Pacific Institute tools and resources can help businesses explore options and get started on a landscape transformation.  

A new ban on non-functional turf irrigation in California—part of recently announced emergency drought regulations—provides a unique opportunity for California’s business community to demonstrate sustainability leadership through proactive drought response. On May 24, 2022, the California State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) adopted an emergency regulation in response to ongoing and intensifying drought conditions across the state. This regulation comes in response to Executive Order N-7-22 signed by Governor Newsom asking for increased water conservation that includes specific mandates for urban water suppliers and select water users. The Executive Order and ensuing regulation include specific actions targeted at the commercial, industrial, and institutional (CII) sector, which includes commercial businesses, manufacturing and distribution, hospitals, government buildings, and other institutions.  

Banning irrigation of non-functional turf  

The State Water Board’s emergency drought regulation imposes a temporary ban on irrigation of non-functional turf with drinking water on commercial, industrial, and institutional (CII) properties. It does not include turf irrigated with recycled water and specifies that the irrigation ban should not harm the health of trees or other non-turf plantings. California is not the first location to take such actions. This short-term drought regulation is coming shortly after Las Vegas moved to permanently ban irrigation of non-functional turf.  

What is “non-functional turf”? 

As defined by the state, “non-functional turf” is solely ornamental and not regularly used for recreation. It includes areas not in active use but still requiring maintenance, such as street medians and office parking lots. Non-functional turf does not include sports fields or turf regularly used for human recreational purposes or for civic or community events. 

What properties does the non-functional turf ban apply to? 

This ban applies to, for example, offices, stores, malls, manufacturing facilities, and warehouses, as well as schools, hospitals, government buildings, and other institutions. It also includes large apartment buildings and common areas owned by homeowners’ associations but not individual residences. 

Opportunity for businesses to demonstrate sustainability commitment  

While banning irrigation of non-functional turf is an important short-term response to a severe drought, we also must address the long-term problem of vast expanses of water-intensive turf across California communities. Over half of urban water use in California goes to landscape irrigation, and that portion is much higher in the hot, dry parts of California.  

During the last California drought, we saw some commercial and industrial sites across the state making this transition, which helped California’s urban communities meet then-Governor Brown’s emergency drought mandate of reducing water use by 25 percent. But we can and must do more.

Commercial and industrial sites are disproportionately landscaped with turf compared to residential sites, and replacing turf with efficiently irrigated, climate-appropriate plants can reduce landscape water needs by 70 to 80 percent.

Unlocking untapped water savings potential  

According to Pacific Institute research, conversion of CII landscapes to more sustainable landscapes in California could save between 340,000 and 400,000 acre-feet of water per year – and a ban on non-functional turf could help to realize some of those savings. By drawing CII water users’ attention to landscape management, the new emergency drought regulation provides an opportunity for transformations from unsustainable, nonfunctional turf into more sustainable landscapes. By heeding this call and embracing landscapes better suited to California’s climate, businesses can publicly demonstrate their commitment to sustainability and help meet their water stewardship goals and other sustainability targets.  

Achieving corporate sustainability goals, cutting costs, and providing community benefits 

The numerous benefits of sustainable landscapes can improve the cost-effectiveness of a landscape transformation project and provide an opportunity to publicly demonstrate the company’s commitment to the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit.

For example, Pacific Institute researchers are working with one California commercial site spending $300,000 per year to irrigate eight acres of non-functional turf. Transforming that turf to sustainable landscaping would cut the site’s water use by 70-80 percent, saving nearly $200,000 per year on water bills.

This turf transformation would also help the company achieve its sustainability goals, while providing a range of co-benefits, including stormwater retention, site beautification, urban heat reduction, carbon sequestration, pollinator habitat, employee education, and maintenance cost savings.  

 Pacific Institute tools help companies take action 

With the right tools, guidance, and encouragement, California businesses are well-positioned to help lead the way on the transition to more sustainable, drought-resilient urban landscapes. The Pacific Institute’s sustainable landscapes guidebook provides simple, step-by-step guidance aimed specifically toward businesses in California. The guidebook includes information on turf replacement, installation of bioswales and rain gardens, permeable pavement, green roofs, and rain tanks and cisterns. Self-assessment worksheets on current landscape conditions, decision-making, and drivers for landscape transformation walk the user through the process; infographics like the one above illustrate the benefits of sustainable landscapes.  

Adapting to a more arid future 

Given that California is one of the largest economies in the world, California businesses have an especially important role to play in helping address the state’s water challenges. Businesses can start with simple, cost-effective actions like landscape transformations on their properties. California’s water crisis is not a unique story. Outside of the US, almost every continent is experiencing some level of drought. Actions taken and lessons learned in response to water scarcity in urban California can be shared and transferred to help other water-stressed cities around the world.   

Pacific Institute Statement on White House Action Plan on Global Water Security

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Pacific Institute Statement on White House Action Plan on Global Water Security
Dr. Amanda Bielawski, Dr. Peter Gleick, Jason Morrison

Today’s announcement of the White House Action Plan on Global Water Security is a step in the right direction for building water resilience both in the United States and around the world. The Pacific Institute’s longstanding research on water conflict underscores the reality that water is an increasing cause of conflict in the world, further intensifying due to climate change. Its research also continues to highlight the role innovative solutions, including nature-based solutions, water efficiency, and water reuse, will play in ensuring global water security for all. 

The Pacific Institute applauds the Action Plan for using a broader definition for “water security” that recognizes the role of climate change on water systems, while acknowledging the need to prioritize water for both people and ecosystems. This view moves closer to “water resilience,” which the Pacific Institute defines as “the ability of water systems to function so that nature and people, including those on the frontlines and disproportionately impacted, thrive under shocks, stresses, and change.” The Pacific Institute calls on decisionmakers to address the more holistic view of water resilience, in addition to both water security and water sustainability. 

Additionally, the Pacific Institute applauds the new plan for:  

  1. prioritizing climate resilience and enabling equitable WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) services for all;  
  2. prioritizing the protection of water resources and water-related ecosystems, including through nature-based solutions; and  
  3. focusing on the role of water in facilitating transboundary cooperation.  

The Pacific Institute calls on decisionmakers across the public and private sectors to commit to achieving water resilience by rapidly scaling solutions. These solutions include implementing water efficiency and reuse strategies to reduce reliance on energy-intensive or unreliable water sources. They also include integrating nature-based solutions for water with traditional grey infrastructure. In all cases, the path to water resilience must be achieved through a lens of equity, prioritizing all stakeholders, including frontline communities and the environment.  

Additional resources: 

Water Resilience Issue Brief 
Water Conflict Chronology 

Innovative urban water strategies offer vast opportunity for California drought relief and longer-term water resilience

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Innovative urban water strategies offer vast opportunity for California drought relief and longer-term water resilience

 

Dr. Amanda Bielawski, Heather Cooley, Dr. Peter Gleick, Dr. Sonali Abraham, Dr. Anne Thebo, and Morgan Shimabuku

Key takeaways

  • California is in its third year of severe drought exacerbated by climate change. There is a wide gap between water use and local water supplies.
  • New research from the Pacific Institute shows California could reduce urban water use by 30% to 48% by increasing investments in urban water efficiency measures.
  • The same research shows California could also boost local non-traditional water supplies – more than tripling our current water reuse levels and significantly increasing stormwater capture approaches.
  • These innovative approaches are cost-effective and technologically feasible, offer valuable co-benefits, and are already being implemented across many California communities. They are part of a broader transition to water resilience.
  • New report: “The Untapped Potential of California’s Urban Water Supply: Water Efficiency, Water Reuse, and Stormwater Capture”: View report here. View the full infographic here.

