237 Multi-Benefit Resources

How the Coronavirus Pandemic is Affecting Water Demand

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By Heather Cooley

Changes in Water Demand

The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed massive health and economic burdens on communities around the world, and no sector of society is going untouched, including the vitally important water sector. The full extent of impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the water sector are still emerging, but one area that has come to the fore is the effect on municipal water demand. Available data indicate that residential water demand has increased while non-residential demand has decreased. In Portsmouth, England, for example, residential demand increased by 15 percent during the lockdown, while non-residential demand declined by 17 percent. Likewise, in San Francisco, California, residential demand increased by 10 percent, while non-residential demand declined by 32 percent. 


“Available data indicate that residential water demand has increased while non-residential demand has decreased.”


These changes are, in part, due to the simple fact that people are doing more at home during the coronavirus pandemic – like cooking, washing dishes, flushing toilets, and showering – and less in the office, at restaurants, and at the gym. Moreover, while business is up for a handful of sectors – like hospitals and some food production – other important water-using sectors of the economy have slowed or shut down entirely.  

The net effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on total water demand varies from community to community, depending on the relative proportion of residential and non-residential water uses and the makeup of the non-residential sectors. Most communities – including larger metropolitan systems in Boston (Massachusetts) and Austin (Texas) – have experienced a reduction in total water demand. More residential communities have experienced either modest increases or the smallest decreases.  

A Ripple of Effects 

Sudden changes in the levels and patterns of water demand from stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns can have knock-on effects, affecting building water quality, customer water bills, utility revenue, and water and wastewater operational conditions:  

Building Water Quality: Under normal conditions, the regular flow of disinfected tap water keeps water and plumbing free of corrosion, leached minerals, and bacteria. But when water systems are shut down or inactive for weeks or months, residual disinfectants in water, such as chlorine, can dissipate. Several potential hazards must be considered before reopening buildings or water systems, including the risk of mold, Legionella (the cause of Legionnaires’ disease), leaching of lead and other metals, and the presence of disinfection by-products. Many building owners are unaware of the risks and the actions they should take, and there are no official national or industry regulations for safely reopening buildings after extended shutdowns. 

Customer Water Bills: Changes in water use will lead to changes in customer bills. Because water bills typically include a fixed fee that would remain unchanged, the change in the bill is typically considerably less than the change in water usage, i.e., the additional cost of a 10 percent increase in water usage would be much less than 10 percent. But for those already struggling to pay bills or newly unemployed, even a modest increase in household bills can be problematic. Businesses are likely to see costs go down temporarily, but these savings are moderated by fixed fees and could still be problematic for those that are shutdown.  


 “For those already struggling to pay bills or newly unemployed, even a modest increase in household bills can be problematic.”


Utility Revenue: Utilities where total water use has declined during the coronavirus pandemic will see a drop in revenue. Revenue losses are compounded by higher costs and likely increases in non-payment, putting further pressures on water utilities. For example, a survey of U.S. water utilities during the pandemic indicated that some are offering hazard pay and overtime to essential workers, expanding training, and spending more on certain supplies. Moreover, many states have placed a temporary moratorium on customer disconnections, further affecting revenue. Impacts are likely to be more severe for small utilities, as they have a smaller customer base to absorb revenue losses.  

Water and Wastewater System Operations: Even with a small change in total water demand, changes within a water system may be more dramatic. For North Carolina’s Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, water demand across its service area was down only three percent, but demand in two subsystems serving largely residential areas increased by 25 percent and 36 percent. Moreover, as businesses reopen and implement hygiene and disinfection practices and as temperatures rise, water use may rise dramatically. Such rapid and dramatic changes in water use can exacerbate existing — and reveal new — system weaknesses. Managing these weaknesses may be more difficult as operators adjust to reduced staffing, working remotely, and other changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, too, small water systems are more vulnerable because they have fewer operators.  

Some of these impacts will be short-lived, generally limited to the period when stay-at-home orders are in place and businesses closed. However, there could be longer-term impacts if, for example, the pandemic remains out of control, unemployment remains high, people continue to work from home, or there are deeper changes to the economy.  


“There could be longer-term impacts if the pandemic remains out of control, unemployment remains high, people continue to work from home, or there are deeper changes to the economy.”


There is still much we don’t know. For example, we don’t know the extent or duration of the pandemic, or the range of impacts on different water systems, or the effectiveness of efforts to mitigate these impacts. But we do know that we are facing a more variable and uncertain future – from social disruptions like the COVID-19 pandemic to more extreme droughts and floods due to climate change. Immediate action is needed to ensure the safety of water during building reopening, and sustained effort is needed improve the financial and operational resilience of water utilities to ensure that they can continue to provide critical water and wastewater services. 

Ensuring Water Safety During Building Reopening 

  • Building operators and managers should take immediate proactive steps to protect public health by addressing building water quality prior to reopening, and actions taken should be shared with building occupants. 
  • Water utilities should proactively reach out to commercial and industrial customers with information about safe reopening procedures. In North America, the American Water Works Association (AWWA), Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, CDC, U.S. EPA, and other groups offer recommendations for both specific actions and community outreach. 
  • Facilities with their own water systems must consider protective actions. Groups that maintain their own water supply, including some schools, restaurants, churches, and recreational facilities, should contact their primacy agencies with specific questions.
  • Local, state, and federal agencies should make special efforts to reach out to groups with limited access to technical expertise and financial resources. This includes small rural water systems, disadvantaged communities, Native American communities, and other groups with special water supply and quality challenges. 

Enhancing Water Utility Resilience 

  • Water utilities should expand their efforts to develop more robust and sophisticated “resilience” plans. Such plans can help water utilities prepare for and mitigate a wider range of risks than traditional planning approaches have addressed, including extreme climatic conditions, health threats like the COVID-19 pandemic, and the failure of key infrastructure. 
  • Water utilities and municipalities should accelerate the pace and scale of digital monitoring and operational technologies. Such technologies can provide advance notice of developing problem and allow the continued safe operation of critical systems even with reduced staffing and shelter-in-place orders. 
  • Water utilities should proactively update their pricing and financial policiesWhile it may not be feasible to change pricing policies in response to the immediate impacts of the pandemic, changes may be needed to address the longer-term economic impacts and build resilience to future crises. Some strategies that should be evaluated include budget-based or inclining block rates, drought surcharges, and cash reserves. 
  • Water utilities should consider purchasing commercial insurance products that provide coverage for business interruptions. While commercial products may not specifically address all the challenges posed by the pandemic, more general policy terms can be negotiated in case of future disruptions.
  • National governments and international aid agencies should increase financial assistance and accelerate the disbursement of this assistance. Financial assistance can help ensure much-needed utility infrastructure investments are maintained and stimulate economic recovery. Such funding should be prioritized for small systems and for projects that (1) enhance sustainability and resilience outcomes and (2) serve disadvantaged communities that lack comprehensive access to safe water and sanitation.

Learn more in the Pacific Institute Issue Brief Water and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Impacts on Municipal Water Demand

The COVID Crisis is Slashing California’s State Budget. What Does it Mean for Water Management?

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By Cora Kammeyer


It goes without saying that California today, in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, looks very different from the California of January 2020. Governor Gavin Newsom’s May Revisions to the 2020-2021 state budget reflect this drastic change in circumstance, announcing a $54.3 billion budget deficit and proposing $18 billion in cuts to State funds expenditures. The dramatic slide from a $6 billion surplus to a $54.3 billion deficit is due to COVID-19, both the State’s mobilization to address the crisis and the economic downturn the pandemic has caused.

Several of these cuts will directly affect the availability of funding to manage California’s water resources, from safe drinking water, to groundwater sustainability, to stream restoration, and more.

While the real impacts of these budget cuts on water programs remain to be seen, the risk of a simultaneous water crisis and pandemic needs to be taken seriously. We are seeing what failure to invest in water systems during the time of a pandemic looks like around the world. From flooding and failing dams in Michigan and Virginia to lack of access to running water in Native American reservations across the US, as well as water crises in countries like India and Brazil, the compounding effects of COVID-19 and water-related emergencies are catastrophic. We do not want to see that combination play out in California.

This blog post provides a short summary of the proposed budget changes and their impacts on California water management. While the full details of what programs are being cut, and by how much, are not yet available, key pieces of information were pulled from the California Senate and Assembly budget revision summaries. Information on the total proposed State budget cuts for each California State agency and department can be found on the Governor’s May Revision Budget Details website.

Department of Water Resources

Total proposed State budget cut: -$51,267,000 (-5.4%)

California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) protects, conserves, develops, and manages the state’s water. DWR evaluates existing water resources, forecasts future water needs, manages the State Water Project’s reservoirs and water delivery systems, and explores solutions to meet those needs. It also works to prevent and minimize flood damage, oversee dam safety, and educate the public about the importance of water and its efficient use.

The May Revision withdraws a number of State budget allocations to DWR proposed in January, including:

State Water Resources Control Board

Total proposed State budget cut: -$5,833,000 (-0.7%)

The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), along with the nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards, promotes and enforces proper allocation, permitting, and use of California’s water resources, and preserves, enhances, and restores the quality of the state’s water resources. These objectives are achieved through the Water Quality, Water Rights, and Drinking Water programs.

The May Revision shifts $24 million of the SWRCB budget (beyond the $5.8 million cut) to come from Air Pollution Control Fund penalty revenues instead of the General Fund, on a one-time basis.

Department of Fish and Wildlife

Total proposed State budget cut: -$55,875,000 (-11.5%)

The Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) manages California’s diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological value and for their use and enjoyment by the public. This includes habitat protection and maintenance in a sufficient amount and quality to protect the survival of all species and natural communities.

The May Revision withdraws a number of State budget allocations proposed to DFW in January, including:

  • $33.7 million General Fund ongoing from DFW’s state operations base budget. This reduction will be partially offset by an $18.9 million shift from the Habitat Conservation Fund to the new Biodiversity Protection Fund to support DFW’s core biodiversity conservation and enforcement programs. This reduction may be covered by federal funding.
  • $13.8 million General Fund for the Advancing Biodiversity Protection proposal.
  • $80 million General Fund for Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) Technology.

Department of Food and Agriculture

Total proposed State budget cut: -$23,323,000 (-4.9%)

The May Revision withdraws the proposed $20 million General Fund for State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program Grants.

Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund

The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund is financed by revenues from California’s Cap-and-Trade program. The May Revision maintains the Governor’s January Budget proposal of a $965 million Cap-and-Trade discretionary spending plan, though the funds for this are likely to shrink because of decreased economic activity. The Revision establishes a “pay-as-you-go” budget mechanism to authorize expenditures based on proceeds received at each quarterly auction. This mechanism will prioritize the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, along with air quality, forest health, and fire prevention programs.

Climate Resilience Bond

The Climate Resilience Bond was a proposal to create a $4.75 billion bond for the November 2020 ballot to support investments to reduce climate risks in natural and built infrastructure. The Bond emphasized water, and was intended to allocate as much as 60 percent of the bond funding to water projects. The May Revision withdraws this proposal.


Water in the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (“HEROES ACT”): May 2020

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By Peter Gleick

Emergency supplemental appropriations for FY 2020 proposed by the US House of Representatives


Credit: Michelle Gigante, U.S. Air Force

The newly proposed House of Representatives’ emergency supplemental appropriations bill was just released. Among the $3 trillion dollars it allocates are several provisions related to water and wastewater agencies, residential water use, and agriculture. The final bill will certainly be different, after the Senate and lobbyists get through with it, but as of now, here are some of the major water-related provisions in the bill.

Broadly speaking, the bill provides specific tranches of money for key vulnerable groups: Native American tribes, essential workers and families, homeowners, and low-income households. These are all groups that have experienced especially difficult impacts from both the coronavirus itself and the economic impacts of the response.

Missing from the proposed supplemental appropriations is help for water agencies that are experiencing unanticipated consequences, including lost revenue from changes in urban water demands and a moratorium on disconnections and shut-offs, or problems with financing for new capital investments for water and wastewater systems.

The pandemic provides an opportunity to rethink, redesign, and reinvest in the nation’s water infrastructure, but there is as yet no sign that our legislators will act on this opportunity.

Below are the key water-related provisions in the House bill:


Division A-Coronavirus Recovery Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020

The Bureau of Indian Affairs would receive $20,000,000 to provide and deliver potable water. Indian Health Services would receive “Not less than $10,000,000” for the same purpose.


Division F-Assistance to Agricultural Producers and Other Matters Related to Agriculture

A new provision sets up the “Emergency Soil Health and Income Protection Pilot Program” – a voluntary emergency soil health and income protection pilot program under which eligible agricultural land is enrolled to assist owners and operators of eligible land to conserve and improve the soil, water, and wildlife resources.


Division J-Support for Essential Workers, At-Risk Individuals, Families, and Communities

Section 100203 provides funding for “Emergency Assistance to Families Through Home Visiting Programs,” to be used “to provide emergency supplies (such as diapers, formula, non-perishable food, water, hand soap and hand sanitizer) to families served.”


Division K-COVID-19 Hero Act (Housing, Economic Relief, and Oversight Act)

Section 110202 establishes a Homeowner Assistance Fund with $75 billion, some of which can be used by the Department of the Treasury for homeowners to prevent mortgage defaults, foreclosures, and displacement of individuals and families facing financial hardship. Specifically, funds may be used for mortgage assistance, assistance with payment of taxes, hazard insurance, homeowners fees, and utility payment including electric, gas, water, and internet service.


Division M-Consumer Protection and Telecommunications Provisions establishes a Price Gouging Protection program that applies to critical goods and services, including food and water.


Division S-Other Matters

A key section is Sec. 190701 (Home Energy and Water Service Continuity). This section requires that “any entity receiving financial assistance pursuant to any division of this Act shall, to the maximum extent practicable, establish or maintain in effect policies to ensure that no home energy service or public water system service to a residential customer, which is provided or regulated by such entity, is or remains disconnected or interrupted during the emergency period described in section 1135(g)(1)(B) of the Social Security Act because of nonpayment, and all reconnections of such public water system service are conducted in a manner that minimizes risk to the health of individuals receiving such service.”

This section does not, however, require forgiveness of any debt incurred during the pandemic, or absolve an individual of any obligation to an entity for service, nor preempt any State or local law or regulation governing entities that provide such services to residential customers.

Another two major sections (Sec. 190703 “Low-Income Household Drinking Water and Wastewater Assistance” and Sec. 190704) provides $1.5 billion for grants to States and Indian Tribes, and to residential water users to assist low income households, particularly those with the lowest incomes, that pay a high proportion of household income  for drinking water and wastewater services, by providing funds to owners or operators of public water systems or treatment works to reduce rates charged to such households for such services. It also (in Section 190704) includes the protections for households from disconnections or service shutoffs during the pandemic due to nonpayment.


Division T-Additional Other Matters

Sec. 2000007. Safety Upgrades in GSA Facilities

A final provision requires the Administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA) to take such actions as are necessary “to prevent airborne transmission of COVID–19 through air conditioning, heating, ventilating, and water systems in facilities owned or leased by the General Services Administration to ensure safe and healthy indoor environments for Federal employees… Any projects carried out by the Administrator to carry out this section shall prioritize indoor air and water environmental quality in facilities and energy-saving building technologies and products.”


Want to Help Fight COVID-19? List Your Organization’s Work on the Water Action Hub

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By Lillian Holmes

People around the world are told to wash their hands to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of COVID-19, but what if you don’t have a sink or tap in your home?

Add Your Project to the Water Action Hub Coronavirus/COVID-19 Portal

Access to handwashing facilities is just one of many connections between COVID-19 and water. Businesses, NGOS, municipalities, and community members can explore these connections and opportunities for action through the Water Action Hub’s Coronavirus/COVID-19 portal. The portal allows users to share knowledge and best practices and find partners for action. 

Organizations and others that have undertaken new water-related measures around COVID-19, perhaps by stepping in to provide drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services to communities or expanding WASH access at the workplace, are invited to get in touch with the Water Action Hub team to receive help listing this work on the .

By collaborating and sharing knowledge, we can strengthen our ability to effectively address the pandemic.

Helping Businesses and Communities Take Action on COVID-19

Around the world, businesses are acting to address COVID-19 and protect against future public health crises, as Pacific Institute researcher Giuliana Chavez Morales describes in her blog post “How Can the World Avoid the Spread of Future Pandemics?” These responses have been a valuable addition to the Water Action Hub’s COVID-19 portal.

Meanwhile, many public health organizations are releasing research and guidance for businesses, utilities, and communities seeking to respond to the pandemic. The COVID-19 portal lists a collection of these resources here.

About the Water Action Hub

The Coronavirus/COVID-19 portal is one of several topic platforms on the Water Action Hub, a project of the UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate, for which the Pacific Institute serves as Co-Secretariat.

The Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) portal offers resources relevant to COVID response, as well as a list of organizations seeking to address WASH issues.

The Hub welcomes organizations from universities to charities to businesses to list their water projects and insights and connect with potential future partners. Learn more.

How Can the World Avoid the Spread of Future Pandemics?

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By Giuliana Chaves Moreira  


The answer to this question is not simple, but there are recommendations that all countries around the world can take into consideration 


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought up problems and challenges related to basic sanitation, as this is not only a global health crisis, but also a social crisis that affects the lives of millions of people living in vulnerable situations.

COVID-19 and the Global Setback on the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Hand washing is key to fight COVID-19, according to WHO recommendations. Unfortunately, this essential and fundamental measure to prevent the spread of the disease is still inaccessible for the 780 million people around the world who lack access to an improved water source and the 2.5 billion who lack access to proper sanitation. In fact, 844 million people in the world – one in nine – do not have clean water close to home (WHO, UNICEF and JMP, 2017)1. And 2.3 billion people in the world – almost one in three – do not have a decent toilet of their own (WHO, UNICEF and JMP, 2017)1.


     Credit: UNICEF 43450 Lister 


A recent United Nations report provides an analysis of the implications of the pandemic for the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement. According to this report, a prolonged global economic slowdown will adversely impact the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.  These adverse impacts will be felt around the world, but especially by people living in vulnerability. SDG 11 calls for making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. But as the following figure highlights, populations living in slums face higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to high population density and poor sanitation conditions.


Credit: Undesa, Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 

An Opportunity to Build More Sustainable and Equitable Societies: Focus on Brazil

The UN report provides several recommendations and insights on how nations can deal with the crisis, leveraging this opportunity to build sustainable societies. Special attention is given to the most vulnerable people living in developing countries, as the poorest and more vulnerable people are at a disadvantage and will be the hardest hit. On average, developing countries spend only about two percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on health, compared to the global average of 4.7 percent, contributing to poorer health outcomes.

As an example,  despite being ranked ninth out of the Top 20 Economies in the World based in its GDP, in Brazil roughly half of the population – 100 million people – live without adequate sanitation or any kind of wastewater treatment, while 35 million Brazilians do not have access to safe drinking waterWater and sanitation are basic human rights that should be guaranteed to all citizens, yet they are neglected for half the population in Brazil, and have been for years. According to the study Panorama of the private sector’s participation in sanitation, published in 2019, the need for greater investment in sanitation in Brazil is an urgent priority.

While investments have failed to meet the country’s needs for health, social welfare, and environmental stewardship, it can be done. To change this scenario, it would be necessary to invest R$20 billion per year in sanitation (around $3.6 billion USD). This level has never been reached. In 2016, for example, R$11.33 billion (around $2 billion USD) was invested in sanitation (0.18 percent of the national GDP). In 2017, investment fell to R$10.05 billion (around $1.8 billion USD). (The Brazilian National Sanitation Plan investment target for the sanitation sector is 0.33 percent of GDP).

The study Comparações Internacionais: Uma Agenda de Soluções para os Desafios do Saneamento Brasileiro (International Comparisons: An Agenda of Solutions for the Challenges of Brazilian Sanitation), conducted by the National Confederation of Industry, discusses the main challenges of the sector, characterizing sanitation as one of the most backward segments of Brazilian infrastructure with a reasonable investment deficit, in relation to other countries with per capita GDP comparable to that of Brazil.

