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National Geographic ScienceBlogs: The Future of Desalination in California is Still in the Future: California, Israel, and Australia

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By Peter Gleick, President
It’s only natural that during a crisis we look to single, “silver bullet” technical solutions, after all, they are supposed to be effective against werewolves, witches, and other monsters. For monsters like the ongoing severe California drought, the current favorite silver bullet is seawater desalination.  And why not? California sits at the edge of the largest body of salt water in the world – the Pacific Ocean – and taking salt out of water is a successful, commercial, well-understood technology.

Look at how Israel has solved their water problems by building desalination plants, we’re told by The New York Times.

Look at how Australia responded to a massive multi-year drought by, in part, spending $10 billion to build six major desalination plants.

Look at recent statements from California Senator Barbara Boxer or from Senator Dianne Feinstein, saying they would push federal desalination efforts as a response to state’s drought.

Where does ocean desalination fit into the mix of water solutions for California? And what are the real lessons from Israeli and Australian experiences with desalination?

The real lesson is that desalination is a last resort, and even then, caution is warranted.

Israel didn’t turn to desalination until it radically transformed its agricultural sector to cut production of water-intensive crops like cotton and grains, invested in urban conservation and efficiency far beyond what California (despite its progress) has achieved, and massively expanded wastewater treatment and reuse. And Australia invested $10 billion in desalination plants, four of which they subsequently shut down or derated because they couldn’t afford to run them and didn’t need them.

Here are some important water numbers and facts:

Water Supply: Compared to Israel, California is water rich. California has an average total renewable water supply of over 2,300 cubic meters per person per year. Israel’s is around 230 – one-tenth as much. [One cubic meter is around 264 gallons.]

Wastewater: Israel currently treats and reuses 75% of its wastewater, compared to only 13% at present in California.  California uses around 670,000 acre-feet of wastewater a year and throws away around 4.3 million acre-feet.

Water Use: Israel has pursued a very aggressive and effective water conservation program, far exceeding California’s.  In Israel, current water use – including for municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses – is around 200 gallons per person per day (gpcd) (around 280 cubic meters per year), a 45% decrease from 1970. California’s water use is currently more than 1,000 gpcd (over 1,400 cubic meters per year), five times larger than Israel’s. Some of this can be attributed to conservation and efficiency, but it also reflects differences in the type and extent of agricultural and industrial development.

Agricultural Area: Between 1970 and 2011, Israel’s cultivated area dropped 30%. During the same period, California’s cropland expanded by 20%, increasing pressure on water resources (Israel’s Agriculture 2015, Olmstead 1997, USDA 2015). On average, Israel applies 1.6 acre-feet of water per acre of land; California farmers apply an average of 3 acre-feet per acre (Olmstead 1997, Israel’s Agriculture 2015, CDWR 2014).

The mix of crops in Israel has also shifted dramatically (see Figure 1), away from one dominated by water-intensive, low-valued field crops like cotton, barley, and wheat to one dominated by higher-valued fruits, nuts, and vegetables. California is also moving in this direction, but more slowly.

Israeli crop mix

Irrigation Method: Over 80% of irrigated areas in Israel use micro-irrigation systems and the rest use precision sprinklers or mechanized systems like center pivots. In California, only 38% of irrigated land uses low-volume systems like drip, 15% use sprinklers, and the rest (around 46%) use flood/gravity/other systems (Israel’s Agriculture 2015, CDWR data).

Water Allocations and Rights: In Israel, water is regarded as a national asset protected by law. Users receive an annual quota from the Water Authority. The entire water supply is carefully measured and customers are charged according to their water consumption and the quality of the water used. Recycled water costs about half that of potable water (Israel’s Agriculture 2015).

California allocates water based on a century-old system of water rights; actual water use is not accurately measured or reported, including especially groundwater, and only some water prices are based on volume or quality.

Table 1 summarizes the key differences between Israel’s and California’s water availability and use.

Table 1. Water Comparisons: California and Israel

Water Issue California Israel
Total Renewable Water Supply (cubic meters per person per year) > 2,300 230
Total Water-Use per Person (cubic meters per person per year) 1,400 280
Wastewater Treatment (% of total wastewater) 13% 75%
Total Change in Harvested Agricultural Area (1960 to 2012) +15% -14%
Applied Agricultural Water (average), acre-feet per acre 3 1.6

Sources: See full reference list below. Note that one cubic meter is 264 gallons.

And Australia?

Australia’s experience with desalination is equally sobering and enlightening. Australian residents are water misers compared to Californians. Average Australian households uses 54 gallons per person each day (for both indoor and outdoor uses), compared to 230 gallons in California; and in the state of Victoria, water usage is on only 40 gallons per person (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2013).

Australians lowered their water consumption dramatically over the past decade in response to the unprecedented Millennium Drought (2000-2010). Authorities responded by adopting new water-saving habits as well as water-efficient technologies. For example, dual-flush toilets are now found in nine out of ten Australian homes. A third of homes capture rooftop runoff in a rainwater tank, and the government offer rebates to residents installing rainwater tanks or graywater systems to recycle water (Heberger 2011).

Even with all of these efforts, desalination has been problematic:  In response to the Millennium Drought they invested $10 billion dollars in desalination plants, most of which they now cannot afford to run. Four of the six major plants they built are shut down or running at a fraction of their capacity, but ratepayers are still paying for these plants. This is exactly what happened when Santa Barbara, California built an expensive desalination plant two decades ago and then had to mothball it because they couldn’t afford to run it and didn’t need the water because people conserved and there was cheaper water available. Yet that lesson seems to have been forgotten.

The bottom line for desalination in California? There is more desalination in California’s future. But the future isn’t here yet.

California should add desalination to the mix of options only after the state and local agencies do the other things that are more cost effective and environmentally appropriate first: continue to improve the efficiency of current water use, greatly expand wastewater treatment and reuse, and bring our agricultural economy into the 21st century. Even then, local agencies should think twice. There should be no subsidies or accelerated environmental review or special treatment to private companies seeking to build desalination plants and then sell the water under take-or-pay contracts to the public. Either desalination is the right choice or it isn’t. At the moment, in California, it isn’t.

Sources

Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2013. “Water,” chapter 2 in Information Paper: Towards the Australian Environmental-Economic Accounts, Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.http://tinyurl.com/oa5eq4b

California Department of Water Resources (CDWR). 2014. Applied Water and Irrigated Acreage from the California Department of Water Resources. Statewide Water Balances, 1998–2010. Sacramento, California.

Cooley, H., PH Gleick, R. Wilkinson. 2014. Water Reuse Potential in California. Pacific Institute and NRDC.  http://pacinst.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/ca-water-reuse.pdf(Accessed June 8, 2015)

Heberger, M. 2011. “Australia’s Millennium Drought: Impacts and Responses,” in The World’s Water, Volume 7: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources, Peter H. Gleick, ed., 97-126. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Israel’s Agriculture. (Accessed 2015).  http://www.moag.gov.il/agri/files/Israel%27s_Agriculture_Booklet.pdf. Accessed June 2015.

Olmstead, A. L. 1997. “The evolution of California agriculture.” Overview of the History of California. Retrieved: September 9, 2011. http://giannini.ucop.edu/CalAgBook/Chap1.pdf

United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). 2015. AQUASTAT database. (Accessed on June 9, 2015.)

USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Data accessed 2015. California data on harvested acreage in 2012 and crop production from USDA NASS.

Additional Pacific Institute Publications on Desalination

Desalination, With a Grain of Salt (Full report, 2006)

Proposed California Desalination Facilities (2012)

Cost and Financing of Desalination (2012)

Marine Impacts of Desalination (2013)

Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Desalination Facilities (2013)

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.

This blog was originally published in ScienceBlogs. You may find the original article here.

National Geographic ScienceBlogs: The California Drought: Almonds and the Bigger Picture

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By Peter Gleick, President

California is a wonderful place to grow food. The climate is highly favorable; soils are some of the best in the world, it is located well to serve global distribution markets with major ports and other transportation infrastructure; and normally, some regions are relatively well-watered.

Normally.

In a climate where rainfall is so variable from one year to the next, it makes little sense to talk about what is “normal” but California farmers know to expect that some years will very dry and that sometimes there will be a string of dry years back-to-back.

Media coverage of the current California drought has included various attempts to describe where California’s water goes, from flushing toilets to growing crops to bottled water to supporting fisheries. One high-profile target in the media has been California’s major nut crop – almonds – which has been described (and often vilified) for its water use. Many stories have latched on to an estimate that each almond kernel (nut) requires around a gallon of water to produce.

This Pacific Institute analysis addresses two questions:

  1. Is this number correct?
  2. And if so, what does it really mean?

The Numbers

First, how much water really goes to growing California almonds? The amount of water required to grow any crop varies with the climate, soil, irrigation method, and other factors. To compute the amount of water required, we need to know the acreage of almonds, the amount of water applied per acre, the yield of almonds (measured as the final shelled product) per acre, and the number of almonds per pound. For California, here are the basic numbers:

Acreage of Almonds: In 2014, there were approximately 870,000 acres of almond orchards (bearing) throughout the state, up from around 510,000 acres in 2000 and 770,000 acres in 2010 (USDA 2015). Figure 1 shows the massive expansion of almond, pistachio, and walnut acreage between 2000 and 2014. Total crop acreage in California during this period remained relatively constant due to reductions in plantings of field crops.

nut-graph-400x297
Source: USDA 2015

Water Use per Acre of Almonds: All crops require water and the total water requirement varies throughout the growing season as a function of temperature and other climatic factors, the characteristics of the plants themselves, soil conditions, irrigation methods and efficiencies, and more. For almonds, the crop water requirement is roughly between 40 and 55 inches per year – more in the hotter southern California region; less in the cooler northern California areas. Average water use is approximately 44- 48 inches per year (UC Davis; DWR). Certain advanced irrigation methods, such as regulated deficit irrigation, can cut this by as much as 30% or more, but these are not widely applied yet and such methods also may affect crop yields and quality.

Almond Yield: What does an acre of almond trees produce annually? In California, between 2010 and 2014, almond production averaged 2,325 pounds per acre according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Combining these data shows that a pound of almonds requires between 520 to 560 gallons of water:

almonds-equation-1-400x46

 

Nuts per Tree or Weight per Nut: The US Department of Agriculture reports that in California the average number of almonds per tree is around 6,700, and the average weight of each almond kernel (the part we eat) is around 1.4 grams per nut.

Total Water Use for Almonds: Combining these numbers we estimate that total applied water use for almonds in California was around 3.1 million acre-feet in 2010.  That number was almost certainly higher in 2014, but no final data for last year are available yet.

Water per Almond: When combined with the yield information above, almonds required between 1.6 and 1.7 gallons of water per nut, somewhat higher than the 1 gallon per nut commonly reported elsewhere, but of a comparable magnitude.

almonds-equation-2-400x48

But What Do the Numbers Mean?

Is this a lot of water to produce an almond or a little? How much water does it take to grow a grape, watermelon, head of lettuce, or cow? Is such a measure useful?

It is too simplistic to look at the amount of water required to produce a specific item and pass judgment, without understanding global markets, technology, climate, and more. Farmers make choices of what crops to grow based on many factors and signals, from market prices for commodities, to the quality of their soil, to water availability, to the kinds of equipment in their barns. There is a strong market for almonds and they produce good returns to farmers. In addition, water-use efficiency in almond orchards – that is the amount of water required to produce a particular good or service – has been improving over time as better irrigation technologies and methods have been applied. This is a good thing – it permits growers to produce more food and income per unit water.

But it is also true that the massive expansion of California orchards – especially almonds – imposes some real negative costs to communities, leads to the loss of local groundwater where some wells are drying up, and reduces the flexibility of the State to deal with shortages when permanent crops replace crops that can be temporarily fallowed in bad years. Local opposition to new orchards is growing rapidly and a backlash is likely. A spotlight is being shined on the role of corporate investors in the agricultural sector.

During a severe drought, when there is not enough water to satisfy all demands, tough questions arise: What should California be growing and with what irrigation methods? Should growers with low-priority water rights and uncertain water availability in drought years be able to plant new orchards that require permanent water without bearing all of the risks of those decisions? Should new orchards watered with groundwater be prohibited in regions of severe groundwater overdraft? Should there be a change in water-rights allocations in favor of (or away from) permanent crops? Should specific irrigation methods be required for certain crops or soil types? Should all decisions about water allocations in agriculture be left to economic markets rather than allocated by historical rights, as some economists argue? What role, if any, should public agencies play in influencing or regulating water-use patterns in agriculture? Should the State Water Resources Control Board more explicitly define “reasonable and beneficial use?”

In the end, if the gap between water supply and water demand continues to grow, California will have to make fundamental changes to agriculture in a way that ensures both a strong agricultural sector and a healthy environment. The conversation about how to do this must include a discussion of incentives, disincentives, regulatory and market conditions, and impacts to all affected parties. In the end, it is about far more than just almonds.

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.

This blog was originally published in ScienceBlogs. You may find the original article here.

Huffington Post: Where Does California’s Agricultural Water Go?

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By Peter Gleick, President

Water plays a vital role in California’s agricultural sector, using 80% of the water used by humans in the state. In recent months, water challenges imposed by the current severe drought have brought this agricultural water use into the limelight, raising new questions about how the water is used. A new “Need to Know” brief authored by Heather Cooley and the Pacific Institute, provides essential background information on the state’s agricultural water use: in particular, the brief estimates total water applied for crops grown in California, the water intensity of those crops, and the economic productivity of water.