Throughout California, innovative urban water strategies—water efficiency, water reuse, and stormwater capture—are already finding success in many communities. These cost-effective and technologically feasible strategies reduce urban water use (currently 6.6 million acre-feet per year), while boosting local water supplies. As a result, they can help narrow the gap between how much water urban California now uses and how much water is available. Combined, they provide an opportunity for shorter-term drought relief and long-term water resilience. (Read more about water resilience in the Pacific Institute’s Water Resilience Issue Brief here.)

Dramatic numbers show untapped potential to implement urban water strategies

A new analysis, “The Untapped Potential of California’s Urban Water Use,” released today by the Pacific Institute quantifies the potential to scale these strategies across urban California:

  • Reducing water use through water efficiency: The report finds California could save 30% to 48% of its urban water use, by implementing and expanding water efficiency measures, including replacing inefficient clothes washers and other appliances with high-efficiency models, replacing lawns with climate-appropriate plants, and reducing losses in water distribution systems. The analysis finds these efficiency measures could reduce California’s urban water use by 2.0 million to 3.1 million acre-feet per year.
  • Increasing local water supplies through water reuse: Municipal water reuse could be more than tripled in California, significantly adding to local water supplies. While an estimated 728,000 acre-feet of municipal wastewater are currently reused annually for groundwater recharge, irrigation, and other beneficial use across the state, the new assessment identifies the potential to increase statewide reuse to 2.5 million to 2.8 million acre-feet per year.
  • Increasing local water supplies through stormwater capture: While there is no statewide estimate of the amount of urban runoff now captured, it’s clear there is significant opportunity to capture more. The new analysis finds urban stormwater capture potential in the state ranges from 580,000 acre-feet in a dry year to 3 million acre-feet in a wet year in urban areas overlying public supply aquifers.

 

 

During a report briefing this morning attended by hundreds of water leaders and stakeholders in California, across the United States, and internationally, the Pacific Institute highlighted some current success stories in each of these areas.

 

 

In San Francisco, a Public Utilities Commission ordinance requiring higher efficiency plumbing fixtures to be installed whenever housing is sold to a new owner is projected to save more than 2.5 billion gallons cumulatively through 2045. Meanwhile, a water reuse facility proposed by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California would produce up to 150 million gallons of water daily, boosting local non-traditional water supplies by 170,000 acre-feet (55 billion gallons) per year. Read more about these—and other—examples in this infographic.

 

 

And, in the Fresno area, more than 150 stormwater retention basins recharge more than 15 billion gallons of groundwater annually (on 10-year average).  Read more about these—and other—examples in this infographic.

Part of a broader transition to 21st century water resilience thinking

What might we learn from these examples? As California enters a third year of severe drought—intensifying due to climate change—these strategies could be a game changer for the future. Rapidly scaled across the state, they could provide future drought relief for millions of Californians. Thinking more broadly, they also provide valuable co-benefits. For instance:

  • By increasing local supplies, communities can effectively reduce reliance on imported water.
  • These approaches can also leave more water for nature, protecting threatened ecosystems.
  • By reducing energy required to collect, move, treat, and use water, these strategies also have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Given their benefits and co-benefits, these innovative urban water strategies must be part of a systemic transformation to a 21st century water management model focused on resilience, not only for California, but for drought-prone regions across the US West and the globe that are facing the debilitating impacts of water extremes intensifying due to climate change.

How do we rapidly scale these ideas?

Innovative urban water projects like those referenced above in San Francisco, Southern California, and Fresno offer inspiration for more to come. So, how do we push for these strategies to be scaled fully and quickly across California–and beyond?

The study includes detailed policy and practice recommendations for water utilities and suppliers, as well as local, regional, state, and federal agencies and policymakers. These recommendations include increasing state and federal funding, expanding local water agencies’ customer incentive programs, pursuing ordinances, focusing programs on long-neglected low-income households and communities, and providing technical support. To see the full list of detailed policy and practice recommendations, download the report here.

Whatever role you play in our water systems, we invite you to see what part you might play—in increasing investments in and implementation of these urban water strategies. You will be building a more water resilient California along the way.

Learn more about water resilience in the Pacific Institute’s Water Resilience Issue Brief here.

See the full infographic below.

 

 

Snowpack Report Underscores Need for Transformative Changes to Address Record-Setting California Drought

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Heather Cooley, Dr. Peter Gleick, and Dr. Amanda Bielawski

Key Takeaways:

    • The severe California drought is continuing for a third year, and there will be major consequences for ecosystems, agriculture, and urban and rural water users across California. 
    • Droughts are becoming more severe and persistent, creating extreme water management challenges for California. 
    • Emergency short-term measures are necessary but will not be enough. We must also make systemic, transformational changes to build longer-term water resilience. 
    • Available solutions should be rapidly scaled across the state. We must accelerate efforts to cut wasteful and inefficient water uses, increase investments in water reuse and stormwater capture, and prioritize efforts to provide safe water and sanitation to frontline communities. 

April 1st marks the end of the wet season in California. It’s also the day the California Department of Water Resources announces key seasonal snowpack measurements and makes projections of water availability for the rest of the water year. 

Today, the news is extremely bad and is a call to action to do much more — and to do some things much differently. 

After record-breaking drought conditions in 2020 and 2021, 2022 has been another bleak water year for California. The 2022 snowpack is far below normal — less than 40% of average following a drier than normal winter — for the third year in a row. Major reservoir levels are also far below normal. Shasta is at less than 40% of capacity and less than half of where it should be on April 1st; Oroville, the largest reservoir in the State Water Project, is at less than half of capacity and only two-thirds of where it normally is. These numbers are stark indications that the severe California drought of the past two years will continue for at least another year. 

The broader water-climate connection 

The fact that climate change is water change has never been clearer. A new study found the last 22 years in the southwestern US have been the driest since the year 800, with human-caused climate change accounting for more than 40% of the current 22-year megadrought. 

Comprehensive conservation and efficiency measures will be required.

The water-climate challenges facing California and the US West are similar to those now facing many other regions around the world. As temperatures continue to rise and storm patterns change, we are seeing changes in extremes of both floods and droughts, and unprecedented impacts on natural aquatic ecosystems. We’ve also learned in the last few years that the computer models our state and federal agencies use to allocate and distribute water do not adequately account for the climate changes we’re already seeing on the ground. These changes include the rapid disappearance of even our limited snow and the rising temperatures in our rivers fatal to endangered and threatened fisheries. These models must be updated immediately. 

More action needed to safeguard California’s vulnerable water systems 

California has made laudable progress in reducing water use during recent years. However, today’s snowpack announcement should serve as a loud alarm bell, calling for California to do much more — and to do some things quite differently. 

More than 400 of the state’s water agencies were ordered earlier this week to implement Level 2 water shortage contingency plans, which vary by agency. But the state has not issued mandatory reductions in water use during this three-year drought as it did during the last drought. While voluntary reductions have helped some, the choice not to implement statewide aggressive conservation and efficiency measures in the hope this year would be wet has left less water in our reservoirs and groundwater aquifers, and for ecosystems than it would otherwise have been. 

Given the realities of today’s snowpack report and ongoing drought projections, comprehensive conservation and efficiency measures will be required to meet the basic needs of all Californians for safe and reliable water, to maintain even minimal protections for stressed ecosystems and fisheries, and to support key sectors of the economy. 

Embracing innovation to build longer-term resilience 

Emergency short-term measures are needed but will not be enough. Take shorter showers. Load dishwashers and washing machines full before running them. Let your lawns go brown. But we must also make systemic, transformational changes to our water systems; abandon the 20th century model overly reliant on unsustainable water withdrawals; and transition to a 21st century model using innovation to build long-term resilience. Replace inefficient appliances. Repair leaks. Get rid of non-functional grass and install low-water-using gardens. Invest in water reuse and stormwater capture everywhere. 

We must shift our urban water infrastructure to a 21st century system.

The good news is that we know what to do. Many communities across California are already implementing innovative water strategies to support near-term drought relief and long-term improvement in reliability of local water supplies. Without these efforts, our water challenges would be much more severe. Rapidly scaled across the state, these strategies can set California up for a more drought resilient future. 

