Everything You Know (About Water) is Wrong

If Dan Brekke isn’t editing newscasts at KQED Radio, chances are that he’s poring over charts full of arcane statistics from the state Department of Water Resources. Call it a hobby. Okay, call it an obsession. Either way, we frequently turn to Dan for his insights into California’s water conundrum.

Flooded rice fields in the Sacramento Valley. Photo: Craig Miller

Flooded rice fields in the Sacramento Valley. Photo: Craig Miller

Everything You Know is Wrong

By Dan Brekke

California is home to 37 million people—and to 37 million water experts. If no one’s ever said that, someone should have.

There’s nothing more central to life here and no subject that excites stronger opinions. Recent events have shown that those opinions can easily harden into certainty about what needs to be done to solve all of California’s water problems—the needs of those 37 million people, the needs of the state’s incomparably rich agricultural industry, the needs of native fish and ecosystems.

We’ve long since learned that one person’s “solution”—to build dams and divert water for farms and cities, say—can be another’s nightmare—for instance, the communities that depend on healthy fisheries for their well-being. The conflicts over water are so deep and longstanding that they can make rational discussion difficult or impossible.

This week, though, the Public Policy Institute of California published a report that aims to inject some understanding into the water debate by challenging opinions and misconceptions. The report tests eight widely-held beliefs about water against the complex realities that underlie them. The first myth is fundamental to how we see water issues: “California is running out of water.” The reality the PPIC and its all-star panel of water experts propose is a sobering one: “California has run out of abundant water (our italics) and will need to adapt to increasing water scarcity.”

There’s something in the list of myths to rankle just about everyone. One myth goes like this: “[Insert villain here] is responsible for California’s water problems.” The report goes on to assess several villain-candidates, including:

– Wasteful Southern California homeowners with their lush lawns and luxurious swimming pools,

– Farmers who get federally subsidized (read “cheap”) water, and

– Protections for endangered species (as in “Why are we giving water to that Delta smelt?”).

In reality, the report says, coastal Southern California does an excellent job of limiting residential water use; farmers getting cheap water are in fact paying a price for the subsidy and are becoming more efficient water users; and actions taken to protect the smelt has had a comparatively small impact on water shipments through the Delta.

The PPIC says in the introduction to “California Water Myths” that a “policy based on facts and science is essential if California is to meet the multiple, sometimes competing goals for sustainable management” of water for the rest of the century. No one can argue with that, though it’s certain that squabbles over water will persist. Maybe the best we as Californians can hope for is an honest effort to try to understand the needs of all other water users, and to give each of them the benefit of the doubt when considering solutions to our water problems.

The PPIC report: “California Water Myths,” is available on the institute website or in an excellent interactive version put together by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Meanwhile, how are we doing this winter? Not great. Below is an interactive map of California’s major reservoirs, comparing their current levels to average or “normal” levels for this time of year.

View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

State Water Deliveries May Set New Low

State water officials have announced they are likely to release a record-low allocation of water to cities and farms next year– just five percent of what water contractors have requested. Though still preliminary, it’s the lowest allocation since the State Water Project began delivering water back in 1967.

The announcement may have caught some by surprise, since Department of Water Resources (DWR) data would seem to show reservoirs at higher levels than last year at this time, with major reservoirs at 69% of storage capacity, compared to 57% last year.

When I asked DWR Deputy Director Susan Simms about it, even she was stumped at first. But then she called me back to say that the data includes both federal and state reservoirs, and the state’s storage levels at both Lake Oroville and San Luis Reservoir (shared with the feds) is actually lower than last year (52% and 48% of “normal,” respectively). And, she says, the state has to contend with pumping restrictions to protect both salmon and delta smelt this time around.

DWR Director Lester Snow told reporters this morning that there’s nothing in the recently passed bundle of state water bills that can provide any immediate relief. And if you thought the prospect of increased precipitation from El Nino could save the day, don’t get out the umbrella just yet. David Rizzardo, Chief of the state’s Snow Survey section, estimates there’s only a 50-60% chance of a stronger El Nino kicking in this year. December and January will be the most telling months–but precipitation from El Nino would likely be concentrated in the southern half of the state. Officials say that would provide more “flexibility” in meeting water needs systemwide, but all of California’s biggest reservoirs are located in the northern part of the state.

December water delivery estimates almost always get a boost once it starts snowing. Last year’s initial projection was 15%, and that was later revised upward, eventually to 40 percent. Snow called today’s estimate “very conservative.”

