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What Will Your Water Cost?

Report: Big changes needed to avert “widespread environmental and economic losses” in California

Grand illusion? Water rushes over the spillway at Nicasio Reservoir in Marin County. (Photo: Craig Miller)

A high-profile team of experts is calling for a major overhaul of the way California manages its water. In a 500-page report from the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California, the authors say decades of well-intended water policies simply haven’t worked, leaving the state vulnerable to major crises, including water shortages, catastrophic floods, decline & extinction of native species, deteriorating water quality, and further decline of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“Our system has been dying a death by a thousand cuts,” says co-author Ellen Hanak, an economist and policy analyst at the PPIC. Hanak says that the state’s water management efforts have been “incremental” and “piecemeal,” with little success to show for it. Continue reading

Californians Who Rely on Delta at “Severe Risk”

Here’s a shocker: Yes, action is necessary on the San Francisco Bay Delta

(Photo: US Fish & Wildlife)

State and federal authorities provided an update Wednesday on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), which is tasked with restoring the damaged ecosystems of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and safeguarding California’s water supply.

“The 25 million Californians who rely on the Delta for clean drinking water are at severe risk,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, on a call with reporters. Continue reading

Center to Study Climate Impacts on Ocean

Federal officials this week launched a new climate change research center, designed to be a hub for studies on the impacts of climate change on the San Francisco Bay and coastline.

The tidal gauge off of San Francisco's Fort Point is the oldest in North America.

The Ocean Climate Center is housed in a collection of century-old military buildings on the edge of the Bay at Crissy Field. It couldn’t be a more picturesque — and critical — location. Adjacent to the oldest tidal gauge in North America, the center will allow cash-strapped federal agencies to pool resources into climate change research and work with natural resource managers to combat negative impacts on the marine ecosystem and communities along the coastline. Continue reading

A (PDQ) PDO Primer

The term “PDO” is coming up more often in climate discussions. What it is and why it’s being bandied about are explained in this post from our content partners, Climate Central.

Surf along California's Mendocino Coast. Photo: Craig Miller

Surf along California's Mendocino Coast. Photo: Craig Miller

Did Someone Say “PDO”?

By Heidi Cullen, Phil Duffy and Claudia Tebaldi

Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a page-one story looking into why climatologists and TV meteorologists are at odds over global warming.

The article, which quoted one of the authors of this post, pointed out that while climate scientists almost universally agree that human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, are warming up the planet, a significant percentage of TV meteorologists do not. In fact, a recent study from George Mason University and the University of Texas at Austin showed that out of 571 TV meteorologists surveyed, only about half believed that global warming was happening and fewer than a third accepted the proposition that climate change was “caused mostly by human activities.” The survey also suggested that TV meteorologists view climate change as mostly a natural phenomenon.

Joe Bastardi, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, stands squarely in the natural causes camp, and he offered up his own explanation recently on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. On the comedy show, Bastardi said the global warming trend is just temporary and caused by a mix of volcanic activity, solar cycles, warmer ocean temperatures and specifically a natural climate pattern known as the “PDO” or Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

Bastardi has provided a great opportunity to educate the public about climate change. And as climate scientists, we’d like to take a moment to talk about natural climate variability specifically.

The solar cycle and volcano arguments Bastardi gravitates toward are fascinating. But when it comes to climate change, these natural sources of climate variability are incapable of doing the heavy lifting. In fact, they’ve been raised, tested, and solidly laid to rest by the climate science community. Variations in solar output are too weak, and in any case repeat every 11 years, and so cannot explain a steady warming trend over 40+ years. As for the volcano argument, eruptions are also too puny. Globally,volcanoes, like Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano as well as those under the sea release a total of about 200 million tonnes (metric tons) of CO2 annually.

That may sound like a lot, but it’s trivial when compared to human activity. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), global fossil fuel CO2 emissions for 2003 tipped the scales at 26.8 billion tonnes—over 100 times more. Let’s just say human activity can bench press a whole lot more warming than the sun’s variations and volcanoes combined.

Before we move on to the role of the Pacific, we want to first thank Bastardi for daring to mention the phrase P-D-O on television. While geeks like us find the Pacific Decadal Oscillation fascinating, alphabet soup has a tendency to make the public’s eyes glaze over.

The PDO is just one of many natural oscillations in the climate system. It is characterized by a positive or “warm”  phase, and a negative or “cool” phase, which refer to the pattern of anomalies in sea surface temperatures and air pressure between the north central Pacific Ocean and the northeastern Pacific. The El Niño/La Nina cycle, for example, is another natural oscillation. Its period, about three-to-seven years, is shorter than the PDO’s, but in fact, the PDO is often thought of a slower version of El Niño, as some of the manifestations are similar.