  • Urban Water Systems: A new Pacific Institute report to be released on April 12th provides updated estimates of the untapped potential to improve urban water-use efficiency and expand urban water reuse and stormwater capture. This potential is large, but requires new actions, investments, and policies. Just as we must decarbonize our old energy system to address climate change, we must shift our urban water system to a 21st century system of high efficiency, comprehensive water reuse and stormwater capture, ecosystem protection, and guaranteed access to safe water and sanitation to all.  
  •  Rural Water Systems: Governor Newsom’s Executive Order, released earlier this week, provides much-needed protection for those that rely on groundwater, including rural water systems. It requires local authorities to coordinate with Groundwater Sustainability Agencies before permitting new wells to ensure they do not compromise existing wells or infrastructure. We must also accelerate drought preparedness through the development of water shortage contingency plans for small systems. Learn more in this recent Pacific Institute report.
  • Agriculture: California agriculture has made progress in improving crop productivity and revenue per unit of water used, but much more must be done. In particular, efforts to bring unsustainable groundwater overdraft back into balance, as required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), must be accelerated. Continued improvements in irrigation efficiency, soil moisture monitoring and management, and cropping patterns must also be accelerated. 

Today’s snowpack report and drought projections must spur us all, from our state agencies to our water utilities to individuals, to take new and innovative actions. As we take steps to address drought and build more resilient water systems, we must do so in a way that prioritizes actions that ensure equitable access to clean, affordable, and reliable water supplies for all.  

More resources 

To learn more about drought in California, visit californiadrought.org. This Pacific Institute website compiles information and resources on drought to help understand, plan for, and implement sustainable solutions. Further information about drought, climate change, and resilience-based solutions is available in a range of Pacific Institute reports.

We also invite you to join the Pacific Institute April 12th at 9 a.m. (PT) for a briefing highlighting results from a new analysis quantifying dramatic opportunities to reduce the gap between water supply and use through innovative, cost-effective, and technologically feasible urban water strategies. Register here

World Water Day Focuses Attention on How Water is Underappreciated — Especially Groundwater

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Heather Cooley, Rebecca Olson, and Dr. Amanda Bielawski

Key Takeaways:

  • Groundwater accounts for 99% of liquid freshwater but is being depleted at an alarming rate
  • Groundwater depletion creates equity challenges and threatens the realization of the Human Right to Water
  • The Pacific Institute advances solutions for groundwater resilience, including increasing water-use efficiency and expanding urban water reuse and stormwater capture

Around the world, people and nature rely on groundwater for survival. The newly released United Nations World Water Development Report 2022 underscores humanity’s reliance on this resource, noting groundwater currently provides about half the volume of domestic water and a quarter the volume of irrigation water withdrawn globally.

But it’s the frequent invisibility of this water source that often adds to the challenge of its governance and management. While 99% of the liquid freshwater on the planet is in the form of groundwater, it remains somewhat out of sight — and too often out of mind.

While 99% of the liquid freshwater on the planet comes in the form of groundwater, it remains somewhat out of sight and too often out of mind.” 

As surface water becomes scarcer, more people are turning to groundwater to meet their water needs. Because of this, groundwater is being depleted at an alarming — and unsustainable — rate. Recognizing its critical importance, World Water Day 2022 specifically focuses our attention on this water source — and what we must do to protect it.

Depletion risks

Depleted groundwater aquifers can take thousands of years to be replenished by rain, snow, and other sources. This option can be off the table when an aquifer becomes so depleted it loses its capacity to store water.

Depleted groundwater aquifers can take thousands of years to be replenished by rain, snow, and other sources. This option can be off the table when an aquifer becomes so depleted it loses its capacity to store water.

In the U.S., the Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches across parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming, illustrates this concern. A history of groundwater overdraft threatens to deplete the aquifer. Once depleted, it’s estimated the Ogallala Aquifer could take more than 6,000 years to be naturally replenished.

Pacific Institute study highlights groundwater impacts in California’s San Joaquin Valley

In California, groundwater has experienced a steep decline in some areas from overpumping, and climate change is creating additional pressures. Chronic groundwater overdraft has led to falling groundwater levels, dry wells, land subsidence, decreased groundwater storage capacity, decreased water quality, and stream depletion.

A 2021 Pacific Institute study highlighted connections between California groundwater management and local communities’ ability to access water — with significant water equity concerns. California‘s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) was created to help protect groundwater, but the study showed minimum groundwater thresholds defined by SGMA would leave many people vulnerable to losing their water access. The analysis, which focused on California’s agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley, revealed the region’s groundwater sustainability plans often failed to protect shallow wells. These wells are relied on by many, especially people served by small community water systems and household wells.

The study showed an estimated one million people are served by water systems that have at least 30% of their wells vulnerable to minimum thresholds as defined by SGMA. Small water systems and water systems serving populations whose households make less than $75,000 a year were found to be more likely to have impacted wells. In this way, the study underscored the potential for groundwater management to threaten the realization of California’s Human Right to Water.

The study showed an estimated one million people are served by water systems that have at least 30% of their wells vulnerable to minimum thresholds as defined by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.”

Solutions: Urban and agricultural water efficiency measures can reduce groundwater pressures

The good news is that a wide range of strategies can reduce reliance on overtapped groundwater aquifers. Water efficiency improvements in urbanized areas and on farms can allow us to continue to provide the goods and services we want — with less water.

Efficient irrigation is one of several strategies proven to enhance soil moisture on farms.

On farms, efficient irrigation technologies, improved scheduling, and practices that enhance soil moisture are proven strategies for growing crops with less water. Weather-based irrigation scheduling, for example, uses data about local weather conditions to determine how much water a plant needs. Likewise, drip irrigation slowly releases water from tubing near the plant’s roots to allow for the precise application of water and fertilizer.

And in urbanized areas, repairing leaks, installing efficient appliances and fixtures, and replacing turf grass with native and drought-tolerant plants can dramatically cut water use. Past efforts have enabled many water supply utilities to maintain or reduce water use while meeting the needs of a growing population and economy. The City of Los Angeles, for example, uses about 15% less water today than it did in 1970, while serving 1.2 million more people.

“The City of Los Angeles uses about 15% less water today than it did in 1970, while serving 1.2 million more people.”

Replacing turf grass with native and drought-tolerant plants can dramatically cut water use. Photo credit: Bennymarty, iStock

Laudable progress has been made to reduce groundwater demand by using water more efficiently. But much more can be done. For instance, expanding the use of new local surface water supplies, including water reuse and stormwater capture, can also play an important role in reducing pressures on groundwater.

 

 

The Pacific Institute will release a new analysis in April quantifying dramatic opportunities to reduce the gap between urban water supply and use through innovative efficiency, reuse, and stormwater capture strategies.

Sign up here to attend the report briefing April 12 at 9 a.m. (PDT).

Nature-based solutions  can also provide specific benefits for groundwater. These solutions, which use or mimic natural processes, include strategies such as restoring natural ecosystems to naturally store or filter water. The Pacific Institute’s guide “Benefit Accounting of Nature-Based Solutions for Watersheds” outlines benefits of nature-based solutions specifically related to groundwater quantity and quality.

Building groundwater resilience

Groundwater is essential to achieving a wider range of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 6 which calls for clean water and sanitation for all. Photo credit: United Nations

Groundwater is a key resource to meet the water needs of people, nature, and community economies. It plays a specific role in ensuring the Human Right to Water is fulfilled — for all. Groundwater is also central to achieving a wider range of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), interlinked with more than 50 SDG targets related to water, climate, and other global challenges.

As demand for groundwater is only projected to grow — with further threats from the changing climate — we must take decisive steps to protect this fragile resource.

