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

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By Peter Gleick, President Emeritus and Chief Scientist

June 24, 2016

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.


Another View: Busting Water Conservation Myths

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By Peter Gleick, Kate Poole, and Robert Wilkinson
Op-Ed Special to The Sacramento Bee
July 14, 2014

As a solution for California’s complex water challenges, conserving water to get more from every drop stands out for its great potential and the misconceptions around it.

A recent op-ed column, “Putting two myths about the state’s drought to rest” (Viewpoints, July 6), repeated three misstatements about conservation that are often used to delay implementing strategies for more efficient water use. Until these misunderstandings are corrected, common-sense improvements will continue to be underfunded and inadequately pursued. The failure to use proven and cost-effective efficiency programs can be seen in the limited attention to conservation in the state water bond proposals and only modest efforts of some water agencies.

Even the term “conservation” is misunderstood. There are two different forms: “conservation” in the sense of cutting back on water use; and “efficiency” in the sense of doing what we want with less water.

The first is a temporary response to crises, such as the current drought: taking shorter showers and fallowing cropland. The second refers to technologies and practices that let us continue to grow food and meet urban needs while using less water.

Here are three key points that need clarification:

• The misconception that additional water savings are small.

Great untapped potential remains to use less water, despite past efforts and progress. Water-use efficiency has been identified as the largest new source of water in the past three California water plans. Hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland continue to be flooded using inefficient technologies and practices. Water-thirsty lawns are widespread. Inefficient fixtures remain in our homes. Research has identified millions of acre-feet of water that can be conserved, yet programs to cut waste are grossly underfunded.

• The misunderstanding that conservation and efficiency are important only when they generate “new” water.

Some claim that using water more efficiently doesn’t always produce “new” water because wasted irrigation or urban runoff is reused downstream. This is a half-truth. Sometimes this occurs, but much of the water can be recovered. Furthermore, “new” water is not the only benefit of efficiency improvements. Strategies to cut excess application of water also save energy, protect water quality and prevent unnecessary diversions from ecosystems.

• The myth that proponents of conservation think that it is the only solution.

This is a straw-man argument. Serious conservation analyses have never claimed that conservation alone can bring us into balance. Conservation and efficiency are critical solutions with high potential, low cost and real environmental benefits, but vital efforts and investments – especially expanded use of high-quality treated wastewater and stormwater – are also needed.

By repeating these three misconceptions, conservation and efficiency programs are marginalized when these strategies must be a central focus of statewide water reform.

Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute. Kate Poole is director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water and wildlife team. Robert Wilkinson is adjunct professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Viewpoints: California Can Expand its Water Supply and Reduce Demand

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By Peter Gleick and Kate Poole
Op-Ed Special to The Sacramento Bee
June 10, 2014

California has reached “peak water.” We’ve far exceeded the limits of our renewable and sustainable supply. The current severe drought has highlighted these limits and shown us the stark reality of a water system in need of new thinking, new strategies and new answers.

New research, however, shows that we can expand California’s water system by a staggering 11 million to 14 million acre-feet of water annually – more water than is used today by all the cities in the state combined. That’s enough water to revive the collapsing Delta ecosystem, bring our groundwater into balance and satisfy the needs of our agricultural communities, growing population and economy.

We know the problems. Cities, farms and ecosystems vie for limited supplies. The state suffers from a water deficit in excess of 6 million acre-feet (2.3 trillion gallons) each year, even when we’re not in drought. That amount is unsustainably drawn from two of the state’s primary natural water sources: groundwater and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watersheds. Groundwater overdraft and uncontrolled and unmonitored pumping pit neighbor against neighbor. And water-exporting and water-importing regions point the finger at each other for profligate water use.

All of our water challenges are more intense during drought. Some policymakers see the drought as an opportunity to implement new water strategies for the state. But if the proposals are merely Band-Aids, they only prolong the status quo of unsustainable water use.

The good news is successful solutions already exist and are waiting for the opportunity to blossom.

The series of new studies being released today by researchers from the Pacific Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council and the University of California, Santa Barbara, provides a blueprint for proven, cost-effective and environmentally sound water options that can expand existing water supplies and cut wasteful, unnecessary demands by literally millions of acre-feet a year. These analyses identify four immediate priorities and outline the substantial savings available from each:

• Improve water-use productivity in agriculture. By expanding adoption of modern irrigation technologies and practices, farmers can reduce agricultural water use by 17 to 22 percent (around 5.6 million to 6.6 million acre-feet annually) without sacrificing revenue or crop production – a big savings in a sector that uses about 80 percent of California’s developed water supply.

• Improve water-use productivity in our homes, industries and businesses. Simple measures such as reducing leaks, installing efficient appliances, using less-wasteful manufacturing processes and replacing water-guzzling lawns with beautiful native landscapes can save between 2.9 million and 5.2 million acre-feet each year.