Image: NOAA

For example, in the warm phase of the PDO, temperatures in the northwest region of North America tend to be warmer than average, while the southeastern U.S. tends to be cooler than average. Bastardi believes the warming trend (shown below) is only temporary because the phase in which the PDO has predominantly been at the same time, with its warmer than average tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures, is temporarily juicing the system. He forecasts the global temperature trend will dip back down once the PDO shifts back.

blog_monthlyPDOHere’s the problem. First and foremost, while the PDO is important in driving regional climate variations, it has no clear effect on global temperatures. And although the PDO was in its warm phase during the majority of the time from the mid 1970s to the present, it also shifted sharply in multiple instances (see chart), which is inconsistent with the steady global warming trend during the same period. For example, the decade from 2000 to 2009 was the warmest on record globally, but the PDO was not positive throughout that period.

It has been said that the truth is stubborn. This idea gives climate scientists a small sense of relief in that eventually, the stubborn truth will be recognized; that the recent global warming trend is real and caused mostly by human activities.

References for this article are shown in the original post at Climate Central.

California Water Update: A Mostly Adequate Year

87760251Almost everywhere you look this week, California is dry. By which we mean the state is experiencing the first truly warm, rainless week since a series of Pacific storms blew through the state in mid-January.

Hydrologists for the state Department of Water Resources and the federal California-Nevada River Forecast Center expect the warm temperatures to trigger the first significant surge of snowmelt for the season. With slightly above-average snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada, that should help continue to raise reservoir levels. Our 2009-2010 rainy season is likely to go down in water history as adequate–short of hopes for a wet year but an improvement on the past three winters, which were much drier than average.

Admittedly, that’s the view from the city, where we get our water out of taps and garden hoses. The picture for agricultural users is not nearly as bright, as we were reminded earlier this week.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued an updated allocation for its customers in the Central Valley. The bureau offered a good news-bad news scenario. For CVP customers north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the news was mostly good. Agricultural contractors there will get at least 50% of promised deliveries this year; municipal and industrial customers will get 75%. South of the Delta, the news is not so good. Municipal and industrial users will get 75%, but farm customers are guaranteed just a quarter of the water they want.

That 25% zone south of the Delta includes the Westlands Water District and other areas on the west side of the San Joaquin Delta that have suffered severe water shortages, due mostly to the state’s prolonged dry spell and, less directly, to restrictions imposed on Delta pumping to protect Delta smelt and Chinook salmon.

That’s the same area for which Sen. Dianne Feinstein tried to secure extra water this year–even if it meant overriding provisions of the Endangered Species Act. Feinstein’s effort to attach a water amendment to a federal jobs bill failed, but the move apparently prodded the Department of the Interior–the parent agency of the Bureau of Reclamation–to try to find more water for Westlands and its neighbors. This week’s allocation announcement included assurances that the department is still working to secure additional water for west side farmers.

The state Department of Water Resources, which also ships water from the Delta to customers in the San Joaquin Valley and beyond via the California Aqueduct, also issued an updated allocation announcement this week. The department said that for now it’s sticking with its guarantee of 15 percent of requested deliveries this year.

Why such a low figure? The department says it’s because of continuing “poor hydrological conditions” in the Feather River drainage that feeds the State Water Project’s principal reservoir, Lake Oroville. The main symptom of those conditions is the lake’s storage level, now just 57% of average for mid-March. For contrast, look at California’s main federal reservoir, Lake Shasta, less than 100 miles away from Oroville as the crow flies. It’s got 104% of average storage for the date (not to be confused with percent of capacity).

Here’s my amateur, off-the-cuff runoff-watcher’s observation of what’s behind the difference: The Shasta drainage, which captures the upper reaches of the Sacramento, McCloud and Pit rivers as well as lesser streams, has benefited from several storms since mid-January that dumped heavy rains throughout the watershed. Those same storms have dropped lighter amounts of rain further south and east, including over the Feather watershed. The same effect can be seen in the American River basin, which flows into Folsom Lake. A month or so of intense precipitation last year eventually filled the lake; lighter rains this year have led to lower-than-average storage levels in Folsom (84 percent as of this week).

The final word on the water season, of course, will come from the Sierra snowpack and runoff. Stay tuned for the snow melt.

Check recent levels of California’s major reservoirs on the map, below:

View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

Hot Topics in San Diego

NASA's "Dynamic Planet" exhibit at the San Diego Convention Center. Photo: Craig Miller

NASA's "Dynamic Planet" exhibit at the San Diego Convention Center. Photo: Craig Miller

SAN DIEGO –The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) draws “thousands” of scientists in virtually every endeavor, from astrophysics to zoology. In climate science circles there was no lack of topics to choose from this year. Among them:

Geo-Engineering

Several sessions were devoted to the notion of fending off climate change by tinkering with earth systems. In technical sessions and news briefings, there was a range of opinion on display, from “Let’s try it” to “Let’s look at it,” to “Don’t even think about it.” There seems to be general agreement that techniques like seeding the atmosphere with particulates could yield rapid results–but the idea is fraught with political controversy and legal pitfalls. Stanford’s Ken Caldeira likened the idea to a cancer patient who accepts the risks of chemotherapy, in order to avoid worse consequences. Philosophy professor (and Caldeira’s former teacher) Martin Bunzl, firmly rejected that analogy, saying that unlike cancer therapy, the risks are not well known and “You can’t just turn it off.” Bunzl directs the Climate and Social Policy Initiative at Rutgers University.