 

2015-04-29-1430325178-762471-NeedtoKnowAgwater.JPG

Among the key findings are that alfalfa is the largest single consumer of water, using over 5 million acre-feet per year (in 2010 – the last year for which consistent and comprehensive data are available), and produces about farm revenue of around $175 per acre-foot of water. Almonds and pistachios together use around 3.3 million acre-feet of water and produce around $1,150 per acre-foot of water. (An acre-foot of water is around 326,000 gallons, or the amount of water needed to cover an acre to a depth of a foot.)

These indices for a range of crops are shown in Figures 1 and 2 below, and details on the full analysis are in the report, available free from the Pacific Institute.

2015-04-29-1430325223-9299715-CAagwateruse.JPG
Figure 1. Water applied to crops, in acre-feet per year (2010). Used with permission.

2015-04-29-1430325253-8872022-CaagperAF.JPG
Figure 2. Revenue by crop, in $ per acre-foot. Used with permission.

Questions around agricultural water policy are complicated and the report clearly describes these different factors. Heather Cooley notes, for example, that while these values

“provide some insight into choices that farmers make, agricultural decisions cannot be made based only on economic productivity numbers. No one would propose, for example, that only vineyards be planted because of its high value per unit water or that no field crops be grown in California.”

The report also notes that there are large uncertainties in agricultural water use due to a lack of consistent measurement and reporting, time lags in information, and confusion about definitions. Data on agricultural production and water use are not collected at all, or are collected by individual irrigation districts, counties, and a variety of state and federal agencies using a range of tools from voluntary reporting at the field level to remote sensing from satellites. Additional estimates of water use come not from actual observations or reposting but from model estimates and other techniques for projecting use.

The report argues that in order to truly understand the risk and opportunities for water use in California, more and better data are needed.

 

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.

This blog was originally published in Huffington Post. You may find the original article here.

New Data Show California Cities’ Response to Drought Is Highly Uneven

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By Matthew Heberger, Senior Research Associate

As California heads into its fourth consecutive year of drought, and pronouncements about our water supply are increasingly dire, new data released by the state show that water use and water conservation efforts in cities across the state are highly uneven. Since June of 2014, the State Water Resources Control Board has required urban water suppliers to submit monthly reports of water use, in order to help track conservation efforts. As of now, the state has collected 8 months of data from about 400 water suppliers.

We have created a pair of online features to help readers explore and visualize urban water use in California: (1) a table where you can filter and sort water suppliers, and (2) a map that displays water use by water supplier. Here’s a tip: click on a water supplier’s area on the map to see charts of water use. Hover your mouse over the chart to see the data values.

interactive-map-blog

These data visualizations help reveal insight into patterns of water use around the state, and water suppliers success or failure at achieving water use reduction targets. Water use in California varies from month to month; in our Mediterranean climate, water use over time follows a familiar bell-shaped pattern, with highest usage in the summer months and lower use during the cooler, wetter winter months. In January 2015, water use was 8.8% lower than in January 2014. This was disappointing to water regulators, as urban areas had succeeded in reducing December use by 22.2% when comparing 2014 to 2013.

In fact, December was the only month where conservation met the voluntary 20% cutbacks that Governor Jerry Brown called for in an emergency drought declaration in early 2014. December was an anomalously wet month around the state, and it seems most of us watered our lawns and gardens less frequently as a result. However, January saw unusually warm and dry conditions return, driving water use back up, and water use reductions a disappointing 8.8%.

 interactive-map-chart-blog

Indeed, looking back at the past 8 months, the state as a whole has fallen well short of the governor’s 20% conservation target. This is despite the fact that 95% of water suppliers have enacted some form of drought restrictions. And the fact that a recent public opinion poll found that 94% of Californians believe that “the state is undergoing a serious water shortage” (Field Poll Release #2501, February 26, 2015.)

Our data visualizations help show how variable urban water use is around the state. Water managers commonly report average water use in units of gallons per capita per day, or gpcd. When we look at per-capita water use around the state, the biggest users are in Southern California, which has the highest temperatures and the lowest rainfall.

Per-capita use also tends to be higher in wealthy communities. Houses with large lawns and pools are a major culprit. But research has also shown that households use more water for each additional bathroom, even when you hold the number of residents equal (see page 196 in this 2011 study). In Orange County, the high water use in the wealthy enclave of Cowan stands out on our map. Here, residents used 281 gallons per capita per day in January 2015. In nearby Santa Ana, where 20% of the population was below the poverty line in 2010, water use was a much lower 56 gpcd.

Around the state, in January 2015 there were 7 water suppliers where residents used more than 200 gallons every day, shown here:

Water Supplier Population Served Residential Water Use in 2015,
in gallons per capita per day
Percent Change
from January 2014
Myoma Dunes Mutual Water Company 6,159 342 -8%
Golden State Water Company Cowan Heights 5,390 281 +5%
Coachella Valley Water District 202,660 238 -10%
Serrano Water District 6,641 237 -36%
Santa Fe Irrigation District 19,386 231 +3%
Camarillo, City of 46,639 225 -9%
Desert Water Agency 62,142 201 -11%

One might ask whether it’s fair to call on everyone to cut water use by 20%. For water hogs, this should be easy. But what about areas where water use is already low? Some water suppliers have been running aggressive water conservation campaigns for decades. If nearly everyone is already using efficient appliances and fixtures and taking short showers, where will these additional savings come from? It’s like squeezing water from a stone, right? Maybe not. A handful of areas have made cuts to their already-low water use. For example, the LA-area community of Rancho Dominguez, served by the for-profit Park Water Company, saw double-digit declines, with water use dropping from 51 gpcd in January 2014 to 42 gpcd in January 2015. On the San Francisco Peninsula, the community of San Bruno saw similar declines, from 48 to 41 gpcd.

Pan and zoom around our water use map. What stands out to you? (Of course this map only tells part of the story. Urban areas account for about 20% of the state’s water use in an average year. The state does not have a comprehensive program to measure or track agricultural water use, so this is impossible to show farm water use for irrigation on our map.)

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.

National Geographic ScienceBlog: The Impacts of California’s Drought on Hydroelectricity Production

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By Peter Gleick, President

California’s hottest and driest drought in recorded history has shifted the sources of electricity with adverse economic and environmental consequences. The Pacific Institute has just completed and released a report that evaluates how diminished river flows have resulted in less hydroelectricity, more expensive electricity from the combustion of natural gas, and increased production of greenhouse gas emissions.

The current severe drought has many negative consequences. One of them that receives little attention is how the drought has fundamentally changed the way our electricity is produced. Under normal conditions, electricity for the state’s millions of users is produced from a blend of sources, with natural gas and hydropower being the top two. Since the drought has reduced the state’s river flows that power hundreds of hydropower stations, natural gas has become a more prominent player in the mix. This is an expensive change.

According to the Institute’s report, between October 2011 and October 2014, California’s ratepayers spent $1.4 billion more for electricity than in average years because of the drought-induced shift from hydropower to natural gas. In an average year, hydropower provides around 18 percent of the electricity needed for agriculture, industry, and homes. Comparatively, in this three-year drought period, hydropower made up less than 12 percent of total California electricity generation. The figure below (Figure 6 from the new study) shows the monthly anomalies in state hydropower generation in wet and dry years, and the severe cuts over the past three years.

The decrease in monthly hydroelectric generation over the past three years can be seen clearly in this figure. Losses in the past three years have totaled 34,000 GWh and $1.4 billion dollars.

A longer view reveals an even more startling economic impact: factoring in the dry years from 2007-2009, the total additional energy cost to the state’s electricity users during the six years of recent drought was $2.4 billion.

This increased reliance on natural gas for the state’s electricity production also has environmental costs. Hydropower has some well-known environmental impacts, especially on rivers and aquatic ecosystems, but it produces few or no air contaminants, whereas burning natural gas emits many pollutants, including climate-changing greenhouse gases. During the 2011- 2014 drought period, burning more natural gas to compensate for limited hydropower led to an eight-percent increase in emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants from California power plants.

If the current drought persists, water flowing to drive hydroelectric turbines will continue to shrink and expensive and polluting natural gas will become even more of a factor in the electricity production game.

The full report can be downloaded free here: http://pacinst.org/news/new-report-reveals-drought-increases-energy-costs-and-climate-changing-pollution/.

National Geographic ScienceBlog: Tackling Global Sustainability: A Need for Integrated Systems Approaches

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By Peter Gleick, President

If there is anything that the past few decades of research and study of major global challenges tells us, it is that truly effective solutions to sustainability challenges require truly integrated approaches across disciplines, fields of study, data sets, and institutions. We are not going to solve 21st century global problems with 20th century tools.

The planet is faced with a wide range of regional and global threats: air and water pollution, loss of biodiversity, a rapidly changing climate and new risks from extreme weather events, energy and food security, conflicts over resources such as water, spread of diseases, and much more. These threats are interconnected, but are typically studied in narrow disciplinary ways.

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Knowing and Showing that Companies are Respecting the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation

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By Mai-Lan Ha, Senior Research Associate

The intersection of business, water, and human rights has a contentious past. From protests, to legal battles, to the suspension of business operations, addressing local community conflicts over water and sanitation issues is a business imperative. Last month, the Pacific Institute in its role as part of the Secretariat of the CEO Water Mandate launched the first comprehensive guide to help businesses meet their responsibility to respect the human rights to water and sanitation. The document Guidance for Companies on Respecting the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation: Bringing a Human Rights Lens to Corporate Water Stewardship provides companies with step-by-step guidance to know and to show that they are respecting the rights.

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National Geographic ScienceBlogs: The State of the California Drought: Still Very Bad

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By Peter Gleick, President

The California drought continues.

While we do not know yet what the rest of the wet season will bring – and while we hope for the major storms needed to recharge our rivers, groundwater and reservoirs – it seems increasingly likely that California will not see enough precipitation to get out of the very deep deficit that three years of drought (so far) have produced.

There is, however, some misleading and confusing information out there. Some are already arguing that California’s rainfall is nearly back to normal or that because there may have been more serious droughts in the past we needn’t worry anymore. Most of these claims are based on misunderstandings of California’s hydrology, water systems, or current conditions, and on very narrow definitions of “drought.”

First, to understand the data, it is vital to realize that California’s “water year” runs from October 1 to September 30. This is not the “calendar year” (January to December). This distinction is important, because mixing data from different water years produces inaccurate analyses.

Here is a great example. If we look at the 2014 “calendar” year, it appears that California received a decent amount of water (Figure 1) – still dry, but not abnormally so.

Figure 1. California’s 2014 “calendar year” precipitation seems just slightly dry compared to the past 120 years. But this is a misleading graph. The State’s precipitation is measured by “water year” (Oct-Sept). See Figure 2. (Source: NOAA)

But this is grossly distorted by the heavy rains received in December 2014 – which is actually part of the 2015 water year. If we look at the 2014 water year (October 2013 to September 2014) we can see that last year was critically dry (Figure 2): in fact, only two previous years out of the past 120 were drier (1923-24 and 1976-77).

Figure 2. Precipitation in California’s 2014 “water year” (Oct-Sept) was extraordinarily dry — one of the three driest years on record.

Even more appropriate is to look at the past three years of persistent, cumulative drought. And when the last three water years are evaluated (October 1, 2011 to September 30, 2014), we see that the current drought (measured only by precipitation levels) is by far the most severe in the entire instrumental record (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The past three water years (2012 to 2014) are the driest in the entire instrumental record for California.

Second, it is important to understand that “drought” means – from a practical perspective – far more than just “precipitation deficit.” California’s drought is the result of several factors: how much precipitation we receive in rain and snow; how much water is available after taking into account reservoir storage, soil moisture, and groundwater; additional losses of water due to higher than normal temperatures (the past three years have been by far the hottest in California’s record); and the human demand for water. If all of these factors are included, the current drought in California can be considered the worst in recorded history.

And it isn’t over yet.

The current status of the drought – some key indicators.

As noted above, the rains received in December are counted as part of the 2015 “water year” – October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2015. Yet even these rains were not especially heavy. When we put all the data together (and a regular update of these data can be found at the Pacific Institute’s California Drought Update page), here is what we see:

Soil Moisture: One key indicator of the severity of the current drought is a standard measure of soil moisture conditions, called the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). This index is used to prepare the drought maps published at the US Drought Monitor. As the most recent version shows, the entire state of California is still in severe drought, despite the December rains (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The California Drought Monitor as of January 6, 2015 shows that 100% of the state remains in drought — much of it extreme.

Precipitation: And what did those rains actually do? Not much. As Figures 5 and 6 show, precipitation to date for Northern California is barely at average; and for Southern California it is already below average. Not a great start.

Figure 5: Precipitation to date for Northern California is barely at average, despite the December storms. Far more is needed to fill the current deficit in soil moisture, reservoirs, and snowpack.

Figure 6: Precipitation to date for Southern/Central California is already far below average for this date. (Source: DWR)Reservoir Storage: Even worse, we are starting the water year with critically dry reservoirs. Figure 7 shows the current status of California’s major reservoirs, all of which are remain well below normal even with the storms last month.

Figure 7: California’s reservoirs are still far below normal for this date. Without water in storage, deliveries to farmers and cities will almost certainly be cut back again in 2015 — a classic indicator of drought. (Source: DWR)

Snowpack: Finally, one of the most important measures is how much snow is stored in the mountains. This snow provides water that is used throughout the rest of the year. And as Figure 8 shows, three and a half months into the 2015 water year, California’s snowpack is far below normal. This is very bad.

