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Talking About the Future of California's Water in the Face of Climate Change

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Sprinklers water the lawn in Golden Gate Park on April 2, 2015 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

IN LESS THAN a month, the United States will be led by a president who denies climate change exists. President-elect Donald Trump has also said he wants to see the U.S. withdraw from the Paris Agreement and wants to roll back environmental regulations.

In California, a state that has already seen the impacts of climate change and has been a leader when it comes to efforts to slow its pace and mitigate its results, many are wondering what the new direction on the federal level will mean for the state.

On Tuesday, Water Deeply’s managing editor, Tara Lohan, spoke with Juliet Christian-Smith, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Max Gomberg, the State Water Resources Control Board’s climate and conservation manager, about the impact of climate change on California’s water future.

Tara Lohan: Juliet, given the current anti-science political climate right now, as a climate scientist, how are you feeling and what are some of the folks in your community thinking?

Juliet Christian-Smith is a senior climate scientist with the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Juliet Christian-Smith is a senior climate scientist with the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. ((Union of Concerned Scientists))

Juliet Christian-Smith: It’s been a difficult month or so, but I’m happy to be in California. A meeting of the American Geophysical Union took place this past week – it’s the largest scientific conference in the United States – and it was a great moment for scientists to come together, share research and stand up for the value of science. Gov. [Jerry] Brown came and said during his talk that climate science will persevere and that California is doubling down on its efforts to show the rest of the country and the world how to fight emissions, address global warming and have a thriving economy.


While we’ll be facing some real challenges at a federal level, we hope that a call to science and integrity and the will to preserve in our commitment to the country will win in the end. We put together a letter signed by over 2,000 scientists, including more than 20 Nobel Laureates, asking the Trump administration to implement rules around scientific integrity so that even if the appointees don’t understand the science, they’re listening to the scientists who actually do the science and understand it.

Lohan: Max, from your perspective, what can the state do to help support climate science and scientists?

Max Gomberg: California has been a leader on climate change issues since 2006, when it passed AB32, or the California Global Warming Solutions Act, and it is maintaining its leadership role. Last year, we passed SB32, which tries to reduce emissions even further to a sustainable level to avoid catastrophic effects like massive sea-level rise, temperature change and dramatic changes in ecosystems.

The state has played a really critical role in our national negotiations leading to the Paris agreement last year. There’s a lot of work going on to continue both mitigation of climate change and to adapting to the changes that we’re already seeing. There’s a lot going on in California in the climate realm. That’s going to continue no matter what happens in Washington D.C.

Lohan: California currently has the most ambitious greenhouse gas targets in the country. Can anti-science action at the federal level put that in jeopardy?

Max Gomber is climate and conservation manager at State Water Resources Control Board.
Max Gomber is climate and conservation manager at State Water Resources Control Board. ((Max Gomberg))

Gomberg: Certainly. In the past, the state has been granted waivers to go above and beyond federal legislation. For example, California took the lead in setting higher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, and a number of states later followed. If there’s federal action to try to roll back those allowances for the states, that could hamper some of our work. On the other hand, ideological conservatives in Congress are fond of promulgating the idea that the federal government should leave decisions up to the states, so they might find themselves in a quandary there.

Lohan: Taking a step back, what do we actually know about California’s climate in the past, and what should we expect in the future?

Christian-Smith: We know that we’re already experiencing climate change. It’s not something that is going to happen later; it’s happening now, and it will get worse.

The statewide average temperature in winter is already more than 5 degrees [fahrenheit] (2.8C) warmer than it was historically. In 2015, for the first time ever in recorded history, temperatures in the Sierra Nevada were above freezing during the winter time. That’s a big problem for a state with a water system that is heavily counting on snowmelt. A third of our water comes from snowpack that melts into some of the major reservoirs that were created by the state and federal government in the 1950s. Those projects are seeing huge reductions in the amount of snow and they’re also seeing big changes in the timing of snowmelt. The peak snowmelt events occur now 30 days earlier than average. The timing of water supply is out of phase with the timing of water demand and that’s a problem for management.

Because of the system of traditional surface waters – lakes, rivers, reservoirs – is failing, we have seen a huge shift toward relying on groundwater.

Lohan: Max, the state is already working toward sustainability on groundwater. In 2014, California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Its implementation has begun and will continue for quite some time. What else can water managers be doing except for relying on groundwater to plan for changes in the amount and timing of water they receive?

Gomberg: It partly depends on who they’re supplying, urban areas or agricultural operations. However, generally speaking, we still have a long way to go on efficiency. Part of the reason that the governor issued the executive order last May was to ensure that we’re moving toward a very highly efficient water-use future across the state. We can really gain a lot of water simply from more efficient practices. That will enable us to become more resilient for the droughts ahead, which we know under climate change are going to be more severe.

Lohan: Is there anything we need from an infrastructural point of view, whether that’s reservoirs or smaller or green infrastructure like stormwater capture?

Gomberg: Absolutely. There was a lot not to like in the federal water lawthat the president just signed, but some of the money in there is for additional flood control projects. That’s important because we know from the drought that when it’s wet, it’s going to be very wet. Because we may see really extreme precipitation events, with very powerful atmospheric rivers, that dump a ton of rain and put us in danger of devastating floods, we need to continue investing in our flood management infrastructure.

In terms of water supply, we need to store as much water in the ground as possible when we have it. We built a lot of reservoirs in this state in the past century and a half, all the good spots are taken. Even if we do build another reservoir, it’s not going to make a major influence in terms of increasing our ability to respond to climate change. So new research is looking at whether we can use agricultural fields to let water percolate into the ground and replenish groundwater basins when that water is available.

