261 Multi-Benefit Resources


The Stormwater Opportunity

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By Morgan Shimabuku and Sarah Diringer

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

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

Advancing policy to support stormwater capture

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

Source: Conservation Design Forum

 

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

Developing dedicated, local funding sources for stormwater capture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Peter Gleick and Charlie Iceland

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

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

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By Abbey Warner and Giuliana Chaves Moreira

Credit: Ryan Tacklin

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

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

Water is Connected to Every Major Global Risk We Face

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

Defining Water Crises
“Water Crises: A significant decline in the available quality and quantity of fresh water, resulting in harmful effects on human health and/or economic activity.” – WEF Global Risks Report 2018 While WEF’s definition of “water crises” is focused on insufficiency, it is important to remember that the world’s water challenges are not constrained to scarcity and pollution. As we have said before, physical water risks can stem from a variety of issues, including having too much water, not enough water, or water that is unfit for use. This year’s risk report highlighted all three types of water challenges: (more…)

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

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By Abbey Warner

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

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

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

The World’s Water Challenges (2017)

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By Cora Kammeyer

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

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

Global water stress map. Source: World Resources Institute.

Growing Water Demand and Water Scarcity

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

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By Morgan Campbell

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

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

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By Peter Schulte

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

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

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

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Make Public Drinking Water Fountains Great Again

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By Rapichan Phurisamban and Peter Gleick

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

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

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Mobile Apps to Quench Your Thirst

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A Review of Public Drinking Fountain Finders

By Ayana Crawford and Rapichan Phurisamban

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

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

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Corporate Water Targets: A New Approach

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By Tien Shiao

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

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

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

Thirsty for Change? 4 Ways to Improve Corporate Water Targets

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

Context-based water targets slider cropped

 

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

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

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

1. Local context matters—a lot.

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

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By Peter Gleick and Rapichan Phurisamban 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

It is time to reverse this trend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Peter Gleick

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

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

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

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

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

Resolution:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate Change and the Integrity of Science, 2010

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Open Letter from Women of Science, 2016

https://500womenscientists.org/#our-pledge

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared in ScienceBlog. 

National Geographic Presents: Water Scarcity

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By Peter Gleick, President-Emeritus and Chief Scientist

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

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

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21st Century Water Demand Forecasting

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

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

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

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

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By Rebecca Olson

                       Steven Depolo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Peter Gleick, President Emeritus and Chief Scientist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This blog was originally published on National Geographic ScienceBlogs.

Fits and Starts at the Salton Sea

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By Michael Cohen, Senior Research Associate

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

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

Daniel M. Edwards
Daniel M. Edwards

 

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

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

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

Daniel M. Edwards
Daniel M. Edwards

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

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

Salton Sea May newsletter blurb chart

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

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

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

National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Global Droughts: A Bad Year

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By Peter Gleick

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

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Huffpost Green: An Open Letter From Peter Gleick: My Transition at the Pacific Institute

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By Peter Gleick

As readers of this column may already know, earlier this week the Pacific Institute and I announced an important and exciting change: on July 1st after 28 years as co-founder and President of the Institute, I will be moving to a new position as President Emeritus and Chief Scientist. A wide search for a new president has been launched.

I’m neither resigning nor retiring. In my new role, I will continue to do research and writing on global climate, water and sustainability issues, and I will continue to speak out on science and policy issues in public forums, with the press, and on social media channels like this one at National Geographic ScienceBlogs and at Huffington Post. Indeed, as many friends, colleagues, and readers know, I’m a firm believer in the vital need to integrate science and policy, to speak out publicly on issues of importance to current and future generations, to change the way we think about water, and to challenge those who would seek to delay needed actions or confuse or mislead the public about science (here or here) and the global challenges facing the planet. I will also continue my pro-bono professional work with U.S. National Academy of Sciences committees, various journal editorial boards, and committees with professional science societies, but I will also free up uncommitted time to take on new challenges, and travel.