Figure 7: California snowpack is well below normal for this date. This indicator is particularly important for water supply. (Source: DWR)

California will not dry up and blow away: drought means less water than normal, not zero water. But if the drought continues, increasingly difficult and costly decisions will have to be made, and the ecological, economic, and human impacts will grow. But this is no time to be a Pollyanna – we had better continue to prepare for the worst, since there is no indication that nature will bail us out in the near future.

National Geographic ScienceBlogs: The Growing Influence of Climate Change on the California Drought

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by Peter Gleick, President

Over the past three years (and indeed, for 10 of the past 14 years) California has experienced a particularly deep drought. How bad is the drought? Is it the worst in the instrumental record? The worst in over a century? The worst in 1200 years? The worst “ever”? And why has it been so bad?

There is no single definition of “drought.” Drought, most simply defined, is the mismatch between (1) the amounts of water nature provides and (2) the amounts of water that humans and the environment demand. As the National Drought Mitigation Center puts it:

“In the most general sense, drought originates from a deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time — usually a season or more — resulting in a water shortage for some activity, group, or environmental sector. Its impacts result from the interplay between the natural event (less precipitation than expected) and the demand people place on water supply, and human activities can exacerbate the impacts of drought. Because drought cannot be viewed solely as a physical phenomenon, it is usually defined both conceptually and operationally.”

Droughts aren’t a new problem for California. Like any other region of the world, the state is subject to extreme hydrologic events, including both floods and droughts. Long-term climatic data developed from tree-ring reconstructions, other “paleoclimatic” assessments, and the more recent instrumental and satellite records provide a record of extensive and persistent natural droughts going back more than a thousand years.

By any measure, the current California drought is severe, to the degree that Governor Brown made an emergency drought declaration almost a year ago, state and federal water agencies have been forced to greatly cut back deliveries of water to cities and farms from dangerously depleted rivers and reservoirs, and local utilities are asking customers for a mix of voluntary and sometimes mandatory water-use reductions. And the current drought is more severe than in the past in part because of the growth in the state’s population. Today California has 16 million more people than during the severe 1976-77 drought, and nearly 10 million more than during the long 1987-92 drought (Figure 1).

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California population from 1900 to 2013. Data from CA Dept. of Finance.

 

But a new factor must also be acknowledged:

The current California drought is bad because for the first time ever, scientists from many different fields see parallel lines of evidence for the influence of human-induced climate changes, including the fingerprints of higher temperatures and changes in the atmospheric circulation patterns. In short, climate change has made the current drought worse. [A summary of some of the recent peer-reviewed literature is provided at the end of this column for readers wanting to dig deeper.]

There is rapidly growing evidence from a combination of basic climate science, models, and real-world observations that human-caused climate change has influenced and worsened the current drought.[1] Indeed, California is not alone in experiencing the growing impacts of climate change: evidence that climate change is influencing extreme hydrologic events all over the world is now pouring in, from heat waves to coastal damages during extreme tides and storms, flooding from more intense precipitation events, drastic loss of Arctic ice, and droughts.

The rainy season has started again (as of the beginning of the official “water year,” October 1), and there is the hope and chance that California will see an average or even a wet year. But if there is any lesson to be learned from the past few years, it is that California is moving rapidly into a new water regime, where hydrologic extremes, including both droughts and floods, are likely to be both more frequent and increasingly severe, and where the influence of human-induced climate change is ever more apparent.

Even without the new factor of a changing climate, it is time to acknowledge that California is in permanent long-term shortage: even in a “normal” rainfall year more water is now demanded and used than nature provides, leading to growing political conflict, unsustainable groundwater overdraft, and ecological destruction of the state’s rivers, streams, and wetlands. Human-caused climate change just worsens this mix.

Business-as-usual water policies and politics cannot continue. California’s water community must face up to a new reality – a new “normal” – and work to bring our water use back into balance.

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The Science Background (A few recent relevant papers)

“The current California drought is exceptionally severe in the context of at least the last millennium and is driven by reduced though not unprecedented precipitation and record high temperatures.”

Griffin, D. and K.J. Anchukaitis. 2014. How unusual is the 2012-2014 California drought? Geophysical Research Letters. DOI: 10.1002/2014GL062433

“Long-term changes caused by increasing trace gas concentrations are now contributing to a modest signal of soil moisture depletion, mainly over the U.S. Southwest, thereby prolonging the duration and severity of naturally occurring droughts.”

Seager, R. and M. Hoerling, 2014: Atmosphere and Ocean Origins of North American Droughts. J. Climate. Vol. 27, 4581–4606. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/JCLI-D-13-00329.1

“Although the recent drought may have significant contributions from natural variability, it is notable that hydrological changes in the region over the last 50 years cannot be fully explained by natural variability, and instead show the signature of anthropogenic climate change.”

Cayan et al., 2010. Future dryness in the southwest US and the hydrology of the early 21stcentury drought, PNAS, Vol. 107, December 14, 2010, pp 21271-21276

“Climate change is linked to CA’s drought by two mechanisms: rising temperatures and changing atmospheric patterns conducive to failing rains. The first link is firmly established, and there is considerable and growing body of evidence supporting the second.”

Swain, D. L., M. Tsiang, M. Haugen, D. Singh, A. Charland, B. Rajaratnam, and N.S. Diffenbaugh. 2014. “The extraordinary California drought of 2013-2014: Character, context, and the role of climate change.” BAMS, Vol. 95, No. 9, September 2014 (Special Supplement), pp. S3-S7.

There is growing observational data, physical analysis of possible mechanisms, and model agreement that human-caused climate change is strengthening atmospheric circulation patterns in a way “which implies that the periodic and inevitable droughts California will experience will exhibit more severity…” “there is a traceable anthropogenic warming footprint in the enormous intensity of the anomalous ridge during winter 2013–2014 and the associated drought.”

S.-Y. Wang, L. Hipps, R. R. Gillies, and J-H. Yoon. 2014. Probable causes of the abnormal ridge accompanying the 2013-2014 California drought: ENSO precursor and anthropogenic warming footprint. Geophy. Research Letters, Vol. 41, Issue 9, pp. 3220-3226, May 16, 2014.http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2014GL059748/pdf

AghaKouchak, A., L. Cheng, O. Mazdiyasni, and A. Farahmand. 2014. Global Warming and Changes in Risk of Concurrent Climate Extremes: Insights from the 2014 California Drought. Geophysical Research Letters (in press). DOI: 10.1002/2014GL062308

“Increased heating from global warming may not cause droughts but it is expected that when droughts occur they are likely to set in quicker and be more intense.”

Trenberth, K. E., A. Dai, G. van der Schrier, P. D. Jones, J. Barichivich, K. R. Briffa, and J. Sheffield, 2014. Global warming and changes in drought. Nature Climate Change, 4, 17-22,doi:10.1038/NCLIMATE2067.

All models, regardless of their ability to simulate the base-period drought statistics, project significant future increases in drought frequency, severity, and extent over the course of the 21st century under the SRES A1B emissions scenario.

Wehner et al., 2011. Projections of future drought in the continental United States and Mexico. Journal of Hydrometeorology, Vol. 12, December 2011, pp 1359-1377.

“Over the past millennium, late 20th century snowpack reductions are almost unprecedented in magnitude across the northern Rocky Mountains and in their north-south synchrony across the cordillera… the snowpack declines and their synchrony result from unparalleled springtime warming that is due to positive reinforcement of the anthropogenic warming by decadal variability. The increasing role of warming on large-scale snowpack variability and trends foreshadows fundamental impacts on streamflow and water supplies across the western United States.”

Pederson et al., 2011. The unusual nature of recent snowpack declines in the North American Cordillera. Science, Vol. 333, 15 July 2011, pp 332-335.

Footnote

[1] None of these studies, and no scientists that I know of, have argued that the drought is “caused” by climate change – that is the wrong question. As I have discussed in an earlier column, the evidence points to the “influence” of climate change worsening these extreme events.

New Data Show Residential Per Capita Water Use across California

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By Matthew Heberger, Senior Research Associate

New monthly water use data for California water utilities shows that residential water use varies widely around the state, and that the response to the drought has been uneven. Moreover, in some areas, residential use averages more than 500 gallons per person per day, indicating that we could be doing much more to save water.

In July, the State Water Resources Control Board, or the Water Board, issued an emergency regulation to increase water conservation in urban areas. The new regulations prohibit certain water uses, like washing driveways and sidewalks, and imposed new restrictions on outdoor irrigation. Additionally, water utilities are now required to submit monthly reports on water use, including a comparison to how much water was used during the same month in 2013. Last week, the Water Board published the latest monthly water use reports for 397 urban water utilities. While a handful of utilities failed to report on time, those that did report cover about 99% of the state’s population.

Each water utility reports per-person water use in terms of gallons per-capita per day or “gpcd” and the portion used by residents in and around their homes. The result is a first of its-kind compilation of monthly water use data for urban water utilities in the state. And while officials cautioned that many factors affect water use, these data, displayed on the map below, reveal a number of interesting patterns and trends. Click on a utility’s service area to view a chart of residential water use, and how it compares to the same month last year, and to the average use for the state and its Hydrologic Region.

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The Water Board collected information from all of the state’s “urban water suppliers” defined by state law (California Water Code Section 10617) as “a supplier, either publicly or privately owned, providing water for municipal purposes either directly or indirectly to more than 3,000 customers or supplying more than 3,000 acre-feet of water annually.”

We mapped water suppliers using information from the California Department of Public Health’s Drinking Water Systems Geographic Reporting Tool, supplemented by our own research. Where a water supplier serves a large, mostly rural area, we identified populated areas within the service area. 

Perhaps the first thing you notice is the large range in reported water use. Residential water use in September 2014 ranged from a low of 45 gpcd in Santa Cruz to a high of 584 gpcd in areas served by the Santa Fe Irrigation District in San Diego County. Water use tends to be lower in the cooler coastal region, and in denser, urbanized areas. Likewise, water use tends to be higher in hotter, drier regions, and in suburban areas with more outdoor landscaping and lawns. The chart below highlights utilities with the five highest and lowest residential per capita water use rates in the state.

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Highest and lowest residential per capita water use rates among California water utilities in September 2014

The data also show that conservation efforts have been extremely uneven around the state. In January, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency and called on Californians to reduce their water usage by 20 percent. To date, conservation efforts have fallen short of the governor’s target, despite the fact that a majority of Californians believe that there is a “serious water shortage.” Water use in September 2014 was down an average of 10% compared to the previous year. In fact, only 40 out of 397 water utilities reported water use reductions of 20% or more. Cities that saw the biggest cuts in water use include San Francisco Bay Area cities of Dublin, Livermore, Menlo Park, and Pleasanton, as well as Santa Cruz, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara on the Central Coast. For a handful of water utilities, water use actually increased in the past year, despite the drought. Cities that saw water use creep up include East Palo Alto, Crescent City, Gilroy, Lodi, Newport Beach, and Sonoma.

And while Californians have made gains in using water more efficiently in the last few decades, these recent data shows that there is still plenty of room for improvement. Statewide, residential water use in September averaged 125 gpcd. A recent analysis by the Pacific Institute showed that an average Californian living in a home equipped with widely-available water-efficient appliances and fixtures would use about 32 gallons per day indoors. In addition, many Californians could reduce their outdoor water use by 70% or more by landscaping with low water-use plants. International experience demonstrates that such dramatic savings are possible. For example, Australian households use an average of 54 gpcd for both indoor and outdoor uses, and residents of the Australian state of Victoria use only 40 gpcd.

The Aussies weren’t always water misers, but decreased their water use dramatically in response to a decade of drought. Similar changes are underway in California, but should be accelerated. For example, turf removal or “cash for grass” programs are enjoying huge popularity around the state. Replacing lawns with California natives or Mediterranean plants has a host of benefits beyond water savings: colorful blooms that attract birds and pollinators; ease of maintenance; and less need for fertilizers and pesticides. Other efficiency improvements are also possible, such as finding and repairing leaks and upgrading toilets, clothes washers, faucets, and showerheads to water-efficient models with a WaterSense or Energy Star label.

We will continue to monitor the latest data from the Water Board to gage drought response around the state and look for interesting trends and new ways to visualize and understand these data. What do you notice when you look at these numbers?

 

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.

National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Peak Water: United States Water Use Drops to Lowest Level in 40 Years

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by Peter Gleick

The most important trend in the use of water is the slowly unfolding story of peak water in the United States and elsewhere. Data on US water use are compiled every five years by the US Geological Survey, covering every state and every sector of the economy. The latest data – for 2010 – have just been released, and they show the continuation and acceleration of a stunning trend: US water withdrawals, for all purposes, are declining, not growing.

Traditional water planning and management assume inevitable, continuing, lockstep growth in demand for water as populations and economies expand. This has led to calls for continued expansion in traditional water infrastructure: dams, aqueducts, groundwater extraction, and long-distance water transfers.

But over the past 40+ years, this assumption has been proven false. (See previous commentaries on this, here and here.) New limits on water availability, the changing nature of our economy, new technologies that permit great improvements in efficiency and productivity of water use, and new management approaches have broken the two curves of water use and traditional population and economic growth apart.

In short, the US has reached the era of peak water.