Water Conflicts Continue to Worsen Worldwide 

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Pacific Institute Water Conflict Chronology Updated 

Dr. Peter H. Gleick
Pacific Institute Senior Fellow & Co-Founder 

Violence over water resources continues to worsen. 

In the past few years, severe droughts in India and Iran have led to a big increase in conflicts over access to irrigation and domestic water and to demonstrations against water diversions from one community to another. The violence and war between Russia and Ukraine that worsened in 2014 and expanded again with the Russian invasion just a few weeks ago have included attacks on civilian water systems and the use of water as a weapon. Growing population pressures combined with worsening ethnic and religious conflict in sub-Saharan Africa continue to lead to hundreds of deaths a year from violence between pastoralists and farmers over scarce water resources. And computerized water systems are experiencing growing cyberattacks that threaten water safety, quality, and reliability. 

These are just some of the findings of the newly released update of the Water Conflict Chronology, the most comprehensive open-source database on water-related violence, from the Pacific Institute. The Pacific Institute has been compiling and maintaining data on water conflicts since the late 1980s, and the latest update, released in mid-March 2022, brings the number of events to over 1,300, going as far back as the earliest known water war, in ancient Mesopotamia, 4,500 years ago.  

The Water Conflict Chronology outlines how violence over water takes three forms.  

  • Trigger: Access to and control of water can be a “trigger” for violence, such as the demonstrations and riots in Iran in 2019, 2020, and 2021 over the diversion of water away from the Zayanderud river in the city of Isfahan, and growing numbers of killings over access to irrigation water in India and Pakistan during severe droughts. 
  • Weapon: Water and water systems can be “weapons” of violence, such as when armed groups in Libya cut off water to Tripoli by attacking water pumping stations, or when Israeli settlers flooded Palestinian olive groves with sewage in 2019, or when the FBI in the United States arrested neo-Nazis for plotting to poison water supplies in an effort to ignite violence in 2020. 
  • Casualty: Water and water systems can be “casualties” of violence when they are attacked during conflicts that may start for other reasons. Yemen’s civilian water infrastructure has been repeatedly attacked during the war there. Israeli settlers and military have reportedly destroyed a wide range of Palestinian agricultural irrigation systems, water tanks, and water sources over the past three years. Egyptian hackers launched a cyber-attack on Ethiopian water systems in June 2020 in opposition to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and that same year Israel reported several cyber-attacks on Israeli water infrastructure. Water tanks, dams, and water utility equipment have all been attacked in recent incidents around the world. 

These incidents are on the increase. Figure 1 shows the number of entries by year since 2000, broken out by the type of conflict or violence. As the data show, the number of incidents has been increasing, dominated by water as a trigger of violence, with a substantial number of entries where water and water systems have been casualties or targets of violence. 

The data in the Chronology also point to both the importance of reducing violence associated with freshwater, and to identifying strategies that might be effective. Among the most important tools for reducing water conflicts would be accelerating efforts to meet the Human Right to Water, declared by the United Nations in 2010, and to provide basic safe water and sanitation for everyone – an objective of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. The failure to meet basic human needs for water contributes to the tensions over access to water, especially during droughts and extreme events. Strategies to enhance and enforce protection of civilian water infrastructure during war, including existing international laws of war such as the Geneva Convention and its 1977 Protocols, could reduce the intentional targeting of water systems during conflicts. Diplomatic efforts should also be ramped up to help resolve disputes over shared international water systems and over rights to water and land, such as the longstanding conflicts in Africa between pastoralists and farmers.  

Finally, the growing threat of human-caused climate change is already worsening water conditions around the world, deepening droughts, enhancing flooding, and disrupting water infrastructure. A key strategy to reduce the risk of water conflicts around the world must also include efforts to slow and eventually stop climate change and to reduce the severity and extent of now unavoidable impacts on water. 

Fresh water is a vital resource, necessary for all aspects of a sustainable future, including meeting basic human and ecosystem needs and providing the goods and services all societies want. Unless strategies for moving from water conflict to water cooperation are pursued and implemented, violence associated with freshwater resources seems likely to continue to increase. That’s not the path we want to be on. 

 

10 Shocking Facts about the World’s Water

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Related: Read 7 Things You Need to Know about California Water

1.  3.4 million people—mainly children— die as a result of preventable water-related diseases every year.

2.  1.2 billion people—nearly 20 percent of the world’s population—live in areas of physical water scarcity. What does that mean? Water withdrawals for agriculture, industry, and domestic purposes exceed 75 percent of river flows.

3.  In developing countries, an estimated 90 percent of sewage and 70 percent of industrial waste is discharged into waterways without any treatment at all.

4.  Energy is a major user of water. In the US, thermoelectric power plants account for nearly 50% of all freshwater withdrawals.

5.  There have been 265 recorded incidences of water conflicts from 3000 BC to 2012. The past several years have seen an increase in the total number of reports of violent conflict over water.

6.  The last time the United States did an assessment of the water resources at the federal level was in the 1970s.

7.  It takes more than twice the amount of water to produce coffee than it does tea. Chicken and goat are the least water intensive meats to consume. More about how much water your diet consumes here.

8.    The amount of coal produced worldwide in 2009 required an estimated 1.3 to 4.5 billion cubic meters (m3) of water for extraction and processing. Global production of natural gas in 2009 required an estimated 840 million m3 of water.

9.    Because groundwater levels have dropped as much as 14 meters in the past half century in China, some sections of the Great Wall have been buried by sand. It’s estimated that some of the Great Wall will be gone in 10-20 years if action if not taken.

10.    Nearly 12 percent of Native Americans on reservations and 30 percent of Alaska Natives lack plumbing.

Related: Read 7 Things You Need to Know about California Water

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7 Things You Need to Know about California Water

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  1. In California, an estimated 19% of the state’s electricity use and 32% of all natural gas consumption are related to water. For perspective, consider that leaving the hot water running for five minutes uses as much energy as operating a 60-W light bulb for 14 hours.
  2. Up to one-third of California’s current urban water use — more than 2.3 million acre-feet — can be saved using existing technology, such as replacing old, inefficient water-using devices with high-efficiency models in our homes and businesses, as well as replacing some lawns with low-water-use plants.
  3. At least 85% of urban water use savings can be saved at costs below what it will cost to tap into new sources of supply and without the social, environmental, and economic impacts that any major water project will bring.
  4. The water footprint of the average Californian is 1,500 gallons per day, slightly less than the average American but considerably more than the average resident in other developed countries or in the rest of the world.
  5. More than 90% of California’s water footprint is associated with agricultural products: meat and dairy products have especially large water footprints due to the water-intensive feed required to raise the animals.
  6. California can save up to 4.5 – 6 million acre-feet of water each year by expanding the use of efficient irrigation technologies and management practices.
  7. Agriculture and other human activities contribute to contamination of public and private water supplies. The California State Water Board sampled 181 domestic wells in Tulare County in 2006 and found that 40% of those tested had nitrate levels above the legal limit.

Related: Read 10 Shocking Facts about the World’s Water

Cadiz Groundwater Plan

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Imagine a lake half as large as Lake Tahoe, containing 17 million to 34 million acre-feet of water. That is what lies under the Cadiz and Bristol valleys in the Eastern Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County. Cadiz Inc., a privately held company, owns 34,000 acres that overlie this vast groundwater basin. The company plans to extract 2.5 million acre-feet of the water, a public good, over the next 50 years and sell it back to the public at a profit.

This project raises several concerns, some of which are directly related to the project while others point to the need for a public debate and discussion about California’s groundwater laws.

Here are some facts about the project: Cadiz is proposing to extract on average 50,000 acre-feet of groundwater from the basin each year for 50 years. The intended rate of extraction of groundwater is significantly greater than the estimated natural recharge rate (the speed that groundwater is refilled naturally by rain and snow) of 5,000-32,000 acre-feet a year, which will lead to unsustainable mining of groundwater during the life of the project. The groundwater will go into a 43-mile-long pipeline to transport it to the Colorado River Aqueduct, where it will be distributed to several water utilities in Southern California.