• Expand use of high-quality recycled water in our homes and cities. Water reuse can save 1.2 million to 1.8 million acre-feet annually, while providing a local, drought-resistant supply for a wide range of purposes.

• Expand capture and use of rainfall and stormwater runoff. More stormwater capture in just the Bay Area and urban Southern California can increase local supplies by as much as 630,000 acre-feet per year, while reducing water pollution, greening our cities and saving energy.

Some of these savings and new supplies can be captured immediately; some will be more difficult and time-consuming. But these strategies are worth the investment – and are far more robust and effective than outdated 20th century efforts to squeeze a few more drops from overtapped groundwater aquifers and dried-up rivers and streams, or by weakening protection of ecosystems.

We’re already moving in the right direction. More of our homes and farms are using efficient technologies and practices than ever before. Some efforts have been made to save and restore devastated ecosystems. There is a new awareness of the connections between water and the state’s economic and ecological health.

But much more needs to be done, including improved regulations and management, better pricing and financial tools, and expanded public education and technological innovation.

California water issues have always been contentious and likely always will be. In a crisis, it is easy for politicians to fall back on tired, old solutions that no longer work. But this is theater, not reality. Reality is acknowledging that California’s water is not unlimited, that we’ve hit those limits, and that new strategies must be adopted if the state is going to continue to support a strong and healthy agricultural and industrial economy.

Implementing the four options described above will require a mix of local, state and federal policies. But just like planting a tree that may not bear fruit for a number of years, we must begin immediately, if sustainable water strategies are going to be a permanent solution to our problems.

Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland. Kate Poole is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program. The new reports are available at and

What to Do About California’s Drought

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This article originally appeared in the Opinion section of The New York Times on March 16, 2014. 

Published: March 16, 2014
Author: Peter Gleick

To the Editor:

Re “Global Warming? Not Always,” by Martin P. Hoerling (Sunday Review, March 9):

As California’s severe drought has worsened, there has been persistent debate about the links between drought and climate change (or indeed any extreme weather event). Three key, but very different, questions are often confused: Has climate change caused the current drought? Is it already influencing or affecting the drought (no matter its cause)? And how will climate change affect future droughts?

The most rigorous answer to the “causality” question for the California drought is neither yes nor no. We simply cannot say for certain.

But this is the wrong question to ask. The current drought has certainly been exacerbated by climate change for one simple reason: Temperatures in California are now higher today, as they are globally. This alone increases water demand by crops and ecosystems, accelerates snowpack loss, and worsens evaporation from reservoirs. There are other complicating effects, but the influence of higher temperatures on drought is already real and cannot be ignored.

We are now unambiguously altering the climate, threatening water supplies for human and natural systems. This is but one example of how even today we are paying the cost of unavoidable climate changes.

Oakland, Calif., March 10, 2014

Dr. Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute. Dr. Overpeck is a professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences and Dr. Woodhouse is a professor of geography and geosciences at the University of Arizona, Tucson.


California Drought Website

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drought.orgThe Pacific Institute has launched the website This compiling of tools, research, and information on the California drought serves as an invaluable resource to facilitate the work at every level to address current issues and plan strategies in the face of a drier future for California and the western United States.

Responding to the drought is responding to a “new normal” water future with climate change, and an opportunity to move to more sustainable water use and water policy for California. With a third dry year in a row, the California drought highlights the serious challenges we face in sustainable water use in the western United States as a whole. It is dry by all measures: the amount of precipitation, of snow in the mountains, in reservoirs, in soil moisture, even in groundwater depth. Impacts are already being felt in cutbacks of water deliveries to agricultural users; impacts on ecosystems, particularly fisheries; urban mandatory and voluntary cutbacks; some small systems literally running out of water from their single source.

We know we can do the things we want to do with a lot less water, and at the same time save money, ecosystems, energy, and water. As part of our leadership work in responding to the California drought, the Pacific Institute created as a resource, come rain or shine, for the “new normal” water future that requires real action today.


Cadiz Public Comments

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Dr. Newsha Ajami
Pacific Institute
654 13th Street,
Oakland, CA 94612

July 24, 2012
Santa Margarita Water District
26111 Antonio Parkway
Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688


To Whom it May Concern,

On March 13th, 2012, the Pacific Institute, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization, prepared and submitted comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) ofthe Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery, and Storage Project. In our comment we raised the following concerns and limitations with the DEIR […]

Download the full letter here.