If you think the five percent figure is supposed to scare us, it is. Water officials want to send a message that Californians need to be prepared to conserve. The state’s drought coordinator, Wendy Martin, just returned from a water tour in Australia, where she says she saw water-saving measures in place that California has yet to fully develop: storm water recapture, water recycling, and more. Martin also observed that the Australians now wish that they’d taken the epic drought of the last several years more seriously, sooner.

Marketplace Parses Climate Questions

The public radio program Marketplace continues its ambitious series on climate change, later this month. New reports will air November 16-20 as part of “The Climate Race”, a multidimensional look at “how global warming is already affecting us and the tough choices we have to make.” While the geographic scope of the series ranges well beyond California’s borders, it underscores that much of the nation grapples with the same issues that confront us here in the West. The first four reports, aired last week, are worth catching up with online.

Part 1: “Climate Change in Our Own Backyards” is a snapshot of how climate change is already affecting residents of Helena, MT.  Fewer cold snaps have allowed the mountain pine beetle to run rampant, devastating the area’s surrounding pine forests, and leaving a tinderbox of dead trees for miles across the landscape.  Reporters Sam Eaton and Sarah Gardner talk to residents about how this reality has changed the way people think about climate change and what challenges lie ahead.

Part 2: “The Planet Will Survive, But Will We?” explores episodes of severe climate change in the Earth’s distant past, and explains what ancient tree stumps can tell us about climate past, present, and future

Part 3: Is There Energy to Slow Climate Change?” focuses on energy and the political, social, technological, and economic challenges we face as we consider moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy supplies.  This report zeroes in on West Virgina and the debate between the coal industry and wind power advocates.  In Part 4;  “How Do We Live With a Warmer Planet?”, Eaton and Gardener look at what lies ahead for business, agriculture, and society, as temperatures continue to rise.

Photographs and audio slide shows related to the radio stories are available on the series web page:  “Futuristic Farming” offers a look at a farm that takes water efficiency to new heights, and “Climate Past” features stunning shots of Mono Lake and an interview with paleoclimatologist and geomorphologist, Scott Stein. The “Climate Race” page also includes links to resources, an interactive map of the United States with statistics about how climate change is affecting regions and what changes are expected by the end of the century, and audio clips from experts on topics such as how climate change is expected to affect health and agriculture.

Climate Watch will be sharing resources with Markeplace to cover the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, next month. KQED’s L.A. Bureau Chief Rob Schmitz will team up with Eaton for coverage of the two-week conference. Schmitz, who recently reported a series of Climate Watch stories from Japan, speaks Chinese and has extensive experience in international reporting.

USGS: Americans More Water-Conscious Overall

Craig MIller

Lake Mead in October, 2009 Photo: Craig Miller

Despite the addition of 81 million people over the period, Americans were using less water in 2005 than they were in 1975, according to the latest numbers released from the USGS.

The per-capita decrease of 30% since 2000, down to 1383 gallons per person per day, is a level not seen since the 1950s.  Of course this doesn’t mean that each person in the United States is using more than a thousand gallons per day at home–that number is somewhere between 54 (if you live in Maine) and 190 (if you live in Nevada).  The USGS number is derived from dividing total water withdrawals by total population.  In 2005, the total withdrawal was 410 billion gallons per day (5% less than in the peak year, 1980) and the total population was approximately 310 million.

An analysis by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute finds that the changes in national water use are due to improvements in efficiency, particularly in industrial use and irrigation. However, the largest category of water use–that used for producing energy–is growing (by 3% between 2000 and 2005), and the analysis cites this as a worrying trend as the population increases, particularly in dry parts of the country.  In 2005, 49% of all water withdrawals were for cooling power plants.

“Far more water is required for nuclear and fossil fuel energy systems than for most renewable energy systems,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, in a statement about the new numbers.  “Water availability will increasingly limit our energy choices as climate change accelerates and population continues to grow.” California’s two commercial nuclear plants are located on the coast and use sea water for cooling.

More efficient farming seems to be one of the bright spots in the report.  Irrigation withdrawals in 2005 declined to the 1970 level of 1.28 billion gallons per day, even though the amount of irrigated land in the nation has increased by millions of acres since 1970.  It seems that American agriculture is, in fact, doing more with less, thanks to more efficient sprinklers and drip irrigation systems. Even so, agriculture still claims about 77% of “developed” water in California, according to Ellen Hanak, water policy analyst with the Pubic Policy Institute of California.