The tragic situation of Brazilian sanitation is reflected in the country’s precarious sanitation indicators, a consequence of insufficient investments in the sector. The comparison of Brazil with a sample of other countries and other infrastructure sectors in Brazil suggests an anomaly in the Brazilian case; given Brazil’s level of GDP per capita, the country should have greater sanitation coverage. The following figure shows this fact through a simple trend line per capita containing the positive association between per capita GDP and sewage treatment. It would be expected that, for the level of per capita GDP in Brazil, the coverage of sewage treatment would be higher.


Source: Adapted from International Comparisons: An Agenda of Solutions for the Challenges of Brazilian Sanitation

Brazil versus California: The Golden State Shows Water Expenditures Pay Off California

California presents a really expressive result for the culture of rational use of water and water recycling. Analyzing the evolution of the population and water demand in Los Angeles in the 30 years between 1980 and 2010 (see figure below), the culture of rational use of water is evident. Despite the increase in the number of inhabitants, there was a decrease in water use per capita and in total demand.


One of the best measures of Mono Lake’s protection is the flat trend of Los Angeles’s water supply since 1970, thanks to the extraordinary and still-needed water conservation efforts of the city’s population, which have reduced per capita water use to under 150 gallons per day.  Source: DWP 


In the São Paulo Metropolitan Region (SPMR), on the other hand, in the past decades water demand has risen along with the population. São Paulo alone is home to around 22 million people, and the population has risen by 20 percent over the past 20 years, along with daily water use, which is currently at 180 litres per person 

According to the National Sanitation Information System (SNIS) the average water consumption per capita in Brazil in 2018 was 154.9 liters per capita per day (which is equivalent to 40.98 GPCD or gallons per capita per day). The average for the State of São Paulo for the year 2018 was 169.3 liters per capita per day (which is equivalent to 44.79 GPCD or gallons per capita per day). 

According to the most recent dataset available in the portal of the California State Water Resources Control Board, the average residential gallons per capita daily use (R-GPCD) in the area served by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was 60 gallons (in February 2020). There was a small reduction in water consumption between February 2018 and February 2020. During this period, consumption decreased from 69 to 60, corresponding to 13 percent.


Average daily residential use – Los Angeles Department od Water and Power from February 2018-2020. Source: Portal of the California Water Resources Control Board


According to the “Our County Water Briefing” developed by UCLA, LARC, Liberty Hill, and BuroHappold and published in June 2018, total water demand decreased by over 25 percent in 16 years, dropping from 200 gallons per capita per day (GPCD) in 2000 to approximately 146 GPCD in 2016 (with potable consumptive demand down to 110 GPCD). In response to the record drought, total annual water use decreased by 16 percent in 2015 compared to 2013, and another one percent in 2016.

Brazil, on the other hand, has experienced an increase in water demand. The chart below from the study published as part of a report from the Bulletin of the American Meteorology Society on extreme weather events across the world in 2014 shows how population and water demand have increased in São Paulo in recent decades.

An increase in water demand without corresponding supply can have serious consequences. The researchers of this study found that climate change was not a major influence on the major drought in southeastern Brazil in from 2014 to 2015. While the lack of rain was unusual, it was not unprecedented, with similar conditions seen during previous major droughts. The main reason for the water shortage experienced during this drought was the increased population and demand for water, according to the study.


Population of São Paulo metropolitan region (red line) over the period 1960–2012 and estimated (1960–2010, blue) and actual (1999–2013, aqua) water use in Greater São Paulo over the period 1960–2010. Source: Otto et al. (2015). Source: https://www.carbonbrief.org/climate-change-not-a-major-influence-on-brazil-drought-study-says 


Unlike Brazil, Los Angeles invests heavily in water supply. The total capital water investments by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power proposed for the fiscal years 2018-2019 was $891 million USD. (In the fiscal years 2017-18 the approved total capital investment in water was $861 and the estimated was $768.) In the São Paulo Metropolitan Region (SPMR), on the other hand, in 2018 an investment of R$4.2 billion (approximately $816 million USD) was carried out by Sabesp, a leader among the companies that invest the most in basic sanitation in Brazil. Of this total investment, R$2.3 billion (around $407 million USD) was allocated to expand water supply infrastructure, in addition to the structural strengthening following the most severe water crisis in SPMR in the 2014-2015 biennium. 199 thousand new water connections were installed, surpassing the target set by 18.5 percent. R$1.9 billion (around $336 million USD) was allocated to expand the structure of sewage collection and treatment in the operating area. As a result, 215,000 new sewage connections were installed throughout the State of São Paulo, surpassing the target for the period by 7.6 percent.  These numbers show that investments in water supply were similar to Los Angeles, but the investments in sanitation were low, representing only R$1.9 billion (approximately $336 million USD).

WHO points out that for every dollar invested in water and sanitation, $4.30 USD is saved in health care costs. A recent report by Lixil, WaterAid, and Oxford ranked Brazil third out of the top 10 global ranking countries for economic loss due to poor sanitation. Meanwhile, private organizations linked to sanitation recently showed that ensuring universal access to sanitation in Brazil would allow  $314.4 million to be spared in health care every yearPoor sanitation has proven expensive in Brazil, causing a loss of nearly $25 million USD in 2017 due to hospital admissions stemming from diseases related to poor sanitation and limited access to quality water. For that year, health authorities reported 263,400 admissions. The number is high, despite the decrease from the previous year’s 350,900 admissions, and costs that year adding up to $31.47 million USD. This scenario reflected the investments in sanitation made in this period; in 2016, when the country applied more investments in sanitation (around $2 billion USD), health benefits of sanitation for the population were noted, with less hospitalizations in 2017 compared to the previous year when those investments were made.

Businesses Taking Action to Mitigate the Impacts of COVID-19 in Brazil

Brazil’s total number of confirmed deaths has now overtaken WHO’s figure for China, with 71,886 confirmed cases as of April 29th. Like other countries, Brazil was not prepared to face this unpredictable pandemic. However, the country’s existing water and sanitation access challenge, which was already huge, was aggravated by the pandemic. The investments made in water and sanitation, which were already insufficient, will now have to be used to adopt emergency measures to combat the spread of the virus.

Fortunately, we have seen a number of new business efforts and initiatives being intensified and/or created in the country in response to the pandemic. One example is the action carried out by the Basic Sanitation Company of the State of Sao Paulo (Sabesp) that  expanded the distribution of water storage tanks to more neighborhoods in Sao Paulo. These donations are intended to prevent people from running out of water when emergency repairs or preventive maintenance in the networks supplying their water are needed.

This effort should help reduce the impact of COVID-19 on the routine lives of citizens.  The effort was started in the second largest slum in São Paulo, Paraisópolis, which has more than 100,000 residents. Sabesp announced that it will distribute 1,200 water storage tanks to residents of Paraisópolis, south of São Paulo, who do not yet have a tank at home. It is also important to note that many residents are without water not because of the lack water storage tanks, but because of the continuous interruptions in supply. This fact became even more relevant with the increase in cases of COVID-19, as the main recommendations include frequent hand washing and house cleaning. In an attempt to prevent water shortages at this crucial moment, the Public Ministry of the State of Sao Paulo initiated a public civil action. The action asks that Sabesp and the state government present a timetable to guarantee the daily supply of drinking water in all the Sao Paulo slums.


Credit: Sabesp/Facebook/Reprodução 


In this moment when extra care is needed to preserve life, and empathy and acting with responsibility have been fundamental, cooperative action between brands is more important than ever, because it allows companies to expand reach and act more quickly in areas of low income and high vulnerability. 

For this purpose, in an unprecedented partnership, Fiat, NIVEA, Sabesp, Deep, Instituto Olga Kos, and the advertising agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made have joined forces on the “The Fight Belongs to Everyone” initiative, a co-branding action aimed at facilitating access to essential hygiene items in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The action aims to deliver a total of 230,000 personal hygiene products to 53 institutions, benefiting  around 60,000 people. Donations began in April and will be made until the end of May, with deliveries made in cycles every 15 days, to supply the largest possible number of beneficiaries during the period in which health authorities consider the most critical in terms of contamination by COVID- 19. Products made available by NIVEA will be taken in Fiat cars to the five main metropolitan areas of São Paulo with a higher concentration of people living on the streets or in areas of high social and environmental vulnerability. Meanwhile, NIVEA is producing and distributing sanitation items in areas of high social vulnerability, while Sabesp will expand sewage collection and treatment infrastructure through works that are already underway within the “Novo Rio Pinheiros” program, which aims to clean up the tributary streams of the Pinheiros River. The Olga Kos Institute, an NGO that has been operating since 2007 in Sao Paulo, will help to mediate in low income and high vulnerability regions. Leo Burnett is coordinating the partnership.

The “The Fight Belongs to Everyone” initiative is a great example of the power of collective action. Another great example in Brazil is the measures that Aegea Saneamento (Aegea) is undertaking to cope with the impacts of COVID-19. Created in 2010, today Aegea is the largest private sector sanitation company in the country. It serves more than 8.9 million people in 57 cities throughout Brazil. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has adopted a series of health and safety recommendations for employees engaged in essential service maintenance. Additionally, Aegea has taken measures to provide extra support to its customers, through a call center, digital channels, and door-to-door service. Additionally, the company reinforced its commitment to the public in municipalities in which it operates, through actions such as the disinfection of commonly used areas and donations of food and hygiene products for vulnerable populations.

Another initiative spurring business action on COVID-19 is WASH4Work, which mobilizes businesses to improve access to water, sanitation, and hygiene in the workplace, in the communities where workers live, and across supply chains. We have seen partners of the WASH4Work initiative respond to the pandemic by launching a number of new initiatives and projects. For example, Unilever is contributing to global and national efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic through product donations, partnerships, and handwashing education programs. Unilever is also partnering with the UK government to fund a global program to tackle the spread of COVID-19. Through this program, the partners will contribute funding of up to £50 million each to raise awareness and change behavior, to ensure people are washing their hands with soap. The program plans to reach up to a billion people worldwide.

These examples show how business action on COVID-19 can make a crucial difference, especially for businesses directly involved in the provision of essential services like water. More widely, the business sector can play an essential role in combating the pandemic by contributing to the immediate and short-term pandemic response, since it is a great holder of economic power, a propeller of innovations and technologies, and a strong influencer of diverse stakeholders – governments, suppliers, employees, and consumers. Additionally, the private sector creates nine out of 10 jobs in developing countries. As such, businesses are in a unique position to impact billions of people every day, including those who work in their factories, farms, stores and offices, who supply and distribute their goods, and who buy and consume their products and services.

Moving Forward Together 

One of the main conclusions of the UN report mentioned above is that a joint effort among countries worldwide is needed; no country will be able to deal with this crisis alone. The report emphasizes that all countries have a responsibility to build effective solutions, which will require creativity and great magnitude in order to tackle the many social and economic dimensions of the crisis.

The main messages from the UN report Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 can help countries around the world mitigate the effects of COVID-19 while preparing for future pandemics:

  • Focus on people: Focus on women, youth, low-wage workers, small- and medium-sized enterprises, the informal sector, and vulnerable groups who are already at risk.
  • Collaboration among Nations: Whole societies must come together. Every country must step up with public, private, and civic sectors collaborating from the outset.
  • World-leading economies should be protagonists in the global response to COVID-19: This moment demands coordinated, decisive, and innovative policy action from the world’s leading economies, and maximum financial and technical support for the poorest and most vulnerable people and countries, who will be the hardest hit.
  • Learning from this crisis and building back better: We must seize the opportunity of this crisis to strengthen our commitment to implement the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By making progress on our global roadmap for a more inclusive and sustainable future, we can better respond to future crises.

If the global community had been further along in its progress to meet the SDGs when the pandemic broke, we would be better equipped to face the challenge. Unfortunately, we were not prepared, and the pandemic is moving back decades of progress towards a more sustainable future. On the positive side, the pandemic presents a huge opportunity to revisit strategies implemented to date, and to prepare for a more sustainable future by building stronger health systems while better meeting basic needs and ensuring that fewer people live in extreme poverty. 

As the Brazil example illustrates, corporate action in response to COVID-19 shows the business sector can leverage its agility and partnerships to bring different sectors together quickly and effectively to scale action, an important lesson as factors like climate change and population growth reshape our world. In this new world, we will need “all hands on board” to ensure equity and the sustainable use of resources. It is vital that the global community not quickly forget this crisis, but draw lessons from it to rebuild more equitable and sustainable societies. This must include countries working together to ensure sustainable access to water and sanitation for the 40 percent of the world’s population who still lack access.

The Environment, Climate, and a Global Pandemic

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By Peter Gleick


The 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic is having the unexpected and unintended effect of teaching us lessons about both the vulnerability and the resilience of our natural ecosystems and environment. As of this writing in late April, we are still in the middle of it, with no obvious end in sight, as the virus continues to spread around the world. Some of the regions where it first struck are trying to emerge from the crisis after imposing strict and widespread testing and quarantines. Other regions that failed to react quickly or effectively are still, or will soon, be suffering even worse consequences.

Without an actual vaccine, and with limited and overwhelmed medical facilities and supplies, the most important tool to combat the spread is isolation, quarantine, and a shutdown of non-essential economic activities. This is taking a costly toll on jobs, income, economies and markets, and financial institutions.

It is also having a range of environmental consequences, both good and bad. Some of these will be short-term and temporary. Depending on how individuals and governments respond, some may be longer-term and permanent. The ultimate impacts will depend on the lessons we learn and the actions we take.

In the short-term, there have been some important, positive consequences for air quality as reductions in industrial activity, reduced air travel, and a drop in gas and diesel-powered transportation have led to drops in the emissions of air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. This effect was first noticed in China and Italy, when quarantines were put in place, and has been observed by satellites, ground-based measurements, and people just looking up. Figure 1 and Figure 2 shows decreases in nitrogen oxide levels in northern Italy and China as measured by NASA and European Space Agency satellites. An analysis published by Carbon Brief estimated that greenhouse gas emissions in China declined by 25% in mid-February from typical levels – a huge drop.


Figure 1: Nitrogen dioxide over northern Italy, March 2019 (left) versus March 2020 (right). (Source: ESA 2020, Copernicus Sentinel data (2019-20), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)


Figure 2: Nitrogen oxides over China, Early January 2020 (top) versus early February (bottom) 2020 (Source: ESA 2020, Copernicus Sentinel data (2019-20), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)


India imposed a 21-day lockdown in late March and early April and improvements in air quality were immediately noticed. Data from India’s Environment Ministry Central Pollution Control Board showed a 71 percent decrease in nitrogen dioxide levels in New Dehli, and Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bangalore also recorded large decreases. Overall, 85 Indian cities noted an improvement in air quality during the first week of the lockdown and in Jalandhar, Punjab, residents reported seeing snow-capped Himalayan mountains more than 100 miles away for the first time in memory. These improvements in air quality will also be accompanied by some real, albeit short-term improvements in health.

Overall, some estimates are that greenhouse gas emissions my drop by around five percent this year, for the first time since the industrial revolution, though the final change in emissions will depend entirely on what happens to economies over the rest of 2020. And for context, in order to reach even the minimal climate targets set by the Paris Agreement, which are understood to be simply a first step in efforts to tackle climate change, the world would have to achieve a 7-10 percent drop in emissions every year until mid-century.

Other short-term improvements have been reported, including modest drops in urban water use in California as industry and commercial business close (slightly offset by small increases in residential water use as people stay home), and a wide range of reports of modest improvements in some ecological indicators and the behavior of animals (improved conditions for sea turtle nestingfunny stories about goats taking over a town in Wales, and reports of kangaroos on the streets in Australia and javelinas in Arizona).

Most importantly, however, without fundamental long-term changes in our economic activities and energy systems, such short-term improvements are almost certainly going to be temporary. By the end of March, as the coronavirus crisis was brought under control by China, coal combustion had increased again, and air quality was again declining. Nitrogen dioxide pollution levels, measured both from NASA satellites and Chinese government stations, have also already returned to normal.

But there is bad news as well, especially in the area of politics: the coronavirus has served as an excuse and an opportunity for conservative efforts to repeal, suspend, and ignore environmental laws and regulations. The Trump administration, in particular, while downplaying the pandemic, has also used it as an excuse to waive environmental rules and enforcement:


“In general, the EPA does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause,” the US EPA announced.


The Trump administration is also moving ahead with its broad anti-environmental rollback and weakening of legal protections, including auto fuel-economy standards, air-quality standards, and mercury and toxic metal rules from coal and oil power plants. In mid-April, the Trump administration announced it would not tighten a critical air-quality standard around damaging particulate pollution despite scientific warnings that current rules are too weak and lead to tens of thousands of premature deaths. Substantial amounts of US federal bailout money are going to polluting industries rather than clean ones – leading to an enormous missed opportunity to accelerate the transition from a polluting economy to a more sustainable one.

The longer-term environmental impacts of the pandemic are harder to see because they depend on actions still to be taken. We do not know how long the shutdowns will last, how effective the pandemic responses will be, and what societies and governments will do to invest in alternatives and solutions. We do not know how much pressure the public will put on policy makers in calling for fundamental changes in the ways we do business, produce energy, and organize society, as opposed to simply going back to business as usual.

We have an opportunity to invest in clean air and water strategies and technologies; build clean energy systems to eliminate fossil fuels; expand electric vehicle programs and phase out polluting transportation; open our cities to pedestrians and bicycles; and protect natural ecosystems in new ways that enhance rather than destroy chances for wildlife. But grabbing that opportunity is going to require public awareness and pressure to make permanent some of the improvements we now can only glimpse because of this crisis.

Ultimately, we must not fix the environment by destroying the economy, we must fix the environment by fixing the economy.


Pacific Institute Insights is the staff blog of the Pacific Institute, one of the world’s leading nonprofit research groups on sustainable and equitable management of natural resources. For more about what we do, click here. The views and opinions expressed in these blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect an official policy or position of the Pacific Institute.

On Earth Day, Envisioning Our Shared Future

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By Cora Kammeyer

We don’t inherit the earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children.

This saying, commonly attributed to American poet Wendell Berry, reminds us that we are stewards of the earth. How do we reconcile this with the stark reality that our planet’s critical ecosystems – our rivers and wetlands, our oceans and beaches, our forests and prairies, and the diversity of life within them – are in steep decline?

There has been news about how the earth seems to be thriving as economic activity and human mobility has suddenly and drastically decreased in response to COVID-19. Waterways are clearer, air quality is better, parks are re-wilding. From this perspective, we might see the vitality of Earth and the vitality of human societies and economies as at odds with one another. But that perspective is not just pessimistic, it’s also wrong. To use another Wendell Berry quote, “the earth is what we all have in common.” And here I understand “we” broadly, the “we” of living things inhabiting Planet Earth.

On this Earth Day, the 50th anniversary of the world’s largest environmental movement and in the midst of a global crisis, I invite us all to think of earth as one big system in which the vitality of all life is interconnected. Each species, each community is distinct and unique, but also inherently linked and interdependent. Together, we all create something beyond any of us as individuals. And this system works a lot better when we manage it for the well-being of the whole, rather than the parts.

At the Pacific Institute, we envision a world in which society, the economy, and the environment have the water they need to thrive now and in the future. Securing that future we envision will require transformational, system-level change. In other words, managing for the well-being of the whole. This means rethinking the way our societies are structured, the way our economies operate, and the relationship between humans and the environment.

Credit: F. Cary Snyder

This systemic shift is especially critical in the face of the climate change, which worsens and complicates existing problems and introduces greater uncertainty about the viability of solutions. We cannot assume the tools and approaches we have been using to manage earth’s resources in the past will work in the future. The Pacific Institute recently set a new 2030 goal to catalyze the transformation to water resilience in the face of climate change. Solutions that restore, protect, leverage, and mimic nature and earth’s natural systems will be key to this transformation.

To bring our vision of a vibrant, healthy, resilient planet with abundant, clean water for humans and ecosystems to reality, we must keep reminding ourselves that we share this earth. Collaborative solutions that increase the resilience of our entire earth system – rather than just some of the pieces – are the best path forward.


When Utilities Shut Off Water for the Poor, We Are All at Risk

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By Laura Feinstein and Morgan Shimabuku of the Pacific Institute, and Greg Pierce of Luskin Center for Innovation at University of California, Los Angeles


When a household fails to pay its water bill in full for more than a given period of time – typically one or two months – its water service may be shut off by the water utility serving the household. Until recently, there was little information on shutoffs in the United States, including for California. In 2018, the Pacific Institute was only able to find information from 15 drinking water utilities, and the data quality was poor. This left the state flying blind on one of the most important equity questions in California water – how many people don’t have running water because they (or a landlord) failed to pay the bill?


