How Should We Be Thinking About A Hotter, Drier Future? (Transcript)

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A couple walks their dog near the coast of Lake Mendocino on June 11, 2021.
A couple walks their dog near the coast of Lake Mendocino on June 11, 2021. Water officials say the reservoir could go dry by the end of the summer. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California is in drought. Again. And the infrastructure used to sustain the state’s 40 million residents — and $50 billion agriculture industry — hasn’t kept up with changing climate patterns. The Bay Curious podcast will explore new ways of thinking about the future of water in our state as part of a six part series: State of Drought.


Olivia Allen-Price:
[00:00:00] You're listening to Bay Curious, I'm Olivia Allen Price.

Sounds of rain

Olivia Allen-Price: Isn't that nice? It's been a while since I heard that sound. It's the time of year where every part of me starts craving the rain. But this year, that feeling is especially strong because we are in a drought. And if we don't have a wet winter ahead of us, it could get really bad. Already wells are running dry, reservoirs are concerningly low, and some parts of the Bay Area are facing mandatory water restrictions.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:00:38] A few weeks ago, we asked you what you wanted to learn about drought in California, and we got dozens of smart and insightful questions. Now it's time for some answers.


Theme song starts

Over the next two weeks, we'll be sharing five episodes in our series State of Drought. We'll be focusing on why we're at a turning point in water management, how different parts of the Bay Area are feeling this drought differently, and — what I'm most excited about — we'll talk solutions.

Now, anyone who is even a little familiar with water management in the state knows that it's a big, complex issue that touches almost everything. So unfortunately, we're not able to get into some really important parts of the picture, like the needs of wildlife and fish or the complicated system of water rights in the state. But check our show notes and, of course, website for more reading on those topics.

I'll be honest, I thought the series was going to be all doom and gloom, and there was a part of me that was really dreading it. But I've learned there's a lot within our control if we're smart and plan ahead. Hang on tight. We're about to get started.

Theme song ends

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:01:50] I've got a confession to make. I've lived in California for seven years and I only just saw the movie Chinatown. If you haven't seen it, know this: It's considered among the greatest movies of all time. And it's probably the movie that people think of when they think of California and water. The film is loosely based on true events, when Los Angeles bought up water rights in the rural Owens Valley and then stole its water.

Chinatown clip: [00:02:29] You steal water from the valley, ruin the grazing, starve our livestock.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:02:33] It may be Hollywood, but the water wars are very much alive. But here's the thing, almost every expert that we spoke with for this series has said this kind of thinking, this us versus them mentality, it's not helpful if we want to make sure that all 40 million Californians can keep living and working in California. We need a new approach. Producer Katrina Schwartz is here to help us think through it. Hi, Katrina.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:02:58] Hi, Olivia.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:03:00] Didn't we just get through a drought? Like, how are we here again?

Katrina Schwartz: [00:03:04] We did, and it didn't officially end until 2017. But here we are again because we're seeing more frequent, hot, dry periods. And that's in part because of our changing climate. The problem is that a lot of the state's water infrastructure, that's like the dams, the aqueducts, the pipelines, they were all built with the belief that California would always get lots of snow in the mountains each winter. The system is built under the assumption that about 30 percent of our water will slowly melt each spring and fill up the reservoirs.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:03:35] But it's not happening like that anymore. As the climate changes, we're seeing these dramatic swings between wet and dry. Take this last year, we saw a few big storms and not much else. [00:03:46][10.1]

Katrina Schwartz: [00:03:46] Yeah, and it was good skiing when it happened, but then there was nothing. So our infrastructure isn't built to handle that. I spoke with Newsha Ajami about this. She's the director of Urban Water Policy at Stanford.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:03:57] Newsha, tell us a little bit about how California has traditionally thought about drought and help us to understand why we can't really think about it that way anymore.

Newsha Ajami: [00:04:10] Droughts used to be these events that would occasionally happen. And we would always have long enough wet periods, or normal periods, in between that our groundwater basically could recover. Our ecosystem could recover. Generally speaking, we could recover from the stress that was put on us by the drought. Unfortunately, what we are seeing now is more frequent droughts and drier and hotter droughts, which means that there is very limited time for any part of our system to fully recover. It's becoming something much more frequent and maybe our new normal, so we have to actually shift our mindset. We have to rethink the way we as individuals behave. We have to sort of embrace this as our new reality. And if we actually take this as a new normal, we will certainly don't function and govern and manage our resources the way we are doing it right now.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:05:19] I know it's tempting to look at another part of the state and say, look, they are the problem, but in reality, everything we've talked about from the changing weather patterns to the outdated infrastructure, all that impacts both cities and farmers.

Newsha Ajami: [00:05:34] If you think about it, in California, we have this is very, very impressive, sophisticated and complex water infrastructure network and water system that moves water from water rich areas to areas that don't necessarily have a lot of water. And that infrastructure design has enabled population growth in regions that don't naturally would be able to maintain the amount of population that they have, or be able to function as they do. So every part of the state sort of experiencing this from our Bay Area to all the way to Southern California.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:06:10] which also sort of means that we can't afford to be divided on this anymore. I mean, I think you see a lot of conflict over water, and finger pointing about who wastes more water, who's more responsible for being irresponsible with water. But it sort of seems like we're all in the same boat here.