Some friends have asked, why now? Two reasons: First, organizations are full of people who stay in positions of leadership and power a bit too long. So better to plan carefully and do this before that happens (if I have…). But second, and most importantly, the Pacific Institute is in a perfect position now for this transition: we have a superb, top-quality staff of researchers, policy analysts, a unique and highly valued approach to creating and advancing solutions to global water challenges, a strong committed board of directors, and a visionary strategic plan.

The Institute works with a wide array of partners and stakeholders, ranging from Fortune 500 companies to environmental groups, and from the United Nations to disenfranchised communities. This is exactly the right time for the Institute to expand its effectiveness, reach, and influence in tackling the threats to water resources of climate change and extreme events, unsustainable management and use of urban and agricultural water, conflicts over water resources, the human right to water, and the growing importance of corporate water stewardship and sustainability efforts at the national and international scale.

On a practical level, before I transition to my new role, the selection of a new president is currently being led by a board-appointed committee (including staff members), which has retained California Environmental Associates, a San Francisco-based executive search firm to carry out the recruitment process. Here is the job description; please share it with appropriate friends and candidates. We’re seeking someone with exceptional skills who will continue to build on the strengths of the Institute and bring new insights and ideas as the Institute expands its ability and influence.

A few notes of personal thanks as I make this transition to the staff and board of the Institute who have been and continue to be hugely supportive and a source of inspiration to me; my personal friends and professional colleagues who have always encouraged me to follow the dream of starting an organization like this and then encouraged it over the years; the Institute’s many and diverse donors and funders who saw and continue to see the value and unique role we play in helping reshape the way society thinks about problems of global sustainability; and most importantly my family, who may actually get to see a bit more of me, but who never (really) complained about my workload.

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(OK, maybe some more of this, too. Yes, that’s me.)

So, I look forward to continuing the battles to save the planet and to my interactions with you, in whatever form they take.

This blog was originally published on Huffpost Green.

National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Water, Security, and Conflict: Violence over Water in 2015

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By Peter Gleick, President

Since its founding in 1987, the Pacific Institute has worked to understand the links between water resources, environmental issues, and international security and conflict. This has included early analytical assessments (such as a 1987 Ambio paper  and this one from the journal Climatic Change) of the risks between climate change and security through changes in access to Arctic resources, food production, and water resources, as well as the ongoing Water Conflict Chronology – an on-line database, mapping system, and timeline of all known water-related conflicts. In 2014, an analysis of the links between drought, climate change, water resources, and the conflict in Syria was published in the American Meteorological Society journal Weather, Climate, and Society.

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Moving from Theory to Practice: A Synthesis of Lessons about Incentive-Based Instruments for Freshwater Management

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by Heather Cooley, Michael Cohen, and Matthew Heberger

There has been growing interest in applying incentive-based instruments, such as pollution charges and tradeable permits, to address the twin challenges of accessing enough freshwater to meet our needs while also preserving the well-being of freshwater ecosystems. These instruments use direct or indirect financial incentives as motivation to reallocate water or to reduce the health and environmental risks posed by an activity. But what do we know about how they have actually performed?

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Huffington Post: The Most Important Water Stories of 2015

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By Peter Gleick, Brett Walton, and J. Carl Ganter
Water was a Top Risk on the 2015 Global Agenda

In early 2015, participants at the World Economic Forum, a who’s who of the political and business elite, ranked water crises as the top global risk. Water was also a key factor in the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a blueprint for international development over the next 15 years. Ensuring safe drinking water and sanitation for all by 2030 is one of six water goals for the SDGs. In December at the UN climate change conference in Paris, world leaders acknowledged the instrumental role that water will play in a warming planet. Water security was included in the response plans of most nations and was at the core of numerous debates and side agreements.