How many people don’t have running water because they (or a landlord) failed to pay the bill? This question has taken on greater urgency in the era of the coronavirus, when every neighbor touching the crosswalk signal, or coughing on their way to the grocery store, is a potential source of a fatal disease.


This question has taken on greater urgency in the era of the coronavirus, when every neighbor touching the crosswalk signal, or coughing on their way to the grocery store, is a potential source of a fatal disease. To effectively flatten the curve, it’s not enough to wash your own hands. We need everyone in the community to do the same.

Recently, we have gained better insight into the scale and severity of the water shutoff problem in California, although questions remain. The State Water Board’s annual statewide survey of water utilities, the electronic Annual Report or eAR, now includes information on shutoffs from all utilities with more than 200 connections, partly to inform affordability policy and satisfy the legislated Human Right to Water

Data on Water Shutoffs is Imperfect

While the eAR dataset is the most comprehensive source of information on drinking water utilities in the state, it remains plagued with quality problems. The utilities self-report the data, and since many have not disclosed shutoff data before, some respond with incomplete or inconsistent information. Anybody looking to gain accurate insight into California water thus needs to apply quality control procedures to the data. 

For this blog post, we did some very basic quality controls, such as eliminating cases when sub-categories of shutoffs did not correctly sum to the reported total. We plan to do more to improve the dataset for future analyses. First steps would be to contact the State Water Board and water utilities to resolve obvious problems, as well as to contact the thousands of utilities who failed to properly report their shutoff data. 

We Know Enough to Say Shutoffs Occur Far Too Often

Of the state’s approximately 2,900 drinking water systems, about one thousand reported shutoff data that seemed credible. Larger utilities tend to report water shutoffs more often than smaller systems, so the data covers about 79% of the population of California. 

While the precise numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, we know enough to say that shutoffs are a widespread problem in many communities. Table 1 provides a summary of the number of single- and multi-family residences that lost water service at least once during the 2018 calendar year. 


Table 1. Summary of disconnections of occupied Single-Family Residential (SFR) and Multi-Family Residential (MFR) households.

    SFR Disconnections (At Least Once) MFR Disconnections (At Least Once)
Rate of Shutoffs Max 100% 100%
Min 0% 0%
Mean 3.1% 1.2%
Median 0% 0%
Totals Number of Shut-Offs (Households) 196,800 6,700
Number of Shut-Offs (Population) 582,600 39,800
Number of Connections 6,715,400 563,300

Source: State Water Board 2018 Electronic Annual Report. Results calculated from 1,112 Community Water Systems reports meeting quality control requirements. Population inferred for SFR by multiplying connections by 2.96 (mean household size in California). Population inferred for MFR by multiplying MFR by two units per building times 2.96.

Findings on Shut-Offs

196,800 single-family households lost access to drinking water at least once in 2018 because of service disconnections. Assuming that these households have the average number of residents, this means nearly 583,000 Californians lose access to drinking water for a period of time each year. The true number may be larger because of underreporting, discussed below. While the people impacted are less than 2% of the population, for the sake of public health, the state’s goal should be a shutoff rate approaching zero.


For the sake of public health, the state’s goal should be a shutoff rate approaching zero.


6,700 multifamily buildings lost access to drinking water at least once in 2018 because of service disconnections. If we use an extremely conservative estimate that multifamily buildings house two units with 2.96 people each, this is an additional 39,800 Californians impacted by shutoffs. Multi-family connections serve two or more units in a building, and the accounts are usually paid by a building manager or landlord. When multi-family buildings are disconnected, it is typically because the landlord didn’t pay the bill. California enacted a law to prevent this problem a decade ago (SB 1035, statutes of 2010) by allowing municipal utility districts to recoup debt from landlords through property liens. East Bay Municipal Utility District, for example, has used this authority to implement a no-shutoff policy for multifamily buildings since 2011. But the data indicate that some utilities still resort to the counterproductive measure of disconnecting tenants rather than recovering unpaid bills from the landlord.

More than half of utilities didn’t collect or report shut-off information. Of the 2,564 Community Water Systems (CWS) in the dataset, 1,474 (57.5%) did not collect information on disconnections or failed to report the information. This indicates that the number of people affected by disconnections are greater than estimated here.

Shutoffs are Only One Reason Americans Lack Running Water

While we’re talking about access to running water, we need to remember that hundreds of thousands of Americans in California and across the U.S. live without safe access to running water for reasons other than shutoffs. In 2015, there were 211,000 Californians without hot and cold running water. Many are experiencing homelessness. Others live in substandard housing conditions, such as a shack, converted garage, or group housing with dirty shared bathrooms. Tribal communities continue to struggle with some of the lowest rates of indoor plumbing. And some Californians live in areas where drinking water wells have run dry

Moving Forward with Water Affordability and Shutoff Prevention

During the energy crisis of the 1970s, Americans realized that struggling households needed affordability programs so they could keep the heat on. Since then, the federal government has run the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and states, including California, run a host of complementary energy affordability programs. In the water sector, the largest (Class A) California investor-owned water utilities are required by the California Public Utilities Commission to provide low-income rates assistance. These examples show that utility affordability programs are possible, and when they are run well, they reduce shutoffs for vulnerable families. 


Utility affordability programs are possible, and when they are run well, they reduce shutoffs for vulnerable families.


Some water utilities run their own affordability programs, but most haven’t been well executed. About a quarter of California’s public water utilities have affordability programs, but they provide meager discounts and typically reach only a few of their low-income customers. This is part of the reason why, in early 2020 even before the coronavirus outbreak, the State Water Board recommended a state-wide water affordability program to the state legislature.

Any well-developed program to address water affordability and prevent shutoffs should consider the following:

Balance shutoff prevention with financial sustainability for utilities.

Water utilities provide a public service, and primarily rely on revenue from their customers to deliver safe drinking water. They need tools to ensure that their customers pay their bills. On the other hand, discontinuing water service to a family that is struggling financially – or a blameless tenant with a deadbeat landlord – drives up the rates of infectious disease for everyone in the community. We need a sustainable funding source to prevent shutoffs for those in need while preserving the financial health of the water utilities.


The funding source needs to be large and sustainable. The State Water Board’s recent proposal for a statewide affordability program came with a $600 million annual budget and identified several potential sources of funding, including a millionaire’s tax, a business tax, a bottled water tax, a soda tax, and a water user surcharge. All of these are viable options with various pros and cons. In these precarious economic times, we should focus on taxing high income earners and discretionary expenditures (such as high water use). 

One option for funding drinking water needs is to add a statewide water user surcharge. A proposal for a statewide user fee to fund safe drinking water in disadvantaged communities was vigorously debated and lost in the California legislature in 2018. 

Affordability and shutoff prevention may have a stronger path to funding through water user surcharges. In California and elsewhere, water prices have traditionally followed the “user pays” principle. Each customer is responsible for paying for the service they receive. In the era of coronavirus (not to mention Hepatitis A and other infectious diseases), our educated guess is that a water affordability surcharge to prevent disconnections in the community would be one of the best investments a household can make to protect its own health. The indirect benefit of funding this public service is the same logic water utilities use to justify public fire protection surcharges.

A key metric of success for an affordability program is reducing shutoffs. Affordability programs for energy and water utility customers have been highly effective at preventing shutoffs, while actually improving the financial sustainability of the utilities. Why? Because low-income households will pay a smaller bill in full, while they will ignore a bill that’s too big – since a partial payment means they’ll get their service shut off anyway. A well-designed program will aim to reduce bills to a level that households can pay each month, track the number of shutoffs for program participants, and adjust the program to reduce shutoffs to a minimum.

Consider the impact of wastewater and other charges added to drinking water bills. More than half (54%) of the drinking water utilities in California add other charges to their drinking water bills, such as sewer, stormwater, garbage collection, taxes, and fees. Based on State Water Board survey data of wastewater utilities, the average sewer bill is about two-thirds as large as the average drinking water bill. In some cases, the additional charges are greater than the cost of drinking water. Customers lose drinking water service if they cannot pay these so-called combined bills in full. Our initial work suggests that customers of municipal utilities with combined bills are much more likely to experience shutoffs than those with separate bills. 

Thinking Long-Term on Affordability and Shutoffs

Several states, including California, have issued temporary moratoria on shutoffs during the coronavirus outbreak. That’s a good first step, but more is needed. Maintaining clean running water in every home is the single most effective tool for preventing infectious disease. States and the federal government need to design financially sustainable water affordability and shutoff prevention programs that cover everyone in perpetuity, and we need to begin now.


Stormwater Capture is Undervalued in California

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By Sarah Diringer

The rain barrels at my house are full – 110 gallons of rain stored to water the garden when we enter the dry season. And, this is only a small fraction of the stormwater being stored throughout California and the western U.S. Across the region, communities, water agencies, and others are catching millions of gallons of  stormwater to store for the drier months.

Stormwater management in Austin, Texas, incorporating both grey and green infrastructure – concrete and nature.

Stormwater is the rain and other water that runs off of streets and sidewalks into nearby gutters or waterways. Communities throughout the western U.S. are expanding efforts to collect this valuable water resource. These projects range from capturing water from a single rooftop or driveway to developing large infiltration basins that recharge billions of gallons of water each year in groundwater basins.

In addition to providing additional water supply, many stormwater capture projects provide “multiple benefits,” such as managing floods or restoring ecosystems. When these co-benefits are considered, then stormwater capture looks even more valuable.

The Pacific Institute recently published two open-access articles that examine stormwater capture projects in California to better understand how much these projects cost, as well as what kinds of benefits they provide: “Economic evaluation of stormwater capture and its multiple benefits in California” and “The cost of alternative urban water supply and efficiency options in California.” These articles focus on data from California, but the learnings are applicable far beyond the state.

Stormwater Capture is Economically Feasible
Stormwater capture is a cost-effective option for supplying water to communities, especially when compared to other traditional water supplies. Based on our research, stormwater capture has a median cost between $0.48 and $1.23 per m3 of water, compared to wastewater reuse, which has a median cost of $1.25 per m3 of water, or seawater desalination, which has a median cost between $1.72 and $2.29 per m3 of water.

In addition to efficiency measures, stormwater capture presents a low cost option for new water supplies. From Cooley et al. 2019.

Economic Analyses Can Incorporate More Benefits
Stormwater capture can provide communities with additional benefits that aren’t commonly considered in economic analyses. These include flood control, restored habitat, energy savings, and recreational opportunities. But these additional benefits are not always included in economic analyses, and this means stormwater capture is an underappreciated option for water supply.

In a study of 26 urban stormwater capture projects in California, the median cost-benefit of projects decreased by more than 85% when incorporating at least one additional benefit, reducing the median costs from $0.84 per m3 to $0.12 m3 of water. For some projects, the additional benefits far outweighed the cost of the project.

Reported benefits of stormwater capture projects in California. These benefits can help build partnerships among agencies that are interested in achieving these outcomes.

Incorporating Multiple Benefits Can Help Develop Partnerships and New Funding
Including co-benefits of projects can help with more than just improving the economic outlook. Multiple benefits can help water managers develop partnerships among agencies and encourage additional funding. For example, our research found that of stormwater projects we examined, one in three provided more benefit to a secondary goal than the primary reason for building the project. While stormwater is notoriously underfunded, we can help increase public and private investments by building partnerships and capitalizing on the multiple benefits.

What You Can Do
While these reports focused on stormwater capture in California, this resource can serve as an important alternative supply throughout the world.

Learn About It: If you’re interested in learning more about stormwater capture and seeing these projects in your own community, reach out to your local water or flood control agency to learn more about efforts to sustainably manage stormwater in your own community.

Install It: If you’re interested in installing green infrastructure in your own yard, find out if an agency in your region will provide a rebate for converting your landscape or installing green infrastructure. These might be provided by your water agency, municipality, or other regional entity.

Incorporate It: If you’re a water manager interested in incorporating multiple benefits into water management decisions, explore the Pacific Institute’s multi-benefit approach to water management and consider how to understanding the full costs and benefits can help with your decision making.

Scale It: And finally, if you want to see sustainable stormwater capture expand in cities throughout the world, encourage your local agencies to consider innovative, stormwater management projects that can provide multiple benefits, including improving water quality, increasing urban green space, and recharging groundwater basins.

Corporate Water Stewardship in the Colorado River Basin

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By Cora Kammeyer

The Colorado River Basin is the lifeblood of the West, providing water to more than 40 million people in seven U.S. states and two states in Mexico. Irrigation using Colorado River water generates an estimated $8 billion annually in agricultural products like winter vegetables, cotton, and cattle and dairy. In addition, recreation along the river and its tributary streams (boating, swimming, hiking, camping, etc.) contributes $17 billion per year to local economies. All in all, the Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs across the western U.S., according to a recent study done by The Nature Conservancy.


The Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs across the western U.S.


Yet, the Colorado River Basin faces many water challenges that threaten its economic—and social and ecological—vitality. The river used to run more than 1,400 miles from its headwaters high in the Rocky Mountains down to the Gulf of California, but now—overallocated and fully depleted—the river disappears into its sandy bed 80 miles upstream of the ocean. The Colorado River Basin has been in a severe extended drought for 20 years. Climate change is increasing evaporation rates and water demand, diminishing snowpack, and is projected to reduce river flows by twenty percent by mid-century, worsening pressures on the already-water-stressed river basin.



The Colorado River used to run more than 1,400 miles from its headwaters high in the Rocky Mountains down to the Gulf of California, but now it disappears into its sandy bed 80 miles upstream of the ocean.


Despite extended drought and shrinking water supplies, Colorado River Lower Basin states and Mexico (Arizona, Baja California, California, Nevada, and Sonora) had been able to avoid water shortages by depleting reservoir storage – until this year, when reductions kicked in for all but California. And while renegotiation of the Colorado River interim guidelines will begin this year, the reliability of Colorado River water supplies remains highly uncertain.

In the face of these challenges, in March 2020 Pacific Institute researchers wrote a report that explores the role of the private sector in advancing water security in the Colorado River Basin. This report, “Scaling Corporate Water Stewardship to Address Water Challenges in the Colorado River Basin,” examines a set of key corporate water stewardship actions and activities, with associated drivers and barriers, to identify how the private sector could help tackle Colorado River water challenges.



Much of the water-dependent economic activity in the Colorado River Basin supports the operations and value chains of global corporations—from agricultural suppliers, to data centers, urban office and retail space, manufacturing, customer end-uses, and more. These corporations have both a business incentive and stewardship responsibility to contribute to water solutions for the region.


Much of the water-dependent economic activity in the Colorado River Basin supports the operations and value chains of global corporations—from agricultural suppliers, to data centers, urban office and retail space, manufacturing, customer end-uses, and more.


Our report found that corporate water stewardship in the Colorado River Basin is still relatively nascent, with much room for growth. Two key strategies for advancing the maturity and reach of corporate water stewardship in the Colorado River Basin are to:

  • Expand water stewardship education, decision-making data, and starter tools about the value of water stewardship; and
  • Facilitate local collaboration on water stewardship.

By educating companies on how water stewardship can play a role in both achieving their own corporate goals and contributing to solving shared water challenges, we can increase the number of companies that embrace corporate water stewardship and encourage them to make positive contributions towards sustainable water management for the Basin. This means investments in the tools and resource necessary to support informed and robust decision-making on water. We also know that the success of water stewardship activities, especially when looking beyond a company’s direct operations, depends on partnerships and collaboration. Scaling water stewardship practices at the local level will often require the help of third parties to facilitate relationship-building between companies and other stakeholders, who may not typically work together on shared water challenges.

Currently, the existing pool of companies practicing robust water stewardship in the Colorado River Basin is small, and the scale of their collective activities is nowhere near commensurate to the magnitude of water challenges they face. But their activities, if scaled, have great potential for positive impact, particularly with increased investments in water stewardship education, improved decision-making data, relevant tools, and facilitated local collaboration.

Read the report here.

Learn more about the Pacific Institute’s work on the Colorado River here.  

Pacific Institute Provides Comments on California Water Resilience Portfolio

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By Sonali Abraham

In January 2020, California state agencies released a draft document meant to signify a new chapter in California water: the Water Resilience Portfolio. The Portfolio was developed in response to Governor Newsom’s Executive Order (N-10-19), which called for a comprehensive strategy to build a climate-resilient water system for the 21st century. This strategy included several ambitious actions including assessing existing water demand and supply; ensuring all communities have access to clean, safe, and affordable drinking water; and utilizing natural infrastructure and multi-benefit approaches. The draft Portfolio was a collaborative effort, compiled through an interagency working group with input from communities and leaders across the state.

The Pacific Institute has long contributed to California water policy and planning, as well as analyzing and communicating the links between water, energy, and climate. We found this draft of the Water Resilience Portfolio to be a good start and identified several areas that could be strengthened. Below is the comment letter we submitted to Nancy Vogel, Director of the Governor’s Water Resilience Program.

Dear Ms. Vogel,

California is at a water crossroads, with a rapidly increasing population, changing climate, and booming economy. The Pacific Institute is a strong supporter of the need to advance water resilience in California, and we appreciate the effort by Governor Newsom’s Administration to start moving the state toward resilience and preparedness. The draft includes many important and worthwhile actions, particularly the emphasis on water efficiency and clear actionable language on implementation of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act.

We appreciate the work of state staff in developing the draft Water Resilience Portfolio and the opportunity to provide comments. Below, we offer specific recommendations to improve the portfolio.

Prioritize resilience strategies using multi-benefit criteria

No single solution exists for California water challenges, and the resilience portfolio identifies a number of strategies to address these challenges. But the need to do many things, does not mean that we must or can afford to do everything all at once. Resources are limited, and we must prioritize our efforts. The portfolio would benefit from creating a clear way to prioritize among the strategies provided.

Economic feasibility is commonly used to evaluate projects, but traditional analyses typically fail to recognize the many co-benefits of water investments; as a result, those investments that provide multiple benefits are undervalued. In a recent analysis of state grant investments in stormwater capture projects, we found that incorporating co-benefits into the economic analysis effectively reduced the average cost of stormwater capture from $1,030 per AF to $150 per AF. Incorporating co-benefits into economic analyses allows for a fairer comparison among projects and helps to maximize the value of our investments.

We recommend that the state prioritize investments based on costs and benefits, using an integrated and comprehensive framework that includes quantitative and qualitative co-benefits. The Pacific Institute recently developed such a framework for assessing co-benefits, which can serve as a guide for the state. As part of this effort, we conducted a literature review and stakeholder interviews and grouped benefits into five themes: water, energy, risk and resilience, land and environment, people and communities. We recommend that the draft Water Resilience Portfolio:

  • Direct the interagency team identified in Action 28.3 to define the “multiple benefits”of water investments to include a broad and consistent list of benefits;
  • Direct the interagency team to develop a consistent list to prioritize project funding and maximize the benefits of our investments in water;
  • Develop methods for prioritizing projects using this information. This information can also feed into efforts to simplify permitting, thereby helping to launch more multi-benefit projects and partnerships.

Ensure consistency throughout the report on the importance of water efficiency

Re: Executive Summary and Goal 1 of the portfolio

Water efficiency is key to improving water resilience, and we are pleased to see explicit mention of it in the draft report. However, while the body of the report highlights the importance of efficiency, the Executive Summary fails to mention it. Likewise, as written, Goal 1 (“Maintain and Diversify Water Supplies”) places too much emphasis on water supplies and ignores the immense water conservation and efficiency opportunities that remain in California. We recommend the following:

  • Change the title of Goal 1 from “Maintain and Diversify Water Supplies” to “Improve Efficiency and Diversify Water Supplies;”
  • Change the first sentence in Goal 1 in the Executive Summary from “State government will continue to help regions reduce reliance on any one water source and diversify supplies to enable flexibility as conditions change” to “State government will continue to help regions improve efficiency and diversify supplies to enable flexibility as conditions change;”
  • Expand action 2.1 on page 18 to include non-residential users. The business community in California is showing a real interest in improving water use efficiency. Yet, action 2.1, which refers to implementing SB 606/AB 1668, narrowly focuses on the residential sector. We recommend expanding action 2.1 to include developing best practices for CII users, as required by the legislation;
  • Add language to action 2.2 about enforcing the Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO). MWELO is a vital tool for reducing outdoor water use but enforcement has been poor. In a recent assessment, NRDC found that only 30% of cities and counties filed the required MWELO reports, as of December 2019. In addition to simplifying the ordinance, we recommend that the state continuously monitor and report on compliance.