Below are two graphical representations of this remarkable change from the Pacific Institute using data on the US economy together with the USGS water use estimates. The first shows total gross domestic product of the US from 1900 to 2010 (in inflation-adjusted 2005 dollars) together with total “withdrawals” of water for all purposes – from domestic and industrial use to irrigation and power plant cooling. As shown, the most recent water withdrawals data show that withdrawals in 2010 were lower than at any time in the past 40 years back to 1970.

US GDP in $2005; Water Withdrawals in cubic kilometers per year. Data from USGS and USBEA.

 

The second graph shows the “economic productivity” of water use, measured by the 2005 dollars of gross domestic product generated with every 100 gallons of water withdrawn. This productivity of water use has tripled since 1970 and we now get over $10 of GDP for every 100 gallons of water withdrawn. (Again, these data are adjusted for inflation.)

$2005 of GDP produced for every 100 gallons of water withdrawn in the US. Data from USGS and USBEA.

 

The assumption that demand for water must inevitably grow is false. Let’s start planning for the reality that a healthy economy and population can mean more sustainable, efficient, and equitable water use.

Resources

Gleick, P.H. and M. Palaniappan. 2010. Peak Water: Conceptual and Practical Limits to Freshwater Withdrawal and Use. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Vol. 107, No. 25, pp. 11155–11162 Washington, D.C. June 22, 2010.http://www.pnas.org/content/107/25/11155.full.pdf

USGS 2010 Water Use Data: Maupin, M.A., Kenny, J.F., Hutson, S.S., Lovelace, J.K., Barber, N.L., and Linsey, K.S., 2014, Estimated use of water in the United States in 2010: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1405, 56 p., http://dx.doi.org/10.3133/cir1405.

Gleick, P.H. 2010. “Has the US Passed the Point of Peak Water?”http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-h-gleick/has-the-us-passed-the-poi_b_758698.html

Gleick, P.H. 2011. “Is the US Reaching Peak Water?” Forbes blog post:http://www.forbes.com/sites/petergleick/2011/09/07/is-the-u-s-reaching-peak-water/

[This post also appears in a similar form at Peter Gleick’s Huffington Post column.]

Huffington Post: The California Water Bond is a Beginning, Not an End: Here’s What’s Next

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by Peter Gleick, Kristina Donnelly, and Heather Cooley

California voters have approved Proposition 1 – the 2014 California Water Bond. The ultimate value and effectiveness of the bond will depend on how it is implemented and how the funds are spent. Here are some key issues to watch, things to understand about the new water bond, and recommendations:

1. Accelerate funding for disadvantaged communities: Water agencies that disperse (and receive) funds from Proposition 1 should rapidly expand efforts to provide desperately needed and long-overdue funds for disadvantaged communities that lack safe and reliable access to affordable tap water. Some of these communities have suffered from poor-quality water for years. State agencies know where the needs are and we know how to fix these problems through technology and improved treatment, new water delivery infrastructure, cleanup and protection of groundwater, and merging of ineffective small water agencies with larger or more effective ones. But money must also be made available for ongoing operation and maintenance of these systems.

2. Monitor the California Water Commission: The largest single portion of bond money was the $2.7 billion earmarked for the California Water Commission to allocate for storage projects. Given the ambiguity in the bond language, however, these funds could be used for almost any “storage” project, so long as it offers public benefits and improves water conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region, broadly defined. Before the money is allocated, the California Water Commission must define “public benefits” and decide how to review projects brought to them for consideration. Key here will be (i) the make-up of the commission, which has nine members appointed by the governor, and (ii) whether the commission makes these decisions transparently and with real public input and participation. Currently, the terms of three of the nine members are set to expire in January 2015 (Delfino, Hintz, and Del Bosque), two in January 2016 (Saracino and Ball), and the rest in January 2017 (Byrne and Quintero) or 2018 (Orth and Curtin). Thus, five out of the nine members potentially will be replaced before any final decisions on storage projects are made. Public oversight over the CWC process will be critical.

3. Keep an eye on groundwater: Proposition 1 (and the severe drought) has directly and indirectly raised the profile of groundwater in California. Coupled with the new state law requiring (slow) expanded monitoring and management of groundwater systems, Proposition 1 could provide substantial funding for creating groundwater management systems, accelerating groundwater storage projects, and cleaning up contaminated groundwater aquifers. For the first time, these precious and persistently over-tapped and abused water systems might actually be sustainably managed. That would be a good thing.

4. Don’t expect any immediate relief from the drought: As the Pacific Institute explicitly noted in its assessment of the language of Proposition 1, nothing in this bond measure can happen fast enough or widely enough to address our immediate water challenges. The only things that can be implemented quickly enough to mitigate the impacts of the current drought are serious and aggressive water conservation and efficiency efforts, and heavy rains — and only the former is under our control. Alas, only one percent of bond funds will be spent on conservation and efficiency, and these are the most important things we should be doing now.

2014-11-05-drought102814.PNG

5. Don’t assume Proposition 1 is the answer to our water problems: It isn’t. It is an expensive down-payment on a broad set of important projects that have been underfunded for years. At best, this money will help with some critical challenges, raise awareness of new steps that have to be taken, and highlight the need for other vital efforts. If the passage of the water bond makes everyone think we’ve done all we need to do, any momentum we’ve built toward solving our water problems will be lost. Let’s not let that happen.

 

Huffington Post: What Does Proposition 1 — the 2014 California Water Bond — Really Say?

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by Peter Gleick, President

On November 4, California voters will decide the fate of Proposition 1 — the 2014 Water Bond — which authorizes the sale of $7.12 billion in new general obligation bonds and the reallocation of an additional $425 million of previously authorized, but unissued, bonds.

Do you live in California and are you trying to figure out how to vote on Proposition 1? Today the Pacific Institute has released a comprehensive assessment of Prop 1. The Institute is neutral: We are taking no formal position, choosing instead to try to offer the voting public some insights into the complexities of the bond. If passed by the voters, Proposition 1 would be the fourth-largest water bond in California history, funding a wide range of water-related actions and infrastructure. The total cost of Proposition 1, including interest, will exceed $14 billion over 30 years.

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Huffington Post: When Our Responses to Drought Make Things Worse

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by Peter Gleick, President

In a new study just published by the journal Sustainability Science (Springer), analysis from the Pacific Institute shows that many of the fundamental responses of California water users to severe drought actually make the state’s overall water conditions worse — that in the end, many of these actions are “maladaptations.”

Water is a complex resource; and water problems are an equally complex mix of natural resource, technology, social, economic and political conditions. When water is limited, such as in water-short areas or during extreme events such as droughts, society puts in place a variety of responses. The Institute evaluated the major responses to water scarcity during multi-year droughts — in particular the recent 2007-2009 drought — by the energy and agricultural sectors. (A follow-up analysis of the current drought is in preparation.)

There is also evidence of resiliency and adaptation to drought. But many of the actions taken in recent years have actually increased the vulnerability of other systems, especially California’s aquatic ecosystems and disadvantaged social groups that rely on those ecosystems for their health or employment. Equally, or more important, some of the responses provided short-term benefits at the expense of future generations, by drawing down groundwater reserves and by increasing the production of greenhouse gases that worsen the risks of climate changes. In short, the study concludes:

California’s current strategies for dealing with long or severe droughts are less successful than previously thought when short- and long-term impacts are evaluated together. This finding is particularly relevant given projections of more frequent and severe water shortages in the future due to climate change. This study recommends a shift from crisis-driven responses to the development and enactment of long-term mitigation measures that are anticipatory and focus on comprehensive risk reduction.

Among the major findings of the study:

  • California’s agricultural and energy sectors sustained high production levels during the 2007-2009 drought largely by relying on a series of coping strategies that increased the vulnerability of other systems.
  • During the drought, California’s hydropower was roughly halved. This lost hydropower was largely replaced with the purchase and combustion of additional natural gas.
  • Ratepayers spent1.7 billion extra to purchase natural gas over the three-year drought period; the combustion of this extra natural gas led to emissions of an additional 13 million tons of CO2 (about a 10 percent increase in emissions from California powerplants).
  • The substitution of hydropower with natural gas also released substantial quantities of harmful pollutants, including nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds, and particulates.
  • Total agricultural revenues remained high during the drought at the expense of increased groundwater pumping that cannot provide water security in the face of a longer or more severe drought (see, for example, the Table below).
  • The agricultural sector’s increased reliance on groundwater from overdrafted aquifers also increased energy demands and led to drastic declines in groundwater tables.
  • Crop insurance programs under the federal Farm Bill may have reduced the incentive for farmers to adapt by providing subsidized drought insurance for some farms growing water-intensive crops in the Central Valley of California.

2014-10-18-Westlandsgwuseduringdrought.PNG

(Table from the paper showing the dramatic increase in groundwater use by the Westlands Water District during drought when surface supplies are limited.)

For California to become more resilient to future drought conditions it will be critical to shift from crisis-driven responses to the development and enactment of long-term mitigation measures.

The paper concludes with suggestions for mitigation measures are available within different sectors and notes that mitigation strategies in one sector can have a positive effect on other sectors. For example, improvements in the efficiency of water use in the agricultural sector can minimize reliance on the existing supplies and reduce unnecessary water use. Therefore, water efficiency improvements can help maximize the current supply and reduce the drought’s impact on other sectors, such as the environment, if water savings are left in-stream or explicitly committed to environmental flow needs. Likewise, improving soil-moisture management can improve the efficiency of agricultural water use, with benefits for the economy such as increased farm revenues and decreased payouts in the form of federally subsidized crop insurance.

[Paper reference: Juliet Christian-Smith, Morgan C. Levy, Peter H. Gleick. 2014. “Maladaptation to drought: a case report from California, USA. Sustain Sci, Vol 9, No. 3. DOI 10.1007/s11625-014-0269-1]

National Geographic ScienceBlogs: An Open Memo on Ebola and Water

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by Peter Gleick, President

As input to the ongoing discussions about how to meet and overcome the spreading risks of Ebola, here are some summary thoughts about the water-related components of U.S. efforts. Specifics about the operations and effectiveness of water treatment or supply technologies, or the medical and health implications of their use must be verified by the designers/makers of the technology along with medical experts from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), West African health and water officials, and related institutions.

1. Water Supply Needs and Usage

Any medical facility, hospital, field station, isolation unit must have a supply of fresh water that is adequate in flow volume and quality. This requirement, and the need to develop such a reliable supply in advance of facility construction or placement, is as or more vital than the need for reliable electricity, although as noted below, these two resource needs are also related and connected.

Volume of Water Needed

Few studies have assessed average water use by hospitals; fewer have done this assessment for emergency field isolation units or rural medical units. Larger hospitals are reported to use between 40 to 350 gallons per patient per day (150 to 1300 liters per person per day), but only about 60% of this is used for medical procedures and sanitary purposes.[1] Another source identifies typical urban hospital hot water demand at around 35 gallons per person per day (160 liters per person per day).[2]

While these data suggest that emergency minimum water supply volumes on the order of 150 to 200 liters per person per day might be sufficient, it should be a top priority to inquire of current medical facilities in Liberia, Guinea, and other affected areas of West Africa for specific data and insights on their current level of water use as well as the end uses of that water (washing, sanitation, sterilization of equipment, cooking, etc.).

Water Sources

Water sources can include rainwater, surface water from rivers, surface water from lakes and ponds, groundwater/aquifers, remote delivery via tanker, pipeline, or municipal system. The availability of these options is highly locally specific, and no general recommendation can be made without knowledge of the site to be chosen for a treatment facility. It is thus vital that early and fast assessments be conducted of available water sources (including both quantity and quality). Given the high variability of the hydrology and climate in West Africa, a reliable source of safe, clean groundwater may prove to be the best option, but will require a geophysical assessment and an experienced water well drilling team, together with sufficient engineering expertise to install the necessary pumping and treatment infrastructure.

Quality

It is essential that the quality of at least part of the water supply be potable, as defined by World Health Organization,[3] European Commission,[4] or U.S. Environmental Protection Administration standards.[5] (Any one of these standards would be sufficient.) Water protected to a “potable” standard will greatly reduce the risk of additional water-related diseases, which would vastly worsen the health outcome of both working staff and patients. This will require either a guaranteed source of water that is safe, or an on-site treatment system that can purify water of any available source to a specified, desired quality. An on-site system is preferable because of the greater certainty (compared to depending on natural purity of a potentially unreliable or variable source), but it has higher operational complexity and costs.

A key point: water use in an emergency field hospital can be split into both potable/high quality and non-potable needs. If non-potable water is available, and there are substantial water-use requirements that do NOT require potable water, the system required to produce potable water can be smaller, less energy intensive, and less costly. In such a “dual-system” case, however, care must be taken to ensure that potable and non-potable needs and supplies are kept separate and isolated to prevent cross-contamination risks.

Energy-Water Nexus Issues

Both reliable energy and water are vitally important resources for any emergency medical facility. As part of the need to supply water, however, there are also significant energy needs for:

  • Water-supply delivery (via pumping of groundwater, pipeline operation, or tanker delivery)
  • Water treatment is often energy-intensive, depending on the methods used (boiling, membrane operation, ozone or ultraviolet disinfection, etc.)

The Table below shows the energy requirements for various water-treatment technologies.[6] In planning the total energy system needs for any facility, these water-related energy demands must be taken into account, along with the backup water storage needed to provide treated water in the event of energy outages.