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Sanitation and Water for All Partner Perspectives: One Year On: Companies and Respect for the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation

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By Mai-Lan Ha

2015 was a historic year for sustainable development. The world came together and adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a new framework that will guide development for the next 15 years. The 17 SDGs cover a range of topics from health to education to equality and environmental protection. Underpinning the achievement of these goals is the importance of water. As such, water has its own dedicated goal (Goal 6) and is also integrated into a number of other related goals, such as those on health, wellbeing, and biodiversity. Critical to achievement of SDG6 will be the important role that businesses must play and the need to ensure that the rights to water and sanitation are met. As such, a year ago, the CEO Water Mandate and Shift released Guidance for Companies on Respecting the Rights to Water and Sanitation. The Guidance is the first comprehensive document that lays out how businesses can meet their responsibilities to respect the rights by incorporating them into existing water management practices, policies, and company cultures.

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Huffington Post: The Historic, Unprecedented, Landmark Climate Agreement

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By Peter Gleick, President

Historic. Unprecedented. Landmark. Also, the world’s greatest diplomatic success. A turning point for the world. This is some of the language used to describe the global climate agreement reached this week in Paris. The excitement about this agreement is palpable, for good reason. The Paris Agreement marks a fundamental turning point in the future of the planet, a conscious vote by the world community to acknowledge that climate change represents an “urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet” and to try, finally, to avoid leaving our children and grandchildren with a dangerously changed global climate.

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Huffington Post: Climate Science in 1956 and 2015

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By Peter Gleick, President

Despite the apparent inability of many of our current policy makers to accept the scientific reality of climate change, the science is not new. Fifty-nine years ago, on October 28, 1956, the New York Times ran a story in their Science in Review section entitled “Warmer climate on the earth may be due to more carbon dioxide in the air.” The full text of that article is reprinted below and is available from the New York Times archive, here.

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Huffington Post: Damn Dams

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By Peter Gleick, President

The history of water development around the world, and especially in the western United States, is really a history of the construction of massive infrastructure, particularly large dams. As populations and economies expanded, the need to control, channel, and manage water grew, and large dams offered a way to provide energy, relief from damaging floods and droughts, irrigation water, and water-based recreation.

There is no doubt the construction of dams played a vital role in the past in supporting our growing economies, and some regions of the world would benefit from the careful development of new dams and related water infrastructure. But along with the benefits of dams came unexpected, understudied, or long-ignored costs above and beyond the narrow economic costs of building them. These costs include disruption of the ecology of free-flowing rivers, extinction of a range of aquatic species including key fisheries, displacement of communities, and destruction of cultural sites. Literally tens of millions of people around the world have been forced to abandon their villages and homes because of the flooding caused by big dams.

In the past few decades, there has been a growing awareness of the need to more carefully balance the potential advantages of dams with their negative consequences, and new guidelines have been developed for evaluating and reducing the risks of such projects to communities and the environment. For countries like the United States, especially in California and the western U.S., most of the best dam sites have already been exploited and massive government pork-barrel subsidies have disappeared, slowing the construction of new dams. Figure 1 shows the construction of new dams in California and the peak of activity in the middle of the last century.

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Figure 1. Water storage capacity of California dams over the past century. (P. Gleick/Pacific Institute)

At the same time, there is a growing movement to remove dangerous, costly, and damaging dams and to restore–at least in part–some riverine environments and their fisheries. In the United States, according to American Rivers, nearly 1,150 dams have been successfully removed, including some large ones.

Despite this history, there is still pressure to build new, big dams and to ignore their human and ecological costs. In California, where thousands of big and small dams have been built, some politicians still call for more dams, despite extensive and compelling assessments showing that new projects are not cost effective, would have massive additional environmental and cultural impacts, and would not–in the end–do anything to resolve the state’s water challenges. This old-style thinking can be seen in the design of California’s 2014 $7.5 billion water bond, which included $2.7 billion for new storage and only $100 million for water conservation and efficiency, which could save far more water than any new surface storage project could ever supply, at far lower cost.