Improve actions around the Salton Sea

Re: Action 17 of the portfolio

We commend the inclusion of the Salton Sea within the suite of water portfolio actions and remain optimistic that the Administration’s prioritization of Salton Sea action will soon translate into actual habitat and dust control projects at the Salton Sea. Such actions, of course, fit squarely within any multi-benefit framework.

The state’s contractual and statutory obligations to protect the Salton Sea enabled the execution of the Quantification Settlement Agreement, greatly enhancing water supply reliability for the state as a whole and for the entire Colorado River basin. However, after more than 16 years of California’s failure to build a single acre of habitat or projects, the QSA water transfers have degraded the Salton Sea ecosystem and have impaired air quality and human health in the region.

Existing and new funding sources are necessary but not sufficient to meet the state’s Salton Sea obligations. Achieving the water portfolio’s Salton Sea actions requires accountability to the governor’s office itself, direct and continuing attention to planning and construction efforts, much greater coordination within and between state agencies and with stakeholders, greater transparency, and a clear articulation of the goals and objectives of state efforts beyond simply meeting existing acreage milestones. We recommend including a fourth action (17.4) that addresses this need.

Expand recommendations around local stormwater projects

Re: Action 5 of the portfolio

We are pleased to see stormwater capture for water supply included in the list of how state agencies can support supply diversification. The three stormwater capture solutions provided (actions 5.1-5.3) address some important challenges faced by local communities that seek to access stormwater for water supply. In particular, actions 5.2 and 5.3 help to address the funding challenge and the need for more guidance on best management practices, respectively. To advance local stormwater capture projects across California, we recommend the following:

  • Develop statewide health and safety guidelines for stormwater reuse to empower communities to pursue stormwater capture;
  • Consider ways in which state and/or regional coordination could help facilitate public-private stormwater projects, such as through alternative compliance options;
  • Reduce the onerous voter-approval requirements for stormwater services. While SB 231 could help local agencies develop dedicated funding sources, it is not a silver bullet and additional policies that increase long-term funding and cover operation and maintenance (O&M) expenses are needed.

Improve overall clarity and make the portfolio more actionable

1. Define resilience

The portfolio centers around the concept of resilience. This term however is not defined. A recent article suggested that those who use the term must grapple with questions around which system is to become resilient, for what purpose, and for whose benefit. We recommend that the state consider these questions deeply when reviewing and executing this portfolio.

2. Create a timeline and metrics for measurement.

Re: Action 32 of the portfolio

We recommend including an action (32.3) that directs relevant agencies to create metrics, goals, and a timeline for measurement and tracking of progress. This will create a more effective, accountable, and adaptable portfolio.

3. Distinguish between tasks already underway versus tasks that need new leadership or legislation.

We recommend drawing a distinction between these two types of actions in an appendix list or through a type of signaling, for example, an icon next to the action number.

4. Build connections across stakeholders

Re: Actions 19-24 of the portfolio

The tasks around ‘building connections’ are narrowly focused around infrastructure.

We recommend expanding the section around building connections (page 22) through alignment of datasets, engagement with CII users, encouraging top-down and bottom-up engagement throughout all state actions.


We appreciate the opportunity to provide comments and look forward to working with the state to advance water sustainability and resilience in California.

Best Regards,

Heather Cooley, Director of Research, Pacific Institute
Sonali Abraham, Research Associate, Pacific Institute
Michael Cohen, Senior Researcher, Pacific Institute
Morgan Shimabuku, Research Associate, Pacific Institute
Sarah Diringer, Senior Researcher, Pacific Institute

California faces increased pressure on its water resources due to a changing climate, population growth, and aging infrastructure. Managing the state’s water resources will require comprehensive and collaborative planning, and a robust Water Resilience Portfolio will be instrumental. To summarize the letter above, we believe the state’s Water Resilience Portfolio would be strengthened by prioritizing resilience strategies using multi-benefit criteria; ensuring consistency throughout the report on the importance of water efficiency; improving actions around the Salton Sea; expanding recommendations around local stormwater projects; and improving overall clarity to make the portfolio more actionable.

Learn more about our California water policy work here. Read our water policy comment letters here.


Taps, Toilets, and Good Hygiene: Critical Ingredients for Resilient Agriculture

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By Mai-Lan Ha


2019 was a critical year for climate and water. Major events – from hurricanes to droughts and brushfires – highlight that climate’s impacts are being felt now and that the world needs to take action to build resilience while also accelerating action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the UN Climate Action Summit and at COP 25, Secretary General António Guterres announced that, “ We must put adaptation and resilience at the centre of decision-making.”

The UN Sustainable Development Goals cannot be achieved if adaptation and resilience are not integrated into planning processes. This is the imperative of our lifetime and impacts all sectors, particularly affecting the poor and most vulnerable. One of the sectors that will see the most significant impact will be agriculture. Changing climate patterns that affect water availability and quality will be one of many issues that farmers will need to contend with. Though the water and climate communities are looking at how to increase farmers’ long-term resilience, much more can be done, particularly at the intersection of health, well-being, and environmental policies.

While some companies are beginning to recognize this and are integrating water access, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs into their long-term water stewardship and management practices, much more can be done.  One of the biggest challenges for many companies is how to tackle WASH deep in their supply chains, reaching down to the farm level where action can perhaps have the greatest impact on workers’ health and well-being, thereby improving and ensuring resilient supply chains for companies. This is an area that has been generally unexplored and where few companies have taken action in an integrated manner. Last year, the Pacific Institute, in its capacity as co-Secretariat of the CEO Water Mandate, worked with the WaterAid, WASH4Work, Diageo, and the Alliance for Water Stewardship to publish the booklet Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene: Three Essential Ingredients to Resilient Agricultural Supply Chains.  

Why Should Companies Invest in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene at the Agricultural Level?

Similar to the risks that companies face from poor water management, there are also physical, financial, reputational, and regulatory issues related to investments in WASH. From helping to ensure good quality water (through improved sanitation) to ensuring long term worker health and well-being that leads to financial gains, and building long term community relations, investments in WASH in agricultural supply chains leads to more resilient supply chains. 

·       Physical risks: We know that increasing water stress will impact communities’ ability to access safe water. What has been less documented is the potential impact that poor sanitation can have on local water quality. These conditions can negatively impact workers’ health and well-being, and thisis further exacerbated by warming climates and the potential for more heat stress to lead to losses in productivity.

·       Financial: The macro-economic case for investments in WASH has been well-established with studies showing that for every $1 invested in WASH, $4.30 is generated through increased productivity. There is also some evidence demonstrated by companies that this has also translated to the factory or farm level, though more work is needed to document these outcomes further.

·       Reputation: Providing good WASH access can improve a company’s relationship with its workers and stakeholders and improve its social license to operate by showing commitment to communities’ well-being and improve long-term supply chain resilience.

·       Regulation and compliance:  Providing WASH services to employees is often part of general regulatory compliance and expectations by governments and authorities by companies related to labor rights. 


Where to Start?

Many companies have recognized the water risks their companies face and have adopted stewardship practices. One way for companies to begin to take action is to look particularly at the WASH components of their stewardship practices. In Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene: Three Essential Ingredients to Resilient Agricultural Supply Chains, we’ve utilized some of the steps from the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s standard to demonstrate a way to start on this work. These general steps include:

1)     Understand the local WASH context;

2)     Develop a WASH stewardship plan for the local context;

3)     Integrate WASH into companies’ existing stewardship plans;

4)     Where relevant work with third-party standards with an agricultural focus to embed good WASH practice;

5)     Engage with international agribusiness groups on WASH;

These are just beginning building blocks; much more needs to be done to explore the climate connections related to WASH and its impacts on agribusiness and workers. The potential cross-cutting impacts on the health and livelihoods of those who are potentially most vulnerable to climate change’s impacts will require innovative solutions, towards building resilience for all.


Insights from COP25: The (Interconnected) Pillars of Water System Transformation

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By Jason Morrison

At both major international climate events this year – COP25 in Madrid this month and the Climate Action Summit in New York City in September – there was a clear, resounding message from the environmental community: “We are exactly on track to where we don’t want to go, and change is needed now.” This message, while not new, was spoken this year with unprecedented urgency (thanks in large part to the voices of Greta Thunberg and others in the youth climate movement).

Transforming water systems to be climate resilient is a critical component of the needed change. This means urgent action to plan for and adapt to climate impacts on water systems; it also means urgent action to minimize the contribution of water systems to the climate crisis.

Drawing on the insights, inspiration, and strong sense of imminence from this year’s climate events, here is a list of key pillars of the transformation to a climate resilient future:

Act now.

Climate change is the defining challenge of our time, and we stand at a critical juncture between transformation to a climate resilient future, and the business-as-usual path towards the breakdown of current systems. Progress to date is inadequate. Countries and companies who adapt now will thrive; those who do not will fail. We must all act now.

Put climate resilience first.

Climate resilience must be the primary frame for all that we do. We must mainstream innovative and diverse mitigation and adaptation measures. Future decision-making must systemically recognize the value of water, within the context of unpredictable weather patterns. It must also balance the trade-offs and returns to society, the environment, and the economy. We must develop the flexibility to manage uncertainty and operate under climatic extremes.

Take a system view.

Climate resilience is a system-level concept which integrates and optimizes the contribution of all key components, with water being one of the most critical variables. A public policy revolution is required to harmonize the needs and contributions of society (to sustain livelihoods and meet water-energy-food demands) with those of the natural environment.

Embed nature.

Nature is our strongest ally in building resilience, but stands at a critical juncture between conservation and uncontrollable decline. Urgent action is required to restore and protect natural systems. We must understand, value, and enhance the critical functions and services delivered by nature – especially in managing water qualities and flows. This will include embedding nature-based solutions in landscape planning through integration of green-grey infrastructure solutions.

Promote circular management.

Climate resilient water systems are circular, and maximize the value of all qualities and flows within the cycle. We must optimize system efficiencies by incentivizing reuse and eliminating loss and misuse.  Establishing wastewater as an asset class is fundamental.


Building resilience will require unprecedented levels of collaboration between all sectors and actors, and at all scales. The age of silos – in and between countries, governments, and organizations – is over.  Innovative multi-stakeholder platforms to accelerate and scale collective action and policy reform are critical.

Tell stories.

Collaboration and system change will be achieved through communication and awareness. We must engage everyone in this dialogue to ensure that all voices are heard, and all people are empowered.  Technical speak about risk and resilience alone does not engage, inspire, or transform. We must engage through listening and telling stories, supported by evidence and science.


The Pacific Institute has just set a new 2030 goal to catalyze the transformation to water resilience in the face of climate change, and we stand ready to collaborate with any and all organizations that share an interest in advancing these pillars!

Managing Urban Flooding in the San Francisco Bay Area: From a Concrete Bowl to a Green Sponge

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By Cora Kammeyer

The first fall storm is rolling through the San Francisco Bay Area this week, marking the beginning of the rainy season. While this may mean a reprieve from this season’s wildfires, it also means there’s a new risk: floods. In this post, I dig into the issue of urban flooding – what are the causes, what are the dangers and impacts, and how can we better manage it?

What Causes Urban Flooding in the Bay Area?

Urban flooding is increasing in the Bay Area for four main reasons: California’s naturally variable precipitation patterns, climate change increasing precipitation extremes, population growth, and aging and insufficient infrastructure.


Natural Climate Variability of California

California is one of the most hydrologically variable places in the world, with long dry periods followed by a deluge of rainfall. Droughts and floods have influenced the history and development of California over the past several centuries, and paleoclimate evidence (like tree rings) shows that the region has experienced these dramatic swings from wet to dry for thousands of years. The map below provides a sense of that variability over the past 60 years; the dark green, blue, and back dots indicate that California has the biggest year-to-year rainfall fluctuations in the nation.


Coefficient of variation for annual precipitation at weather stations for 1951-2008.  Larger values have greater year-to-year variability. Original source: M. Dettinger, et al. 2011. “Atmospheric Rivers, Floods and the Water Resources of California.” Water 3(2), 445-478. Image from the California Water Blog.


Climate Change Increasing Extremes

While dramatic wet-dry swings are not uncommon for California, climate change is turning up the dial on this variability, leading to what scientists are calling precipitation whiplash. While the amount of average rain may only shift slightly, we’re facing a big increase in precipitation extremes. One study predicts that by the end of this century, an extreme storm event that would typically only occur once every 200 years could begin happening every 40-50 years. The Bay Area Council Economic Institute estimates that a storm of that magnitude could cost $10 billion in economic damages.


“While the amount of average rain may only shift slightly, we’re facing a big increase in precipitation extremes.”


On top of flood events, because the Bay Area is largely made up of coastal communities, sea level rise means storm surges on top of higher ocean and bay levels will reach further inland. The State of California has instructed coastal communities to plan for a sea level rise of 55 inches by the end of this century. With 55 inches of flooding, much of West Oakland and Alameda Island will be underwater, and during storm surges and king tides, the waters will reach even further.


Population Growth

The rapid rate of population growth in the Bay Area will put more people at risk of urban flooding and sea level rise. By 2040, it’s expected that there will be two million more people in the Bay Area. Much of this growth will happen in counties with large shoreline and low-elevation areas like Alameda County and Santa Clara County.


Population of the nine Bay Area counties, actual in 2010 and projected for 2040. Data source: Association of Bay Area Governments and Metropolitan Transportation Commission. 2017. “Projections 2040: Forecasts for Population, Household and Employment for the Nine County San Francisco Bay Area Region.


The Poor State of Stormwater Infrastructure

The infrastructure underlying cities in the Bay Area (and throughout the United States) is often designed to get rid of stormwater as efficiently and quickly as possible: pavement and sewers direct water into storm drains and send it out to the bay or ocean. This was originally done with the best of intentions – to prevent flooding and polluted water in our streets, and to keep our cities safe and clean. But these systems were built to a finite capacity; they can only handle so big a storm. And climate change is redefining the magnitude of our storms. Additionally, much of the infrastructure in place to manage big storms is at or past its functional lifetime and is deteriorating, adding to the lack of capacity to handle flooding events.

What are the Impacts of Urban Flooding in the Bay Area?

Two years ago, the Bay Area was inundated with severe rainstorms on the heels of a five-year drought. The 2017 storms were a prime example of the negative impacts of urban flooding: these storms submerged roads, shut down freeways, and delayed hundreds of flights out of San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Thousands of people in the North Coast and in San Jose had to evacuate due to flooding, and two people lost their lives.

In addition to putting property and human lives at risk, urban flooding impacts the ability of critical infrastructure to function as intended. Much of the Bay Area’s transportation system — airports, roads, highways, and railways — is concentrated along the Bay, making it more vulnerable to flooding from sea level rise and storm surges. Across the nine Bay Area counties there are over 500 miles of roads at risk of flooding in a 100-year storm event – and this is without factoring in sea level rise. Accounting for the sea level rise anticipated by the end of this century, we could see up to 1,500 miles of roads flooded.


Flooding on the Embarcadero in San Francisco in 2017. Credit: @burritojustice on Twitter.


Wastewater treatment plants are also at risk during big storms due to their shoreline locations – 83 percent of plants in the Bay Area are directly adjacent to the Bay. Compromised wastewater treatment infrastructure could lead to water pollution that threatens human and ecosystem health. Similarly, excessive stormwater runoff can overflow sewers and cause water pollution in the bay and ocean.


“Much of the Bay Area’s transportation system — airports, roads, highways, and railways — is concentrated along the Bay, making it more vulnerable to flooding from sea level rise and storm surges.”


When considering the impacts of urban flooding, it’s important to remember that those impacts are not distributed equally across Bay Area residents. Socially and economically vulnerable communities are often also most vulnerable to environmental risks, and have the fewest resources available to prepare for, react to, and recover from them. For example, West Oakland faces some of the greatest threats related to flooding. It is a low-elevation neighborhood with many disconnected low-lying areas, and has significant populations of low-income residents and people experiencing homelessness.

What Can We Do to Reduce Urban Flood Risk in the Bay Area?

Whether it’s this year, or another rainy season in the future, we know the Bay Area will face flood risks again. There are many ways to help Bay Area communities prepare for, adapt to, and recover from flooding. For example, improved weather forecasting can provide advanced warning of storm events, giving people more time to prepare. In addition, updating and improving existing stormwater sewer systems can help prevent overflows of polluted water onto the streets and into the Bay. Or, installing new protective infrastructure (like the levee in Santa Clara County, or the sea wall around SFO) can help defend communities from the most extreme storm events.

But one of the most exciting solutions is leveraging the powers of green space and nature to provide urban flood protection. This approach, often called green infrastructure, nature-based solutions, or low-impact development, can help to slow, spread, and sink water into the ground, rather than overwhelming stormwater infrastructure and polluting local waterways.


“California’s coastal cities have been described as ‘giant concrete bowls tilted toward the sea,’ and what happens when you pour water into a bowl? It fills, and eventually spills. We need to start thinking of and designing our cities more like giant sponges.”


California’s coastal cities have been described as “giant concrete bowls tilted toward the sea,” and what happens when you pour water into a bowl? It fills, and eventually spills. We need to start thinking of and designing our cities more like giant sponges: reducing the amount of pavement in flood-prone areas and replacing it with green space where water can soak into soils. This can happen at the scale of a single home – like having a rain garden in your front yard. It can happen at the scale of neighborhoods – planting more trees, restoring creeks and wetlands, and designing streets medians to collect rain. It can also happen at the regional scale, with larger-scale green infrastructure investments like engineering stormwater retention basins, constructed wetlands, and tidal marsh restoration. These kinds of strategies will increase the capacity of Bay Area communities to withstand heavy rain without severe damage.


Left photo source: EPA. Right photo source: Kandyce Perry.


Unlike traditional solutions like storm drains, sewers, and levees, solutions that incorporate nature can provide many benefits beyond just flood control. One important benefit is that green infrastructure can help us withstand California’s dramatic wet-dry swings by locally capturing water during the rainy season that can be used when the weather dries up. Research done by the Pacific Institute and NRDC showed that stormwater capture across the Bay Area and Los Angeles regions could provide up to 195 billion gallons (600,000 acre feet) of water per year, which is about the annual water use of the entire city of Los Angeles. Additionally, urban green space provides habitat to help animals survive city life, and can make people happier too.


“Unlike traditional solutions like storm drains, sewers, and levees, solutions that incorporate nature can provide many benefits beyond just flood control.”


While green infrastructure holds much potential for addressing urban flood risk, we know it is not the sole solution. The Bay Area needs a strategic mix of green and gray infrastructure – rain gardens and wetlands and pipes and levees – to be resilient to the increasing severity of storms.

Lastly, low-income and minority neighborhoods are likely to continue to be most impacted by urban flooding. But they can be part of the solution as well. It is critical that Bay Area leaders include vulnerable communities in their decision-making. This means focused outreach to communicate risks and response strategies to communities who speak languages other than English, or who may not have the time or means to attend informational meetings in person. It also means considering the unintended impacts to vulnerable communities of flood management solutions before implementing those solutions. Those who are already facing social and economic challenges are more likely to experience magnified adverse impacts from environmental risks like increased flooding, and may need extra outreach and resources to ensure resilience.

Take-Home Message

Urban flooding is worsening in the Bay Area for four main reasons: California’s naturally variable rainfall patterns, climate change increasing weather extremes, population growth, and aging and insufficient infrastructure. To address this problem, we need to redesign our cities to be more like sponges, capturing and soaking in or holding flood waters. This means improving and update our “gray” infrastructure (sewers and pipes) and investing in “green” infrastructure, like rain gardens, constructed wetlands, stormwater retention basins, and tidal marsh restoration. When making these decisions and investments, it is important to meaningfully involve vulnerable communities to ensure the solutions meet their needs and improve their resilience too.