Source: Gleick, P.H. and H. S. Cooley. 2009. Energy implications of bottled water. Environ. Res. Lett. Vol. 4. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/4/1/014009.
Source: Gleick, P.H. and H. S. Cooley. 2009. Energy implications of bottled water. Environ. Res. Lett. Vol. 4. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/4/1/014009.

Water Storage

Along with water-supply reliability, sufficient on-site water storage must be provided with two important characteristics:

  • Sufficient volume to cover fluctuating demand and the risk of water-supply outages caused by changes in the supply or by loss of electrical power to provide treated water.
  • Sufficient quality protections to ensure that water in storage remains safe for the specified uses.

There are a wide variety of commercially available or military-grade storage tanks, plastic “bladders,” or other kinds of water bags or containers and the calculation of sufficient backup volume is easy to make if information is available on the level of demand. A system must also be put in place to test the water quality of stored water on a regular basis.[7]

 2.  Water that may be contaminated with Ebola virus

A separate water-quality risk is that during patient care and treatment, contaminated fluids, including water, will have to be reliable handled, treated, and neutralized. According to the World Health Organization, Public Health Agency of Canada, and the US CDC, Ebola virus is known to be susceptible to solutions of chlorine bleach, germicidal chemicals, gamma radiation, sufficient ultraviolet C light exposure, some soaps, alcohol-based sanitizer (at least 60% concentration), and by boiling water.[8], [9],[10] (See Box 1: Ebola Susceptibility to Disinfectants and Physical Inactivation, for some specific data.]

Box 1. Ebola Susceptibility to Disinfectants and Physical Inactivation

From the Public Health Agency of Canada. http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/lab-bio/res/psds-ftss/ebola-eng.php

SUSCEPTIBILITY TO DISINFECTANTS: Ebolavirus is susceptible to 3% acetic acid, 1% glutaraldehyde, alcohol-based products, and dilutions (1:10-1:100 for ≥10 minutes) of 5.25% household bleach (sodium hypochlorite), and calcium hypochlorite (bleach powder). The WHO recommendations for cleaning up spills of blood or body fluids suggest flooding the area with a 1:10 dilutions of 5.25% household bleach for 10 minutes for surfaces that can tolerate stronger bleach solutions (e.g., cement, metal). For surfaces that may corrode or discolour, they recommend careful cleaning to remove visible stains followed by contact with a 1:100 dilution of 5.25% household bleach for more than 10 minutes.

PHYSICAL INACTIVATION: Ebola are moderately thermolabile [can be destroyed or deactivated by heat] and can be inactivated by heating for 30 minutes to 60 minutes at 60°C, boiling for 5 minutes, or gamma irradiation (1.2 x106 rads to 1.27 x106 rads) combined with 1% glutaraldehyde. Ebolavirus has also been determined to be moderately sensitive to UVC radiation.

Source:  Public Health Agency of Canada. http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/lab-bio/res/psds-ftss/ebola-eng.php. Accessed October 5, 2014.

A wide range of water-treatment systems can ensure that water supply is safe, including chlorine-based treatments, ultraviolet light treatment, and top-quality reverse osmosis membrane systems. The CDC provides a short overview of various treatment options and their ability to remove viruses here.[11] Before choosing a water-treatment system, however, manufacturers must confirm that they are designed and can be operated to specifically remove or inactivate Ebola-type viruses with high reliability.

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.

The Corporate Water Disclosure Guidelines – A common and meaningful way for companies to track and communicate their water performance, risks, and impacts

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by Peter Schulte, Research Associate

October 7, 2014

The Corporate Water Disclosure Guidelines are available as a PDF report and web-based tool.

disclosure-guidelines-cover-2014This week, the CEO Water Mandate launched its finalized Corporate Water Disclosure Guidelines – a common approach for companies to effectively and intelligibly disclose the many elements of their corporate water management practice to key stakeholders. The Guidelines present an important step in corporate water stewardship that can help companies communicate with their stakeholders, and better understand themselves in the process. Here are a few (of many!) ways in which the Guidelines can benefit a company.

Demonstrating good practice

By providing meaningful quantitative metrics and qualitative approaches that describe corporate water practice, the Guidelines help companies demonstrate good performance and reduced risks and impacts to investors, consumers, communities, suppliers, their own employees, and others. This is particularly important as, in the past, many companies have used water-related metrics that are at best of only limited use, and at worse quite misleading! For example, traditional globally-aggregated water use metrics inherently hide and undervalue the local nature of water resource challenges. Perhaps a company’s global water use has decreased, but has it decreased in the places that are facing the most urgent water shortages?

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National Geographic ScienceBlogs: The Death of the Aral Sea

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by Peter Gleick, President

In the 20th century, society was either ignorant of, or ignored, the consequences of bad water management. The goal was economic development at all costs. Over the past few decades, we’ve learned about the ecological and social implications of the misuse of water, and some efforts have been made to protect natural ecosystems, restore a modicum of flows, bring local communities into the discussion about water policy and infrastructure. These are steps in the right direction.

But sometimes our failures have been monumental — and uncorrected.

Perhaps the best, or worst, example, is the complete destruction of the Aral Sea. Once one of the four largest lakes in the world by surface area, fed by the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, it has now been destroyed by the complete diversion of inflows to grow crops — largely cotton — in the arid regions of  Uzbekistan (with parts of the watershed of the Sea in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan).

All 24 species of fish endemic to the Aral Sea are now extinct. Dust storms spread respiratory diseases. And the local climate has been altered.

Here is an animated gif showing the disappearance of the sea between 2000 and just last month: August 2014 (data/satellite images courtesy of NASA).

The Aral Sea from 2000 to 2014.

And here is a picture of the Sea in 1977, in its former glory.

The Aral Sea in 1977.

This should be a lesson to all of us. I hope it will be, but in the United States we are heading for the destruction of the Salton Sea, with similar consequences. We are drying up more and more of our rivers before they reach the ocean. And we see even the Great Lakes suffering from water quality contamination and massive algal blooms, potentially worsened by climate change.

Aral Sea: RIP

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.

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

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by Peter Gleick, President

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

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

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

“Increases in average monthly temperature alone have major implications for the timing of runoff. In regions with significant quantities of snow – and thus spring snowmelt – temperature increases will result in less snowfall during winter months and faster runoff in the spring… The reason for this is the reduction in the ratio of snow to total precipitation during the winter months, combined with an earlier spring melting of the winter snowpack.” [Gleick, P.H. 1985. Regional hydrologic impacts of global climatic changes. Proceedings of an International Research and Development Conference, Arid Lands: Today and Tomorrow. (E.E. Whitehead, C.F. Hutchinson, B.N. Timmermann, and R.G. Varady, editors). October 20 25, 1985. University of Arizona, Office of Arid Lands Studies, Tucson, Arizona. pp.43-60. (Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1988)]

In 1987, final results of this work were published in the journal Climatic Change, edited by one of the giants in the field of climate research, Dr. Stephen Schneider.

“Increases in temperature alone cause increases in average winter runoff due to an increase in the proportion of rain to snow and hence a decrease in the storage of water in the snowpack during the winter months… For all ten hypothetical [climate change] scenarios evaluated, major shifts in the timing of monthly runoff can be seen…The changes in the timing of runoff occur primarily because of the increase in average temperatures, which has two effects: (i) a large decrease in the proportion of winter precipitation that falls as snow, and (ii) an earlier, faster, and shorter spring snowmelt.” [Gleick, P.H. 1987b. Regional hydrologic consequences of increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and other trace gases. Climatic Change. Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 137 161]

Even 30 years ago, when this work was being done, climatologists were strongly convinced that continued emissions of greenhouse gases would change the climate based on our understanding of atmospheric physics, chemistry, and dynamics, the work of climate modelers, and evidence from ancient paleoclimatic records, but no definitive “signal” of climate change had yet been detected above the “noise” of natural fluctuations and variations in climate.

Those days are long gone. The evidence of human-caused climate change is now unambiguous in an increasingly and disturbingly large number of signals: rising temperatures, rising sea levels, changes in extreme storm and precipitation events, massive disappearance of Arctic ice, accelerated melt rates in Greenland and Antarctica, changes in ecosystem dynamics, disruption in species distributions, earlier vegetation blooming patterns, and on and on. And one key piece of that evidence is the change in snow dynamics forecast in the 1980s. Figure 1 shows some of the evidence of these changes over the past half century in the western United States.

2014-09-19-NatGeosnowpackgraphic.PNG(Source: National Geographic 2014)

We’re not ready. We still manage our water systems for the 20th-century climate we use to have, not the 21st-century climate we will have. We still act as though our water problems can be solved with traditional solutions despite the growing evidence of peak water limits in places like the western US. And we still assume that we can indefinitely overdraft our groundwater, suck our rivers dry, and expand our populations in arid regions. We cannot. The sooner we accept the new reality of climate change, the sooner we can have a real conversation about the most effective strategies for truly sustainable water management and use.

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

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by Heather Cooley, Water Program Director

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

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

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

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

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What about Desalination during the Drought?

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by Amanda Pebler, Communications Intern

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

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

1024px-Reverse_osmosis_desalination_plantBeyond the costs to build these facilities, operational costs are substantial and raise concerns over the energy requirements and their impacts. Energy costs make up around a third of total operating costs for a typical desalination plant. In California, there is concern about vulnerability to short-term and long-term energy price increases. During a drought, energy prices tend to increase due to the reduced ability to generate hydropower and the need to replace that hydropower with more expensive energy sources. These costs are often overlooked and not always factored into the total project cost. Long term, energy prices are not static and may increase due to the rising costs of developing renewable alternatives and building and maintaining new and existing infrastructure.

With these high capital and operational costs also comes a higher cost of its product, water. Desalinated water can cost upwards of $1,900 per acre foot, considerably more than other alternatives such as water conservation and efficiency, stormwater capture, and recycled water.

Aside from the costs, there are other potential externalities associated with desalination facilities, including environmental impacts. Seawater intake systems that draw ocean water in through screened pipes impinge marine organisms on the intakes. Smaller organisms able to pass through, such as eggs, larvae, and plankton, are entrained into the plant and killed during the desalination process. Produced water disposal can also have a substantial threat to marine life. The salt is concentrated into a brine that is usually pumped back out to sea for disposal after going through the desalination process. These point sources increase salinity levels and may affect local sea life, depending on the plant’s location and sea currents.

The idea of building seawater desalination plants during a drought is not a new one. In 1991, a desalination plant in Santa Barbara was constructed in response to the 1987-1992 drought. Once the plant was completed, abundant rainfall rendered the plant cost-inefficient, and it shut down in 1992. Currently, costs to restart the plant are being assessed as the technology and infrastructure are dated and would incur new capital investment. Likewise, six seawater desalination plants were built in Australia in response to the Millennium Drought. Today, four out of the six plants are left idle due to the availability of cheaper alternatives. These examples should serve as cautionary tales.

The good news is that we still have cost-effective options readily available. A new study by the Pacific Institute and NRDC shows how California’s drought can be managed with better allocation and management of water resources. By implementing water-saving practices, water reuse, and stormwater capture, California can save 5.2 to 7.1 million acre-feet of water each year in our urban areas – equivalent to the output of 125 large desalination plants!

Sustainable water management is best served by creating a comprehensive water management strategy in California, one that captures the most cost-effective options first. California has the ability to bridge the gap between water demand and supply by taking advantage of the existing resources and practices that have yet to be fully and efficiently harnessed.

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.

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

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by Paula Luu, Communications Manager

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

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

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

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

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

Californians can counteract the negative impacts of stormwater runoff by promoting water infiltration at our houses or businesses. The Pacific Institute and NRDC have written about the potential of stormwater capture in urban and suburban California to help communities increase water supply reliability. Similarly, the State Water Resource Control Board’s Storm Water Program wants us to approach urban landscapes like natural watersheds that slow the flow of water and allow it to be absorbed into the ground. Mimicking the natural functions and behavior of these natural watersheds will allow us to capture, treat, and then reuse stormwater.

When much of California is facing drought and limited water supplies, capturing and reusing every drop of water will not only be clever, but crucial. The State Water Board’s Storm Water Program has released a seven part film series to bring to life simple practices that individuals and communities can do to conserve water, become stewards of our watersheds, and slow the flow of stormwater from homes and businesses when the rain returns. The “Slow the Flow: Be a California Water Warrior”* series focuses on low impact development practices and projects anyone can do on or around their property, such as proper management of lawns (if you must have one), alternatives to a lawn-based garden, disconnecting your down spouts, adding bioswales and rain gardens, and converting paved areas to more permeable surfaces.

Episode 1 titled, “What the Heck is Storm Water Runoff and Why is it a Problem?,” provides an overview of stormwater, describing the negative impacts of stormwater runoff on human health and the environment and introducing strategies to eliminate stormwater runoff. The strategies will be showcased in the following episodes.

 

Episode 2, “Lawn Removal – Lawn Be Gone,” focuses on the benefits of getting rid of your lawn and how to do it.

Episode 3, “Make the Water Go – Disconnecting Down Spouts, “ details how to shrink your ecological footprint by disconnecting your down spouts. These are both great summer activities to prepare your home for the winter.

Lawn practices – Grass can Always be Greener” is the fourth episode which offers money-saving tips to maintain a more eco-friendly lawn should you decide to keep it.

A new film will be released in the series every second Tuesday over the course of this summer. Stay tuned for the next three episodes:

  • “Soils – Digging Up the Dirt on Soil”
  • “Permeable Pavers – Breaking Up is Easy to Do”
  • “Swales and Rain Gardens – Swales are Swell and So Are Rain Gardens”

You can also view all the Slow the Flow films on the Storm Water Films webpage, State Water Board’s YouTube channel, or follow the Slow the Flow team on Facebook and Twitter (@LetsSlowTheFlow).