The poster child for this antiquated and misguided approach is the proposal to raise the height of Shasta Dam and increase the potential storage volume of its reservoir–California’s largest. Built in the late 1930s and early 1940s by the federal government, Shasta plays in important role in regulating flows in the Sacramento River and providing water supply to farms in central and southern California. Various proposals to raise the dam between 6 and 18 feet have circulated for many years, but there is significant opposition from some hydrologists, communities, environmental groups, and local Native Americans whose land is directly at risk. Recent legislation submitted to Congress would accelerate raising the dam by providing funds, reducing environmental protections, or bypassing existing review processes.

The problems with raising Shasta Dam epitomize the problems with big dam projects everywhere. The additional useful water that might be gained is far more expensive and far smaller in quantity compared to the water that would come from other approaches, especially improved water-use efficiency, local stormwater capture, and the reuse of high-quality treated wastewater. The additional flooding the dam would cause would violate the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which protects some of the state’s few remaining relatively undamaged rivers and streams, and it would further destroy some of the few remaining sacred sites and traditional homelands of the Winnemem Wintu people, whose lands were devastated by the original construction nearly a century ago. As noted in a letter recently sent to Senator Barbara Boxer and the California Congressional delegation,

“Raising the dam will harm the Winnemem Wintu people who have already been harmed by the dam. Shasta Dam flooded most of their sacred sites and traditional homelands, including their cemeteries. Raising the dam will flood out the little that remains. For a traditional people deeply tied to the land, further flooding would be worse than drowning St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican as they have no other sacred places to turn to.”

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(“For a traditional people deeply tied to the land, further flooding would be worse than drowning St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican as they have no other sacred places to turn to.” Photo montage by P. Gleick 2015)

In the end, there are new, smart solutions to our water problems that don’t involve further costly destruction of our natural ecosystems and local communities. Let’s not apply 20th century solutions to 21st century problems.

This blog was originally published on the Huffington Post.

National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Breaking Water Taboos

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By Peter Gleick

The recent severe drought in the Western United States — and California in particular — has shined a spotlight on a range of water-management practices that are outdated, unsustainable, or inappropriate for a modern 21st century water system. Unless these bad practices are fixed, no amount of rain will be enough to set things right. Just as bad, talking about many of these bad practices has been taboo for fear of igniting even more water conflict, but the risks of water conflicts here and around the world are already on the rise and no strategy that can reduce those risks should be off the table.

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National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Impacts of the California Drought, Part 2: Net Agricultural Income

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By Heather Cooley, Kristina Donnelly, and Peter Gleick

Last week, the Pacific Institute published the first comprehensive analysis of the impacts of the drought on California crop revenue and agricultural employment through 2014. The study showed that during the recent drought California’s agriculture sector experienced record-high crop revenue and employment. Crop revenue peaked in 2013 at $33.8 billion, the highest level in California history, and declined only slightly to $33.4 billion in 2014 (all economic data have been corrected for inflation). Statewide agriculture-related jobs also reached a record 417,000 jobs in 2014, highlighting the sector’s ability to withstand the reduction of available water.

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National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Impacts of the California Drought: Agriculture

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By Peter Gleick, President and Heather Cooley, Water Program Director

California is in a severe drought – four years long now. But what does the drought really mean for the things we care about: food production, fisheries, industrial activities, rural communities? As part of the work of the Pacific Institute to evaluate both the impacts of water problems and identify smart solutions, we’ve just released the first comprehensive assessment of the actual impacts of the drought for California agriculture.

Many commentators and analysts have worried especially about California’s agricultural sector, which is a major water user and has experienced significant cutbacks in surface water deliveries over the past few years as rainfall has plummeted and reservoirs have been depleted.  The bottom line of our analysis is that California agriculture has had record revenue and employment during the drought, but at a long-term cost of massive groundwater overdraft and other practices that cannot be sustained into the future.