The Pacific Institute commentary added some sobering notes:

The United States, although relatively water-rich, faces a range of threats to its vital supplies of freshwater. Overuse has turned the Colorado River into little more than a trickle. Overuse and contamination threaten the massive Ogallala aquifer, which runs from Texas to South Dakota and is an important source of irrigation and drinking water. Political and economic conflicts are growing between Alabama, Florida, and Georgia over water use. And other serious threats to our water resources – including climate change, environmental destruction, and population growth – remain unaddressed.

Household water use across the country is growing proportionately to U.S. population growth.  While people are becoming more water-efficient at home, these behavioral changes are being balanced out by a shift in population to hotter, drier areas, such as the Southwest.

The Pacific Institute’s Circle of Blue Water News has interactive maps showing which states have decreased their water withdrawals between 2000 and 2005 and total water withdrawals by state for this time period, as well as charts tracking U.S. water withdrawals since 1950.

11/18/09 Update:
Listen to audio of Peter Gleick discussing the report’s findings on today’s broadcast of NPR’s Morning Edition.

Diatoms Have Their Day

Everybody’s got a summit nowadays. Last week, while the governors were doing their climate summitry in L.A., scientists and policy wonks convened at U.C. Davis for an ag-and-climate “summit.” The discussions seemed interesting and productive, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that no world leaders appeared. This week the gods of green goop are gathered in San Diego for an Algae Biomass Summit. Climate Watch contributor and climate scientist Abbie Tingstad explains why algae deserves a summit.

tingstaddiatom2_blogThe Power of Pond Scum

By Abbie Tingstad

The slimy yellowish brown muck known as “pond scum” may soon help fuel your car, make your airplane trips more environmentally friendly, and power your home. Scientists and start-ups around the world are now looking to tap into this unsightly source to produce ethanol, biodiesel and jet fuel, and even more efficient solar cells. This sustainable energy source consumes carbon dioxide and can be developed without competing with food crops for land.

Yellow-brown pond scum is composed of diatoms; single-celled algae with elaborate silica-based cell walls (green films on water are made up of other types of algae and small water plants). These primary producers are ubiquitous: they inhabit a wide range of environments, requiring only sufficient light for photosynthesis and enough moisture to prevent desiccation. Worldwide, there may be 100,000 species living in oceans, lakes, estuaries, rivers, swamps, moist soils, and other damp environments.

Climate and environmental researchers have taken advantage of diatoms’ cosmopolitan living habits to reconstruct past climates and infer recent environmental changes related to pollution and climate warming. Since different locations tend to have unique diatom community compositions, these tiny algae have also helped forensic investigators solve crimes.

Now, diatoms and other types of algae and small aquatic plants like duckweed and watermeal might be used to generate ethanol, biodiesel, and jet fuel. A number of start-ups, such as Aurora Biofuels and SunEco Energy in California, have begun developing technologies to “farm” algae on non-agricultural land, using salt-or lower-quality fresh-water and also just happens to consume carbon dioxide. This research has seen renewed interest at large laboratories such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Big private-sector players, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Dow Chemical, and Honeywell International, have begun investing in research as well.

Diatoms may also be able to make solar cells more powerful, according to recent research out of Oregon State University and Portland State University. Unlike more conventional silicon-based cells, dye-sensitized solar cells, which absorb photons on a dye molecule thin-film joined to a layer of titanium oxide on glass or plastic, are made from environmentally neutral materials and work well in lower light conditions. Using diatoms to coat the dye-sensitized solar cells could triple their efficiency, making them more competitive with silicon cells.

These diatom-based technologies are still in their infancy so it’s difficult to determine whether they’ll make a meaningful contribution to a new wave of renewables. However, California may well benefit if they do become more widespread because these can potentially be operated on dry land and, in the case of fuels, using salt water.

With these technologies still in their infancy, it’s not clear how soon, if ever, they’ll become widespread. However, with its surfeit of sunshine and lots of available desert land and access to saltwater, California stands to benefit from an algae boom, should investors wade in.

Abbie Tingstad is finishing her Ph.D. in the Department of Geography at UCLA, where she specializes in the analysis of tree-rings and diatoms (environmentally-sensitive unicellular algae) to infer information about climate and environmental change.

Behold the power of pond scum in the recent television segment produced by KQED’s Quest.

Delta Dawn

Scientists and policy wonks seem to be in general agreement on this: that it’s time to close out the current management epoch on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and begin anew. There’s less accord on how to proceed.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Policy makers have assembled “blue ribbon” panels to study the options and make recommendations. Volumes of studies and proposals line the shelves in Sacramento and elsewhere.