* The films are produced by On The Waterfront Creative with assistance from the UC Davis Extension Land Use and Natural Resource Program and the Water Board Training Academy

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.

The Multiple Benefits of Water Conservation and Efficiency for California

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by Heather Cooley, Director of the Pacific Institute Water Program

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

percent-irrigated-cropland

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

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

Water-efficiency improvements provide multiple benefits. (more…)

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full blog at GreenBiz.

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

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By Peter Gleick, President

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

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

First, is the drought actually very bad?

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

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By Amanda Pebler, Communications Intern

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

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

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

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

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By Peter Schulte, Research Associate

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

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

Let’s go through these contentions one-by-one: (more…)

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

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

This article is cross-posted at the NRDC Switchboard.

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

ca drought productivity image.jpg

Map derived from US Drought Monitor and 2012 Census of Agriculture. Credit: Anna Kheyfets

The full impact of the drought on the state’s agricultural regions is not yet quantified, but preliminary results from a University of California- Davis study suggest that Central Valley farms will receive 6.5 million acre-feet less surface water than under normal conditions.

This is bad news not just for California farmers, but for all of us. California is the most productive agricultural state in the nation, growing about half of the fruits and vegetables produced in the United States. Limited water supplies mean smaller crop harvests, higher costs for farmers, and potentially even higher prices for some commodities.

It’s also bad news for California’s groundwater resources.  In an average year, groundwater provides an estimated 40% of the state’s water supply and up to 60% during a drought, making it not only an important primary water supply but also a critical “backup” dry year supply for many water users. Many of California’s groundwater basins, especially in the San Joaquin Valley, are already painfully overextended, causing the ground to sink nearly one foot per year in some parts of the state and threatening the structural integrity of the state’s water delivery system. Furthermore, declining groundwater levels mean that wells will go dry, water quality will decline, and some farmers and other water users will lose a key water supply, making dry years even more painful.

But there’s a glimmer of hope, and an opportunity to transition to far better times for California’s tough and dedicated farmers.  “Untapped Savings,” an analysis released today by the Pacific Institute and NRDC, reveals that efficiency could reduce agricultural water use by 5.6 to 6.6 million acre-feet annually. That’s enough water to make up the shortage in surface water predicted by UC Davis, even during this exceptionally dry year, speaking to the power of efficiency as a drought-resiliency technique. So what does this drought-resilient farm of the future look like?

  • Drip Irrigation- Farmers who use drip irrigation apply low volumes of water directly to crops’ root zones.  This technology can use 21% less water than traditional gravity irrigation, where water is applied by flooding the area between crop rows. 
  • Irrigation Scheduling- Crops need different amounts of water during different stages of growth.  A farmer who uses irrigation scheduling closely tracks the amount of water crops are using, monitors weather and soil conditions, and times watering to match crop needs. Farmers in the Pajaro Valley who use this technique were able to reduce their water use by 30% while maintaining yield. 
  • Regulated Deficit Irrigation- With this technique, a farmer strategically reduces the amount of water applied during certain drought-tolerant stages.  The reduced water helps to improve crop quality, and is especially popular among tree nut, wine grape and other fruit growers.

There’s not much we can do to make it rain, but there are steps we can take to prevent the worst impacts of dry periods for California farmers.  Some California farmers have already adopted these and other efficiency practices.  Further adoption of modern irrigation technologies would help make California agriculture more drought-resilient and ensure that groundwater resources are available during dry years.  By expanding adoption of drip irrigation, irrigation scheduling, regulated deficit irrigation, and other efficiency practices on our farms, and in the irrigation districts that serve them, we have an opportunity to transform this “worst of times” into a new era of prosperity and resilience for California agriculture.

For more information about the 21st Century water supply solutions for our farms, cities and homes, which together can offer enough water savings and demand reductions to irrigate all of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts in California each year, check out our Untapped Savings website.

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.

Urban Water Conservation and Efficiency – Enormous Potential, Close to Home

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By Matthew Heberger, Research Associate, Pacific Institute, and Ed Osan, Senior Policy Analyst, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

This post is cross-posted at the NRDC Switchboard.

As California continues to face severe drought conditions, a new report released today by NRDC and the Pacific Institute tallies the huge potential to lower water use in virtually every community across the Golden State. Reducing water demand can help make our cities more resilient to future droughts, saves energy and reduces air pollution, and leaves more water in rivers and estuaries for fish, wildlife, and recreation. Compared with the water consumption levels of the last decade, urban water use can be cut by one-third to one-half using technologies and practices that are available today. We helped develop these estimates, and summarize the most significant of them here.

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NRDC Switchboard: Making the Most of California’s Rain – New Report Shows How Capturing Stormwater Can Help Make Our Water Supplies More Reliable.

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By Noah Garrison, Attorney with the National Water Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

This post originally appeared at the NRDC Switchboard.

For much of California, 2013 was the driest year since the state started keeping records more than 150 years ago.  In May, measurements of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which normally provides about one-third of the water used by the state’s farms and cities (as well as by natural ecosystems) as it slowly melts through the spring and summer, were at only 18 percent of average for that time of year, and the state reported that it “found more bare ground than snow as California faces another long, hot summer.”  Statewide, the average rainfall in 2013 was only 7 inches, far less than its long-term average of 22 inches, and the lack of precipitation poses a serious threat across the state—including placing communities at risk of running out of water (though this risk was thankfully reduced by rain, still below average, in February and March).  Capturing that water when it does rain in our cities and suburbs can help communities increase their water supply reliability—so they have the water they need when it doesn’t.

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Huffington Post: Solving California’s Water Problems

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By Peter Gleick, President

For over 150 years, Californians have argued, litigated, yelled, and otherwise fought over water. California is a big state – we have redwood forests, desert regions, mountains, coasts, rich agricultural lands, amazing natural ecosystems. And overall, we have a pretty good amount of water.

The problems with California’s water are that it is highly seasonal, highly variable, and poorly managed. Now, halfway through the second decade of the 21st century, we’ve hit the wall. California is in a drought – some call it the third year of a drought, but it could also be called the tenth dry year out of the last thirteen (see Figure 1). Even if next year brings some relief, our water problems will remain.

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Huffington Post: The Untapped Savings in California’s Water Supply

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By Steve Fleischli, Senior Attorney & Water Program Director, NRDC

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on June 10, 2014.

For over 150 years, Californians have argued, litigated, yelled, and otherwise fought over water. California is a big state – we have redwood forests, desert regions, mountains, coasts, rich agricultural lands, amazing natural ecosystems.

Check out the infographic below and to see the rest of the  slideshow visit the Huffington Post.

ca water supply solutions fact sheet 2

 

 

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.

Huffington Post: Will New Climate Regulations Destroy the Economy? (Hint: No.)

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By Peter Gleick, President

No. On the contrary, they might just save it by helping stimulate new technologies and industries and by reducing the risks of climate disruption.

There is a long history of claims that new rules to protect the environment or human health will seriously harm the United States economy. These claims are political fodder, they are provocative, and they are always wrong. In fact, the evidence shows the opposite: environmental regulations consistently produce enormous net benefits to the economy and to human health. In 2008, for example, the United States’ environmental technologies and services industry supported 1.7 million jobs. The industry at that time generated approximately $300 billion in revenues and exported goods and services worth $44 billion.

Overall, a peer-reviewed 2011 study found that just the programs established by the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments were expected to yield direct benefits to the American people that vastly exceed costs of complying with the regulations. The study’s central benefits estimate in 2020 exceeded costs by a factor of more than 30-to-1.

And these partial economic assessments ignore the health benefits of these rules. Health experts have estimated that the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, for example, for 2010 alone:

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Huffington Post: Water and Conflict in Syria

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By Peter Gleick, President

Drought, Water and Agricultural Management, and Climatic Conditions as Factors in the Syrian Conflict

Starting in 2006 and lasting through 2011, Syria suffered the worst long-term drought and the most severe set of crop failures in recorded history. In a new research paper, I’ve looked at the role of regional drought, unsustainable water management policies, and climatic conditions in contributing to the severe conflict in Syria in the past few years (see the peer-reviewed paper “Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria” by Dr. Peter H. Gleick, coming out in the July issue — and here online — in the American Meteorological Society journal Weather, Climate, and SocietyA press release on this paper is now available, here). Many factors influenced the civil war in Syria, including long-standing political, religious, and ideological disputes; economic dislocations from both global and regional factors; and the consequences of water shortages influenced by drought, ineffective watershed management, and the growing influence of climate variability and change.

The drastic decrease in water availability, water mismanagement, agricultural failures, and related economic deterioration contributed to Syria’s population dislocations and the migration of rural communities to nearby cities. These factors further contributed to urban unemployment, economic dislocations, food insecurity for more than a million people, and subsequent social unrest. Key to mitigating risks in the region are improvements in water-use efficiency and productivity in agriculture, better management and monitoring of groundwater resources, and comprehensive international agreements on managing and sharing the rivers that cross political borders.

There is a long history of conflicts over water in the Middle East (this history can been seen in the Water Conflict Chronology, published online by the Pacific Institute). The region experiences high natural variability in precipitation and suffers from a lack of modernized agricultural and water management systems. Less than one-fifth of Syria’s irrigated area uses modern sprinklers or drip irrigation. Half of all irrigation water comes from groundwater systems, which are in a condition of overdraft, leading to dropping groundwater levels and rising production costs. Water use and the construction of large water infrastructure upstream by Turkey have also decreased surface water supplies flowing into Syria (see Figure). Populations in the Tigris-Euphrates river basins have grown rapidly, further stressing limited water supplies. All of these factors were worsened by severe multi-year drought.

Figure. Discharge of the Euphrates River measured at Jarablus, Syria from the mid-1930s to around 2010. Red lines show the decadal averages. The long-term linear trend is also shown. Data from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, 2013.
Figure. Discharge of the Euphrates River measured at Jarablus, Syria from the mid-1930s to around 2010. Red lines show the decadal averages. The long-term linear trend is also shown. Data from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, 2013.


Assessing the role of climatic changes in altering water availability finds growing evidence that drought frequency and intensity in the Levant/Eastern Mediterranean region have changed from historical climatic norms. Researchers have identified an increasing tendency in annual and seasonal drought intensity corresponding with an increasing number of dry days in the rainy season, and there is evidence that climate changes are already beginning to influence droughts in the area by reducing winter rainfall and increasing evapotranspiration at rates higher than can be explained by natural variability alone.

Future climate projections for this region are also unfavorable from the perspective of water availability. Recent climate simulations all indicate growing water-related risks from higher temperatures, increased evaporative water demands, reductions in future runoff levels, and changes in the timing of runoff.

In the face of this, there are viable options for reducing the risks of water-related conflicts in the region, including expansion of efficient irrigation technologies and practices, integrated management and monitoring of groundwater resources, and diplomatic and political efforts to improve the joint management of shared international watersheds and rivers. And as global warming worsens, populations increase, and pressures on water grow, efforts to reduce conflicts over water will have to expand and improve.

(“Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria” will appear in the July 2014 issue of Weather, Climate, and Society. The Early Online Release notice and the abstract are available here. Media requests for the paper should be sent to Nancy Ross, nross (at) pacinst.org. )

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.

Reflections from the CEO Water Mandate’s Meetings in Peru

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By Peter Schulte, Research Associate

About a month ago, Jason Morrison, Mai-Lan Ha, Stefanie Woodward, and I flew to Lima, Peru to convene the CEO Water Mandate’s thirteenth multi-stakeholder conference. The conference was well-attended by Peruvians and non-Peruvians alike, new faces and old. Together, we built on discussions from Mandate conferences in years past and began to tackle challenging new questions, such as:

  • What specific water-challenges can we find in Peru? How can corporate water stewardship concepts help resolve these issues? What does the corporate water stewardship community have to learn from the Peruvian experience?
  • How can companies meaningfully engage with their suppliers to encourage more sustainable water management practices?
  • How can companies ensure that their partnerships and collective action projects have integrity and fulfill their intended mutually-beneficial objectives?
  • How can companies understand whether their stewardship efforts sufficiently address local water stress and other water-related challenges?

ceo-water-mandate-limaThe first full day of the Lima meetings, co-organized by with Forest Trends, the Katoomba Group, the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment, and the National Water Authority of Peru, was entitled “Corporate Water Stewardship, Collective Action, and the Post-2015 Development Agenda: Exploring the Relevance for Peru.” We explored how the emerging corporate water stewardship paradigm and forthcoming UN Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are relevant to addressing local and regional water resource management challenges and to learning from Peruvian experiences and perspectives. Core messages from the day’s discussions included:

  • In Peru, despite great progress, many challenges still derive from a lack of government capacity to robustly govern water resources. Collaborative action is needed among government, business, and civil society to support such capacity.
  • As with companies from all corners of the globe, in order for many Peruvian businesses to effectively and robustly manage water-related business risks, they must 1) collaborate with others and encourage and facilitate improved water management beyond their fencelines and 2) proactively assess and respond to risks related to their supply chains.
  • Supply chain management is particularly important for companies with extensive agriculture inputs; thus driving sustainable agriculture is an essential element of many water stewardship approaches.
  • Activating social participation in the development and management of business operations, though often requiring significant time and investment, can be an effective strategy for “de-risking” business projects and improving a company’s standing among its stakeholders.