Cadiz claims that the project will facilitate the beneficial use of groundwater that would otherwise naturally drain toward Bristol and Cadiz dry lakes (ephemeral lakes) and be “lost” to evaporation at the lakes and to transpiration by plants in the adjoining valleys. But the project proponents’ characterization of the water lost to evaporation and transpiration as non-beneficial is inaccurate. Some of the water that flows to the dry lakes and evaporates from the basin supports survival of local desert ecosystems, which depend upon the ability of groundwater reaching the surface; therefore, removal of this water would adversely affect these ecosystems.

The bottom line is that the project relies on unsustainable mining of groundwater, designed to extract groundwater at a rate exceeding natural recharge. In other words, it uses water in excess of the estimates of the water lost to evaporation, which is both a nonrenewable use of water and unsustainable in the long term.

According to the draft environmental impact report, the project will deplete groundwater storage in the valleys by 1 million to 2 million acre-feet. It will take from 50 to several hundred years for the basin to recover and refill after the project is terminated. If in that period the recharge rate decreases considerably or the evaporation rate increases under a long-term drought or more permanent climatic changes, then the long-term deleterious effects of the project might be even more significant and the recovery period much longer, if ever. Cadiz will make its profit for 50 years, and the public will be left to handle possible negative environmental and ecological consequences of this project for years to come.

Beyond the unsustainable nature of the Cadiz proposition, this project highlights serious shortcomings with California’s groundwater law. Imagine if one of the landowners adjacent to Lake Tahoe decided to take water from the lake and sell it for personal, short-term economic gain. That may sound crazy, and yet the state’s groundwater is the same resource.

The Cadiz project, if approved by San Bernardino County, would set a precedent for future privatization of groundwater in other desert basins. This calls for a broader public policy debate and discussion of state groundwater policy – or lack thereof.

We question that mining groundwater for short-term private gain is what an informed public would like to do with precious groundwater stored in the desert. The fact that the decision is left to San Bernardino County indicates the broader need for clear state policy to manage groundwater resources and a revision of groundwater laws.

John Bredehoeft, formerly with the U.S. Geological Survey, formed the Hydrodynamics Group, a Sausalito consulting firm.

Newsha Ajami, a hydrologist specializing in sustainable water resource management, is a senior research associate at the Pacific Institute in Oakland.

“Climate Change Question and Answer” Fact Sheet

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Ruskin’s AB 1365 Updates State Planning Priorities

With the threat of climate change growing worse by the day, a historic bill to tackle the issue was passed by the California Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee on a bipartisan, 8 to1 vote. Authored by Assemblymember Ira Ruskin (D-Redwood City), and sponsored by State Controller Steve Westly, the bill (AB 1365) updates the State Planning Priorities to include an additional goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 7% by 2010 and 10% by 2020 based on the 1990 greenhouse gas emission levels.

“From cities in my district to cities across the state and around the globe, we face a serious threat from climate change,” said California Assemblymember Ira Ruskin, Chair of the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials. “It’s well past time to tackle this growing threat by adding a climate change goal to California’s State Planning Priorities. The world’s top scientists have told us that climate change is not only real it is already taking place. The good new is we have solutions, like this bill, that can turn the tide without harming our economy.”

“You can’t argue with solid scientific evidence that Global Warming is a real threat to humanity,” said State Controller Westly. “As the sixth largest economy in the world, we should lead the effort to stop the damaging effects of Global Warming and join other industrialized nations in adopting Kyoto Protocol Standards.”

“After decades of studying climate change, a global consensus has emerged: Climate change is real, has already begun, and poses a grave threat to the United States and the world,” said Dr. Peter H. Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute and a 2003 MacArthur Fellow. “The failure of the United States to act means that states must begin the process. This historic bill is a first step in that direction.”

The standards-setting bill will encourage companies, government agencies and individuals to improve efficiency and curtail the pollution that causes climate change without creating onerous new regulation.

Dr. Ron Cohen, UC Berkeley Professor in the Departments of Chemistry and Earth and Planetary Science, said: “Our state has a long tradition of scientific and technical leadership. A proactive stance on greenhouse gas reduction is likely to reinforce ongoing efforts in California’s academic and commercial sectors to develop economically sensible solutions for reducing greenhouse gases. Such developments will further California’s advantage in high technology producing new jobs here while leading the world to a more stable climate.”

“The evidence has never been clearer: Time is running out and immediate action is imperative,” Assemblymember Ruskin concluded.

Along with rising sea levels, more intense storms, and more frequent and intense droughts, climate change may severely affect California’s agricultural industry, its wine-growing regions, and its ski industry. Climate change is also very likely to play havoc with the state’s water supply by changing when and where we get rain, by raising temperatures, and by impacting how quickly our snow pack melts.

AB 1365 is supported by the Sierra Club, California League of Conservation Voters, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Pacific Institute.

 

Questions and Answers about Climate Change

Prepared by the Pacific Institute of Oakland, California, April 22, 2005 in support of California AB1365

 

Question: Is climate change real and is it really happening?

“After decades of studying climate change, a global consensus has emerged: Climate change is real, has already begun, and poses a grave threat to the United States and the world,” said Dr. Peter H. Gleick, an internationally recognized expert on climate change and water resources. Dr. Gleick is President of the Pacific Institute, a member of the United Nations Sigma Xi Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Advisory Group, and a 2003 MacArthur Fellow.

In fact, most of the world’s largest oil companies (Royal Dutch/Shell, British Petroleum, and ChevronTexaco) have all acknowledged that climate change is real, caused in part by humans, and requires action. Ron Oxburgh, chairman of Royal Dutch/Shell, has admitted that the threat of climate change makes him “really very worried for the planet” according to published reports. “No one can be comfortable at the prospect of continuing to pump out the amounts of carbon dioxide that we are pumping out at present… with consequences that we really can’t predict but are probably not good.”

Beyond Theory: Observable Signs of Climate Change

“These phenomena are complex, and there are many uncertainties, but we now have scores of irrefutable observations that show we are already changing the Earth’s climate,” noted Gleick. “These signs include higher global temperatures, losses of snow and ice, increased storm intensity, rising ocean levels, and changing behavior of plants and animals.”

According to a recent study by the British Antarctic Survey: “Most of the glaciers on the Antarctic peninsular are in headlong retreat because of climate change… An in-depth study using aerial photographs spanning the past half century of all 244 marine glaciers on the west side of the finger-like peninsular pointing up to South America found that 87 percent of them were in retreat — and the speed was rising.”

According to Sir David King, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, climate change is “the most severe problem we face today…”

 

Question: How will climate change affect California?

1) Climate change is expected to increase sea levels, placing low-lying coastal areas at greater risk of flooding, erosion, and salt-water intrusion

According to a report produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Sea levels along the California coast will likely continue rising over the next century… Consequences could be especially severe during El Niño years, when sea levels and coastal waves along the California coast are already unusually high and winter storms can bring torrential rains. Higher sea levels could also allow saltwater intrusion into aquifers and the rich ecosystems found at the mouths of rivers.”

The report goes on to note that ” San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, which can increase the risk of storm damage, erosion, and flooding of leveed islands, valuable real estate, and rich wetland eco-systems.”

According to a Pacific Institute report published in 1990, a one meter sea level rise would cost several billion dollars to protect against and that “We think it unlikely that the status quo around the Bay can be maintained under conditions of expected sea-level rise, even with extensive efforts to build protective structures.”

2) Climate change is predicted to play havoc with California’s water supply

According to Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute: “Climate change won’t just result in warmer temperatures. One of the most troubling impacts of unchecked climate change involves California’s water supply. Global warming will change when and where we get snow and rain. If our snow pack melts too quickly or if water that falls as snow turns to rain, we’ll see more flooding in the winter and less water during the summer when we need it most.” Dr. Gleick was lead author of the U.S. National Assessment report for water resources.