Opinion Editorial: Separating Frack From Fiction

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New Report Helps Separatethe Frack from the Fiction

By Heather Cooley

Op Ed in the Sacramento Bee
Thursday, June 21, 2012

Fracking – a process to improve the production of oil and gas wells – has generated tremendous controversy in recent years. There are daily and confusing media reports from outlets across the United States and other countries, including Canada, South Africa, Australia, France and England. While fracking is hailed by some as a game-changer that promises increased national energy independence, job creation and lower energy prices, it has also been severely criticized by others because of serious and unresolved environmental, social and public health concerns.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, refers to the process by which a fluid – a mix of water, sand and chemical additives – is injected into oil and gas wells under high pressure to create cracks and fissures in rock formations that increase the productivity of these wells. It is standard practice for extracting oil and natural gas from unconventional sources, including shale and tight sands, and is increasingly being applied to conventional sources. According to some estimates, 90 percent of oil and gas wells drilled in the United States now use hydraulic fracturing.

Much of the media attention about hydraulic fracturing and its risk to water resources has centered on the use of chemicals in the fracturing fluids and their potential to contaminate groundwater. The strategies identified to address this concern have centered on disclosure and, to some extent, the use of less toxic chemicals. But while chemical disclosure can be useful for tracking contamination, there are other water-related issues that must also be addressed.

New Pacific Institute research and interviews with stakeholders from industry and government to community-based organizations show they all share similar, serious concerns about the impacts of fracking on the availability and quality of water resources. In addition to concerns about chemicals and groundwater contamination, there are growing worries over the massive water requirements for hydraulic fracturing and the potential conflicts with other water needs – including water for agriculture and ecosystems – as well as the serious challenges associated with storing, transporting, treating and disposing of wastewater. Methane contamination of drinking water wells can also be a concern according to field studies in areas where natural gas is produced. More and better research is needed on these critical issues.

Unfortunately, like many political debates these days, the dialogue about fracking has been marked by ideology, confusion, narrow perspectives and obfuscation. For example, some industry groups use a narrow definition of fracking to argue that there is no link between their activities and groundwater contamination. Yet documented cases in Dimock, Pa., and an ongoing investigation in Pavillion, Wyo., provide evidence of groundwater contamination.

In these cases, however, contamination was associated with the integrity of the well casing and wastewater disposal, which are integral parts of the hydraulic fracturing process, but not the injection of the fluids underground per se – and so, the issue is skirted by semantics. Additional work is needed to clarify terms and definitions associated with hydraulic fracturing in order to have an honest and informed discourse about the risks.

Part of the problem is a lack of credible and comprehensive data, information and analysis of the real concerns associated with fracking. Due to the nature of the business, industry has an incentive to keep the specifics of their operations secret in order to gain a competitive advantage, avoid litigation and minimize regulation.

In California, for example, at least 159 oil or gas wells have been fracked since January 2011, mostly around Bakersfield but also near Santa Barbara and in Los Angeles. But since reporting is voluntary and not subject to third-party verification, the true extent of fracking in California, and its consequences, remains unknown.

Additionally, there are few peer-reviewed, scientific studies on the process and its environmental impacts. While much has been written about hydraulic fracturing, the majority of this writing is either industry or advocacy reports. As a result, the discourse around the issue is too often driven by opinion rather than science, ideology rather than fact.

Fracking may offer great promise, but it is absolutely irresponsible to rush into a major expansion without giving serious consideration to the social, economic and environmental risks, and the careful development of appropriate oversight and policies to minimize those risks.

Download the report here

A Fracking Mess

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A Fracking Mess
By Peter Gleick and Heather Cooley
Op Ed in the San Francisco Chronicle Open Forum On Energy
Friday, August 26, 2011

Efforts to expand natural gas production through “hydraulic fracturing” or “hydrofracking” are raising tensions across the country. Fracking releases natural gas trapped in underground shale formations by injecting water, chemicals and sand to fracture the rock and release the gas.

Twenty years ago, unconventional gas produced from shales, coal-bed methane and similar formations made up 10 percent of total U.S. gas production. Today it is around 40 percent and growing rapidly — along with controversy over possible environmental impacts of hydrofracking. Pundits and fracking proponents argue that stronger regulations are unnecessary to protect the public or that opposition to uncontrolled fracking represents a “politicized agenda to stymie U.S. energy production.” This is ideological nonsense.

There is no dispute that natural gas is cleaner than coal or oil when burned, or that the nation would be better off if we reduced our dependence on foreign oil. But there is also no dispute that there are serious risks associated with hydrofracking, especially to the nation’s water resources. Two such threats are contaminating groundwater with the proprietary, often secret, mixes of industrial chemicals injected to fracture the formations, and the vast quantities of “produced water” that come up with natural gas and can contain fracking chemicals, radioactive elements and other contaminants.