Putting the Water Action Hub into Action in the Apparel Sector

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By Sonali Abraham

How often do you think about where that new jacket you just bought was made? Or how much water was used to make it? As consumers in this rapidly expanding and globalized world, it is easy to forget the resources that go into making something that we buy with a click in the comfort of our homes.

credit: Portland General Electric

Water is and has always been an intrinsic part of the textile manufacturing process. As a result, the industry both contributes to and is affected by basin water sustainability issues. It typically takes 2700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt (WWF, 2013). Globally, textile mills account for one-fifth of the world’s industrial pollution (NRDC).

The Water Action Hub’s Apparel Portal

However, the future is not as bleak as those numbers may suggest. As climate patterns become more variable and water stress becomes an everyday occurrence in many parts of the world, the apparel sector has emerged as a leader in the water stewardship community. Several leading apparel brands and CEO Water Mandate endorsing companies have been actively seeking to better understand water-related risk in locations in which they and their supplier operate, and further, to implement projects that address these risks. The CEO Water Mandate aims to mobilize businesses to take action to address global water challenges. It is a UN Global Compact initiative, and Pacific Institute functions as secretariat. A core water stewardship resource provided through the Pacific Institute and the CEO Water Mandate is the Water Action Hub. The Hub is a global online collaboration and knowledge-sharing tool that aims to connect organizations and individuals with water-related projects and resources around the world, based on specific interests. The Hub is 100% free and available to anyone with an interest in water stewardship. For the apparel sector, the Hub’s apparel portal provides a list of key projects and organizations involved in sustainability in the apparel industry, and gives members the opportunity to both learn more and engage with the sector’s water stewardship activities.

There are a multitude of other tools and resources available both for the apparel industry and interested stakeholders. These can help you calculate the water consumption across your supply chain; assess water-related risk; understand impacts to water resources; or document best practices around water recycling, wastewater management, and collective action. To expedite and assist in using these resources, we have created a library of all the water-related tools and resources available for the apparel sector, accessible through the Hub’s apparel portal.

Using the Hub in the Noyyal-Bhavani

One resource provided in the Hub’s apparel portal is a guide to setting site water targets taking the local catchment context into account. In 2018 and 2019, the Pacific Institute, in its role as Co-Secretariat for the CEO Water Mandate, coordinated a clustered pilot of the site water targets informed by catchment context methodology in the Noyyal-Bhavani River Basin in South India with several apparel companies. This pilot sought to assist apparel facilities in setting water targets that take the basin’s context and desired conditions into account.

The Hub was an instrumental resource throughout this pilot and demonstrated a practical example of how it can help facilitate a project. The apparel portal helped in identifying and connecting stakeholders and project partners. Further, the library of compiled tools and resources for the apparel sector helped to identify available tools like WRI’s Water Risk Atlasand the HIGG Index, to support conducting a detailed analysis of the basin’s water challenges.

As the pilot process led to a realization of a shared ambition and vision for the basin’s future, participating companies became particularly interested in working collectively on water stewardship to foster basin water security. This project will span the next few years, and will be a collaborative process, involving regional and local stakeholders, including other industry sectors, government officials, academics, NGOs, and development agencies. The Hub has been and will be especially useful at this stage, in locating ongoing collective action projects in the basin, upcoming opportunities, and potential partners.


Sonali is a Research Associate at the Pacific Institute, which implements the CEO Water Mandate in partnership with the UN Global Compact. This blog post was originally posted on the CEO Water Mandate Water Stewardship Leaders Blog here.

How to Set Meaningful Site Water Targets

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By Tien Shiao

Water Insecurity is Increasing

Climate change is impacting all regions of the world, cutting across all sectors of society. It is closely connected to water resources, leading to more floods, droughts, poor water quality, and increased water demand due to higher temperatures – more water is needed for irrigation, drinking water, and industrial cooling.

Climate change impacts are already leading to increased water risks for companies.
For example, in 2011, flooding in Thailand led to manufacturing shutting down operations, which affected the supply chains of many companies. In 2019, drought in Brazil led to a 30% decrease in soybean production, resulting in a shortage in global supply.

Why Site Water Targets?

It is now more important than ever for companies to not only consider their own water use and discharge, but also to invest in healthy watersheds and water infrastructure to address their water risk.
While most sites are small contributors to their watershed, by setting targets informed by context collectively, sites can make a greater impact and become more resilient to water risk. Companies which are not able to do so will continue to face serious water challenges.

Setting site water targets helps companies:

  • Drive informed action at the local level;
  • Address water challenges, and;
  • Catalyze collective action.

Setting Site Water Targets

To assist companies with setting site water targets, in August 2019 the CEO Water Mandate, which the Pacific Institute helps manage, along with project partners CDPThe Nature ConservancyWorld Resources InstituteWWF, and UNEP-DHI, developed Setting Site Water Targets Informed by Catchment Context. The guide outlines how companies can set site water targets that maximize impact and improve water security by simultaneously addressing catchment water challenges and aligning corporate water strategies with societal goals, including the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. According to this publication, there are three key elements for setting meaningful site water targets:

  1. Responding to priority water challenges by examining and prioritizing site water challenges.Water challenges are prioritized based on operational risk (water impact and dependency of the site) and catchment water risk. For the Santa Ana watershed in California, where the guide was pilot tested, out of six water challenges examined, the priority challenges identified were water quality, water quantity, and freshwater ecosystems. The challenges were identified through: conducting in-person convenings with participating companies, representatives from the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority (SAWPA), and other local agencies; reading relevant municipal and catchment planning and governance documents; and examining relevant state water targets and regulations.
  2. Using a site’s contribution to water challenges and desired conditions to inform a site’s level of ambition. The desired conditions are determined through water resource management plans and other literature sources. For the Santa Ana watershed, the primary resources used to understand the desired conditions were the One Water One Watershed (OWOW) Plan and the Santa Ana Water Quality Control Plan. The gap was assessed between current and desired conditions.
  3. Setting water targets that help reduce water risk, capitalize on opportunities (like existing water stewardship initiatives and collective action efforts), and contribute to public policy priorities. The targets should address the priority water challenges, the current and desired conditions, and the facilities’ ambition. In the Santa Ana watershed, a database of potential targets (measurable desired results) and potential interventions (actions to be taken to help achieve the targets) were developed for each water challenge. Targets were designed to be specific enough to be able to customize to a site’s needs and to take into consideration opportunities for on-the-ground collaboration. The Santa Ana watershed project included recommendations on the level of ambition when there were relevant resources and literature available.

Site Water Targets in Action

Several CEO Water Mandate companies have launched water targets informed by context, including Levi Strauss & Co. and Teck Resources Limited, because they realized that in order to reduce water risk, they need to consider where they are operating locally. Levi’s goal is to use only as much water as they can replenish naturally where they operate. Therefore, they use the best available water stress data to develop facility-level targets that contribute to the sustainability of local water resources. Teck’s goal is to reverse the trend of selenium and other substances in the valley where they operate, to ensure the ongoing health of the watershed, since their workers care about the local environment being protected.

Get Involved

If your company is interested in setting meaningful site water targets, please visit Setting Site Targets Informed by Catchment Context: A Guide for Companies and Case study: Santa Ana River Watershed, California. You may also contact tshiao@pacinst.org for more information.

Tien is a Senior Researcher at the Pacific Institute, which implements the CEO Water Mandate in partnership with the UN Global Compact. This blog post was originally posted on the CEO Water Mandate Water Stewardship Leaders Blog here.

Salton Sea +20

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By Michael Cohen

After decades of false starts and false hopes, progress might finally be within reach for California’s Salton Sea – the state’s largest and most maligned lake. California’s governor and natural resources secretary have demonstrated the commitment and political will needed to construct actual, on-the-ground habitat and dust control projects. California’s voters have approved hundreds of millions of dollars for Salton Sea projects. And the state and the largest local landowner recently completed land-use agreements to move the projects forward.

An Ebbing Sea

It’s long overdue. The Salton Sea’s surface has dropped by about 10 feet in twenty years – and almost two feet in just the past two years. At the dry flats of the former Red Hill Bay, the shoreline has already receded more than a mile since 1999. Salinity has increased by almost 50%. The Salton Sea is now almost twice as salty as the ocean. In 1999, there were some 100 million fish in the Sea. Now, more than 97 percent of those fish are gone.

In 1999, the Sea stood close to its highest elevation since it formed in 1905, lapping at dikes and berms erected along its shores to protect farmers’ fields. In 1999, the Salton Sea covered 375 square miles – about twice the size of Lake Tahoe. Since that time, the Sea has shrunk by more than 45 square miles – roughly the size of the City of San Francisco. In eleven years, the Salton Sea will likely be another 45 square miles smaller than it is today.

A Changing Landscape

California and the West have changed dramatically in the past twenty years. In 1999, the Bureau of Reclamation was developing plans to share surplus water because Lake Mead was almost full. Twenty years later, Lake Mead will end the year less than half full, its surface down almost 125 feet. Colorado River water users recently completed a drought contingency plan, to better manage the river for shortage. As climate change decreases run-off, shortage becomes the new normal, placing ever-greater pressure on an over-allocated and increasingly stressed Colorado River.

In 1999, the Imperial Valley-San Diego water transfer was still hotly debated and four years from being signed. This year, the Imperial Valley will send 160,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water to San Diego County and another 68,000 acre-feet to the Coachella Valley. Meanwhile, the total amount of water flowing into the Salton Sea this year could be 400,000 acre-feet less than in 1999.

In 1999, the Pacific Institute released Haven or Hazard, projecting the rapid decline of the Salton Sea and calling for prompt action to protect people and birds. We released Hazard in 2006, and Hazard’s Toll in 2014, estimating the public and ecological health costs of continued inaction at the Salton Sea.

A History of False Starts

The reality of the Salton Sea has changed dramatically in the past twenty years. Prospects for real action at the Sea continue to be elusive, cycling between brief periods of hope and years of subsequent frustration.

People have been planning to protect and restore the Salton Sea for more than fifty years. Twenty years ago, the Salton Sea Authority and the Bureau of Reclamation focused on managing salinity, with a pilot Enhanced Evaporation System and plans to impound portions of the lake to capture and manage salts.

The Imperial Valley-San Diego water transfer killed those plans – there wouldn’t be enough water to sustain them. But the upside was that, in facilitating the water transfer, California committed to “undertake the restoration of the Salton Sea ecosystem and the permanent protection of the wildlife dependent on that ecosystem.” The downside was that the water transfer did not include a volumetric fee, to pay for the significant annual operating costs that have subsequently and repeatedly delayed the construction of required habitat projects.

In early 2005, California convened a large Salton Sea Advisory Committee, charged with identifying a preferred alternative. Prop. 50 made tens of millions of dollars available. Yet in 2007, the state released a cobbled and bloated $8.9 billion ‘preferred alternative’ with no stakeholder support. The recession soon followed. Interest waned and the Sea’s prospects dimmed, again.

American white pelicans at USGS/Reclamation Saline Habitat Ponds. Photo courtesy of Tom Anderson.


From 2006-2010, two federal agencies operated and monitored a 100-acre pilot wetland project near the Alamo River delta. The project included four shallow ponds fed by blended water from agricultural drainage and the Salton Sea. Thousands of birds, from more than 200 different species, used the ponds. California had the opportunity to take over the ponds in 2010, after the federal contract expired. Instead, the state shut down and drained the only operational habitat project at the Salton Sea, collecting and moving more than a million endangered desert pupfish from the ponds to an unknown fate.

In 2008, California began developing a consensus “no-regrets” plan, now called Species Conservation Habitat. Although it’s been fully permitted and fully funded for many years, the project has yet to begin construction. Once completed, SCH will cover 3,770 acres at the New River delta with a series of shallow wetlands, providing habitat for a broad mix of shorebirds and waterbirds and eliminating dust emissions by covering that playa.

In response to requests from environmentalists, California’s state water agency hired a Salton Sea Program Manager in 2010, to focus solely on expediting Salton Sea projects. Recognizing the lack of direction and vision for the Salton Sea, California enacted legislation that same year, creating a Salton Sea Restoration Council comprised of state and local stakeholders, with science and community advisory boards. The law required state agencies to staff the Restoration Council.

Governor Brown’s new administration did not staff the Restoration Council. In 2012, the legislature disbanded the Salton Sea Restoration Council at the governor’s request – because the unstaffed council had never met. The Salton Sea program languished, low on the list of the governor’s priorities.

Five years ago, the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) challenged the state’s indifference, petitioning for action at the Salton Sea. In response, the governor convened a state task force that, a year later, “directed agencies to develop a comprehensive management plan for the Sea that will:

  • Meet a short-term goal of 9,000 acres to 12,000 acres of habitat and dust suppression projects, and
  • Set a medium-term plan to construct 18,000 acres to 25,000 acres of habitat and dust suppression projects.

California hired an Assistant Secretary of Salton Sea Policy in 2015 as well – a new sign for hope. In late 2017, the state water regulator responded to IID’s petition with a new water order, creating explicit annual acreage milestones for state construction of habitat and dust control projects taken directly from the state’s own construction schedule. Governor Brown’s administration failed to meet those milestones.

Renewed Hope

But 2019 brought a new state administration and new enthusiasm and even hope for the Salton Sea.

The pieces are all in place for real action at the Salton Sea. Land use agreements have been signed. More than $350 million is available for Salton Sea projects, approved by California voters. Another $200 million or more has been authorized at the federal level but needs to get to California. More than 700,000 acre-feet of water – a staggering amount, much more than San Diego County uses each year – will continue to flow into the Salton Sea, available to support a host of habitat and dust control projects. We know what works; the 100-acre pilot projects that operated from 2006-2010 were quite successful. Completing and expanding the Species Conservation Habitat project, along with the Red Hill Bay project at the Alamo River delta and other similar habitat projects at the south end of the Salton Sea, combined with a deeper North Lake to provide recreational opportunities and better habitat for fish and the birds that eat them, offers a reasonable goal for the next five years. And – finally – the new governor and resources secretary are demonstrating the commitment and political will to hire and direct staff to get projects in the ground and protect public and environmental health.

Will 2019 mark the turning point, from hopes and plans to actual projects and the staff and funds needed to monitor and manage them over the long term?

In 1999 and 2000, research in a variety of disciplines led to a comprehensive understanding of the Salton Sea at the time. Yet the Salton Sea has changed dramatically in the past twenty years, and questions remain:

  • What is our understanding of the Salton Sea now, of its inflows and water quality, of the invertebrates and fish that live in its waters, of the amount of dust blowing off of the more than 20,000 acres of lakebed exposed since 1999?
  • What is in that dust? What’s being done to limit the amount of dust?
  • What are the state’s plans for the Salton Sea?
  • What are the local agencies planning for the Salton Sea?
  • Are local communities being engaged in these state and local planning efforts?
  • Will there be enough money to pay for these projects?
  • Who will manage the projects over the next five or 10 or 25 years?
  • Will 2019 really mark a turning point for the Salton Sea, or will it signal yet another false hope?

For answers to these questions and more, join us at the Salton Sea Summit in Palm Desert, California from October 17th to 18th 2019. Registration is free!

Find Your Partners for Water Sustainability with the Water Action Hub 3.0

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By Peter Schulte

Two weeks ago, I was delighted to launch Water Action Hub 3.0 at Stockholm World Water Week. You can see a video of the launch here.

For those who don’t know, the Hub is an online collaboration and knowledge sharing platform for water. Or, as we like to say sometimes, it’s a “dating” site for water sustainability partners. Originally launched in 2012 by the UN Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate, which is implemented in partnership with the Pacific Institute, the Hub now features over 900 projects and 700 organizations around the world.

While we were initially inspired to build the Hub because CEO Water Mandate-endorsing businesses wanted to be able to better identify and connect to potential water partners, the Hub is actually designed and available for anyone in the world: NGOs, communities, utilities, academics, and individuals. Anyone in the world can go to the Hub, create an account for free in five minutes, list their water-related efforts and goals, and find and message others from around the world with similar interests.


New Features

Water Action Hub 3.0 – made possible through a grant from GIZ’s Natural Resources Stewardship Programme (NatuReS) – features hundreds of new projects and organizations, a new and improved interface, and considerable new functionality including:

  • Proactive matching that suggests potential water partners to one another via email
  • The ability to author and share lessons learned related to water sustainability efforts
  • Community “portals” that capture all relevant information on particular locations, topics, and interests and fosters discussion and coordination around their communities of practice


Sharing Lessons Learned

We are particularly excited for the new “lessons” functionality. Through these lessons, anyone in the world can articulate insights on good practices or barriers to project success and tag them by country, topic, project phase, etc. Once they publish the lessons to the Hub, they are then recommended to other projects around the Hub based on shared location, topic, project phase, etc. In this way, the Hub can help ensure that key insights on designing and implementing water sustainability can be shared around the world, making all of our efforts more effective and efficient.

As part of this effort, earlier this year  Hannah Baleta of the Pacific Institute traveled from her home in South Africa to four other countries in sub-Saharan Africa to talk to project partners and stakeholders involved with GIZ water sustainability projects there. Through these discussions, Hannah was able to glean several core lessons about water sustainability partnerships, which were published as lessons in the Hub.  And stay tuned for an upcoming blog series from Hannah about her visits and discussions.


More Relevant Content with “Portals”

New community “portals” on the Hub help you hone in on the areas most relevant to your work. So, if you are based in California, you can go to the California Portal and connect to others working  there. Or if you are focused on groundwater management efforts, you can go to the Groundwater Portal and do the same. In this way, we hope to better tailor the now hundreds of projects, organizations, resources, and lessons in the Hub to your own particular interests.

We encourage anyone in the world with an interest in water sustainability to create their free profile on the Hub today. Just visit the Water Action Hub and select “Sign up.” And feel free to drop us a line with any questions or ideas at: contact@wateractionhub.org. If you’d like, we’d be happy to help assist you in creating and expanding your profile.


Comparing Apples to Apples: Towards Better Communication Using a Common Language for Water

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By Karina de Souza

Writing this as I return from my family summer holiday, I am reminded of a trip to Siena, Italy where I visited the Piazza del Campo, home to the famous Palio di Siena horse race. I surveyed the view from a piazza café and in my best Italian ordered two lattes. The waiter returned with… two glasses of hot milk. No espresso in sight. After some exchange, I re-ordered two café lattes and realized if I had simply communicated using the ”universal” description of my drink, rather than the British vernacular, I would have gotten my drinks much sooner!

In a similar way, leading companies wanting to engage on water issues across their business have discovered significant fragmentation in water terminology and metrics across contexts, stakeholders, and regions. And this has led to some confusion. If you have a group of people sitting around a table comparing the contents of a fruit bowl – say a policy maker, a company, a community member, and a water management authority – if they don’t speak the same language, it may sound like they are describing different fruits. In the water world, this language barrier can lead to frustration and a lack of action on key shared water management issues.

Our Vision

Coming up with a common language to describe water issues is a must if companies and other stakeholders are to engage in meaningful action. As a precursor to this, in 2014 we collaborated on the publication of the UN Global Compact (UNGC) CEO Water Mandate Corporate Water Disclosure Guidelines. A collaborative effort between the Pacific Institute, CDP, World Resources Institute (WRI), and PWC, this report offers a common approach for companies to disclose their water use and report on water issues. This was a great first step, but now companies are demanding that the reporting language barrier be dismantled to create globally consistent water terminology and accounting metrics guidance. This common language for talking about water accounting and metrics would aim to bridge the corporate sector and the public sector, enabling transformative collaborative action towards water security.

Towards this end, the CEO Water Mandate, which the Pacific Institute helps manage, and WRI are partnering in an initiative to develop a common language for water. Our vision is the standardization of the ”building blocks” of water accounting terminology and metrics to create a common water accounting framework for all users, in all contexts and at all scales – from facility to water catchment. This will facilitate more effective apples to apples conversations, enabling collaborative action and helping to achieve improved water outcomes for all. Our aim is not to re-invent the wheel, but to start with a simple enabling framework which builds off existing approaches and terminology and can be built out modular style.  We are planning to produce a first version of this guidance by 2021.

Vision for a Common Water Accounting Framework

We envision that this guidance will contribute to improving water data quality, coverage, and transparency for other areas  of society long-term.  As part of a broad outreach effort, we will seek to understand how this work might “plug in and play” with other initiatives that aim to make improvements in the areas of public health, food security, natural capital, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and sustainable livelihoods, so that nobody gets left behind.