At Climate Watch, we’re preparing an explanatory radio feature on geo-engineering, for broadcast in the coming weeks.

Oceans

The plight of the planet’s oceans was a focus of the conference, with numerous discussions of acidification, marine reserves and the newly implemented concept of “marine spatial planning,” an effort to map the oceans’ topography, biota and habitat, then translate that into a kind of zoning plan for human use (an approach specifically mandated by the Obama administration last year).

In October, researchers will formally conclude the Census of Marine Life, a 10-year collaboration among scientists in 80 countries, to “assess and explain the diversity, distribution and abundance of life in the ocean.” During a media briefing at AAAS, census Co-Chief Scientist Ron O’Dor estimated that the final tally would include 5,000 newly discovered species (“not counting the microbials”), from flying sea cucumbers to the “Rasta sponge,” which, according to O’Dor’s colleague, Shirley Pomponi, appears to sport dreadlocks and also “produces an anti-cancer compound.” O’Dor said one general conclusion from the census would be that while it is “large and resilient, we can’t keep insulting the ocean forever.”

Science & Policy

In keeping with the meeting’s theme of “Bridging Science and Society,” and reflecting the current angst over credibility in science, there were overflow sessions with titles such as “A Wobbly Three-Legged Stool: Science, Politics and the Public.” While people spilled out the door of that room, hard-science lectures in adjacent rooms drew just a smattering of people. In an interview with Climate Watch, Brad Allenby, a professor of engineering and ethics at Arizona State University, lamented that “the climate change discussion has become so polarized, even among scientists, that it’s difficult to present the public with factual information that is credible.”

European Union exhibit at AAAS. Some attendees commented that the exhibit hall seemed sparse this year. Photo: Craig Millerl

European Union exhibit at AAAS. Some attendees commented that the exhibit hall seemed sparse this year. Photo: Craig Miller

National Climate Service

NOAA chief Jane Lubchenko used the occasion of the conference to talk up her agency’s new National Climate Service, funded by legislation last year. The new branch will provide one-stop shopping for climate research and tools for policymakers, including those at the state and local level. Lubchenko says she hopes to have the new unit operational by October, when the federal fiscal year turns over.

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.

A Sea Change in Ocean Policy Promised

Reed Galin

Photo: Reed Galin

A phalanx of high-level federal officials marched into San Francisco today to announce a major shift in the way the federal government oversees the oceans.

The top-level administrators from the White House and several agencies held a public meeting to launch efforts toward a first-ever National Ocean Policy, in which they say restoring a healthy ecosystem will be a top priority.

The newly formed Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force is led by Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and one of President Obama’s top advisors on the environment. She arrived surrounded by representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), EPA, Navy, Coast Guard and Dept. of Interior (which, odd as it sounds, is responsible for vast tracts on the outer continental shelf).

Asked why we’re just getting around to a unified national ocean policy, Sutley said that “Too often the federal government sits in its stovepipes,” with each agency taking a narrow view. This effort is an attempt to break through traditional parochialism in favor of a more holistic approach to the challenges.

Task force member Jane Lubchenco, who heads NOAA, said that for the first time, policy makers are saying loudly that “healthy oceans matter.” And right now, she says, they’re not real healthy.

“At a global scale, I would say that oceans are in critical condition,” said Lubchenco. ” Most people are unaware of how much disruption and depletion has occurred within the oceans. We’re seeing the symptoms of much of that. It’s time to get on with the solutions.”

The task force will address a growing array of concerns, from shrinking fisheries to higher acid levels in the ocean—many of which are likely related to climate change.

Lubchenco, who is also an Undersecretary of Commerce, told me that “Climate change is exacerbating many of the existing challenges for ocean uses. There’s very good evidence that climate change is already having very significant impacts on oceans.” Lubchenco also cited “the related problem of ocean acidification,” and reeled off a laundry list of  climate impacts, including “loss of biological diversity, increasing transport of invasive species, nutrient pollution, habitat loss, and over-fishing.”

Lubchenco added “That sum total of stresses on ocean ecosystems means that we need to be taking new approaches.” The most sweeping of those “new approaches” will be “ecosystem-based management,” a term used repeatedly in the Interim Report issued by the task force this month.

According to the report:

“The implementation of ecosystem-based management embodies a fundamental shift in how the United States manages these resources, and provides a foundation for how the remaining objectives would be implemented…It would provide the opportunity to ensure proactive and holistic approaches to balance the use and conservation of these valuable resources. This broad-based application of ecosystem-based management would provide a framework for the management of our resources, and allow for such benefits as helping to restore fish populations, control invasive species, support healthy coastal communities and ecosystems, restore sensitive species and habitats, protect human health, and rationally allow for emerging uses of the ocean, including new energy production.”

The task force will also be taking its own stab at some long-term solutions for the troubled Sacramento River Delta. The interim report is open for public comment until October 10.

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.

delicatebalance