The New Era of Drought Management

April 8, 2016

By Carl Smith

Juliet Christian-Smith is a climate scientist with the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), based in UCS’s Oakland office. Dr. Christian-Smith is the lead author of the book A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy (Oxford Press 2012) and an editor of the journal Sustainability Science. She is also a member of the Director’s Council for the University of California’s Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative and a Board member of Ag Innovations. The focus of her work is providing California and U.S. policymakers and the public with robust, timely, accessible, and policy-relevant information on climate science and climate impacts.

What is the mission of the Union of Concerned Scientists?

UCS was founded in 1969 by scientists and students at MIT. That year the Vietnam War was at its height. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River actually caught on fire because it was so polluted. The scientists were appalled at how the U.S. government was using science, and they drafted a statement calling for scientific research to move away from military technologies and towards solving pressing environmental and social problems.

That’s really our mission; we remain true to that founding vision. Our scientists and engineers are developing and implementing solutions to today’s most pressing problems, from combating global warming to developing sustainable ways to grow food, too thinking about more sustainable water management systems.

How did you come to be involved in water policy?

As a child, I spent a week each summer off the coast of Maine on an island that had no running water. I became aware of the importance of water. You would receive a pitcher of hot and cold water in the morning and at night, and that was it. I did undergraduate work in marine sciences, and when I came out to California to pursue a PhD at UC Berkeley I was reminded of how critical water is when it’s in short supply. I became fascinated by the science and the politics of Western Water Management.

We talk about drought a lot. Is there any concept or perspective that is routinely left out of the conversation?

Yes, I think so. I think what is often ignored is the fact that droughts are a normal part of the California climate and that they’re getting more severe due to hotter temperatures related to climate change. Every time we have a drought it’s as if we are caught unaware, and it triggers drought emergency declarations and really severe consequences. We have had thousands of households without basic access to drinking water over the last few years.

The current drought came after the 2007-2009 drought, which came after dozens of other droughts. We haven’t developed a system for managing our Mediterranean climate in a way that responds to this kind of cyclical drought. We’re not incorporating the long-term nature of the changes that we’re seeing. While climate change alone didn’t cause our recent drought, scientists at Columbia University have attributed at least part of the severity of the drought to the hotter temperatures that actually increased water demands by 15% to 20%. Hotter temperatures are also leading to more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow.

We really have to do a better job of preparing for the next inevitable drought and redesigning our systems for more climate resilient future.

Are there other links between water management and climate?

For more than a century California has relied on snow melts – snowpack, storm water during the cold winter months that is released in the spring and summer when we need it. The snowmelt fed reservoirs, rivers and the streams and they are being depleted.

We know that we have lost a considerable amount of snowpack already, last year we reached a 500-year low of the snowpack level. The surface water storage system is not designed for a future in which we’re getting more rain than snow and it won’t be able to deliver adequate supplies in that scenario. What we have done is shift to groundwater, which has met over half of our needs, and DWR estimates around 60% during the drought. We really have to focus on figuring out how to make our groundwater supplies more reliable and sustainable.

During this wetter season we’re starting to see a lot of experimentation regarding groundwater recharge and storm water reuse because people have begun to understand how critical that is. We have to align our laws and policies to encourage people to take advantage of water where and when it falls because in some cases there have historical disincentives. For instance, groundwater hasn’t been regulated, so there’s been no legal structure to manage its use in many places since the Gold Rush era.

What are the priority areas for change if we want to do a better of managing what we have?

I’ve been working a lot on the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. It has been likened to the surface water rights system that developed in 1914. In 2014, 100 years later, we passed the first comprehensive approach to groundwater management in California. We were the last Western state to do that, but now we’re on a path to starting to measure and manage our ground water in a more rational way.

Even though we have been known as a leader when it comes to climate change our approach to groundwater has really been more reminiscent of the Wild West. During the drought, there were lots of news articles documenting a well drilling spree as surface water sources — rivers and canals — dried up. Rapidly declining groundwater tables were leading to land sinking; we saw articles about parts of the Central valley losing groundwater so quickly that land sunk by as much as a foot per year. Satellites measuring the gravitational pull of the earth has been telling us that we are losing groundwater at one of the fastest rates in the world .