Newsha Ajami: [00:06:25] Yeah, we all in the same boat here. There are definitely groups that they can do better, cities that they can do better, agricultural practices that can be improved, industries that can do better. But there are always people out there that can do better. Agriculture does consume about 70 percent of our water. And the urban areas, around 20 percent. In between is some industries. The reality is in our cities that we live in, we use the products from agriculture. We change our diet patterns based on the agricultural products that we want. And also we actually have a lot of food waste, which also has a significant water footprint. We are part of this cycle no matter what we do, and we have to shift this paradigm together.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:07:09] One quick note about consumption numbers here. Newsha is talking about the water humans use, but when we look at all the water in the state, you'll often hear a different breakdown. About half of all the water in the state goes back into the environment, 40 percent is used by agriculture and 10 percent is used in urban centers.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:07:27] What are like one or two big dramatic changes that agriculture could do to conserve water and play their part in the fact that we're all in this together? [00:07:41][31.8]

Newsha Ajami: [00:07:42] Agriculture can do a lot more to recharge groundwater, to actually preserve groundwater, to not use a lot of groundwater. Now that we're moving to more permanent crops such as orchards and trees, those kind of crops, they require a lot of water and are permanent. So you can't really not water them. So as far as we have a lot of those already, that's I guess it's the reality. But you should actually not grow more. Maybe we should not transition to a lot of these permanent crops. And also, there's a lot of waste in this process as well. How can we reduce that waste, therefore sort of harness that water or reduce their water footprint, which is like extremely important because there's a lot of products that actually are grown use water and soil and also the resources, but they never make it to the market and they're actually go to waste. [00:08:34][52.6]

Katrina Schwartz: [00:08:35] OK, some good ideas for agriculture, but I know that there's a lot that we who live in cities can do as well. So in the spirit of everyone kind of playing their part, how do you recommend that we approach the future?

Newsha Ajami: [00:08:48] I would say no matter where we are looking, always conservation and efficiency comes first. It is the cheapest water that we can have. It's the best water that we can have. And actually it reduces the amount of degradation we are causing to the environment or the quality of the water. Another one that is actually sort of the same level is protecting our water supplies. We have a lot of water supplies that are impacted by various industrial activities or the quality of the water has been degraded for various reasons. So as we're thinking about solutions, one other thing, one other way to think about it is as we're building future cities, future communities, new housing developments, do we really need to build it the same way we build it 50 years ago, 100 years ago? Or do we need to rethink the way we do things that can very much change the way we use water and we consume water.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:09:41] As we're thinking about these solutions for the future, building for the future, planning for the future, how do we keep equity at the center and make sure that we don't leave behind the folks who maybe can't buy their way out of this problem?

Newsha Ajami: [00:09:53] That is actually a very, very important point that you brought up. A couple of things. One is, as I was listing my priorities on how to deal with future water needs, you noticed I started some conservation efficiency and then went down to like reuse, recycling. The reality is whatever we do ends up adding to the cost of infrastructure that we have now. The “haves” can do it, maybe. But within all those communities that major water utilities, there are also people who cannot afford to pay for the water.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:10:26] This is kind of a complicated point she's making. The rate we pay for water isn't just for the water itself. It's also for the stuff we do to get the water here and to clean it up. The more we have to treat the water, the more expensive it is. Newsha is worried that water districts will invest in big, expensive projects like desalination plants based on the current demand numbers. But then down the road, as people figure out ways to gradually get off the grid, like by installing a greywater water system, only the poorest people will be paying for that very expensive water.

Newsha Ajami: [00:10:59] So if we end up investing in infrastructure that's not needed, then some of these people will be left to pay for this legacy infrastructure or pay for infrastructure that we don't need. So it's very, very important as we are transitioning, we do this in a very strategic way.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:11:25] You know, as we're thinking about the future, are we doomed or can we get out of this if we do the right things?

Newsha Ajami:
[00:11:31] Yeah, I mean, look, there's a lot of inefficiencies in our current system that can be fixed. We definitely can do a lot more. And just to sort of make sure we use every drop of water properly. And if we do all the right things, we can survive. But if we don't, we can actually have a serious breakdown in the system. So we have to be able to adapt to this new reality, which means that we have to rethink how we're using the water in different ways and reduce waste. That's the most important part of this process.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:12:11] That was Newsha Ajami, the director of Urban Water Policy at Stanford. Tomorrow, we'll be talking about where our water here in the Bay Area comes from specifically and why it matters. Bay Curious is made by Katrina Schwartz, Brendan Willard, Sebastian Miño-Buchelli, and me, Olivia Allen Price. We are a production of member-supported KQED in San Francisco. We'll be back tomorrow.