Get Involved

If you’d like to discuss in more detail how you and your organization can get involved, or to learn more about upcoming events or workshops for this initiative, please contact Dr. Amy Herod at aherod@pacinst.org. Please visit our webpage to sign-up to the Pacific Institute email list for future communications on this initiative.

4 Reasons Why Urban Landscapes are a Linchpin for Climate Resilience

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By Cora Kammeyer

When it comes to water sustainability and climate resilience, urban outdoor landscapes represent a wealth of opportunity.

Outdoor landscapes are a vital component of our cities. Whether it’s outside a home, a store, an office, or a manufacturing plant, the landscape is a property’s primary interface with the community and the environment. Properly designed and managed using sustainable landscape strategies, these outdoor areas can help communities weather droughts, mitigate floods, sequester carbon, improve human well-being, and more.

We can build sustainable landscapes, by which I mean landscapes that are in balance with local climate and ecology and actively contribute to watershed health. Key elements of sustainable landscapes include:

  • Building healthy soils
  • Preserving vegetative cover
  • Using climate-appropriate plants
  • Conserving water and other resources

This could include strategies like removing turf, building rain gardens, or installing permeable pavement or rain tanks.

To achieve sustainability, we need to make some changes.

Take California, my home state, as an example. California has notoriously variable precipitation patterns, and this is increasing with climate change. We are seeing longer and hotter droughts, and more intense storms; and more dramatic fluctuations between these two extremes. This means that our cities are facing increasing threats of water shortage on one hand, and flooding on the other.

Our current urban landscapes, marked by big lawns and paved areas, don’t do much to alleviate these problems. In fact, in many cases, they exacerbate them. Thirsty turf grass requires a lot of irrigation, especially in the peak of summer when it’s dry and hot, and water is in shorter supply. Over half of urban water use in California goes to landscape irrigation, and that portion is higher in the summer. Vast expanses of pavement—parking lots in particular—leave no place for rain water to go but down the drain, which has limited capacity to handle intense storms, leading to flooding and pollution.

There is a better option.

We can turn our urban landscapes into assets for climate resilience, rather than a source of risk. For example, look below at this side-by-side case study of two residential yards in Santa Monica, California (sustainable landscape on the left, traditional landscape on the right). Nine years of monitoring both landscapes showed that the sustainable landscape uses 83 percent less water, creates 56 percent less green waste, and requires 68 percent less maintenance than the more traditional landscaping.



Sustainable landscapes can provide a multitude of benefits, but I’ll focus on four themes here: drought, flood, carbon, and community.

Sustainable landscapes are resilient to droughts.

There are two key ways that sustainable landscapes can make urban communities more resilient to drought: using less water, and capturing water to use later.

Replacing grass with climate appropriate plants (and irrigating those plants properly) can reduce a landscape’s water needs by 70-80 percent. During the last California drought, we saw homes across the state doing this, a trend significant enough to be clear on Google Maps. This was a big part of why California’s urban communities were able to meet, in fact exceed, the emergency drought mandate of reducing water use by 20 percent.

Sustainable landscapes can also be designed to capture water and hold it—in the soil, groundwater, or rainwater catchment systems—for future use. Building healthy soils allows water not taken up by plants to infiltrate into the landscape, and even down into groundwater aquifers, rather than running off and being lost down the drain. Similarly, rain barrels and tanks can capture roof runoff, which can then be applied back onto the landscape when it’s needed. Research shows that applying these approaches across southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area could increase local water supplies by 20 billion gallons each year, which is roughly the amount of water used by the city of Los Angeles annually.

Sustainable landscapes help reduce flooding and water pollution.

As the climate warms, California is experiencing more precipitation in the form of rain (versus snow), and these rain events are growing in intensity. Our urban areas, particularly those in southern California, will need to better prepare for these storms, and in particular improve flood management. As discussed above, sustainable landscapes are great at capturing and holding water; this is also useful for mitigating local flooding. If water can run into rain gardens and soak into the soil, that means less water pooling on streets, parking lots, and sidewalks. Beyond designing existing green spaces to hold flood waters, reducing the amount of paved area and replacing it with permeable paving or more green space can greatly contribute to local flood reduction.

These strategies also help prevent water pollution in our oceans and stream, because sustainable landscapes can absorb and purify the “first flush” of a rain event, which contains the most polluted water (carrying all the grime and contaminants from our city streets).

Sustainable landscapes sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Water, energy, and land use management are all intertwined and deeply connected to climate. Healthy soils rich in organic matter, a key component of sustainable landscapes, can sequester carbon from the atmosphere, providing climate mitigation. Sustainable landscape practices can also reduce energy use (and associated greenhouse gas emissions) because they require less mowing, blowing, and green waste hauling than typical grass-dominated landscapes. There is also the energy embedded in water to consider—less irrigation (through climate appropriate plants and capturing water for reuse onsite) means less water that needs to be collected, treated, and transported to a landscape.

Sustainable landscapes improve community well-being.

Finally, sustainable landscapes provide benefits to human-scale benefits to communities, beyond helping them weather droughts and floods. Switching from outdoor areas dominated by grass and pavement to ones with beautiful native plants and expanded natural spaces improves our well-being. For example, there is research showing the employees who have access to sustainable landscapes at their workplace are happier and more productive. In addition, sustainable landscape practices (especially replacing pavement with rain gardens) can help combat the urban heat island effect, a public health threat which is growing worse with climate change.

Transitioning to sustainable landscapes in cities around the world requires innovation and collaboration.

The challenge (and opportunity) of achieving resilience to droughts and floods, reducing carbon emissions, and fostering community well-being is one faced by cities around the globe. These are imperative and deeply interconnected issues, and urban landscapes lie at a critical nexus among them all.

With urbanization increasing rapidly, and climate change impacts manifesting more prominently every year, the call to action is becoming more urgent. Tackling this multifaceted challenge will take the efforts and collaboration of diverse urban stakeholders, from residents, businesses, scientists, city governments, and on-the-ground change makers. At the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on water and climate, we have been working for over 30 years on advancing innovative solutions for water-smart cities, including sustainable urban landscapes.

This blog post was originally published on Meeting of the Minds

Water Risk Management for the Private Sector

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By Peter Schulte

The complexity and local nature of the global water crisis requires collaboration, from community-based organizations to governments to businesses and others. Knowledge of water risks and opportunities can help businesses mitigate those risks and contribute to water security. 

Last month, Whetu and Columbia University’s Columbia Water Center’s launched its Certificate Program in Water Risk Management for the Private Sector.  This new online program helps businesses and others around the world understand the basics of the world’s water challenges, how they affect businesses, and what the private sector can do to understand and manage those risks. 

I have been delighted and honored to develop and teach the Certificate Program’s module on water-related external engagement collective action. This module shows why and how businesses can partner with others to advance shared water goals – from watershed-level projects in areas of strategic importance, to engagement with key suppliers, to raising awareness and changing behavior among their consumers. Given the highly local and shared nature of water challenges, collaborations and partnerships are absolutely vital to businesses’ managing their water risks and the world achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6 on water and sanitation.

The collective action module I led is just one of six course modules taught by top-notch experts in the field. The instructors include Upmanu Lall (Columbia Water Center), Paulina Concha Laurri (Columbia Water Center), Nick Martin (Antea Group), Paul Reig (World Resources Institute), and Kari Vigerstol (The Nature Conservancy), who all bring their own powerful perspectives to the discussion.

 In addition to lectures, each participant engages in an on-line learning decision-making experience that maps out consequences of choices on the topics covered under the six topics. At the end of the Program, participants are awarded a Certificate of Completion by Columbia Water Center, Columbia University.  

The complexity of today’s water challenges requires a holistic approach empowered by a deep understanding of water risks, as well as effective techniques and tools to address these challenges. If you’re at all interested in getting the skills to understand and address the world’s water challenges from a business perspective, I highly encourage you to explore this great opportunity. There are no prerequisites to join.

Visit this page for more information. 

Kilimanjaro, Home to a Great Example of Water Stewardship in Action. And the Highest Mountain in Africa.

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By Hannah Baleta

In Tanzania, between Moshi and Arusha, you come across a small town called Usa River, which is situated on the banks of its namesake: the Usa River, a tributary of the Kikuletwa and then eventually Pangani River. This region is a tourist-magnet due to its proximity to Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Usa River in particular lies on the slopes of Mount Meru, a lesser known but equally beautiful dormant volcano.

My recent trip there was not to go birding or hiking within this spectacular scenery, but instead was to interview the partners of the Sustainable Water Management Partnership (SUWAMA), supported by the International Water Stewardship Programme (IWaSP).

SUWAMA Partnership in Usa River was officially launched on the 6th of December 2017 to collaborate in addressing and finding solutions to water challenges in the Usa River sub catchment. The initial partnership was created following consultative meetings between the Pangani Basin Water Board (PBWB), Upper Kikuletwa Water User Association (WUA), Kiliflora Limited, Tanzanian Horticulture Association (TAHA) and IWaSP. In 2018, other partners like the Usa River Water and Sanitation Authority (USAWASSA) and the Arumeru District Council joined.

To address the identified water challenges in the Usa River sub-catchment, the partnership is organized under three thematic working areas:

  • Good water governance and conservation
  • Water-use efficiency
  • Water quality and supply

Top and bottom: The eye of the Teema spring is protected within this thick forest. (Top photo credit: Hannah Baleta; Bottom photo credit: GIZ Tanzania)

Sounds great in theory, but what does that mean on the ground?

Good water governance and conservation have resulted in the activation of effective communication between the PBWB/WUA and village water and environment committees within the 11 villages that fall within the partnership area, along the Usa River. A water user survey, looking at permitted water use, was carried. This identified only 11 users holding valid permits and 54 users with no permits at all. , and facilitated the transfer of 40 old water rights into new water permits. This also potentially increased the revenue from water permits in the area from 15,722,000  TZS to 27,272,000  TZS, an increase of 42.4%. In addition, source protection was an important aspect. With the active support of the Arumeru District, Council springs (like the Teema spring photographed below) have been protected through the installation of markers to delineate the statutory boundary for protection around a water source. A vigorous tree-planting campaign was also carried out to reforest the area, bringing additional protection to the slopes. The trees were donated by Kiliflora.   

Water-use efficiency in agriculture has put into practice through training provided by TAHA to farmers in the area, while water quality and supply has been implemented through the rehabilitation of the Furrow #1 (pictured below at the furrow offtake). To ensure upkeep and sustainability of the furrow improvements, a furrow committee was reactivated through the support of SUWAMA to ensure that the furrow is managed to ensure secure water supply to all the farmers and villages downstream. Furthermore, SUWAMA supported the handing-over of communal water systems, including those developed and sponsored by Kiliflora Ltd. over the years around the flower farm, and other community-owned water supply systems, to the local water utility USAWASSA.

Launch of furrow #1 infrastructure improvements where contributions were made collectively among the farmers in addition to a furrow committee being formed to ensure sustainability (Credit: GIZ Tanzania)

The SUWAMA project has successfully implemented a suite of practical physical, as well as more complex, governance structures to ensure that the project can meet its original mission of addressing the water challenges in the Usa River. When I left Usa River, I left with a far more nuanced understanding of this lofty term, “stewardship.” What I saw in reality was a practical way of engaging the private, public, and civil society sectors in addressing shared water challenges. The SUWAMA partnership in Usa is a great example of this.

*This blog post is part of a project collecting lessons learned through stewardship. It is being implemented by the UN Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate, which the Pacific Institute is co-secretariat for, and is supported by IWaSP.

Can California Shift to Proactive Drought Preparedness?

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By Cora Kammeyer and Heather Cooley

Precipitation in California is highly variable from year to year, and climate change is increasing this variability. We can expect to see more intense droughts and storms, and rapid shifts from very wet to very dry conditions. To address this and other challenges, the state passed Assembly Bill (AB) 1668 and Senate Bill (SB) 606 in June 2018.

Known jointly as the Water Conservation Legislation, these bills were drafted in response of Governor Jerry Brown’s 2016 executive order to “make water conservation a California way of life.” The directive called on state agencies to take actions to ensure that all Californians use water more wisely, eliminate water waste, strengthen local drought resilience, and improve agricultural water use efficiency and drought planning. This came during the height of California’s recent drought—the longest and most severe on record. A key objective of these bills is to help California proactively adapt to climate change and the resulting longer and more frequent droughts, avoiding costly emergency measures in response to future weather extremes.

There are six key components of the Water Conservation Legislation:

  • Customized water use targets for urban water suppliers;
  • Performance measures for managing commercial, industrial, and institutional water use;
  • Drought planning for small water systems and rural communities;
  • Annual water supply and demand assessments;
  • Agricultural water management planning; and
  • Data reporting and transparency.

Now the work of implementing the Water Conservation Legislation is underway, and the Pacific Institute is actively work with state agencies and stakeholders to ensure its success. For example, Senior Researcher Dr. Laura Feinstein is helping to develop water shortage vulnerability factors and risk indicators for small water systems and rural communities. Her recent work on measuring progress towards universal access to water and sanitation in California has been a valuable resource for this group.

And on Monday May 20th, we attended the first urban overview meeting for the Water Conservation Legislation in Sacramento. At this public meeting, the California Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board walked attendees through the details of the legislation, work plan, and implementation timeline. Nearly a dozen working groups are being established to tackle various aspects of implementation across urban, rural, and agricultural contexts, each comprising stakeholders with diverse expertise and interest from across the state.

The state and stakeholders are just beginning the process of determining what “making conservation a California way of life” will look like on the ground. That vision will come from the cumulation of dozens and dozens of details, out of decisions that may seem small but must be considered carefully. We believe that the implementation strategies developed for the Water Conservation Legislation should:

  • Demonstrate a clear path towards more efficient water use across the state;
  • Be socially and environmentally equitable; and
  • Account for expected changes in climate and hydrologic conditions.

Using our extensive background and expertise on California water policy, we will engage in working groups and decision-making processes to ensure these tenets are achieved, towards an equitable and resilient water future for California.

The CEO Water Mandate launches a beta version of Water Action Hub 3.0 for World Water Day

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By Peter Schulte

This World Water Day, the CEO Water Mandate, a UN Global Compact initiative implemented in partnership with the Pacific Institute, will launch a beta version of Water Action Hub 3.0. The Hub 3.0 is a collaboration between the Mandate and GIZ to highlight, share, and scale stewardship lessons learned around the world and to proactively match potential water partners to one another.

Background on the Hub

The Water Action Hub is a global online collaboration and knowledge sharing tool developed by the CEO Water Mandate. Since its initial launch in 2012, the Hub has enabled organizations of all kinds from all corners of the world to find and connect to potential partners for their water sustainability efforts, to showcase their own projects, and to learn about others efforts already underway in locations of interest. The Hub now has over 1500 users from over 600 organizations and 550 projects, including hundreds sourced from CDP, BAFWAC, California Water Action Collaboration, El Agua Nos Une, and others.


Introducing Hub 3.0 – Lessons Learned & Matching

The water community has already unearthed many critical insights into the challenges that hinder stewardship efforts as well the best practices that can drive impact effectively, credibly, and efficiently. Unfortunately, as of yet, there is no way to systematically and reliably ensure that new water stewardship efforts integrate these past lessons into their project plans. Further, existing lessons learned have only scratched the surface of insight possible and necessary. There is much more knowledge and experience remaining to be captured and integrated into existing mainstream stewardship practice. This dearth of access to lessons learned among new water stewardship projects means they often repeat preventable problems and in so doing waste precious time and financial resources.

Water Action Hub 3.0 seeks to address this critical need. The Hub 3.0 features new functionality that allows us to compile key stewardship lessons learned from GIZ and other stewardship practitioners and allows Hub users themselves to author, publish, and share their own lessons learned.

For example, through its years of supporting water stewardship partnerships around the world, GIZ has learned that developing and implementing robust project governance plans is critical to project success and the failure to do so often impedes otherwise promising efforts. The Hub now features a page that describes how projects can go about implementing such a plan and why, while offering practical examples and also tracking how many projects around the world have done so.

While the Hub now only features a handful of lessons, we hope to use this beta launch to test this functionality and solicit organizations like yours to author your own lessons learned in time for the official launch at this year’s Stockholm World Water week in August.

Get involved

While the Hub is developed and maintained by the CEO Water Mandate, a business-oriented initiative, the Water Action Hub is built for businesses, NGOs, government agencies, communities, academics, and more. It is entirely free and open access. Anyone in the world can use it! Indeed, the more organizations use it around the world, the more powerful and useful it becomes for all involved.

You can register for the Hub any time at: https://wateractionhub.org/accounts/register/

If your organizations has learned critical lessons implementing water sustainability efforts, we encourage you to share your insights with others around the world, by publishing them in the Hub.

And if you’d like to discuss in more detail how you and your organization can get involved, I’d be delighted to have a chat with you. Please feel free to contact me at pschulte@pacinst.org with any questions, suggestions, or opportunities.

The CEO Water Mandate is a UN Global Compact commitment platform for water stewardship, implemented in partnership with the Pacific Institute since its inception in 2007.

The Private Sector as Part of the Solution to Address Water Security and Sanitation Issues in Brazil

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By Giuliana Chaves Moreira

January 2, 2019

A few months after the 8th World Water Forum (8th WWF) in Brasilia, between November 26th and 28th, the Brazilian Association of Sanitary and Environmental Engineering (ABES, in the Portuguese acronym) held the first ever Rio Water Week (RWW) event in Rio de Janeiro.

The event was a second opportunity for the private sector to reaffirm its commitment to water issues and to present the results achieved by the private sector’s engagement agreed at the 8th WWF, as well as to disseminate the private sector’s messages on water security, sanitation, and infrastructure.

On March 18, as Brazil hosted the 8th WWF, the Brazilian National Confederation of Industry (CNI), the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development (CEBDS), and the UN Global Compact Network Brazil (GCNB) had their first opportunity to amplify the business voice within the 8th WWF as a key partner for solution delivery. The key business messages of this event were compiled into a report.

ABES invited the promoters of the 1st Water Business Day to bring the voice of the Business Sector into the agenda of the RWW. This culminated with the organization of a full side day event at RWW called “Water and Business”.


Climate Resilience in the Urban Context: Sustainable Landscapes for Southern California Businesses

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By Cora Kammeyer

February 5, 2019

Today the Pacific Institute, in collaboration with the CEO Water Mandate, California Forward, and Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority, released a new report, “Sustainable Landscapes on Commercial and Industrial Properties in the Santa Ana River Watershed,” accompanied by an interactive online map. This report represents phase one of a collective effort among the business community, public sector water managers, and other stakeholders to improve water and climate resilience through sustainable landscapes. With the release of the report, we are now launching into phase two, for which we are actively recruiting companies to participate.

Through sustainable landscapes, we can improve the resilience of our cities.

Around the world, communities are facing water-related crises at an unprecedented scale. Two of the top five global risks identified by the World Economic Forum for 2019 are extreme weather events and failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, both of which have direct ties to water. Extreme weather, exacerbated by climate change, manifests through water – storms, floods, and droughts. Adapting to these new extremes will require rethinking our water management systems, including the way we design our urban areas to interact with water.

Like many other places, California is experiencing severe climate and water impacts. Precipitation in the state is highly variable from year to year, and climate change is exacerbating this variability, producing rapid shifts from very wet to very dry. For example, the years 2012 to 2016 were the five hottest, driest years and 2017 the wettest year on the instrumental record. At the same time, pressures on water resources are intensifying due to aging infrastructure, population growth, and other factors.

The combination of continued growth and climate change puts California cities at a critical nexus for water and climate resilience. Yet, California’s urban landscapes are not designed for resilience; they are characterized by vast expanses of thirsty lawns and impermeable pavement. Fortunately, more sustainable options exist, and implementing them can provide tangible benefits to individual properties and to local communities.

The new report examines the benefits and opportunities of installing sustainable landscapes on commercial and industrial (CI) properties, with a focus on the Santa Ana River Watershed in California. It also explores barriers to more widespread uptake of such landscapes by companies, coupled with recommendations for overcoming these barriers and scaling the approach. While focused on the Santa Ana River Watershed, the approach and methodology can be replicated elsewhere, and it is our hope to scale this work to other regions. Here is a snapshot of some of the key findings:

Sustainable landscape practices provide multiple benefits.