The second daylong conference featured multi-stakeholder sessions exploring 1) policy engagement and collective action; 2) human rights and business; 3) corporate water disclosure; and 4) supply chain management and sustainable agriculture. Participants learned about the Mandate’s past and upcoming products, while also offering feedback on how they might be used to drive meaningful change on-the-ground, how the products themselves can be further strengthened, and how the associated Mandate workstreams can and should proceed in the coming months and years.

Coinciding with the Mandate’s conference, the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS), for which both the Pacific Institute and CEO Water Mandate serve as founding members, launched its water stewardship standard. It also reported on the outcomes and lessons learned from pilot testing AWS’ beta standard, including in Peru’s agricultural sector. The AWS Standard is a globally-consistent framework that outlines the expectations of responsible water stewardship that can be adopted by businesses and others.

My main take-away from the event was that interest in corporate water stewardship – among companies and their stakeholders alike – has only grown in the last several years. However, discussions at the meeting also suggested that we clearly still have not achieved the type of change we’re hoping for. Peruvian companies and government officials speaking at the event noted a lot of great examples of stewardship efforts in Peru, while also pointing to the need to significantly scale up these practices. In the years to come, we need to expand this conversation beyond the 100 or so leading companies to include those companies’ suppliers and industry sector partners. Moreover, we need to make sure conference discussions are translated into practical action on the ground. Tools like the AWS Standard and the Mandate’s Water Action Hub can help, but more action and resources are needed.

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.

Huffington Post: Throwing Away Good Water

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By Peter Gleick, President

[Heads up for the overly sensitive: I’m going to talk about pee, piss, taking a leak, and other euphemisms for urine and urination. But hey, you all do it.]

Man urinates in reservoir, “ruins” 38M gallons of water.
That was the headline in an article in the news today, except without the “quotes.”

On April 16, security cameras recorded some teenage delinquents trespassing around the Mount Tabor Reservoir No. 5 in Portland, Oregon. One of them was seen peeing through the fence. According to the police, the culprits were caught, cited, and released.

The city announced that because of this incident, they would throw away 38 million gallons of potable water and clean the reservoir, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, not including the actual value of the water to consumers, which is far higher. The water will go to the sewage plant and undergo the same treatment the city’s regular sewage gets. After that, the water gets thrown away again, into the Columbia River. Why? Because of concerns that the water was now “contaminated.”

This incident shows, in many ways, why our relationship to, and understanding of, our water system needs to change.

First: Ruined? Really? Let’s do a little math:

The typical volume of the human bladder is perhaps 600 to 800 milliliters, though people often feel the need to pee when it gets to 150 to 200 ml. Yes, scientists actually studied this. While it is likely this miscreant is simply an immature jerk, perhaps he simply couldn’t hold it anymore. For the sake of this calculation, let’s assume he had a really full bladder: 600 ml.

Next, if you look at the news pictures of the reservoir (see below), you’ll see that it has very sloping sides, so it is highly unlikely that any of this moron’s pee actually reachedthe water: it appears likely it fell on the sides, where it probably evaporated. But, again, to be conservative let’s assume it ALL reached the water.

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The arrow shows the long sloping side of the reservoir. Photo by Benjamin Brink, bbrink@oregonian.com. Modified by Peter Gleick.

Now, it turns out that urine is 95 percent water. The rest (5 percent of the 600 ml) is dissolved salts (potassium, sodium, chloride), a tiny bit of urea, creatinine, and trace amounts of enzymes, carbohydrates, and hormones (in this case probably elevated levels of juvenile testosterone). So, 30 milliliters of things other than water.

What does this mean? It means that — at worst — around 30 milliliters of mostly harmless stuff might have fallen into 38 million gallons (144 billion milliliters) of high-quality potable drinking water: this is 0.2 parts per billion or 200 parts pertrillion.

Folks, even if this guy is pissing out pure concentrated evil, rather than some basic minerals and organic chemicals, it’s not going to have any effect on the water quality. By the way, this reservoir is open to the air. And birds. And insects. As someone local noted, animals sometimes fall into the reservoir and die without any such action taken.

OK: it’s questionable about whether a reservoir holding treated water about to be delivered to consumers should be as open and accessible as this one seems to be. This incident raises valid security concerns. But if the public is worried about water quality — as we all should be — our water managers should educate us about and protect us from real risks, like unmonitored and unregulated chemical plants right upstream of our water intakes in West Virginia, rather than pour perfectly good water down the drain because of unwarranted fears.

[And yes, I’d drink that water.]

National Geographic ScienceBlogs: On the Back of an Envelope: That Glass of Water in a Restaurant?

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By Peter Gleick, President

California, and much of the southwestern US, is in a severe drought. Again.

And as appropriate, there is growing debate about what we, as citizens, communities, corporations, and governments should do to tackle water shortages and the bigger question of sustainable water policy. Suggestions range from the large-scale and comprehensive (build more dams, transfer more water from farther and farther away, rethink the entire agricultural sector, use high-quality treated wastewater to meet certain needs) to the small-scale and local (replace your lawns and inefficient water-using fixtures, stop washing your car, turn off the water when brushing your teeth). All of these things are worth considering; plenty of them are worth implementing.

Recently, Don Cheadle (the great actor and producer, anti-genocide activist, and environmental ambassador) tweeted: “Tweeps, next time you’re at a restaurant please inform your waiter that you will ASK for water and not to automatically pour. #noautowater”

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Do Businesses in the U.S. Have an Enlightened Self-Interest in Sustainable Water Management?

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By Jason Morrison, Corporate Sustainability Program Director

Water challenges are not just an issue for companies with operations and/or suppliers in developing countries; they are confronting businesses here and now in the United States. And while the current drought in California and the Southwest or the one in the Midwest last year get considerable attention, many regions in the US face a chronic imbalance between water supply and demand. These regional imbalances, coupled with a variety of other water-related concerns nationally, present current and future water risks for US business.

looming-water-challenges-infographicThis of one of the key findings of a new study released by the Pacific Institute and VOX Global, titled “Bridging Concern and Action: Are US Companies Prepared for Looming Water Challenges?” Based on a survey of over 50 companies, it reveals that most of participating companies believe water challenges will significantly worsen in the next five years. More specifically, 60% of companies indicate water is poised to affect business growth and profitability within five years, and more than 80% say it will affect their decisions on where to locate facilities. This is a stark increase from only five years ago, when water issues affected business growth and profitability for less than 20% of the responding companies (see infographic).

However, the majority of companies surveyed do not appear to be planning corollary increases in the breadth and scale of their water risk management practices. In fact, nearly 70 percent of responding companies said their current level of investment in water management is sufficient. It is for this reason that the study’s authors question whether many companies are adequately prepared for the growing number of water risks and challenges they will face. Businesses participating in the study identified two significant internal obstacles that hinder greater companywide action on water: lack of time to raise awareness and buy-in and that other risks ranked as a higher, more immediate priority.

That said, the acknowledgement among major U.S. corporations that water is becoming major business issue is a notable finding in and of itself. There is growing recognition that in addition to being a significant societal problem, water also creates critical challenges for businesses specifically.  Insufficient or contaminated water supply, or a lack of infrastructure to reliably deliver that supply, can mean companies may not be able to maintain the volume and quality of their production. This new reality necessitates that companies’ senior management better understand the many ways that water affects their bottom line and that they pursue water stewardship strategies that adequately address these emerging water-related challenges.

The Pacific Institute has long held that sustainable water management is the most viable long-term water risk mitigation strategy that businesses can pursue. In sum, there’s a business case for bringing long-term water demand into alignment with renewable supply, and for engaging in democratic water governance processes geared toward ensuring that societal needs are equitably met and that aquatic ecosystems continue to function and thrive. It would be great to have more allies from the business community that share an interest in progressing toward the aspirational objective of sustainable water management here in the United States.

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.

Colorado River Flows into the Delta

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By Michael Cohen, Senior Research Associate

The Colorado River flows again! Last Sunday – the day after World Water Day – I joined more than 200 people in an impromptu celebration at Morelos Dam, welcoming the return of water to the desiccated Colorado River delta. We came from all over – from Albuquerque and Boulder and Ciudad Juarez and Ensenada and Vermont and even Australia – to witness the historic release and to see the Colorado River flow once more. Scores of people from neighboring Algodones and surrounding homes came out as well, curious about the gathering and excited by the prospect of water flowing in the channel.

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The Colorado River flows through Morelos Dam into the delta.

Mexican engineers opened a gate in the center of the dam shortly after 8 am, releasing 25 cubic meters per second (about 880 cfs) of Colorado River water to the delta, to a loud cheer from the crowd. The water rushed through the dam, roaring over the riprap and into the broad shallow marsh below. We watched the water rise slowly, inundating the marsh and quickly eroding the soft sediments at the top of the river channel itself. People dipped hands and feet into the rising water, then retreated as the river gradually reclaimed its banks.

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Below Morelos Dam, pre-release.

 

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Below Morelos Dam after one hour of pulse flow.

 

A few hours later a group of us drove south to see how far the river had progressed. With some expert guidance, we found the dry river channel slightly above Gadsden Bend and walked about a half mile up-channel in search of water.

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The channel of the Colorado River.

Rain earlier this year had extended the reach of the river – evidenced by high-water marks along the channel and several depressions filled with dark shapes that turned out to be desiccated tadpoles.

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Desiccated tadpoles in the dry river channel.


Eventually we found the farthest extent of the surface flow of the Colorado River. It wasn’t much to see, far less inspiring than the release from the dam upstream. 

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The Colorado River flows again (ever so slowly).

But the water continues to flow even as I write this, pushing downstream, rewetting the dry channel and saving some of the tadpoles lucky enough to be born in deeper pools. Cottonwood and willow seeds will germinate (by the thousands!) and we will build upon this success, for the river and for the two nations that share it.

This remarkable achievement comes from years of effort, by many people on both sides of the border. Although Aldo Leopold first celebrated the delta’s Green Lagoons in A Sand County Almanac 65 years ago, it wasn’t until 1988 when Ezekiel Ezcurra and colleagues published a journal article about some isolated wetlands at the edge of the delta that the region’s potential emerged. Ed Glenn and other scientists built on this research in the 1990s, engaging the environmental community’s interest in the Colorado River delta’s amazing resilience. The Pacific Institute was one of several groups that promoted the delta’s potential in those early years, publishing Sustainable Use of Water in the Lower Colorado River Basin in late 1996, followed by two binational workshops on the delta and various other reports and policy papers. The recent High Country News article offers a good overview of the recent effort to return flows to the delta.

Watching the river flow once more, celebrated by so many people who worked so hard and for so long to make it happen, restores the spirit and recharges our sense of hope and mission. Much will be written about this watershed achievement in the days and months and years to come, of vision and cooperation across multiple geographic and institutional boundaries. Ultimately, though, this is a story of the resilience of a river in the desert and its ability to inspire.

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.

Huffington Post: The State of Our Water: World Water Day 2014

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By Peter Gleick, President

Welcome to World Water Day 2014. As I said last year, I think every day should be World Water Day, not just March 22nd, but hey, we take what we can get. Here are some thoughts that warrant repeating about water and important water news from the past year.

    • Those of us who are lucky enough to live in countries with high-quality tap water take it for granted. Go to your tap, draw a glass of water, and drink it. Then remember that nearly a billion people still do not have reliable access to safe, affordable tap water and cannot do what you’ve just done.
    • Stop taking your toilet for granted, too. Nearly 2.5 billion people (more people than lived on the planet in the 1930s) don’t have safe sanitation.
    • Do you know anyone who had cholera, or typhoid, or dysentery? Probably not. Yet just a few generations ago, some of your ancestors certainly died from one of these diseases. The bad news is that millions of people still die from these preventable diseases — associated directly with the lack of safe water and sanitation.
    • That food you’re eating or the clothes you’re wearing or the computer you’re sitting at to read this? It took a lot of water to produce them. That water is part of your water footprint. Here are some resources that discuss water footprints.
  • We read all the time about the damages we’re doing to the environment, and especially of the species that we’re driving to extinction. But most of them aren’t furry mammals or photogenic megafauna. The majority of species threatened with extinction are aquatic – threatened by human use and contamination of water. Here is the IUCN “Red List” of vulnerable, threatened, and endangered species, worldwide. In the United States, more than one-third of threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands, according to the U.S. EPA.
  • There appear to be growing risk of conflicts over water resources. The Pacific Institute has worked for more than two decades cataloguing and analyzing the risks of conflicts over water. Here is a link to our Water Conflict Chronology.
  • The news about climate change and risks to society just keeps getting worse. And risks to water are at the top of the list. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientific report was released a few months ago, and the IPCC Working Group II assessment of impacts is coming out in days. Their conclusion? “There is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.”
  • Because climate changes are already occurring, weather events, including extreme events, are increasingly influenced by them. Scientists have been clear: expect to see more extremes of heat, extended drought, and water shortages in many places. This year, California is ground zero, with a seriously severe drought. Here is a recent discussion of the links between climate change and the California drought.