California is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, supplying both U.S. and international markets with more than 400 different farm products. That productivity has been made possible by a vast and integrated water infrastructure network that stores water in wet years for use in dry periods, delivers water long distances, and provides large volumes of water to both agricultural and urban users. Using data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Survey and the California Employment Development Department, the Institute’s new study examines the impacts of the ongoing drought on California’s total harvested acreage, gross crop revenue, and agricultural employment through 2014 – the last year for which actual data are available. [When 2015 data come in after harvest, the assessment will be updated.]

While harvested acreage in California has declined during the drought, agricultural revenues remain very high. In 2014, harvested acreage was 6.9 million acres, about 8 percent lower than the average over the past 15 years. Almost all of the reductions in harvested acreage came from temporary fallowing of field crops (e.g., cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets). The area planted in fruits and nuts – such as almonds and pistachios – has actually grown substantially. Most importantly, total crop revenue is at its highest level in California’s history, peaking in 2013 at $33.5 billion. At $33 billion, crop revenue was down slightly in 2014, but it remained the second highest ever recorded, with especially large increases for fruits and nuts. (See Figure 1: all revenue numbers are corrected for inflation.)

Figure 4.
California crop revenue by major crop type over time (Figure 4 from the full report)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farm employment (Figure 2) has also increased in every year since 2010 by an average of 9,000 jobs. While the annual increase in 2014 was less than in other years during the drought, total 2014 agricultural employment reached a record-high 417,000 people.

California Annual Average Farm Employment

Data Source: California Employment Development Department

Finally, food prices also appear to be largely unaffected by the drought. The US Department of Agriculture projects that retail food price inflation this year will be normal to slightly lower than average due in part to the strength of the U.S. dollar and lower oil prices.

The study explicitly highlights the fact that these statewide and even regional estimates can hide local variability and notes that the drought is very likely having more negative impact on local economies in some areas, especially those areas with extensive fallowing. Equally importantly, the agricultural sector’s response to the drought so far has depended on a range of strategies, including:

  • under-irrigating their fields
  • fallowing land
  • changes in the mix of crops planted, with more acreage of higher-valued or less water-intensive crops
  • voluntary water sales from farmer to farmer, or farms to cities
  • water efficiency improvements
  • purchasing insurance, and especially
  • massive increases in unsustainable groundwater pumping.

Pressures on California’s water resources are not merely a result of the drought. Rather, the drought is highlighting water management problems that have persisted for decades. For example, it is widely recognized that groundwater pumping rates, even in good water years – are unsustainable in some major agricultural centers, such as the Tulare Lake and southern San Joaquin River hydrologic regions. Continued groundwater overdraft, while reducing the economic impacts of the drought for the agricultural sector now, has shifted the burden to others, including current and future generations forced to dig deeper wells or see their community wells dry up, find alternative drinking water sources, and repair infrastructure damaged by land subsidence. In these areas, pumping will ultimately have to be slowed and recharge expanded to bring these aquifers back to a more sustainable balance.

The Pacific Institute study finds that the measured impacts of the drought on California’s agricultural sector through 2014 were less than expected, but if the drought continues overall impacts will expand and worsen. The study concludes that evaluating both the actual impacts of the drought on California agriculture and the policies put in place to respond to the drought offer important insights into “how the state can maintain a healthy agricultural sector in a future likely to see less water, more extreme weather, and greater uncertainty.”  The protracted drought provides policymakers, farmers, and agriculture officials a unique and urgent opportunity to plan for and implement more sustainable water use policies and practices to support a vibrant and sustainable agriculture sector in California.

 

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

Huffington Post: The New UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Fresh Water

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By Peter Gleick, President

For 15 years, the world community has worked to achieve a comprehensive set of goals and targets called the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – launched in 2000 to tackle poverty, economic and environment inequity, and strategies for effective development. The MDGs concluded this year, and a new set of goals to replace them have been in design and negotiation for some time. These new objectives – now called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – are now final, offering global priorities for sustainable development beyond 2015. Figure 1 lists the 17 overarching SDGs. Each one is accompanied by specific targets and measured by specific indicators. Individual governments will be responsible for setting their own specific national targets based on their own priorities and circumstances.

