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

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.

Major Shifts in California Bird Movements

Stellar's Jay,  Photo: National Park Service

Stellar's Jay. Photo: National Park Service

Climate change has California’s birds on the move, but not in the usual direction or at the same pace, a new study has found.  Research suggests that warming temperatures and changing precipitation patterns will cause bird species distributions to shift independently, resulting in new bird “communities” appearing in up to half the state.

In some cases, these new communities will create combinations of birds that have never existed before, a situation that could disrupt the delicate balance of species interactions with potentially unanticipated consequences for whole ecosystems, the report authors concluded.

One of the co-authors, Stanford biologist Terry Root, told Climate Watch: “This will not be just a few species in a few locations–this tearing apart of communities could be quite extensive across California.”

Root was among  researchers from Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, PRBO Conservation Science, the University of California-Santa Cruz, and the Klamath Bird Observatory, who collaborated on the study.  They used bird survey data and climate model projections for California to map current and future bird distributions for 70 species.  Many species often found together, such as acorn woodpeckers and western bluebirds, are projected to shift and adapt in different ways, resulting in these new assemblages.

PBRO has posted interactive maps of the future projections for individual species distributions on its Climate Change, Birds, and Conservation website, in the section called “Where will the birds be?“.

The study authors, including Terry Root of Stanford and Diana Stralberg and John Wiens of PRBO, write that the emergence of new bird communities in the coming decades present enormous conservation and management challenges.  They assert that rapidly changing habitats and ecological communities are going to require new approaches to conservation and management. “As new combinations of species interact, some species will face new competition and/or predation pressures, while others may be released from previous biotic interactions,” they wrote. “Managers and conservationists will be faced with difficult choices about how, where, and on which species to prioritize their efforts and investments.”

Root pointed to experience with wolves, coyotes and foxes, in which wildlife managers tried to control one,  only to see unexpected spikes in the population of another: “Here is a community of only 3 canines to which we purposely forced changes, and we had two big surprises.  Now we are talking about 70 species of birds shifting without any control of the force or the species being changed.  I guarantee there will be a lot of surprises.”

Starving Sea Lions: A Climate Connection?

Photos by Victoria Carpenter

Photos by Victoria Carpenter

I thought the highlight of my trip to Point Reyes last week would be the cows grazing on spectacular cliffs covered with yellow lupine. I was visiting a historic dairy there for an upcoming story on crashing milk prices.

But then I noticed a white van marked “rescue” driving down to a dock near the Pt. Reyes lighthouse, and decided to follow it. Turns out, I stumbled upon an incredible scene: rescue workers releasing baby sea lions and elephant seal pups back into the waves.

Volunteers lugged what looked like over-sized pet carriers out of the van and slid them onto a cement boat dock. Then a trio of sea lion pups poked their heads out, sniffed the salt air, and flippered their way across the cement and into the water, playfully nuzzling each other.

They seemed exhilarated–but thin. These pups had been rescued near Monterey, revived in the Marine Mammal Center’s Sausalito hospital, and were now healthy enough to return to the ocean, though you could still see their rib cages poking through their fur.

The sea lions swam out quickly but the elephant seals were a little more sluggish. One pup kept swimming back toward the humans, begging for fish. Then a giant female came out of the waves, perhaps offering herself as an adoptive mom, nudging the baby into the water.

Jim Oswald of the Marine Mammal Center (MMC) says the staff is seeing an unprecedented spike in rescue calls. In just the first two weeks of June, nearly 1,300 people phoned in, worried about stranded sea lions and other mammals. Most of them are malnourished sea lions who can’t seem to find enough anchovies, herring, or sardines to snack on.


Researchers aren’t quite sure why–but haven’t ruled out some kind of climate connection. The MMC is reporting its findings to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to try and figure out the cause. Possible El Nino Conditions? Warming oceans sending schools of smaller fish northwards? No one quite knows at this point.

“If it’s a climate change variable, that’s going to affect the fish the animals feed on,” says NOAA Wildlife Biologist  Joe Cordaro. “That could be a very long temporary shift in the bait fish distribution, or it could be long-term depending on how severely climate change affects the surface temperature of the ocean.”

But Cordaro says at this point, the sea lion strandings are “one big puzzle,” with climate change as just one possible factor. We could simply be witnessing a high-birth year for sea lions, with  a lot more pups than usual, or early signs of a returning El Nino weather pattern. Meteorologists won’t know until the fall whether California actually meets the criteria for a strong El Nino year. If so, Cordaro predicts “things are going to get a lot worse for the sea lions this fall and next spring.”

[Editor’s Note: The case for a return to El Nino was advanced on Wednesday, when the Australian Bureau of Meteorology reported that indications are almost certain at this point]

Regardless of the cause, the MMC’s Oswald says it’s cause for concern.

“These young sea lion pups get to the point where they’re so weak, they end up on the land and they’re too weak to go back,” Oswald explains. “It’s easier for them to waddle along, hoping they’ll find another waterway where they can find some food. They’re using up all their reserves if they stay out in the ocean.”

Stranded sea lion pups have even turned up on Bay Area freeways. Last week, rescuers found one on the 880 freeway in Oakland.

“His name is Fruitvale,” reports Oswald, “for the district in Oakland he was rescued from. He seems to be doing okay. He’s still being tube fed. I’m told from veterinarians that he’s feisty, moving around, and nippy, which is a good sign.”

The Marine Mammal Center’s Sausalito headquarters lets visitors watch volunteers in action. There’s an interactive exhibit with a sea lion on a gurney, where you can see its x-rays and test results. You can watch volunteers prepare fish meal, or even witness a post-mortem in the necropsy room.