‘Sustainable landscapes’ are in balance with local climate and ecology and actively contribute to watershed health by providing economic, social, and environmental benefits. This report focused on five sustainable landscape practices:

  1. Turf replacement;
  2. Bioswales and rain gardens;
  3. Permeable pavement;
  4. Green roofs; and
  5. Rain tanks and cisterns.

These landscape practice can make substantial contributions toward improved surface water quality, flood management, and water supply reliability. They can also reduce energy usage and associated greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon, improve ecosystem and human health, promote economic activity, and enhance community resilience.

Businesses stand to gain from investing in sustainable landscapes.

In addition to the broad-reaching water security and climate resiliency benefits that sustainable landscapes can create, businesses stand to gain directly from investments in sustainable landscape practices. Through surveys and interviews with Southern California businesses, we found that these can include, but are not limited to:

  • Financial considerations: Sustainable landscape practices can provide financial benefits through, for example, reduced water, energy and operation and maintenance (O&M) costs.
  • Corporate sustainability goals: A growing number of companies have adopted sustainability goals and investing in sustainable landscapes can help contribute these, particularly to water and energy targets.
  • Reputation and public perception: Converting to a sustainable landscape is a highly visible way for a business to signal their commitment to sustainability to customers and the local community, as well as to investors and peer companies.
  • Social responsibility: Companies are increasingly recognizing the water-related risks facing their business operations and their communities. While companies are often motivated by the desire to reduce business risks, many are also motivated by a commitment to social responsibility.

Businesses have a vital role to play in transitioning to sustainable landscapes.

The scope and scale of urban resiliency challenges warrant action by all – including the business community. CI properties are disproportionately landscaped with turf grass and have large impervious surfaces. In the Santa Ana River Watershed, for example, CI parcels have three times as much turf grass as residential parcels. Impervious surfaces on CI properties make up almost 10 percent of the entire watershed area. As a result, there are vast areas owned and operated by businesses that can be converted to sustainable landscapes, contributing to shared watershed goals.

Curious about the water benefit opportunities at your facilities? You can explore them using this interactive mapping tool.

Click map to view

About the Project

View the project on the Water Action Hub

The Pacific Institute and CEO Water Mandate, in collaboration with California Forward and the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority (SAWPA), are leading a collaboration with the Southern California business community to motivate the installation of landscapes on corporate properties that provide multiple benefits, such as water conservation, enhancing stormwater capture, improving water quality, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These landscapes represent a highly visual way for the business community to showcase its commitment to sustainability and will help to promote similar actions by residents and others.

This project is now in phase two, the implementation phase. Throughout 2019, the project team and participating companies will work with local partners to install, and measure the outcomes of, sustainable landscapes on the participating properties. We are actively recruiting companies with facilities in the Santa Ana River Watershed to participate in the project (participation does not mean a priori commitment to investing in landscape changes). If your company is interested in getting involved, please email Cora at ckammeyer@pacinst.org.

The Stormwater Opportunity

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By Morgan Shimabuku and Sarah Diringer

Navigating around puddles that form on streets and in parking lots after a rainstorm can be a nuisance. But this water, technically known as stormwater, has the potential to become an important water supply for many Californian communities. For example, one studyshowed enough potential supply from stormwater in major urban and suburban centers in California to annually provide millions of gallons for the recharge of local aquifers. In addition to providing valuable water supply, effective stormwater management can help reduce local flooding and prevent trash and other pollution from getting into streams or the ocean. What’s more, many stormwater capture projects have further co-benefits, such as providing habitat, reducing urban temperatures, reducing energy use, creating community recreation spaces, and increasing property values.

With all of these advantages, many Californian communities are beginning to expand stormwater management programs to not only address flooding and water quality, but to recharge aquifers, irrigate landscapes, and provide an additional, climate-resilient water supply. In a recent Pacific Institute report, we highlight some innovative and practical strategies that communities throughout California and the country are using to improve local stormwater policy, overcome funding challenges, and harness this viable local water supply.

Advancing policy to support stormwater capture

In some areas, communities are updating municipal codes and guidelines that inadvertently and unnecessarily prohibit stormwater capture. The City of Gonzales in California, for example, updated the city’s design specifications for curbs and planters to allow runoff from stormwater to flow from places like parking lots and streets to be directed into vegetated areas where it can soak into the ground. This relatively easy update to the municipal code allowed for urban designers to incorporate stormwater capture into new projects and retrofits.

Source: Conservation Design Forum


In addition, cities throughout California are adopting policies to encourage or even require stormwater capture in urban areas. In San Francisco, an ordinance makes capture, treatment, and reuse of stormwater — and other non-potable sources such as graywater  — mandatory in new construction projects larger than 250,000 square feet. And in Santa Monica, a new policy to source all the city’s municipal water supplies locally by 2022 has been a driver for stormwater projects, such as the Los Amigos Park Stormwater Harvesting and Direct Use Demonstration Project that provides water to the park for the irrigation of sports fields and for restroom toilet flushing.

Developing dedicated, local funding sources for stormwater capture

Paying for stormwater management is no trivial challenge, and California has an existing funding gap of between $500 million to $800 million annually. However, the benefits of stormwater management far outweigh the costs, especially when accounting for the many co-benefits, such as improving water quality, providing habitat and open space for communities, and in some cases, providing an additional local water supply. In California, water supply generated through stormwater capture is among the cheapest options for new supplies. And communities are increasingly pursuing stormwater projects that meet a variety of objectives, allowing for innovative approaches to funding these projects. For example, the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County received voter-approval for a $10 annual vehicle registration fee to improve both transportation and stormwater management, including projects like permeable pavement to reduce flooding, filter stormwater runoff, and support infiltration. In Fresno, the regional flood control agency created a development fee that supports flood control and stormwater capture and places the cost of additional structures on future growth. By tackling multiple issues simultaneously, these entities were able to fund stormwater capture while addressing flooding and water quality challenges in their regions.

Looking outside the state, Dubuque, Iowa partnered with several agencies to reconstruct alleyways with permeable pavement to reduce flooding, reduce pollution from runoff, and beautify neighborhoods. These partnerships helped them obtain low interest loans through the Iowa Clean Water State Revolving Fund. California has a surrogate fund, but to date it has rarely been used by California communities for stormwater programs.

While State Revolving Fund dollars and other bond funds can help to pay for capital costs of stormwater projects, communities also need continual funding for operations, maintenance, and other ongoing costs. There are several options for funding these ongoing costs, such as parcel taxes or property-based fees, sewer utilities, and development impact fees. While California state law sets onerous voter approval standards for implementing stormwater fees, a growing number of communities have successfully passed measures to create dedicated stormwater funding sources. For example, in 2016, Culver City passed the Clean Water, Clean Beach parcel tax, which charges an annual tax to property owners to cover the cost of keeping pollution out of local streams and beaches with multi-benefit projects that also recharge local groundwater supplies. In 2017, Palo Alto residents voted to approve an update to their stormwater drainage fee, increasing funds for stormwater management with nature-based solutions that help to clean and infiltrate water rather than directing it to the Bay. Lessons learned from success stories such as these can help provide guidance for other communities seeking to create ongoing, dedicated funding for stormwater management and capture.

Stormwater has long been managed to reduce its impact on water pollution and to mitigate flooding challenges, but the time has come to also use it as a source of water supply. Due to California’s highly variable weather, most rain falls during just a few winter storms. Stormwater capture could help provide relief from both California weather extremes – dry and wet; during wet periods it can help reduce the impacts of flooding and water pollution, and during dry periods it has the potential to augment water supplies. Through our research, we found many examples of communities taking new approaches to tap the potential of this valuable local resource, but we can, and must, do more.

As winter nears and the rain begins to fall, communities across the state can collect this valuable resource, turning puddles into a plentiful, local water supply.

Want to learn more about what communities are doing in California and beyond to capture stormwater? Check out our report!

Water Is a Source of Growing Tension and Violence in the Middle East

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By Peter Gleick and Charlie Iceland

In the hot, dry Middle East, where populations are growing rapidly and all major rivers cross political borders, water has become a focal point for escalating violence. From the foothills of the Taurus Mountains in Turkey that feed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the desert wadis on the southern tip of Yemen, the history of water conflicts provides a cautionary tale: When water and politics mix, and when cooperation gives way to conflict, freshwater becomes an issue of human and national security and a tool of violence.

The long history of conflict in the region is intertwined with the history of water. The earliest recorded water fight is a dispute around 2400 BC over the use of irrigation canals in the ancient Mesopotamian cities of Umma and Lagash between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. When the walls and temples of Babylon were razed around 690 BC, the waters of the Euphrates were used to wash away the ruins.

Collective Action Toward Water Security in Brazil

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By Abbey Warner and Giuliana Chaves Moreira

Credit: Ryan Tacklin

Brazil’s water basins hold 12% of the world’s freshwater, yet the country continues to face serious water challenges, with multiple effects on people, environment, and the economy. Brazil estimates that close to 35 million citizens lack access to safe water, while 100 million lack access to appropriate sanitation. Water pollution and wetlands degradation threaten the country’s myriad species of flora and fauna. Meanwhile, 30-40% of treated water is lost during distribution, a significant economic loss. And multiple water risks threaten business viability. The country’s growing economy and burgeoning population, combined with its vulnerability to climate change, will place added pressure on its water resources.

Study: Climate Change Threatens Major Crops in California

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California currently provides two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts, but according to a new study published Tuesday…

Water is Connected to Every Major Global Risk We Face

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By Cora Kammeyer

Water crises have been among the top five global risks in each of the last seven years, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). This year is no exception. ‘Water Crises’ is listed as the fifth-most impactful risk for 2018. In addition to being a major risk in its own right, water is also linked to many other of the most significant risks, social and environmental, confronting our society today.

Defining Water Crises

“Water Crises: A significant decline in the available quality and quantity of fresh water, resulting in harmful effects on human health and/or economic activity.”

– WEF Global Risks Report 2018

While WEF’s definition of “water crises” is focused on insufficiency, it is important to remember that the world’s water challenges are not constrained to scarcity and pollution. As we have said before, physical water risks can stem from a variety of issues, including having too much water, not enough water, or water that is unfit for use. This year’s risk report highlighted all three types of water challenges: (more…)

Why Companies Should Dip Their Toes in Clean Water (and Sanitation)

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By Abbey Warner

“While considerable progress has been made over the past decade across all areas of development, the pace of progress observed in previous years is insufficient to fully meet the Sustainable Development Goals and targets by 2030.”United Nations, 2017

As of 2015, 29 percent of the world population did not have access to safely managed drinking water and 61 percent did not have access to a safely managed sanitation service, according to a World Health Organization and UNICEF report. Additionally, more than 40 percent of the global population is affected by water scarcity, and that number is projected to rise. Meanwhile, more than 80 percent of global wastewater is discharged without treatment.

In 2015, the United Nations Member States committed to the 2030 Agenda, a 15-year plan to support people, the planet, and prosperity. The Agenda aims to eradicate global poverty sustainably and (more…)

The World’s Water Challenges (2017)

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By Cora Kammeyer

Water is perhaps the most vital natural resource on the planet. It is necessary for human survival and a critical input into our food, manufacturing, and energy systems. It also sustains the ecosystems and climates upon which both our built and natural world rely.

Today we are putting more pressure on freshwater resources than ever. Between a rapidly growing population and a shifting climate, water stress – and therefore water risk –  is increasing around the world. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 is focused on water, with several sub-goals related to different water challenges. We have seen promising progress, but there is much work to be done to make water sustainability a reality before the SDG target date of 2030.

Global water stress map. Source: World Resources Institute.

Growing Water Demand and Water Scarcity


Watershed Context & Water Stewardship Goals: Why Thinking Local is Critical to Hedging Global Corporate Water Risk

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By Morgan Campbell

What do the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, destructive monsoon flooding in Mumbai, India, Hurricane Harvey’s devastating storm surges in Texas, the recent five-year California drought, and the hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico all have in common? They are all water risk events. Although they are characterized by differences in geography, they show water risks faced today are as diverse as the world’s topography and precipitation patterns. And while global pollutants, such as carbon or chlorofluorocarbons, can be addressed by global reduction initiatives, the inherently local nature of water risk requires that we weave together localized solutions to protect the future sustainability of water resources. (more…)

How Your Business Can Play a Role in Ending the Global Water and Sanitation Crisis

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By Peter Schulte

No one need explain the true value of water to 54-year-old Elizabeth and her family in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.  She spends more than half her meagre salary on buying drinking water from a local water vendor, as she knows the water from the nearby lake could make her unwell, unproductive and unable to provide for her family.

Elizabeth knows that installing a safe water supply and decent toilet close to her home and market stall makes good business sense. She’ll spend less money on buying water. And a decent toilet will increase her productivity and reduce her absence from work, because she’ll get sick less often. In the long-run, if $1 were invested in water and sanitation, an average of $4 would be returned in increased productivity.

Imagine now that instead of Elizabeth working at an independent market stall, she works in the supply chain of a multi-national food retailer. The lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in her workplace could cost the company millions in lost productivity; every year, the equivalent of US$4 billion in working days are lost due to poor sanitation.


Make Public Drinking Water Fountains Great Again

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By Rapichan Phurisamban and Peter Gleick

In February of 2017, the Pacific Institute released a white paper entitled Drinking Fountains and Public Health: Improving National Infrastructure to Rebuild Trust and Ensure Access, which highlighted the limited evidence of a link between illness and disease outbreaks and drinking fountains. The report found that most problems could be traced to contamination from poor cleaning and maintenance or old water infrastructure in buildings, and called for comprehensive testing of drinking fountains, implementation of standard protocols for fountain maintenance, and a nationwide effort to replace old water infrastructure, which can be the source of lead and other contaminants.

One aspect of efforts to expand access to fountains is to take a look at current drinking fountain technology and identify features that can help ensure their quality, convenience, and reliability. Ultimately, these features can help increase public confidence and access to high quality and affordable tap water.


Mobile Apps to Quench Your Thirst

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A Review of Public Drinking Fountain Finders

By Ayana Crawford and Rapichan Phurisamban

Public drinking fountains used to be everywhere, providing a reliable source of free, high-quality drinking water outside the home. They are a great alternative to bottled water, with its steep environmental costs and high price (200 to 1,000 times more expensive than tap water or more). Drinking fountains, however, have been disappearing from public spaces over the past few decades. Poor public perception and concerns over water quality (as illustrated in the “water fountain episode” of Parks and Recreation) have played a role in their disappearance.

Water quality issues at public fountains, when they exist, can be traced to poor cleaning and maintenance or old piping and fixture parts. To ensure the quality and continuance of public drinking fountains, (1) they must be routinely cleaned and maintained; (2) old drinking fountains with lead parts must be replaced or new fountains installed in high-traffic areas, and; (3) modern tools must be developed to let people know how to find these fountains.


Corporate Water Targets: A New Approach

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By Tien Shiao

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Water risks once again rank as one of the top 10 global risks in the 2016 World Economic Forum’s annual report.

Screen Shot 2017-05-20 at 8.22.58 PMBecause of this, more and more companies view water as a business risk and water stewardship as a solution. As such, they are looking to find ways to measure their performance and progress. However, current methods for creating water stewardship metrics that evaluate on-the-ground projects are inadequate.

Corporate water targets are often developed with various objectives in mind. Sometimes they are used to demonstrate the company’s leadership to external audience. Sometimes they are used to inform and inspire employees internally. Sometimes they are used to align water efforts across the company’s operations in various regions. And sometimes they are used to mark the company’s contributions to (more…)

Thirsty for Change? 4 Ways to Improve Corporate Water Targets

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By Paul Reig, Morgan Gillespy, Tien Shiao, Kari Vigerstol and Alexis Morgan

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Water-related business risks are becoming more and more apparent. According to CDP’s 2016 global water report, 607 companies lost $14 billion last year alone due to water scarcity, drought, flood and other water risks.

Current methods for creating corporate water stewardship targets—which often ignore the unique local context of water issues—are inadequate. For companies to succeed as water stewards, they need a new generation of targets. Such targets—based on the local context and guided by the best available science—would help ensure long-term business growth in the face of increased competition and depletion of water.

That’s why CDP, the UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate, the Nature Conservancy, the World Resources Institute and WWF are calling for a new approach to setting corporate water targets. Our discussion paper launched today makes the case for setting context-based corporate water targets. Here are four considerations for companies looking to create more impactful water stewardship goals:

1. Local context matters—a lot.


National Geographic ScienceBlogs: National Water Infrastructure Efforts Must Expand Access to Public Drinking Fountains

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By Peter Gleick and Rapichan Phurisamban 

There is strong bipartisan support for expanding investment in the nation’s water infrastructure as part of a broader infrastructure effort. But there is, as yet, little agreement about what specific investments should be made. Here is one idea: expand access to high-quality and safe municipal water by improving access to drinking fountains in schools, parks, public buildings, and around public transit areas.

Modern drinking fountains chill and filter water, and let users fill water bottles (Photo: Peter Gleick 2011)
Modern drinking fountains chill and filter water, and let users fill water bottles (Photo: Peter Gleick 2011)

Drinking fountains are an important public resource, serving as an alternative to bottled water or sugary drinks and accommodating a wide array of users, including children, commuters, runners, the homeless, and tourists. Some fountains are even designed to provide water for pets. A newly released study from the Pacific Institute, entitled “Drinking Fountains and Public Health: Improving National Water Infrastructure to Rebuild Trust and Ensure Access,” discusses the state of the nation’s drinking fountains and addresses concerns about their quality and links to illnesses. The report concludes that the risk of fountain water contamination can be reduced or eliminated altogether through improved maintenance and cleaning or updating and replacing old water infrastructure and pipes.

The significance of drinking fountains has been documented since ancient times. Some of the earliest records of public water fountains come from ancient Greek cities, where fountains were both a common sight and a public necessity. A second century Greek writer, Pausanias, wrote that a place can never rightfully be called a “city” without water fountains. Spring-fed public water fountains were typically placed in or near temples and were dedicated to gods, goddesses, nymphs, and heroes.



Florence, Italy
Drinking Fountain, Florence, Italy (Photo: Peter Gleick)

As populations grew and cities expanded, demand for public water systems and new water treatment and delivery technologies led to the increased use of public water fountains. By the early 20th century, public drinking fountains became a fixture of the urban landscape. In the past few decades, however, they have been disappearing from public spaces for several reasons, including the advent of commercial bottled water, decreased public investment in urban infrastructure, concern over the health risks of fountains and municipal water in general, and alaisse-faire attitude toward public water systems.

It is time to reverse this trend.

Drinking fountains are essential for maintaining free public access to water, and we need to expand the science and practice of ensuring they remain clean, safe, and accessible. A modest investment by public agencies, school and park districts, and even private businesses could greatly expand the number and quality of drinking water fountains. New fountain designs equipped with filters, chillers, and bottle fillers make fountains an even smarter choice for everyone. Mobile apps that make it easier to find a nearby drinking fountain are currently being tested and could improve access to drinking water, and thus public health.

Drinking fountain, California (Photo: Peter Gleick)
Drinking fountain, California (Photo: Peter Gleick)

Key recommendations from the Pacific Institute report should be adopted quickly, by federal, state, and local agencies, and by others who build and maintain drinking fountains. These recommendations include consistent cleaning and routine maintenance; installation of new fountains in high-traffic areas; retrofitting or replacement of old models with modern fountains with optional filters, chillers, and bottle fillers; and the elimination of parts and pipes that contain lead and copper.

Recent reports of unsafe water from fountains show that the problem is almost never the fountain itself, but old water distribution and plumbing systems that should, with a proper national water infrastructure effort, be upgraded and replaced immediately to remove lead and other sources of contamination. Uniform maintenance guidelines should be developed and widely adopted. These efforts, combined with communications on the results of regular water testing, reports on the performance of fountains, and information on how to find and access high-quality drinking fountains, can help build public trust in water fountains and protect the human right to water.