According to Professor Lisa Sloan, University of California, Santa Cruz: “With less precipitation falling as snow and more as rain, plus higher temperatures creating increased demand for water, the impacts [of climate change] on our water storage system will be enormous.”

3) California’s agricultural sector, environment and the health of its residents could be seriously affected by Climate Change

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Higher temperatures could also affect California’s leading agricultural products, reducing dairy production and diminishing the quality of wine grapes in all but the coolest grape growing regions.” According to the same report, Climate change may increase the number of heat related deaths in California, unless preventative measures or taken, and, climate change, is likely to alter California’s natural environment significantly.

 

Question: Isn’t climate change a global issue, not a state issue?

Climate change is clearly a global issue – greenhouse gases from around the world combine in the atmosphere. However, there are several reasons California should take the lead among U.S. states: California contributes substantially to greenhouse gas emissions, we are a leader in renewable technology and thus could benefit economically by encourage efficiency and greenhouse gas reductions; and by “leading by example” we would encourage other states and the federal government to act in concert with us.

 

Question: Won’t the costs of responding to climate change hurt our economy?

Responding to climate change could actually help our economy, by stimulating new industries, by taking actions before other states do, and by helping to reduce long-term impacts. California is already a leader in the clean, high-tech industries that create solar installations and develop and build other kinds of renewable technology. The state is home to several of the largest solar system builders in the United States, PowerLight in Berkeley and Pacific Power Management in Auburn.

According to the head of British Petroleum, the oil company is on target to reduce green house gas emissions by 10% below 1990 levels by 2010 – twice the rate set out in the Kyoto treaty. And, even more surprisingly, British Petroleum hit its target at no net economic cost.

 

Question: Do we have the technology to respond to climate change now?

According to Xcel energy CEO Wayne Brunetti, we have the technology to significantly reduce emissions: “Give us a date, tell us how much we need to cut, give us the flexibility to meet the goals, and we’ll get it done.”

Let’s Start Overcoming Obstacles: Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency

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The Pacific Institute released a report several months ago on the potential for greater agricultural water conservation and efficiency in areas that depend on water either flowing into or being exported out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Each of the four scenarios we analyzed offers the potential to reduce agricultural water withdrawals in the region by 5 to 13 percent. These numbers are hardly radical compared to the experiences of many farmers who have implemented water conservation techniques. Yet these savings represent a lot of water. Moreover, we didn’t look at other practices such as fallowing (which we don’t consider “efficiency” in any sense of the word); new, genetically modified cultivars that use less water; or other new ideas and technologies that are just starting to appear.

We conclude that California can grow more food with less water—this is great news. But potential savings are not real savings until we take action, which is why we provide a lengthy discussion about the very real barriers to making some of these improvements: capital costs, regulatory constraints, unclear or inflexible water rights laws, lack of data and knowledge, and underfunded extension services. We describe the barriers that growers and districts are currently facing and offer some concrete recommendations on overcoming them.

 

While the report received a lot of positive attention from water policy makers, growers, media, and more (including calls from many farmers thanking us for highlighting their work in these areas or asking for help in overcoming the barriers to improving their efficiency), we also received negative responses. Here, we describe four key criticisms:

  1. Our analysis was not “new” – people have been writing about efficiency for decades.
    We don’t argue that the approaches we analyze are new. On the contrary, we went out of our way to assess techniques that many farmers throughout the state are already implementing, and we set out to determine what is working best and how much more can be done. In the face of a third year of drought and water reductions, determining where we can increase water-use efficiency is a critical question for all water users.
  2. The water savings doesn’t exist or we would have found it already.
    This criticism implies that all of water conservation and efficiency measures are already being implemented to their fullest potential, which is highly unlikely given the barriers identified. From the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley to the Central Coast to the Imperial Valley, we have met with California farmers, local farm bureaus, and irrigation districts to gather input from the agricultural community. It is clear from the experience of farmers around the state that there still remains a tremendous amount of potential water savings.
  3. On-farm water efficiency does not matter because excess water will be used by someone downstream, making water use on the basin scale extremely efficient.
    This criticism relies on two implied conclusions: (1) there isn’t any water to be saved, and (2) there is no value to reducing unnecessary withdrawals. Both of these are false.In regard to the first implied conclusion, critics argue: “If so much water could be saved, where is it? It must be going somewhere.” It is going somewhere: it is being consumed in unproductive evaporation. It is disappearing in the production of low-valued crops. It is ending up in other vegetation, including weeds and unimportant parts of the crop. It is flowing off fields as contaminated return flows to be shunted off into sinks. And it is ending up in saline groundwater layers that no one else can ever use.In regard to the second implied conclusion, reductions in total water withdrawals (including consumptive and non-consumptive uses) are also important but are not fully appreciated. Every acre-foot of water that is applied must be taken from a stream or groundwater basin. Thus, applying more water than needed can waste energy and money. It also hurts ecosystems and degrades water quality. And while the environmental and water quality impacts are often discounted, these two issues are the major drivers of litigation and regulation of water resources in California. Therefore, if one of our goals is to minimize conflicts between water users in the future, then reducing total water withdrawals can help us achieve that goal.
  4. And finally, most of the thoughtful responses to our assessment have reluctantly concluded: yes, there is water to be saved through efficiency, but we just don’t agree with how much.
    This is a huge step forward. Much like the climate change argument, we need to move beyond the paralysis of arguing about the problem and instead address how to solve it. We need to stop arguing about whether there is additional efficiency potential and start the conversation about the best ways to capture it. Our report never contends that on-farm conservation is the single solution to satisfy all demands. Everyone who struggles with California’s water problems understands that a “portfolio” of solutions is needed – a complex mix of infrastructure and smart management using economic, regulatory, and educational tools. We are going to have to change how we manage our water in every sector.

 

So, let’s quickly adopt the cost-effective options that can help us grow more food with less water. Let’s reduce the barriers to improving efficiency by offering financial incentives for new technology, and by expanding extension services that offer better information on climate and weather factors, soil moisture conditions, crop water demands. Let’s improve markets so that the trend away from water-intensive field crops continues.

The alternative is to let California’s unofficial water policy continue to be hoping next year is wet, and to respond after crises develop rather than before. We don’t believe this is the best thing to do, and we don’t think the agricultural community does either based on the many farmers and irrigation districts that are already trying to do more with less. In the end, not only can we do more with less, but we must.

Read More More with Less: Agricultural Water  Conservation and Efficiency in California A Special Focus on the Delta.

 

Time to Tap into Water-Wise Farmers’ Well of Ideas

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Water supply constraints have reduced the amount of water available for California this year, causing economic losses and midseason fallowing for many farmers. Independent of what we might want, it is very likely that there will continue to be serious constraints on water available to all California users, including agriculture.

At a recent state Board of Food and Agriculture meeting in Sacramento, Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura stated that because of changes in the timing and reliability of water supply, “doing nothing is not an option.”

We agree and think it is time for an open and honest discussion about the full range of ways to respond to the water crisis in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and throughout the state. Certainly, new infrastructure for water supply is one option that might be necessary. But it is also critical that farmers explore another promising option: agricultural water conservation and efficiency.

A new Pacific Institute report, “More with Less: Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency in California,” does this by looking at what innovative California farmers are already doing and offering ideas to help overcome barriers to further improvements.

We may be facing another drought year. The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center are forecasting a third dry winter in a row for California. While they both could be wrong, of course, even most optimists don’t think it likely that there will be more water for agriculture in coming years as population and environmental pressures grow, uncontrolled development in the Central Valley continues, and climate changes get worse.