Last week a new idea surfaced for moving water through the Delta: Instead of channeling around it, tunnel under it.

This week the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California released its recommendations for a mechanism to fund the enormous fixes that will be required: Those who benefit pay (ecologists use the term “ecosystem services” for all those bennies we get from natural resources and tend to take for granted).

Whatever the outcome, one thing seems inevitable, with or without human intervention. Driven by warming ocean temperatures, rising sea levels will continue to push saltwater farther upstream, changing the Delta’s character and the “services” it provides.

Recently a team of students at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism produced a Flash presentation on some of the issues raised by advancing salt in the Delta. The multimedia report: Delicate Balance was produced for Climate Watch by Amanda Dyer, Martin Ricard and Jeremy Whitaker. We’re grateful to them for their time and creativity.


Plan Moves Climate Adaptation to Front Burner

A one-fifth reduction in per capita water use by 2020 is among the goals outlined in a new state report on adapting to climate change.

Released by the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) as a “discussion draft,”  the 2009 California Climate Adaptation Strategy is being billed as the nation’s first comprehensive game plan for adaptation to climate change.

Reed Galin

Photo: Reed Galin

Most of the state’s high-profile climate initiatives (and battles) have been about mitigation; how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow down warming. This report swings the spotlight over to adaptation; what needs to be done to accommodate the climate change effects that are already “in the pipeline.”

While the California’s centerpiece climate law was passed three years ago, this week’s CNRA report concedes that “adaptation is a relatively new concept in California policy.” The 161-page white paper comes in response to an executive order from the Governor last fall, calling for a statewide adaptation strategy.

The draft divides the strategy into seven “sectors:” Public health, biodiversity and habitat, ocean and coastal resources, water, agriculture, and forestry.

Tony Brunello, Deputy Secretary for Climate Change and Energy at CNRA, says “This is the first report that really looks at how climate change is going to impact the state and what we need to do about it.”

But Brunello stopped short of conceding that mitigation is a lost cause. “You only have half a deck if you’re only focused on mitigation,” he said. “You need to focus on both mitigation and adaptation to truly be prepared.”

Some strategies attack both. Brunello points to water conservation measures, which save both water and energy (20% of the energy used in the state is deployed moving water around).

The plan is designed to work in consort with the California Air Resources Board’s implementation plan for AB-32, the state’s multifaceted attack on greenhouse gas emissions. CNRA says one of its goals is to “enhance” existing efforts, rather than create new programs and offices that need funding.

CNRA also promises to use the “best available science in identifying climate change risks and adaptation strategies.” Andrew Revkin has a useful overview of the mounting challenges to climate scientists, published this week in the New York Times.

One planned product from the adaptation plan is an interactive website devoted to climate adaptation, with maps and data to assist local planners. CNRA hopes to have that in place by early next year. The draft plan now enters a 45-day period for public comment.

Warmer Temperatures Threatening CA Fruit Crops?

Almond trees in winter, Photo by Sahsa Khokha

Almond trees in winter, Photo by Sasha Khokha

 Increasingly warmer temperatures  in the Central Valley could pose a serious threat to California’s  fruit and nut crops in the not-too-distant future, according to a new study out of UC Davis.   The study finds that winter chill, which is an important factor in the productivity of tree crops, is likely to decrease by more than 50% by 2100, making the region less hospitable for crops like walnuts, peaches, plums, and cherries, unless changes in growing techniques are adopted.

Tree crops go dormant in the winter when temperatures drop to a certain level for a certain period of time.  Each crop then needs a certain number of  ‘chilling hours’ – between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit – in order to break dormancy and resume growth.  

If crops don’t recieve their specific chilling requirement during the winter,  problems arise.  Flowering time is disturbed, which could be devastating for crops such as walnuts and pistachios that depend on simultaneous male and female flowering for pollination.   And if crops don’t recieve enough winter chill to go dormant in the first place, they will continue producing buds and sprouting branches, but they may not yield fruit, having dire consquences for California’s $7.8 billion fruit and nut industry, explained study author Minghua Zhang.

“We hope that people will take this study as a wake up call,” said Zhang. “Crops are going to be seriously impacted.”

Zhang and her fellow reaserchers found that in certain parts of the Central Valley, winter chill declined by nearly 30% between 1950 and 2000.  They expect that the decline will be 60% by 2050 and 80% by the end of the century. 