Produced water from gas operations is often even more toxic than water produced from petroleum production, and can contain high concentrations of salts, acids, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, radioactive materials and other nasty chemicals. Sometimes this produced water is sent to public wastewater plants ill-equipped to treat it; sometimes it is dumped into local waterways; sometimes regulators have no idea how much wastewater is produced or where the contaminated water goes because producers don’t tell them. As unconventional gas production has grown, drinking water wells have been contaminated; toxic wastewater, fracking fluids and diesel fuel have spilled into local watersheds; residents have been exposed to poisonous chemicals; and people have ignited gases coming out of their faucets with their water. Additionally, methane leaks from wellheads may worsen greenhouse gas emissions.

This isn’t right and it isn’t necessary. These environmental costs should be paid by industry, not dumped on the public. Why do we have to expand domestic energy production the wrong way? Why the rush to bypass or prevent proper regulatory oversight? Expanding domestic energy production is important and reducing our use of more carbon-intensive oil and coal is critical, but natural gas is not our only option — the nation has vast renewable energy sources including solar, wind, biomass and geothermal to add to the mix. And protecting our groundwater, drinking water, and rivers is equally critical.

Current regulations are a complicated mix of federal rules, state rules and no rules at all. Efforts by Congress to provide shortcuts, subsidies and loopholes for gas producers make things worse. For example, Congress exempted produced water from regulation under the hazardous waste requirements of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Regulations under other federal and state pollution laws are inconsistently applied and weakly enforced.

Failures to protect water quality will lead to more and unnecessary impacts on community health and the environment. Existing regulations need better enforcement and new regulations must be put in place. Monitoring water contamination from fracking and proper disposal of produced water needs to be greatly expanded. Some states, including California, are moving forward with improved legislation, but national action is needed.

We want safe and clean energy options, but we also want safe and clean water. There is no need to sacrifice one for the other.

Peter Gleick and Heather Cooley are co-directors of the Water Program of the Pacific Institute in Oakland.

Download the article here

California’s Drought Impact

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What Really Happened During State’s Drought?
By Juliet Christian-Smith and Morgan C. Levy
Op Ed in The Sacramento Bee
Sunday, June 26, 2011

California’s three-year drought, which ended with this season’s cool and wet weather, had complicated impacts that have been poorly understood. The Pacific Institute just completed a nine-month assessment of new data from California’s agricultural, energy and environmental sectors to evaluate consequences of the drought for the state.

Analysis of local, state and federal data finds that contrary to much of the media reporting, California’s agricultural community proved flexible and resilient, generating gross revenues in 2007, 2008 and 2009 that were the highest on record. Growers employed a diverse suite of response strategies, including shifting crops, groundwater pumping and water transfers to buffer the drought’s impacts. Local impacts were more varied, with some San Joaquin Valley counties reporting increased gross revenues or planted acres, and others reporting declines in both.

It is clear that there were job losses and suffering throughout the Central Valley during the drought, yet the data show that these losses were concentrated in construction and other sectors that do not have a strong link to water supply. Despite increasing unemployment, agriculturerelated occupations remained a stable portion of total jobs available in areas directly impacted by water supply restrictions. And in 2010, a wet water year with increased water supplies, unemployment continued to rise in all San Joaquin Valley counties.

During the drought, some representatives of special interests pointed to high unemployment rates as evidence of the severe impacts of water supply restrictions. Now, these interests are unhappy with more comprehensive analyses of unemployment figures – they argue that the same measures of unemployment that they relied upon do not accurately account for undocumented workers.

It is true that a portion of California’s labor forces is undocumented and that undocumented workers are more difficult to include in federal and state data-gathering efforts. Yet even if we double UC Davis and University of the Pacific’s estimates of agricultural job losses in the San Joaquin Valley, the doubled agricultural job losses are still less than construction job losses in Fresno County alone. All of this suggests that there were other factors, besides water supply, driving high unemployment rates. For example, the drought period coincided with the foreclosure crisis and a national and global recession. […]

Download the full article here.

Integrity of Science: Misrepresenting Climate Science: Cherry-picking Data to Hide the Disappearance of Arctic Ice

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Published: February 6, 2011
Author: Peter Gleick
pages: 4

[published in Huffington Post, February 6, 2011]

As the climate science continues to strengthen, and as the observational data around the world continue to accumulate, those who deny the reality or severity of human-induced climate change are getting increasingly desperate. As evidence piles up and as our weather worsens, their positions get weaker and weaker and their claims that the climate isn’t changing, or isn’t changing because of human actions get harder to support, their voices get more strident, and their language and vitriol get uglier.

Climate deniers cannot make a case against human-caused climate change without desperately manipulating, misrepresenting, or simply misunderstanding the science. While there are examples of their bad science (BS) every day, a particularly egregious case has played out in New Mexico in the past week.

Read more here.


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