We thus face two choices: Ignore the possibility of ongoing water reductions and let them randomly destroy farms and communities; or plan to manage changes in agricultural water availability and reliability, and improve the productivity of the water that is available. We prefer the second approach, and our report examines how we can maintain a healthy and profitable agricultural sector into the future.

There is a basic question here: Is there any potential for the agricultural sector to use water more efficiently? Many farmers have responded with a resounding “yes.” Even James O’Banion of the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority in a Sept. 15 letter to the Pacific Institute conceded that “there may be some additional gains in some of these areas.” If even a small amount of water could be saved or used more efficiently, then it is worth having a discussion about how to provide the appropriate incentives to achieve these savings.

We offer concrete recommendations for ways to overcome the financial, legal, and institutional barriers that currently inhibit or discourage efficient water use. For instance, we suggest providing rebates to farmers on more efficient irrigation equipment, and property tax exemptions for on-farm improvements that reduce water use. We also suggest the state provide more funding for educational and technical outreach programs such as agricultural extension services, which are not funded to an appropriate level to help deal with water-efficiency challenges. It is time to invest in the many “water-wise” farmers whose efforts bring benefits far beyond the farm gate and to create incentives that encourage other farmers to become more water-wise.

In his commentary in The Bee (“Study subtly aimed at getting more water for environment,” Sept. 25, Page B-5), O’Banion made some serious misrepresentations of our report. His comments reflect a knee-jerk response to any suggestions for how farmers might actively address growing concerns over water. There are those who prefer to bury their heads in the sand or attack research findings and recommendations, but this does little to help farmers or to deal with the crisis at hand. We encourage every member of the agricultural community to read the report.

Read the Pacific Institute’s full response to O’Banion’s letter

Peter Gleick, Heather Cooley, and Juliet Christian-Smith are authors of the Pacific Institute new report, More with Less.

Panic Makes for Poor Policy

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Ignoring a problem tends to make it worse. A worsening problem tends to lead to panic. Panic tends to make for bad public policy. Welcome to 21st century California water policy.

We are experiencing our driest year in more than a decade, and our policymakers are panicking. They are proposing that you and I cough up billions of dollars in new bonds to subsidize new dams and other large infrastructure that, at best, won’t contribute to meeting our needs for decades to come and, at worst, will siphon off precious funds needed for faster and more effective water solutions.

We may need some kind of peripheral canal, an idea that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to reintroduce, but we also need to stop fantasizing that one more $1 billion dam or pipeline will, at long last, solve our water problems. Pushing through these expensive proposals during a crisis doesn’t show “vision.”

Basically, we all need to take a deep breath and come up with a plan. It has been an extremely dry year, but our taps aren’t going dry and our farms aren’t blowing away. We need short-term solutions in case the drought continues next year, long-term thinking for the future and a willingness to tackle the water taboos long neglected in Sacramento: groundwater, water waste, agriculture and prices.

We can meet our needs this year by making smart, careful efforts to ratchet down our wasteful and unnecessary water uses. Taking shorter showers will help, but replacing old toilets, showerheads and washing machines with efficient models can substantially cut our largest indoor water uses permanently. Ironically, our green governor vetoed a water efficiency bill last October that would have freed up enough water to serve 1.5 million new Californians at far lower cost than the new dams he now wants us to buy.

We must also begin implementing longer-term, more permanent responses. We have to stop pretending that groundwater is free, and start monitoring and managing this precious resource. We can acknowledge the progress our cities have made in improving water efficiency, but let’s also admit that much more remains to be done, such as replacing wasteful lawns with low-water using gardens. Water districts must reinvigorate programs to fix leaks and expand the use of recycled and reclaimed water where appropriate. Where the environmental and economic implications are well understood and resolved, desalination plants may have a role to play for high valued uses.

It is also time to stop letting agriculture off the hook.

To date, the agricultural sector has largely failed to take responsibility for its share of our water problems and to participate in implementing real solutions. California growers are responsible for 80 percent of the state’s water consumption, yet they generate only 2 percent of the gross state product. Although some innovative growers have implemented smart water programs, vast quantities of water are still used inefficiently to grow low-value crops in hot climates just because we can, not because we should. Agricultural lobbyists successfully fight to maintain the status quo, hiding behind long-term subsidized federal contracts for low-priced water, or historical water rights assigned when the state’s population was 1 million, not 36 million. These outdated practices are destroying the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, family farms, fisheries and the state’s few remaining healthy rivers.

We should temporarily take some cropland out of rotation, if we have to, and consider permanently retiring poor quality lands, replace flood irrigation with sprinklers and drip systems, eliminate perverse incentives for growing cotton and other high-water crops, and encourage farms to switch to vegetables and other more water efficient or drought-tolerant crops.

California can have a water future. We can take a shower and flush the toilet while simultaneously using less water. We can have a healthy agricultural sector and continue to be the nation’s most important producer of food, while greatly reducing agricultural water use. We can restore needed water to dying fisheries and deltas. But these things will only happen if we demand that our leaders stop offering us 20th century solutions that didn’t work then and won’t work now, and start offering us a sustainable water future.

Lower Colorado River: Proposed Drop 2 Storage Reservoir Project

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On February 15, 2007, the Pacific Institute joined several other NGOs in submitting comments (PDF) on the Bureau of Reclamation’s proposed Drop 2 Storage Reservoir Project (for more information on Reclamation’s proposed project, click here). The proposed project would build a total of 8,000 acre-feet of new, re-regulatory storage adjacent to the All-American Canal, just downstream of the turnout of the Coachella Canal.

The purpose of the project is to reduce the volume of water delivered to Mexico at Morelos Dam in excess of the U.S.’s obligations under the 1944 Treaty. To date, these over-deliveries have sustained the remnant Colorado River delta;  reducing these flows could decrease the magnitude of flow below Morelos Dam by a 87%. Using Reclamation’s data, we estimate that had the proposed project been in place, there would have been no flow at all below Morelos Dam for 97% of the days from 2000 through 2004.

While we agree that increasing the efficiency of water deliveries is an important objective, we strongly believe that the invaluable riparian habitat in the Colorado River delta below Morelos Dam must be protected.

We also suggested several interim measures to protect the limitrophe, as we continue to craft long-term solutions to the delta’s pressing need for water.  These interim solutions include:For a large number of reasons described in our comment letter, we believe that Reclamation’s environmental assessment is inadequate and must be redone.

  1. dedicating a portion of the water conserved by the proposed project to instream flows in the limitrophe;
  2. implementing a robust surface and groundwater monitoring program, in conjunction with vegetation and wildlife surveys;
  3. federal and state support for limitrophe restoration projects; and
  4. locating the proposed project in the Laguna Reach of the Colorado River (downstream of Imperial Dam), in conjunction with a restoration of that reach of the river, to minimize evaporative losses and maximize ecological benefits.

Pacific Institute Responds to Misleading Commentary by Wayne Lusvardi

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On Friday February 25th, the Sacramento Bee published an opinion essay by Pacific Institute President Dr. Peter H. Gleick on the pending renewal of heavily subsidized federal contracts associated with the Central Valley Project in California.

On February 28th, a criticism of this essay was posted by Wayne Lusvardi, who describes himself as a libertarian and former employee of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Although we welcome criticism and open debate, Lusvardi’s attack against our essay is characterized by intentional distortions, simple errors, misquotations, misleading logic, and ad hominem attacks.

Ironically, Mr. Lusvardi has in the past gone on record criticizing “government-subsidized water” that allows “farmers to grow rice, cotton, alfalfa and other water-hungry corps that suck up 75 percent of raw water supplies.” In a piece published by the Reason Public Policy Institute Lusvardi says “the most promising solution to the long-term water crisis in California is full-cost pricing” (see “Watering the West” in Volume 28, No. 2 of Privatization Watch of the Reason Public Policy Institute).

Below, we’ve reproduced the Lusvardi piece, with our responses in blue text.