“There is a problem coming up that we need to prepare for,” said Eike Luedeling, another of the study’s authors. “So far low chilling requirement haven’t even been a breeding goal, but we are going to need a long-term strategy to cope with this.”

The researchers found that by 2000, winter chill had declined to the point that only 4% of the Central Valley was suitable for growing apples, cherries, and pears, down from 50% earlier in the 20th century.  They predict that by the end of the century, the region might no longer be suitable for growing these crops as well as walnuts, pistachios, peaches, plums, and apricots.   Crops like almonds and pomegranates will most likely be affected the least, as they have low winter chill requirements.

Updated: Disaster Status Sought for Valley

Five days after filing it, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was still awaiting some response from the White House to his request for a federal disaster declaration, to address drought conditions in Fresno County.

Meanwhile, the Washington bureau of the McClatchy newspaper chain (which includes the Fresno Bee) reports that the request is something of a longshot.

The Governor made the request last Friday, one day after he faced a tense gathering in Fresno, where water issues upstaged even the precarious condition of state finances, and shortly after a meeting with farmers in Mendota.

The governor has had a standing statewide drought emergency in effect since February. Friday he signed an executive order freeing up state resources to help ease drought-related impacts. A federal declaration would allow affected businesses to apply for federal aid. President Obama has since signed several other disaster declarations last week, in response to storms in Missouri, wildfires in Oklahoma and other incidents.

Parsing the White House Climate Report

At least one researcher cited in the 196-page climate impacts report issued this week by the Obama administration is not impressed with the final product. Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado’s Center for Science & Technology Research has written a blog post critical of the report and in particular, the way in which his work was interpreted. If you’d rather not plow through the entire post, John Tierney has an overview of Pielke’s critique on his blog for the New York Times.

California heat wave, from the Aqua satellite. Image: NASA

2004 California heat wave, from the Aqua satellite. Image: NASA

The report was arguably the first to break down both observed and projected effects of climate change into coherent regional summaries. For the purposes of the report, California was considered part of the Southwest region, which included states as far east as Colorado and New Mexico.

Not surprisingly, many of the points raised in the Southwest section (beginning on p. 129) have to do with water supply. Most have been reported or discussed in our Climate Watch coverage, either here or in our radio reports. Selected “highlights” include:

– Past climate records based on changes in Colorado River flows indicate that drought is a frequent feature of the Southwest, with some of the longest documented “megadroughts” on Earth.

– The prospect of future droughts becoming more severe as a result of global warming is a significant concern, especially because the Southwest continues to lead the nation in population growth.

– Human-induced climate change appears to be well underway in the Southwest. Recent warming is among the most rapid in the nation, significantly more than the global average in some areas.

– Projections suggest continued strong warming, with much larger increases under higher emissions scenarios compared to lower emissions scenarios. Projected summertime temperature increases are greater than the annual average increases in some parts of the region, and are likely to be exacerbated locally by expanding urban
heat island effects.

– Water supplies in some areas of the Southwest are already becoming limited, and this trend toward scarcity is likely to be a harbinger of future water shortages. Groundwater pumping is lowering water tables, while rising temperatures reduce river flows in vital rivers including the Colorado.

– Projected temperature increases, combined with river-flow reductions, will increase the risk of water conflicts between sectors, states, and even nations.

– Increasing temperature, drought, wildfire, and invasive species will accelerate transformation of the landscape.

– Under higher emissions scenarios, high-elevation forests in California, for example, are projected to decline by 60 to 90 percent before the end of the century.

– In California, two-thirds of the more than 5,500 native plant species are projected to experience range reductions up to 80 percent before the end of this century under projected warming.

– Projected changes in the timing and amount of river flow, particularly in winter and spring, is estimated to more than double the risk of Delta flooding events by mid-century, and result in an eight-fold increase before the end of the century.

– A steady reduction in winter chilling could have serious economic impacts on fruit and nut production in the region. California’s losses due to future climate change are estimated between zero and 40 percent for wine and table grapes, almonds, oranges, walnuts, and avocados, varying significantly by location.

By the way, Pielke’s critique does not directly address anything in this list, though his work does involve weather-related disasters, which would include floods. Asked by a commentator on his blog if he thinks the entire report should be dismissed based on the flawed interpretation of his research, Pielke replied: “I wouldn’t think so and would certainly hope not. At the same time the section which covers my research does not give me a lot of confidence in the process that led to the report.”