Some Good News

  • The assumption that demand for water must go up, up, up with population and economic growth is wrong. The U.S. (and many other countries) uses less water today than 35 years ago and far less per person. This is due to a combination of improved efficiency and changes in our economy. Figure 1 shows this trend for the U.S., and it is great news, though we’re waiting on the most recent update on US water use, pending from the USGS.
  • There is tremendous additional potential for improving efficiency and productivity of water use. We can do far more with less water in every sector from agriculture to industry to our homes.
  • It is possible to restore damaged natural ecosystems if we restore some semblance of natural water stocks and flows. Here is a pretty cool new data set and interactive map from American Rivers on removal of old, dangerously unsafe, or ecologically damaging dams in the United States.
  • There is a formal “human right to water” declared by the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council, and while by itself this will not magically solve water problems, it acknowledges the importance of meeting basic needs and lays out the responsibilities of nations to more actively address water and sanitation needs for their poorest populations. Here is some new work from the Pacific Institute on integrating the human right to water with business practices.
  • There are wonderful non-governmental, international, and community organizations of all kinds working on water problems, from research (such as my own Pacific Institute) to on-the-ground assistance. (Here is one list; here is another; commenters should feel free to add more!).

So happy World Water Day 2014. Don’t take your water for granted – and take action.

Peter Gleick

 

10 Shocking Facts about the World’s Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With Water, California’s Bigfoot is Imported

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By Julian Fulton, Research Affiliate

As during most droughts, discussions of how to allocate dwindling water supplies have intensified across California. One stirring piece of the debate has pivoted around using water to produce food that is exported outside of California. “Why should homeowners stop watering their lawns when farmers are using far larger amounts of precious water to grow alfalfa for China,” the argument goes. This export of “virtual water,” as it’s often called, essentially means sending water out of the state.

There are data to support this. Our 2012 study on California’s water footprint found that half of the water consumed in California goes to produce things the state exports. That’s 19 million acre feet of virtual water exported each year. This trend has raised eyebrows with some western water analysts and chapped the hides of livestock ranchers whose desiccated pastures have forced them to buy feed on the open market, which is tilted in favor of exporting to places like Japan and the United Arab Emirates rather than elsewhere in California (a recent BBC story covered this). (more…)

7 Things You Need to Know about California Water

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

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

National Geographic ScienceBlog: Clarifying the Discussion about California Drought and Climate Change

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By Peter Gleick, President

In the last few months, as the severe California drought has garnered attention among scientists, policymakers, and media, there has been a growing debate about the links between the drought and climate change. The debate has been marked by considerable controversy, confusion, and opaqueness.

The confusion stems from the failure of some scientists, bloggers, reporters, and others to distinguish among three separate questions. All three questions are scientifically interesting. But the three are different in their nuance, their importance to policy, and their interest to politicians and water managers. Here are the three different questions:

    1. Is the California drought caused by climate change?
    2. Is the California drought, no matter the cause, influenced or affected by climate changes already occurring?
    3. How will climate changes affect future drought risks in California?

Read more

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.

It’s My Drought! And Yours. Face it.

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By Nancy Ross, Communications Director

The California drought has everyone wondering what we can do. Well, we can’t make it rain. But we can make an effort to understand the reality of water shortage, to recognize how we individually can make an impact, and to think about how yesterday’s water policy and pricing is going to have to change to serve us in a new reality of more frequent and more severe drought. And we can get on board with that instead of whining about it!

The fact is that for a great majority of us in the cities, “drought” hasn’t hit us that hard except that we miss those cozy rainy days curled up with a book. I don’t have a lawn; I don’t have a garden.  I never wash my car anyway (it’s the environmentally responsible choice for those of us with 13-year-old-high-mileage junkers!). (more…)

Rural Water Systems Struggle in the Good Times and the Bad

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By Joe Ferrell, Communications Intern

The current drought is shaping up to be particularly damaging to small and rural communities. In mid-February, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) announced that 17 rural communities face the prospect of running out of water within 60-100 days. These water systems serve populations ranging from 39 to 11,000 Californians. The CDPH is extending its assistance to these communities in an effort to both reduce water use and locate alternative sources, stressing the need for conservation and creativity.

However, water systems in rural communities have been underfunded for years, something that has impacted their ability to maintain and upgrade infrastructure. The State will hopefully work to make infrastructure that is already in place more efficient, but as the drought continues, they will likely look to bring in water from elsewhere. This could be done by connecting smaller water systems to larger ones, drilling new wells, or hauling in water on trucks, among other options.

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Seventeen rural water districts in California at risk of running out of water. To view the full sized map, click here.
Source: California Department of Public Health

The Pacific Institute’s 2013 report Assessing Water Affordability notes that, despite California’s recognition of the human right to water, many rural areas of California still suffer from a lack of access to safe and sufficient supplies. Even when small rural systems have decent water quality, the lack of revenue base leaves them unable to save sufficient funds to address future infrastructure replacements or emergencies. As a result, small rural systems’ water services can be less reliable than large or urban systems.

Many small community water systems in California also struggle with nitrate contamination. Nitrates in drinking water can cause shortness of breath and blue baby syndrome, and small systems don’t often have the revenue to afford mitigation technologies. The Pacific Institute report The Human Costs of Nitrate-Contaminated Drinking Water in the San Joaquin Valley explores how households in communities with contaminated water end up paying more for filtration systems or alternative sources such as vended and bottled water. This can be particularly detrimental to poorer, rural Latino populations, because as The Human Costs report points out, they are statistically more likely to have tap water with higher levels of nitrate.

Small rural communities with dwindling water supplies during the drought may accrue similar additional costs as users look to alternative water sources. A survey-based study on a population in rural Pennsylvania showed that the cost of water from alternate sources ranged from $26.71 to $82.85 per household per month. In addition to paying higher rates for water from alternative sources, water users utilizing alternative sources frequently have to pay an additional $11.33-22.66* in transportation costs because of the longer distance between them and the water source.

It is unclear how drought-stricken water systems will pay for alternative sources of drinking water, should they be needed. Suffering communities may institute rate increases, although this is a slow process that still does not address the issue of affordability. The state’s Drinking Water Program will provide some financial assistance, and the state might also be able to expedite loans made through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, an EPA program that provides low-cost loans to drinking water systems in need of infrastructure improvements.

Lacking the resources and revenue that big urban water agencies possess, rural communities face a stark and immediate concern at the worsening drought. As the CDPH evaluates alternative water sources for these communities, who will bear the burden of the cost to develop them?

* Alternative source and transportation costs adjusted for inflation.

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.

Finding Light (and Water) at the End of the (Drought) Tunnel, on the Farm and for the Future

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By Anna Olive Klein, Agricultural Water Steward Project Coordinator 

With all the flurry of attention surrounding the drought these days, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the bleak future of California’s water. Apocalyptic forecasts and desolate images dominate much of the recent media dialogue. While it is clear the drought is bad news and its effects will trickle into a variety of sectors from our food to energy supplies, much of the conversations surrounding the drought often only reaffirm the collective sentiment that we are all doomed. As a result, the once slow-moving disaster has quickly transformed into a state of emergency, creating an atmosphere of alarmism that, in the end, only helps to advance quick-fix, band-aid solutions.

blog-farm-water-steward-irrigationBut we need to start thinking longer term, because as historic droughts suggest, drought in California is not an anomaly. Fortunately, Californians of all walks are mobilizing—initiating conversations long overdue—in preparation for a future with significantly less water. But, to truly start thinking and acting for the long term, we desperately need to discard the belief that the drought simply poses an obstacle to the status quo. Instead, we must view the drought as an opportunity—a chance to build a more resilient water future—so we can work toward adapting to the “new reality.”

For farmers across California, drought has been a major, longstanding concern. Agriculture is a major user of water in California, accounting for about 80% of the state’s developed water supply. The good news is that there are opportunities to reduce the agricultural sector’s use of water, and therefore its vulnerability to water supply constraints, while maintaining or even improving crop yields. Expanding on already existing and newly emerging innovative technologies and strategies is one way to do this. Some farmers and irrigation districts are already leading the way, implementing innovative, on-farm water conservation and efficiency practices, including scientific irrigation scheduling and efficient irrigation technologies.

To recognize leaders and innovators in the California agricultural community, the Pacific Institute launched the Farm Water Steward Award in 2012. Every other year, a Farm Water Steward Award recipient is chosen from success stories submitted on the Interactive Database of Ag Water Stewardship Case Studies, launched by the Pacific Institute and California Roundtable on Water and Food Supply, which features innovative and effective efforts of farmers who work to improve on-farm and regional water management. Highlighting farmers already moving in innovative directions is especially important for leading by example and empowering collective change to overcome barriers and create a resilient agricultural sector for the future.

In January, Madera County almond grower Tom Rogers was awarded the 2014 Farm Water Steward Award for his leadership and innovation in water stewardship across the California agricultural community. The award was presented jointly by the Pacific Institute, Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), and Ag Innovations Network at Glide Ranch in Davis, California, just days after Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in California.

Together with his brother, Dan Rogers, Tom grows a variety of almonds on his medium-sized farm, one of the last of its kind in the area. To keep pace with the dwindling water supplies over the decades, Tom has relied on his affinity for innovation and eagerness for experimenting. He claims it all began with his father back in the 1970s, when they installed a series of irrigation scheduling technologies, including special weather monitoring stations and soil moisture monitors, “for fun.” “Water is the cheapest fertilizer you’re going to buy,” Tom explains. “Under water [the tree], and you’ll damage yourself. Over water, and you’ll damage yourself. Water is what makes the crop.”

Efforts like Tom Rogers’s in water stewardship are a gentle reminder that even amidst all the desolation of the drought, there is light (and even water) at the end of this (seemingly waterless) tunnel. His story, and stories about other innovative farmers like him, is exactly the sort of uplifting narratives we need to amplify and rally around. “Together, we can all be water stewards,” he says.

Sustaining California’s water resources in an increasingly uncertain future involves working collaboratively—with farmers, industries, communities, water utilities, laborers, and the public—to implement technological innovations, rethink priorities, adopt smart economic policies, integrate water into statewide planning, and modify water management institutions. Part of embracing the “new reality” and building a more resilient water future involves reimagining our relationship with water such that we view our collective water use in a new light.

Learn more about Tom Rogers, 2014 Farm Water Steward, from his audio interview here. For more information on the Farm Water Steward Award, click here. For more information about the 2014 Farm Water Steward Award presentation, including a list of speakers, click here.

The Farm Water Steward Award was established to recognize leaders and innovators in water stewardship across the California agricultural community. Growers, water districts, and agricultural organizations are invited to submit case studies to be considered for the next Farm Water Steward Award on the Interactive Database of Ag Water Stewardship Case Studies at: www.agwaterstewards.org/index.php/case-studies.

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.

National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Learning from Drought: Five Priorities for California

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By Peter Gleick

Droughts – especially severe droughts – are terribly damaging events. The human and ecosystem costs can be enormous, as we may relearn during the current California drought.

But they are also opportunities – a chance to put in place new, innovative water policies that are not discussed or implemented during wet or normal years.

In the hopes that California’s warring water warriors open their minds to policy reform, here are some of the issues that should be on the table now, in what could be the worst drought in California’s modern history. But here is what I fear, said best by John Steinbeck in East of Eden:

 “And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”

Here are five top priorities (more will be presented in later posts):

  1. Put in place comprehensive groundwater management. This includes monitoring and reporting of all groundwater withdrawals, integrated surface and groundwater management, pricing of groundwater withdrawals, increased wet-season groundwater recharge, and restrictions on groundwater pumping, on average, to the limit of sustainable yield…Continue reading.

California’s “Bellwether” Drought

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By Peter Gleick, President

It is time to recognize the serious California drought for what it is: a bellwether of things to come; a harbinger of even more serious challenges to California water resources allocation, management, and use.

The drought could end next month. It could go on for more years. But it will not be the last drought and it is vital that we take the opportunity — amidst the serious problems farmers, cities, and the environment all face — to rethink those aspects of California water policy created in the 1900s and 2000s that no longer make sense in the 21st century. (more…)

Defining Water Scarcity, Water Stress, and Water Risk

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By Peter Schulte, Research Associate

Over the past couple years, the Pacific Institute’s Corporate Sustainability Program, in its role with the UN Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate, has been developing the Corporate Water Disclosure Guidelines, which provide a common framework for how companies can report water-related information to stakeholders in a meaningful manner. One of the core goals of this effort is to encourage companies to report their water-related information in a more harmonized way, so that companies are thinking and talking about water in a similar, more comparable way.

One obstacle to more harmonized water reporting is the fact that many companies, stakeholders, and corporate water assessment tools do not have a shared understanding of key water-related terms used in disclosure. In particular, many companies and others use the terms “water scarcity,” “water stress,” and “water risk” (often used to indicate geographic areas where water challenges are more pronounced) in a variety of ways and often interchangeably. For example, some companies report water use reduction specifically in areas of water “scarcity,” while others report water use reductions in areas of water “stress.” In other cases, many companies refer to areas facing water stress, but actually mean different things. (more…)

Infographic: What to Expect from California’s Drought

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By Paula Luu, Communications Manager

While our weather-beaten friends in the Midwest and Northeast braced for near-record low temperatures and polar vortex snowstorms, Californians rang in the New Year with a rainless January.  2013 had gone down as the driest calendar year (since we began keeping record of rainfall 119 years ago), so it was no surprise when Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared a drought emergency on January 17. The governor’s official statement has changed the state’s political climate — drawing more public attention to the growing need for improved management and expanded climate policies. The impacts of water shortages are widespread, affecting everyone from consumers to farmers.

Last week, Pacific Institute President Peter Gleick wrote about what Californians could expect from the drought. To build on that blog, I’ve created an infographic that further explains what California’s dry future could look like. You can share the infographic by linking to http://bit.ly/1iuDmeh. (more…)