Lusvardi Commentary [and Pacific Institute Response]:

California’s Water War Based on Flawed Images Cadillac Desert or Land Rover Environmentalism? California’s water war between Northern and Southern California is based on flawed images

Written by Wayne Lusvardi and posted to the ChronWatch website on February 28, 2005.

In 1986, Marc Reisner authored a popular book “Cadillac Desert” that mounted an environmental attack against the rice growing industry in California saying rice farmers were growing a “monsoon” crop in the middle of the desert with Federally-subsidized water. [Pacific Institute response: This is a simplistic and inaccurate description of Reisner’s remarkable book on California water history and politics. Regardless of what one thinks of Cadillac Desert, it has nothing to do with our essay and we do not reference it.]

A similar refrain has been recently issued by the Pacific Institute, an environmentalist water think tank in Oakland [the Institute is not an “environmentalist” [sic] group, but an independent, nonpartisan think-tank studying issues at the intersection of development, environment, and security], that has sent out an alarm in California newspapers that a “pending deal being cut behind closed doors, with little or no public input or scrutiny, would undermine California’s water solutions”. The Pacific Institute press release states that for some 50 years, Federal water subsidies have encouraged a small number of rice farmers to use huge quantities of water at the expense of the taxpayers and natural ecosystems. [Our opinion essay never mentions rice farmers, and we did not issue a press release.] 

About 2.2 million acre feet of water is used to grow rice each year in the Sacramento Bay Delta, which equates to about the same amount of water used by 10 million city dwellers in Los Angeles (an acre foot of water is football size field of water one foot high and supports about 2 families per year).

According to the Pacific Institute the original Federal water contracts are pending renewal which will cost the taxpayers a reported $500 million over the next 10 years. [This estimate came from the Congressional Budget Office, not the Pacific Institute, as noted in our essay.] The Institute report proceeds to tell us that 1,000 acre-feet of water produces 900 jobs in the semiconductor industry [Our analysis says that it produces nine thousand jobs in the semiconductor industry, not nine hundred], 2,500 jobs in commercial offices, 35 jobs in grape and wine production, but a mere three jobs growing cotton. We are told that cotton and alfalfa produce only $60 of gross state revenue per acre foot of water compared to $1 million in the semiconductor industry.

We must ask two questions about the above-cited Pacific Institute report. First, what if anything has been left out of the report? And secondly, is the image of California water politics as a Cadillac Desert accurate? [We say nothing about “a Cadillac Desert.” We focus here solely on unsustainable federal water subsidies.] 

What has been left out of the Pacific Institute press release is an awful lot. Firstly, the report fails to tell us that the water in the Sacramento Bay Delta, where most of the rice growing occurs, is not exclusively used for rice farming. [We don’t talk about rice at all. And most of the water subsidized by the Central Valley Project is used for other crops, much of it south of the Delta.] It is used for flood control, for cultivating other irrigated farm crops, as natural habitat for waterfowl and wildlife, for natural water purification, and for public recreation. [This sentence is illogical, and incorrect — how can water be used for flood control? — and also irrelevant to our essay, which talks about inappropriate federal subsidies to a small number of California growers, not about the Sacramento Bay Delta.] If farmers have to fallow land or rice paddies because of the ups and downs of the agricultural market, the water allocated to them remains unused. [We never discuss fallowing, just the removal of harmful subsidies, but the idea that any water not used by humans is “unused” is part of the problem with California water management today. This water has enormous ecological value and use, and if it were used more efficiently parts could be reallocated to other growers, the environment, and California’s urban centers.] 

According to the Audobon Society [Audubon] the rice fields of the Bay Delta are the home of some 40,000 birds. [This number is clearly wrong, but waterfowl populations were certainly much higher before most of the vast Central Valley wetlands were drained for agriculture. Over the past century, Central Valley wetlands area went from over 3 million acres to under 500,000, and waterfowl populations have dropped from over 100 million to under 10 million.] Rice paddies offer wetland habitat to huge number of ducks in a state that is always decrying that it is losing wetlands. [Is Lusvardi arguing that rice paddies are better wetland habitat than the original wetlands? We disagree. We applaud collaborative efforts between rice growers and environmentalists, such as the Ricelands Habitat Partnership, which we describe in our report Sustainable Use of Water: California Success Stories.] And rice paddies serve as natural water filtration systems to break down herbicides used by rice growers. Even Marc Reisner, the author of the book Cadillac Desert, eventually changed his mind about rice farming and called it one of the most “progressive” agricultural enterprises. [Ironically, herbicide contamination from rice farming declined only after regulatory efforts by the State of California provided incentives to farmers, but again this has nothing to do with our original opinion essay.] 

And the illogical notion that using water for rice farming takes more economically productive jobs from the semiconductor industry or commercial economy, as the Pacific Institute report contends, is nonsense. Halting water to rice growers or making them pay the urban retail price for the water won’t produce more semiconductor jobs or vice versa. [This is a cavalcade of deception: As noted earlier, we say nothing about rice farmers; we have never called for farmers to pay the urban retail price for water; and we never claim that farming takes more productive jobs from other sectors. The essay calls for an end to unsustainable federal water subsidies and raises the point that modest reallocations of water could be tremendously beneficial for the State’s economy.] 

We must then ask if all this is so why the Pacific Institute would claim otherwise. What the Pacific Institute left out was that in 2003 irrigation districts in the Sacramento Valley began signing contracts to sell surplus water to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Farmers in the Sacramento Valley say the water sales offer them a safety net if there is a price collapse in the volatile agricultural market. So instead of buying crop insurance, central California farmers can sell their water in a down market to Southern California. This is a win/win deal, not a win/lose deal for Northern and Southern California. [Why should U.S. and California taxpayers give water that Lusvardi admits is “surplus,” and unneeded by farmers, away at hugely subsidized prices to farmers so they can resell it to cities? In fact, the law says only water that is beneficially used can be given to farmers. If it is surplus, the State should allocate it where it is truly needed.]

Environmentalists are suspicious that selling water would provide an incentive for drawing an extra allocation of water merely to make a profit without any intent of using it for agricultural production. But Federal law prevents “paper-trades” of water from occurring. Farmers are expressly forbidden from selling what they cannot use. [If this is the case, then don’t sign CVP contracts for water that farmers cannot prove they will need. Yet these proposed contracts may include substantial amounts of such unneeded water. We repeat our call from our original essay: The federal government should not sign the CVP contacts until this issue has been resolved.]

The not-so hidden agenda of the Pacific Institute apparently has little to do with stopping waste or even preserving the environment as much as it does in stopping population growth and development. It is probably not coincidental that Stanford University professor Dr. Anne H. Erlich, co-author of the infamously wrong 1968 book The Population Bomb, is on the Board of Directors of the Pacific Institute. [Although Dr. Ehrlich does serve on our board she was not a co-author of The Population Bomb. She also had nothing to do with our original essay. In addition, the Institute has not written about population growth and we have no “hidden” agenda — we are open and transparent about the goals we are working towards.

What think tanks in “blue cities” like the Pacific Institute apparently want to do is to stop agricultural enterprises and new housing development from thriving in “red counties” where the population is growing. [Since when is smart water policy “red” or “blue”? This is just an attempt to politicize and polarize the issue of water and has nothing to do with our argument.] What might be called liberal Land Rover environmentalism continues to paint a distorted image of California agricultural water politics as a Cadillac Desert rather than as a horn of plenty for both the economy and the environment. [No one at the Pacific Institute owns a Land Rover and we dispute Mr. Lusvardi’s contention that California agricultural water politics have been a “horn of plenty” for California’s environment. We ask Mr. Lusvardi to correct the errors in his piece and also whether he no longer believes what he wrote for the Reason Institute. If he now supports inappropriate federal subsidies to farmers to inefficiently grow surplus crops, he should go on record with that support. We stand by our argument: Unsustainable federal subsidies are harming California’s ability to fairly allocate and efficiently use water.]