We also need to do more with respect to stormwater and recycled water. We need to fund more. We need to make the regulatory pathways for doing more of and make it easier than it is now.

Christian-Smith: We have more than three times the amount of storage underground than we have aboveground. Therefore, groundwater is a huge new area for us to think much more strategically about using. But we haven’t had any formal regulatory framework for groundwater until very recently.

The Union of Concerned Scientists and other groups were instrumental in helping to pass the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Right now, local entities are putting together groundwater sustainability agencies. Importantly, the state will be allowed to step in when those plans don’t look like they’re actually going to achieve sustainability or if the agencies get off track. We’re very hopeful that this state enforcement mechanism will be taken seriously. Groundwater is really our buffer to climate change impacts in California.

Lohan: The state imposed mandatory conservation measures for water agencies and then switched to the stress test. How does the state, as a regulator, bridge the gap in terms of making sure that water agencies have a reliable supply for the near future, but are also thinking long term?

Gomberg: It means we’re working twice as hard. We’ve provided emergency drinking water supplies to communities that ran out of water, imposed emergency conservation regulation for the rest of the state, provided funding from Proposition 1, the water bond that was passed in 2014, for a number of critical infrastructure and conservation measures as well as habitat restoration. And we’re going to continue to do that.

At the same time, we’re going to focus on building resilience, both on the demand side – water efficiency and conservation – as well as when it comes to the supplies that we need to build more security in our water systems – better groundwater management, additional stormwater capture and reuse, and more recycled water.

Lohan: Is there any additional work that the state should be doing in terms of investments in climate change adaptation?

Gomberg: There’s so much work we could be doing on climate change adaptation. On the mitigation side, the state’s cap and trade program creates emission allowances and a pot of money that can be used to to fund additional actions, whether it’s public transit or other things to reduce emissions.

We don’t have the same kind of funding source on the adaptation side, but we certainly need to use the funds we have, and potentially explore new funds, for actions ranging from upper watershed ecosystem restoration, to more green infrastructure to minimize flooding in urban areas, to managed retreat for crucial infrastructure.

There was a great article in the New York Times a couple of months back on sea-level rise in Florida. One of the mayors interviewed basically said that in the end, the ocean is going to win. That’s the truth. We can try to minimize the amount of sea-level rise by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but no amount of infrastructure is going to prevent sea-level rise from really changing the character of our coastal zone. We need to be proactive, and it’s going to cost a lot of money.

Christian-Smith: Another key piece of adaptation is taking the information that was already put together and applying it to our planning processes and our investment decisions. This legislative session, we sponsored a successful bill called Climate-Safe Infrastructure bill, which was all about getting state engineers to talk to climate scientists who have been doing groundbreaking work in California so that we can understand impacts better and apply that information to real-world decisions around dams, bridges, highways, buildings.

Another example is the Water Bond. The very first drafts did not include the words climate change or any kind of climate science. Together with the California Water Commission, we were successful in getting climate change projections brought into the criteria that project applications need to put together.

We know that we can’t use the past as a predictor of the future, that’s the biggest problem with climate change and adaption planning. We’re in uncharted territory and we really need to use the scientific tools that the state has invested in and apply those to our real-world management decisions.

Lohan: We talked a little about the environmental impacts of climate change, but what are you seeing in terms of the social impact of climate change and the drought in California? Who are the people that are being affected and are most at risk?

Christian-Smith: We’ve been doing work with the Community Water Center in Visalia, in the southern San Joaquin Valley. They represent largely disadvantaged communities who are primarily groundwater dependent. These communities are some of the hardest hit by the drought because domestic wells are typically shallower than irrigation wells. When there [aren’t] water supplies from surface water systems, agriculture typically shifts to groundwater. That draws down the groundwater and leaves these folks with no potable water.

These areas – who have some of the lowest household incomes – are now paying very high prices for water that doesn’t even come out of their taps. It’s really a human rights travesty. The U.N. special rapporteur declared the situation in the Central Valley a human rights crisis because a million residents don’t have access to clean drinking water.

Gomberg: This really is a human rights travesty. In 2012, California was the first state to pass a bill titled the “Human Right to Water,” making it a policy of the state to provide safe, affordable and clean drinking water to all of our residents. We’ve made a lot of progress toward that goal, but we still have some critical funding gaps. Without divulging too much, I can tell you that it will be a very big priority for the administration in 2017 to try to close those gaps.

Lohan: What do you think is the No. 1 priority that California should be focusing on next year when it comes to climate change and water?

Gomberg: It’s the issue we’ve just been talking about. The most vulnerable communities are the most vulnerable to drought, water supply restrictions and reductions. At the state level, we’re looking at all the levers we can pull, at all the policy options available to close the gap. It’s an environmental justice issue, it’s a climate change resilience issue and it’s a human rights issue.

Christian-Smith: I agree and I’ll bring in one more thread from our conversation. Many of these communities are primarily dependent on groundwater for their drinking water supplies. The new groundwater sustainability agencies will play a key role in putting basins on a path to more sustainable groundwater management and therefore guaranteeing more drinking water for these communities.

Therefore, it’s crucial that these communities have a seat at the table in these new governance structures and can talk about the real-world impacts of climate change and the drought. The water world can be very insular, and in order for things to change, the people in the room have to change.

This transcript was condensed and edited for clarity.


This article originally appeared on Water Deeply, and you can find it here. For important news about the California drought, you can sign up to the Water Deeply email list.

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