Sounds grim, but until sea lion pups start finding more fish to eat–and humans start to figure out what’s causing the food chain to collapse, the Marine Mammal Rescue Squad plans on a very busy summer.
Sasha Khokha is chief of KQED’s Central Valley Bureau and a frequent contributor to Climate Watch.

And for more about the Marine Mammal Center’s sea lion rescue efforts, listen to Amy Standen’s recent radio report on KQED’s Quest. You can also view her slideshow and read her Reporter’s Notes on the Quest blog.

Pika One Step Closer to ESA Listing


American pika. Photo by Chris Ray.

American pika. Photo by Chris Ray.

UPDATE: Federal fish & wildlife authorities have decided to proceed with a full review of the American pika, for potential listing under the Endangered Species Act. The US Fish & Wildlife Service will formally publish its decision this week, including this summary:

“We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announce a 90-day finding on a petition to list the American pika (Ochotona princeps) as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended. We find that the petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that listing of the American pika may be warranted. Therefore, with the publication of this notice, we are initiating a status review of the species, and we will issue a 12-month finding to determine if the petitioned action is warranted. To ensure that the status review is comprehensive, we are soliciting scientific and commercial data regarding this species. We will make a determination on critical habitat for this species if, and when, we initiate a listing action.”

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) first petitioned for listing in 2007, and then followed with a lawsuit a year later, when federal authorities shelved the request.

The significance of this week’s decision, according to a CBD news release, is that “the pika will become the first mammal considered for protection under the Act due to global warming in the continental United States outside of Alaska.”

Last month a San Francisco court ruled that state wildlife officials wrongly denied the CBD’s petition for listing under California’s ESA. So it looks like the little critter will get a fresh review at both the state and federal levels.

Pivotal Week for Pika Protection

American pika. Photo by Chris Ray.

American pika. Photo by Chris Ray.

Note that an update to this story was posted on May 6.

The hamster-sized, high-elevation haymaker known as the American Pika has had its “day” in court–and then some. Now it may be making inroads toward listing as a threatened species, while questions persist over whether that would be premature.

Friday was the deadline for officials at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to decide whether to further consider the pika for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has been pursuing listing for the pika under both the state and federal Endangered Species Acts. On April 16, a Superior Court judge in San Francisco ruled that the California Fish and Game Commission applied too stringent a standard, when it voted last year to reject the CBD’s petition to list the pika under the California law. The CBD says it expects the court to formally order the state to go back and take a second look at whether the critter deserves protection.

Meanwhile federal wildlife officials had until May 1 to decide whether to formally review the pika’s plight and consider listing it under federal law. A response is expected to be published in the Federal Register this week.

Complicating the case is an apparent difference between the fate of pika populations in the Great Basin, where field research clearly shows pika colonies in trouble, and colonies in the Sierra Nevada range, which may be faring better.

Pika thrive only at high elevations, in the rocky conditions known as talus. Their band of tolerance for temperature is very narrow, so some biologists see them as an indicator species for global warming. Temperatures that humans may consider merely balmy, can be fatal for pika.


Chris Ray, an ecologist at the University of Colorado, has studied pika in the mountain ranges of the Great Basin. She’s identified and ranked several stress factors that pose threats to the animals, including habitat shrinkage and exposure to both heat and cold.

Ray, who presented her latest research at the USGS-sponsored Pacific Climate Workshop last month, is cautious about endorsing an ESA listing just yet, saying: “I do not think there are data indicating that the species as a whole is in danger of extinction, however the loss of isolated populations from the Great Basin has me concerned.”

“I think it’s very reasonable to consider potentially listing some sub-populations of pika.” Ray says that in order to do that, a case would have to be made that there are genetically distinct sub-species of pika. In its petition, CBD claims that five sub-species have been identified in California. But scientists at UC Berkeley and the U.S. Forest Service who have done field research in the Sierra, have said it’s less clear that those colonies are in trouble.

CBD staff biologist Shaye Wolf says a 1995 study found “evidence for four genetic units across the pika range, roughly grouped as Sierra Nevada, Cascades, Southern Rockies, and Northern Rockies. However, better genetic analyses using more sensitive genetic markers (like microsatellites) are necessary to understand pika population structure.”

Wolf says that for its ESA petition, the CBD drew on a 1981 study that used population distribution to break out 36 “subspecies” of pika.

Climate Research Conference, Day 1

About 300 scientists, policymakers and resource managers turned out for the California Energy Commission’s 5th annual conference, with about twice that number watching via video webcast.

The focus for much of day one was marking the progress toward regional modeling, i.e. fine-tuning the well established global climate models to yield specific data and hence, forecasting power for local areas. Interesting findings so far include an apparent decrease in the intensity of SoCal’s Santa Ana winds, notorious for fanning wildfires in southland canyons.

Also, Robert Bornstein of San Jose State University is about to publish his study, showing a persistent cooling trend along the California coast, since the mid 1970s. According to Bornstein’s data, areas influenced by the sea breeze have actually cooled an average of 0.4 degrees C per decade over the period, a rate faster than the rest of the state has been warming. Bornstein was quick to point out that he’s not challenging the premise that California is warming as a whole. In fact, he says the coastal cooling trend is yet another weird artifact of global warming.

Stanford ecologist Terry Root dropped the first bombshell of the conference by uttering  a term deplored by her ilk: species “triage.” Root says the climate pressures on California wildlife species are so dire that we will need to pick and choose which ones to save. Asked where to start, she suggested those species that provide “ecosystem services,” such as insects that assist with plant pollination. “In an emergency situation,” she said, “you ask as many questions as you can–but you have to act. We’re plodding along, doing as much as we can. It’s not fun.”

Root’s bird phenology (migration timing) studies were the subject of a story I did for The California Report. The principal interview for that report, Dena Macmynowski, was a graduate student working with Root.