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was enacted to address this problem, and we’re now on track to require local groundwater management entities to be formed by next year, and then they have to adopt groundwater sustainability plans a couple of years later. This is going to start to provide all sorts of information we’ve never had before regarding our groundwater levels and groundwater use. If a groundwater sustainability plan isn’t adequate or if it’s not addressing long-term groundwater declines, the act allows the state water board to come in and take over the groundwater basin and manage it for the locals to get them on track to sustainability.

You have done a lot of work in the agriculture sector and received an award from US EPA for your work. It’s easy for people to latch onto concepts like “gallons per almond” – is that the best way to think about agricultural water use and whether it’s appropriate or inappropriate?

Considering your water footprint and the water footprint of the products that you consume is a great way to reduce your own individual footprint. However, in the case of almonds, the vast majority of almonds grown in California are exported to other markets. A lot of our agriculture is export oriented; farmers are often responding to market forces from outside of California rather than what Californians are eating or buying.

The price of almonds has been at historic highs over the last decade and that’s one of the reasons why total acreage almost doubled since 2000. It’s your typical tragedy of the commons. In the process of everyone trying to maximize their own profit, we have collectively overtapped a lot of groundwater aquifers to keep these expensive orchards alive during the drought.

In my view, the problem is not entirely what we’re growing—using almonds as an example—but that we don’t have a system in place to communicate the limits of our resources effectively. It’s like balancing a checkbook without knowing half of your accounts. That’s why something like the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is important. Before it there was not tracking of groundwater use or groundwater levels, and so we were unable to really understand how much money we had in the collective bank.

This law says you can’t keep on spending resources that you don’t know you have. That’s going to mean conversations around what kind of agriculture we sustain in the future. Agricultural and urban water users will have grapple with the reality that we need to do more with less. In some cases, counties are already adopting ordinances against new wells. Some areas are considering retiring some unproductive farmland. These choices will be made locally, but clearly tough choices are going to have to be made.

What other strategies show potential for improvement?

When have a hydrologic system that is in the process of changing and having a much flashier characteristic – dryer dry periods, wetter wet periods. We need to develop infrastructure that can capture rain where it falls, when it falls. We’ve had a lot of rain events that haven’t led to actually more water storage because we don’t have systems to store that rain where it falls.

Large-scale storm water capture and reuse within the urban infrastructure is going to be important. That could be citywide efforts such as in Los Angeles. It can also be household efforts in regard to storm water, and reusing greywater onsite. Here in California such efforts are on the leading edge, whereas in Australia, many houses have cisterns – it’s not a very novel concept. There it is much more integrated into housing and urban development.

Any other policies or regulations that could help shift things in the right direction?

Policies are usually developed at a very high level. They tend to be a bit broad and vague, and they rely on the regulations to get into specifics about how things are really going to work out on the ground. A lot of people lose interest between the passing of a bill and the governor signing it; we need more people involved when it comes to making sure that a bill makes its way into good regulations that really change things on the ground.

In 2014, we also passed Proposition 1, the Water Bond. Right now we’re in the process of seeing some of the regulations that will determine how projects will be ranked and water storage options will be assessed. Those regulations, for instance, originally didn’t include climate change even though some of these projects are going to have a lifetime of over a hundred years or more. The Union of Concerned Scientists is sponsoring a bill this year to promote climate safe infrastructure (AB 2800).

We need to make sure that our water policies and regulations are incorporating sound science, and require greater transparency. There’s a need for broader public engagement in regulations, and then at the local level, in the development of things like groundwater sustainability plans, storm water capture projects and storm water recharge projects.

I am excited about the future – in the last few years we have had three major revolutions in water policy in terms of providing better data, requiring more transparent governance, and finally putting into place a comprehensive management system for groundwater.

Thank you.

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