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New Data Show California Cities’ Progress towards State-Mandated Conservation Requirements

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by Kristina Donnelly, Research Associate

In response to the Executive Order Governor Brown issued in April, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted an emergency regulation requiring 25% savings in urban water use across the state, with a goal of saving 1.2 million acre-feet over a nine-month period. Each water supplier serving more than 3,000 connections was given a conservation standard based on how high their residential use was in the summer of 2013; those with higher use (in gallons per capita per day, or gpcd) were required to save more (as a percentage of overall use) and those with lower gpcd were required to save less. Water suppliers have been working to reduce water use through drought surcharges, mandatory restrictions, rebates, education campaigns, and more.

The State Board has been collecting and reporting per capita water use data since July 2014. However, the compliance period for the mandatory reductions began on June 1st of this year. Late last week, the State Board released figures showing each utility’s progress towards their individual goal. We have created two online tools (an interactive table and map) that allow you to explore and visualize these data.

The data show that the state, as a whole, exceeded the 25% reduction goal, saving more than 27% in June 2015 (the hottest June on record) compared to that of 2013. Californians saved over 182,000 acre feet of water, or about 15% of the total 1.2 million acre feet goal. Of the 405 water suppliers reporting, 266 suppliers (66%) met or exceeded their conservation standard. More than 40% of all urban water suppliers reduced their water use by 30% or more.

There were some high performers in June. Of the water suppliers serving more than 100,000 people, the following exceeded their target by at least 15 percentage points (with their compliance target listed in parentheses):

  • City of San Buenaventura (16% target)
  • City of Hayward (8% target)
  • Alameda County Water District (16% target)
  • City of Sunnyvale (16% target)
  • San Gabriel Valley Water Company (16% target)
  • California-American Water Company, Sacramento District (20% target)
  • San Jose Water Company (20% target)
  • East Bay Municipal Utilities District (16% target)

Even utilities with relatively low per capita water use were able to achieve significant reductions. For example, the City of San Bruno reduced their total water use by 29% to 57 gpcd. Likewise, the Cambria Community Services District, which serves just over 6,000 customers, reduced their water use by 45% – from 132 gpcd in June 2013 to 73 gpcd in June 2015. It can be done!!

But it is not a rosy picture everywhere. According to the data, 139 water suppliers (34%) did not meet their target, with 86 suppliers missing the target by more than five percentage points. Of the water suppliers serving more than 100,000 people, the following missed their target by 13% or more (with their compliance target listed in parentheses):

  • Rancho California Water District (36% target)
  • California Water Service Company, Dominguez (16% target)
  • Coachella Valley Water District (36% target)
  • Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District (28% target)
  • Eastern Municipal Water District (28% target)

The State Board will be issuing notices to those who fell short of their conservation targets by more than 1% and will require many of these to submit more detailed information about their drought actions. Water suppliers that are more than 15% from meeting their standard (of which there are 16) will be required to take additional actions, such as implementing mandatory water use restrictions and increasing their enforcement.

The current drought is giving California an opportunity to build a more resilient water future and so any significant reductions in water savings should not foster complacency. With the public paying such close attention to the drought, water utilities have a much greater chance to help their customers make significant, permanent reductions in water use. Every drop that we save now is a drop we can use in the future. Without knowing how long this drought is going to last, we must save as many drops as we can.


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: Down the Drain: The Power and Potential of Improving Water Efficiency

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By Peter Gleick, President and Heather Cooley, Water Program Director

Debates about water in California, the western U.S., and indeed, worldwide, have traditionally focused on the question of how best to further expand water supply to meet some hypothetical future increase in water demand. And the solution frequently offered is to build massive new infrastructure in the form of dams and reservoirs, drill more groundwater wells, or expand water diversions from ever-more-distant rivers, in order to “grow” the supply available for human use.