This article was originaly published on http://scienceblogs.com

National Geographic ScienceBlogs: From Scientists to Policymakers: Communicating on Climate, Scientific Integrity, and More

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By Peter Gleick

Among the different professional categories, scientists and engineers remain very highly respected by the public, at least compared to politicians, business leaders, the media, and even religious authorities. Part of this is due to the fact that success in the scientific enterprise depends on impartial analysis and independence from political ideology. And yet there are strong connections between science and policy: good policy without good science is difficult; good policy with bad science is impossible. Sure, there is plenty of bad policy made even in the face of contradictory scientific evidence, but that is the result of political failures, or, at times, poor scientific communication.

A perennial question facing scientists is when — and how — to participate in public communication and policy debates around issues of social concern. This is not a new question: as long as scientists have seen a connection between their work and major challenges facing society, some have acted on a sense of responsibility to contribute to debates about how science can be harnessed to improve the world. Scientists have little political power: they are small in numbers, rarely sufficiently financially wealthy to use money as a political tool, and often politically naïve or poorly networked.As a result, until the past decade or so, when new tools of social media have made more direct communication between scientists and the public easier, scientists have had limited tools to communicate policy-relevant opinions. Congressional and legislative testimony at public hearings offered one avenue for the exchange of information between policymakers and scientists. I’ve personally provided testimony at nearly 40 state and federal hearings on climate, water, and broad environmental policy issues. In recent years, however, the hostility of some policymakers to scientific evidence and information – especially at the federal level — has decreased the number of such hearings and has turned them into events more akin to political theater than educational and informational opportunities.

Another approach was for scientists to work with television producers and film makers to produce high-quality products for the public. Early efforts of pioneers like Carl Sagan paved the way for more recent efforts, but they depended on scientists willing to put themselves forward as communicators and popularizers. Sagan, who wrote popular books and created the award-winning TV show “Cosmos,” was criticized by some colleagues at the time who felt this was not a proper role for scientists, though the more recent success of science communicators such as Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson have shown that this approach can be tremendously effective.

A simpler and more common approach has been for groups of scientists to reach out to policymakers and the public in open letters, expressing concerns about public policy, suggesting priorities for governments, and calling for actions around specific issues. Two early examples include the petition to the President of the United States in July 1945 from 70 scientists at the Manhattan Project calling on Truman to refrain from deploying the newly created atomic bomb, and the famous Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which called on world governments to banish war as a way to settle disputes because of the risks of global annihilation from nuclear weapons. That letter, signed by some of the most well-known scientists in modern history, stated:

“… There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.


We invite this Congress, and through it the scientists of the world and the general public, to subscribe to the following resolution:

“In view of the fact that in any future world war nuclear weapons will certainly be employed, and that such weapons threaten the continued existence of mankind, we urge the governments of the world to realize, and to acknowledge publicly, that their purpose cannot be furthered by a world war, and we urge them, consequently, to find peaceful means for the settlement of all matters of dispute between them.”

The use of such letters has continued over the years, with appeals to policymakers around the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs, both pro and con), the accelerating destruction of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, why Brexit would be bad for science, strategies for protecting the planet from asteroid impacts, oversight of artificial intelligence research, and more.

russell-einstein-manifesto-400x396In the last few years such letters have proliferated for three reasons: (1) the open hostility of some politically powerful groups to science and scientific findings is ringing alarm bells in the scientific community that cannot be ignored, (2) scientists now recognize that the dramatic and rapid alteration of the Earth’s very climate poses the second massive threat to the planet after nuclear annihilation, and (3) the ability to mobilize and collect signatures from scientists has greatly improved as networks of scientists have formed and social media tools have made it easier to organize around specific issues.

Whether or not such letters are useful, motivating to policymakers, or just feel-good efforts for scientists (or a combination of such things) cannot be known for sure. But scientist seem increasingly willing to speak out on issues at the intersection of science and policy because of their special knowledge and because of their belief that they have a social responsibility to help policy makers understand the nature of both scientific threats and opportunities.

Here, from just the past few years, are some of the key letters prepared by scientists and sent to policymakers on issues around scientific integrity, climate change, and public health:

Climate Change and the Integrity of Science, 2010

An early key letter on the issue of climate change and the integrity of science was published in Science magazine in mid-2010, signed by 255 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences calling for action to reduce the risks of climate change and an end to harassment of scientists by politicians.

“For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet… We urge our policy-makers and the public to move forward immediately to address the causes of climate change, including the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels. We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them. Society has two choices: We can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively. The good news is that smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.”

On February 1, 2012, 38 world leading climate scientists published a letter in the Wall Street Journal  rejecting an earlier WSJ op-ed on climate as dangerously misleading and misinformed.

Letter to Congress from U.S. Scientific Societies on the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, 2016

In June 2016, a partnership of 31 leading nonpartisan scientific associations sent a consensus letter to U.S. policymakers that reaffirmed the reality of human-caused climate change, noting that greenhouse gas emissions “must be substantially reduced” to minimize negative impacts on the global economy, natural resources, and human health. These scientific organization represent practically the entirety of the geosciences expertise of the nation, including:

  1. American Association for the Advancement of Science
  2. American Chemical Society
  3. American Geophysical Union
  4. American Institute of Biological Sciences
  5. American Meteorological Society
  6. American Public Health Association
  7. American Society of Agronomy
  8. American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists
  9. American Society of Naturalists
  10. American Society of Plant Biologists
  11. American Statistical Association
  12. Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography
  13. Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation
  14. Association of Ecosystem Research Centers
  15. BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium
  16. Botanical Society of America
  17. Consortium for Ocean Leadership
  18. Crop Science Society of America
  19. Ecological Society of America
  20. Entomological Society of America
  21. Geological Society of America
  22. National Association of Marine Laboratories
  23. Natural Science Collections Alliance
  24. Organization of Biological Field Stations
  25. Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics
  26. Society for Mathematical Biology
  27. Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles
  28. Society of Nematologists
  29. Society of Systematic Biologists
  30. Soil Science Society of America
  31. University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

Letter from Leading Australian Scientists to the Australian Government on Climate Change, 2016

In August 2016, 154 of Australia’s leading university and government scientists sent a letter to the Australian government stating “governments worldwide are presiding over a large-scale demise of the planetary ecosystems, which threatens to leave large parts of Earth uninhabitable.” The letter calls on the Australian government

“to tackle the root causes of an unfolding climate tragedy and do what is required to protect future generations and nature, including meaningful reductions of Australia’s peak carbon emissions and coal exports, while there is still time. There is no Planet B.”

An Open Letter on Climate Change From Concerned Members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, 2016

On September 20, 2016, 376 members of the National Academy of Sciences, including 30 Nobel laureates, published an open letter to draw attention to the serious risks of climate change. The letter warns that the consequences of opting out of the Paris agreement would be severe and long-lasting for our planet’s climate and for the international credibility of the United States.

Letter of Concern about the Views of Donald Trump on Scientific Reality, 2016

A letter from a broad coalition of scientists was released in fall 2016 expressing concern that presidential candidate Donald Trump’s stated views on many topics are at odds with scientific reality and represent a dangerous rejection of scientific thinking.

Letter to President-Elect Trump and the 115th Congress, 2016

Thousands of scientists joined an open letter in November 2016 calling on the incoming Trump administration and 115th Congress to ensure that science continues to play a strong role in protecting public health and well-being and that scientists be protected from political interference in their work. The letter has been signed by thousands of scientists, including 22 Nobel Prize winners.

An Open Letter from Women of Science, 2016


In November 2016, over 10,000 women of science signed an open letter noting that science plays a foundation role in “a progressive society, fuels innovation, and touches the lives of every person on this planet.” The letter expressed deep concern that

“anti-knowledge and anti-science sentiments expressed repeatedly during the U.S. presidential election threaten the very foundations of our society. Our work as scientists and our values as human beings are under attack. We fear that the scientific progress and momentum in tackling our biggest challenges, including staving off the worst impacts of climate change, will be severely hindered under this next U.S. administration. Our planet cannot afford to lose any time.”

The letter reaffirmed a commitment to build a more inclusive society and scientific enterprise, reject hateful rhetoric targeted at minority groups, women, LGBTQIA, immigrants, and people with disabilities, and attempts to discredit the role of science in our society. The signers also set out a series of scientific, training, support, and policy pledges.

Letter from All Major US Scientific Societies/Organizations to Trump Transition Team, 2016

Amidst the nationwide concern about future challenges facing a Trump Administration, the nation’s scientific, engineering, and higher education community wrote an open letter in November 2016 urging the quick appointment of a nationally respected presidential science advisor.

This article first appeared in ScienceBlog. 

National Geographic Presents: Water Scarcity

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By Peter Gleick, President-Emeritus and Chief Scientist

The reality of climate change, driven by the fossil-fuel industrialization of the planet, is upon us. Scientists have known for decades of this risk and have, with increasing urgency, tried to alert the public and policy makers about the threat and the opportunities to reduce that threat, to little avail. And now, we must live with unavoidable consequences, even as we continue to work to reduce the emissions of climate-changing gases.

Among those unavoidable consequences are widespread impacts on freshwater – perhaps the most important resource for human and ecological well being, economic productivity, and global security. Water is a renewable resource, and vital for all the things we want to do. The hydrologic cycle of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, runoff, and back to evaporation provides life-giving rains for crops and forests, generates the runoff we see flowing in our rivers and streams, and refreshes the oceans that are the nurseries for much of the life on the planet.


21st Century Water Demand Forecasting

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By Matthew Heberger, Senior Research Associate and Heather Cooley, Water Program Director

Yogi Berra once said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” And nowhere is this more true than in the water business. Forecasts are extremely important for water utilities, which must make plans today to meet their communities’ current and future water needs. Since water supply projects can take years to plan and build, utilities’ long-term view often reaches twenty years or more into the future. But the industry has a poor track record when it comes to long-range forecasting.

The results of this are not purely academic. The end result is that water utilities may build unneeded or oversized water supply and treatment infrastructure – things like reservoirs, pumping stations, treatment plants, and desalination facilities – passing on the costs to customers and creating unnecessary environmental impacts. (more…)

U.S. Bottled Water Consumption is on the Rise: What Does It Mean?

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By Rebecca Olson

                       Steven Depolo

If last year’s bottled water sales are any indication, the sale of bottled water in the U.S. this year will likely surpass that of soda. In 2015, Americans bought the equivalent of five bottles of water per citizen each week. Meanwhile, the sale of soda fell 1.5 percent, reaching the lowest level per person since 1985.

While there is a positive side to this picture — certainly water is a healthier beverage to consume than sugary carbonated drinks — the consumption of bottled water has negative environmental and economic repercussions, as outlined in Peter Gleick’s 2010 book Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water. As Gleick explained, each bottle of water is the product of a vast amount of energy and contributes to plastic waste. (more…)

ERW Opinion: On Methods for Assessing Water-Resource Risks and Vulnerabilities

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By Peter Gleick, President Emeritus and Chief Scientist

Much more can and should be done with new data and methods to improve our understanding of water challenges, says Peter Gleick.

As populations and economies continue to expand and as anthropogenic climate change accelerates, pressures on regional freshwater resources are also growing. A wide range of assessments of water pressures has been produced in recent years, including the regular updates from the United Nations World Water Development Reports (WWAP 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2015), the biennial assessment The World’s Water (Gleick et al 1998–2015), the Aqueduct water stress datasets produced by the World Resources Institute (WRI 2015), and numerous other efforts to develop quantitative water measures and indices. The development of such methods has become increasingly common in recent years in order to help measure progress and evaluate the impacts or effectiveness of water policies and practices. The new letter in this volume of Environmental Research Letters by Padowski et al (2015) offers another opportunity to evaluate freshwater threats and vulnerabilities.


National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Diablo Canyon, Climate Change, Drought, and Energy Policy

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By Peter Gleick, President Emeritus and Chief Scientist

The announcement that Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) will close the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant when its current operating licenses expire in 2025 has caused what can only be described as consternation mixed with occasional conniptions among the nuclear industry and some strongly pro-nuclear groups.

That’s understandable. Diablo Canyon is aging, but is not the oldest nuclear plant in the fleet and PG&E could have chosen to push for a renewal of the license to continue operations for many more years. Diablo Canyon’s two reactors are also California’s last operating nuclear plants, following the closure many years ago of Rancho Seco near Sacramento, and more recently, the last of the San Onofre reactors. As such, the closure is symbolic of the broader woes of the nuclear power industry in the United States, which has been unable to build new reactors and is seeing the current reactors being shuttered, one by one.

The decision to phase out Diablo also rankles those who see all non-carbon energy sources as critical in the fight against the real threat of climate change. This has led to an internecine dispute among those who claim the mantle of “environmentalist,” who are legitimately concerned about climate, but who split on their positions around the pros and cons of nuclear power.

I get it. The climate threat is the most urgent one facing the planet and shutting down major non-carbon energy sources makes it that much harder to meet carbon reduction goals. But old nuclear plants have to be retired and replaced at some point, simply due to age, economics, and updated environmental challenges. It would be great if there was a new generation of replacement reactors that was safe, cost-effective, and reliable and if there was a satisfactory resolution to the problem of nuclear wastes and accumulating spent fuel. But at the moment, there isn’t. The good news is there are other non-carbon alternatives available.

And Diablo Canyon faced a unique set of problems, including the need in the next few years to replace its old once-thru ocean cooling system with a far costlier, but more environmentally friendly system, challenges with steam generators and a growing risk of leaks, the long-standing earthquake risk at the site, and cheaper alternatives. Even with the sunk costs at Diablo Canyon, these challenges made it clear that cheaper options exist and “that California’s new energy policies will significantly reduce the need for Diablo Canyon’s electricity output.”

Moreover, the claim that current nuclear energy is cheap is false: even at Diablo Canyon – never a cheap nuclear plant – additional updates to address existing problems could cost a massive additional $10 billion.  As Peter Bradford, a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said,

“The unraveling of the [hoped for nuclear] renaissance was not a surprise to anyone who understood the workings of the power markets.”

Diablo isn’t shutting down tomorrow. The plan gives the utility nearly a decade to phase out the plant and replace it with renewable energy and energy efficiency. As the official announcementnotes:

“The Joint Proposal would replace power produced by two nuclear reactors at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant (DCPP) with a cost-effective, greenhouse gas free portfolio of energy efficiency, renewables and energy storage.”

This time frame is important. When San Onofre closed its last reactor in 2012, with no formal replacement plan in place, there was a short-term spike in natural gas consumption (worsened by the simultaneous arrival of a multi-year drought, which cut hydroelectricity generation) and an increase in California’s greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear proponents cherry pick this point as evidence that shutting Diablo will similarly lead to an increase in emissions. But within a couple of years, the rapid construction of non-carbon wind and solar systems made up for San Onofre’s lost electricity, and natural gas use — excluding excess natural gas burned to make up for lost hydroelectricity due to the drought –dropped again. The Figure below shows total non-fossil fuel electricity generation in California from 2001-2015 (solid red line) and what it would have been without the drought (dotted red line). Without the drought, expansion of new solar and wind completely made up for San Onofre’s closure.

Total non-fossil fuel electricity generation with (solid red line) and without the drought (dashed red line). Data from US EIA.

Total non-fossil fuel electricity generation with (solid red line) and without the drought (dashed red line). Data from US EIA.

With the longer timeframe to prepare for closing Diablo Canyon, and with the specific agreement to accelerate investment in renewables, there is no reason California’s carbon reduction targets can’t be met. Will they? We don’t know: that ultimately depends on the nature and timing of efforts to continue California’s transition to non-carbon energy.

But even this argument misses the key point: While it is certainly far better from a climate perspective to replace old fossil fuel plants rather than old nuclear plants, even old nuclear plants have to be replaced eventually. We should keep them open as long as feasible from an economic, environmental, and safety point of view, but when the decision is made to replace them, make sure other non-carbon generation and energy efficiency options are part of the decision.

That’s what happened here and it is a model for the future.

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This blog was originally published on National Geographic ScienceBlogs.

Fits and Starts at the Salton Sea

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By Michael Cohen, Senior Research Associate

The fortunes and prospects of California’s Salton Sea have ebbed and flowed over the years. Currently, the Sea is enjoying renewed attention and funding, after almost a decade of neglect and indifference. The State of California is poised to dedicate $80 million to efforts to protect and revitalize (a small portion of) the Salton Sea, prompted in large part by a fast-approaching tipping point that will see a dramatic shrinking of the Sea, devastating its rich ecosystem and imperiling the health of hundreds of thousands of people in the region.

In Salt Dreams, Bill DeBuys writes, “In low places consequences collect.” Southern California’s Salton Sea collects and manifests the hydrologic consequences of intensive agriculture in the Colorado River basin, the leaching of salts and selenium from ancient sea-beds now elevated high in the Colorado Plateau, as well as the fertilizers and pesticides running off of the fields in the Imperial, Coachella, and Mexicali valleys. The Sea also reflects the consequences of political and economic decisions and deals in the basin and in Southern California. By 2018, the Salton Sea will begin to reflect the consequences of the nation’s largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer, a long-term deal that has helped San Diego and the urban coast survive California’s persistent drought but that will soon cause the Sea’s surface to drop by 20 feet and its salinity to triple.

Daniel M. Edwards
Daniel M. Edwards


The shrinking Salton Sea poses several significant threats, including the loss of habitat for more than 420 species of birds – often numbering in the thousands of individuals – and of the ecosystem as a whole due to rapidly rising salinity. The shrinking Sea will also expose tens of thousands of acres of dust-emitting lakebed in a region where air quality regularly fails to meet state and federal standards, posing a direct and measurable threat to the hundreds of thousands of people who live downwind from the Sea.

The loss of the ecosystem and the escalating public health costs driven by poor air quality, combined with massive fish and bird die-offs and associated impacts on local and regional property values, could cost the region tens of billions of dollars over the next 30 years.

As noted in a recent article in the Desert Sun, insufficient state action and the lack of a long-term commitment to the Salton Sea impede efforts to address the long-term supply-demand imbalance on the Colorado River, potentially jeopardizing a vitally important multi-state deal. The consequences of failing to act on behalf of the Salton Sea could, in fact, extend well beyond the Sea and the surrounding region.

Daniel M. Edwards
Daniel M. Edwards

Last October, California recognized its responsibility to protect the Salton Sea and set admirable short-term habitat and dust suppression goals. The governor’s budget for the next fiscal year contains $80 million for Salton Sea projects over the next three years, a small fraction of the total investment needed but an excellent start. And a recent report to the legislature detailed several “shovel-ready” habitat projects at the Salton Sea.

Yet, as shown in the figure below, the proposed habitat projects wouldn’t even keep pace with the amount of lakebed exposed in the next several years.

Salton Sea May newsletter blurb chart

In collaboration with other organizations, the Institute has recommended several specific actions to accelerate the state’s implementation of habitat and dust suppression projects at the Salton Sea. We are very concerned that the excitement generated and promise offered last October by the state’s hiring of a new Assistant Secretary of Salton Sea Policy and the establishment of aggressive acreage goals for habitat and dust suppression projects at the Salton Sea will not translate into actual projects or progress on the ground. California’s continuing focus and dedication of high-level staff to the challenges of the Bay-Delta come at the direct cost of attention to and progress at the Salton Sea.

Yet the Salton Sea offers real potential for significant success, with broad consensus among stakeholders over the nature and timing of short-term projects, ample water, and demonstrated results. As we make clear in our recommendations, the challenge is to operationalize the state’s commitment, to dedicate resources, and especially the right set of skills to manage the projects already identified, funded, and permitted.

Unlike the challenges of protecting habitat and human health in most of the water-starved West, this problem is not a lack of water but rather a lack of political will. With the $80 million in the governor’s budget and a dedicated effort from state staff and local stakeholders, we could celebrate the completion of more than a thousand acres of high-quality, dust-suppressing habitat projects by the end of next year. This short-term success is within reach, but it will require dedicated project management, urgency, and commitment.

National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Global Droughts: A Bad Year

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By Peter Gleick

Populations around the world face many severe water challenges, from scarcity to contamination, from political or violent conflict to economic disruption. As populations and economies grow, peak water pressures on existing renewable water resources also tend to grow up to the point that natural scarcity begins to constrain the options of water planners and managers. At this point, the effects of natural fluctuations in water availability in the form of extreme weather events become even more potentially disruptive than normal. In particular, droughts begin to bite deeply into human well-being.


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