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Huffington Post: Laudato Si’ and Water: The Vatican’s Encyclical Letter and Global Water Challenges

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By Peter Gleick, President

The official text of the much-anticipated Vatican’s Encyclical Letter, “Laudato Si'” was released today. While considerable attention is being devoted to the sections of Pope Francis’s new Encyclical related to the threats of climate change, the letter also tackles many other environmental challenges, including biodiversity, food, and especially the critical issue of freshwater. Woven throughout is attention to the social and equity dimensions of these challenges and a deep concern for the poor.

The water sections of the Encyclical Letter focus on the disparities in access, quality, and use of water between the wealthier, industrialized parts of the world and poorer populations. It notes that in many parts of the world, exploitation of water is exceeding natural resource limits – the problem of “peak water” – while still failing to satisfy the needs of the poorest.

“The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.” (Section 27)

The Encyclical identifies several key water problems including the lack of access to clean drinking water “indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems” (section 28), the challenges for food production due to droughts and disparities in water availability and “water poverty” (section 28), the continued prevalence of water-related diseases afflicting the poor (section 29), contamination of groundwater (section 29), and the trend toward privatization and commodification of a resource the Vatican describes as an “basic and universal human right” (section 30).

The Letter also expresses concern for the inefficient and wasteful use of water in both rich and poor regions:

“But water continues to be wasted, not only in the developed world but also in developing countries which possess it in abundance”

and it decries the risk that the

“control of water by large multinational businesses may become a major source of conflict in this century” (section 31).

In the context of climate change, the Letter notes the clear links between a warming planet and threats to water resources and other environmental conditions:

“It [warming] creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity.” (section 24)

Consistent with the overall theme of the Encyclical is the observation that the poorest suffer the most from water problems:

“One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by microorganisms and chemical substances. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality.” (Section 29)

The Encyclical goes further and notes:

“Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. (Section 30, italics in original).”

This framing is consistent with the formal human right to water declared by the United Nations in 2010, linking the right to water with the right to life and well-being. Today, the UN estimates that around 2.5 billion people on the planet still lack access to safe sanitation and 750 million do not have safe drinking water. Worldwide, more people die from unsafe water annually than from all forms of violence, including war.

While progress has been made in cleaning up some water pollution, especially in richer industrialized nations, many water-quality indicators are worsening, not improving, and as populations grow, exposure to some forms of water pollution affects larger and larger numbers of people and watersheds. Even in places like California, hundreds of thousands of people – mostly in low-income communities – are at risk of exposure to water with high concentrations of nitrates because of the failure to protect and clean up groundwater systems contaminated by agricultural chemicals, animal feeding operations, and poor sewage systems.

In order to tackle these challenges, the Encyclical Letter identifies several priorities, but especially for water:

“some questions must have higher priority. For example, we know that water is a scarce and indispensable resource and a fundamental right which conditions the exercise of other human rights. This indisputable fact overrides any other assessment of environmental impact on a region.” (section 185)

It also calls for reducing waste and inappropriate consumption, increasing funding to ensure universal access to basic water and sanitation, and increased education and awareness, especially in the “context of great inequity.

The world’s water challenges are technical, economic, political, and social issues, but the Vatican Encyclical reminds us that ultimately they are ethical and moral issues as well. This is a valuable and timely reminder.

 

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.

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 IssueCaliforniaIsrael
Total Renewable Water Supply (cubic meters per person per year)> 2,300230
Total Water-Use per Person (cubic meters per person per year)1,400280
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 acre31.6

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.

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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%.

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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 SupplierPopulation ServedResidential Water Use in 2015,
in gallons per capita per day
Percent Change
from January 2014
Myoma Dunes Mutual Water Company6,159342-8%
Golden State Water Company Cowan Heights5,390281+5%
Coachella Valley Water District202,660238-10%
Serrano Water District6,641237-36%
Santa Fe Irrigation District19,386231+3%
Camarillo, City of46,639225-9%
Desert Water Agency62,142201-11%

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.]

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