Spring 2016 Bulletin

Water: California in a Global Context

On February 2, 2016, Christopher B. Field (Founding Director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science and Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies at Stanford University) and Anna M. Michalak (Faculty Member in the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science and Associate Professor in the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University) led a panel discussion on Water: California in a Global Context with Annie Maxwell (President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund), Joya Banerjee (Senior Program Officer at the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation), Holly Doremus (James H. House and Hiram H. Hurd Professor of Environmental Regulation, Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Research, and Faculty Co-Director of the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment at UC Berkeley School of Law), and Isha Ray (Associate Professor of Energy and Resources at the University of California, Berkeley and Co-Director of the Berkeley Water Center). The program, which served as the Academy’s 2032nd Stated Meeting, followed from the Summer 2015 issue of Dædalus “On Water.” The meeting included a welcome from Jonathan F. Fanton (President of the American Academy). The following is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Christopher B. Field
Christopher B. Field is Founding Director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science and Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies at Stanford University. He is a guest editor, with Anna M. Michalak, of the Summer 2015 issue of Dædalus “On Water.” He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2010.

In California, water is probably the topic we talk about more than any other. A few months ago people were talking about when will it ever rain, and now people are talking about when will it ever stop.

We have gathered this evening a group of water experts who approach the issue of water from a wide range of perspectives. We tend to think about water problems, but we rarely think about water opportunities. One of the things we will try to unfold in the conversation tonight is the science of water challenges: the physical and the human dimensions, but also the opportunities for solutions that involve legislation and collective action as well as engineering approaches.

More than anything else, we hope to transition from understanding water as primarily a problem to a balanced perspective that considers not only the problems but the solutions.

Anna M. Michalak
Anna M. Michalak is a Faculty Member in the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science and an Associate Professor in the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University. She is a guest editor, with Christopher B. Field, of the Summer 2015 issue of Dædalus “On Water.”

As Chris mentioned, we have been talking about the drought in California for several years now, and I think most of us were actually asked to cut down on our personal domestic water use by a quarter to a third over the course of last summer. But now we are in the midst of this El Niño period, and news reports are suddenly focusing on the risk of flooding.

When either of these topics comes up, people tend to talk about them within the context of climate change, but how can both droughts and flooding be related to anthropogenic climate change? And are we really now in a period where any unusual weather event can be attributed to climate change, or do we need to consider other connections, especially within the context of California?


Christopher B. Field

As a specialist on climate change I am often confronted with the accusation that any unusual weather event gets attributed to climate change, but the fact of the matter is we really do know a lot about how climate change causes both droughts and floods. I want to talk about two mechanisms that cause droughts and two mechanisms that cause floods, both of which are important and pervasive.

The first important mechanism that drives a warming climate to produce droughts is that warmer conditions cause more evaporation. For water users ranging from plants to industry to people, the question is not how much water goes into the environment but how much stays for all of the users to use. Warmer conditions drive greater amounts of evaporation. Greater amounts of evaporation mean less water in the soil, less in the lakes and rivers, and less runoff. So a warmer climate will always, as a result of increased evaporation, tend to push you toward drought.

A second factor that is really important, especially in a place like California, is that the snow pack is a critical component of our water storage system. We tend to think of it almost as water storage infrastructure, but it is really a fee subsidy provided by nature. And in California we have the fortunate circumstance of wonderful weather, with temperatures barely below freezing even in the mountains in the winter.

This has created some of the world’s best skiing environments, but it also means that only a small amount of warming transitions wintertime temperatures in California from below freezing, when we can acquire a snow pack, to above freezing, when we lose a snow pack. The recent conditions of severe water constraint in California have been driven mostly by the lack of snow pack – even more than by lack of precipitation.

What about floods? A warmer climate also will always generate more precipitation at the global scale. Evaporation is what drives water into the atmosphere, but it has to come out someplace. The problem is that it doesn’t always come out where it evaporates, and the atmosphere has a powerful ability to move water around. Even though more water is going to be deposited on average, it doesn’t come down in the same places it goes up.

A second factor that causes climate change to be associated with floods has to do with the fact that a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor. The effect is really strong. One degree Celsius of warming increases the amount of water that the atmosphere can hold by about 6 percent.

So as the atmosphere is warming, it is being supercharged to be able to deliver water in heavy rainfall events. What we have seen globally is a dramatic increase in the fraction of total precipitation that is occurring in the heaviest rainfall events. It is not that most places on earth are seeing more rainfall – a few are – but that almost everywhere more and more of the rainfall is coming in the heaviest events, the kind of events that can cause flooding.

More evaporation and less snow pack tend to emphasize drought, but more precipitation overall and the greater ability of the atmosphere to hold water and deliver it in heavy rainfall events are causing floods. So you get both droughts and floods.


Anna M. Michalak

Holly, Chris has just described drought as well as flooding from a very scientific perspective, but I would imagine the definition of what a drought is depends on your context and perspective. When we think about drought within a policy context, does it differ from Chris’s scientific description? Chris also argued that droughts can occur as a result of manmade climate change. Can they be manmade in other contexts, too, such as in a regulatory context? And how does that relate, if at all, to what we are seeing in California?

Holly Doremus
Holly Doremus is the James H. House and Hiram H. Hurd Professor of Environmental Regulation; Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Research; and Co-Director of the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment at UC Berkeley School of Law.

The question of what a drought is and how we define a drought brings up one of my personal obsessions, which is that if we want to solve a policy problem we need to understand what it is. We need to know its contours. We need to be able to define it, at least roughly, and we need to be able to identify its causes in order to make progress.

If you go to the U.S. drought monitor website, which I highly recommend, it has great pictures of how bad the drought is. Based on those graphics, you might think that what a drought is and how severe it is are questions with only one type of answer: a numeric answer that can be easily represented in striking colors. That is not true, though.

There is no single agreed definition of what is a drought, and there never has been. In a classic paper from 1985, Donald Wilhite and Michael Glantz scoured the literature to see how many definitions of drought they could find. They found more than 150 definitions, which varied depending on the perspective of the definer. Today, 30 years later, there are many more definitions.

For policy purposes, I think two main features define a drought. First, demand for water exceeds supply. And second, the condition of demand exceeding supply is not the norm. Something unusual is causing that to be the case.

If the first feature of a drought is that demand exceeds supply, that means droughts absolutely can be human caused. In fact, since people determine the demand for water, every drought is at least to some extent human caused. People determine how much water is needed for agriculture, how much is needed for industry, how much is needed for cities.

We even decide how much water is needed for fish. The fish might disagree, and they might have problems if human beings decide fish don’t need as much as the fish think they need, but those decisions are in our hands and how much we think those fish deserve has changed over time.

Since people control demand, people control whether demand exceeds supply. People also control some aspects of supply. Not all aspects – although people can affect even the rain in ways they might not intend or realize – but people can directly affect supply through plumbing.

In California we are fortunate enough to have a giant free reservoir in the Sierras, or at least to have had a giant free reservoir in the Sierras, but we also have big concrete reservoirs, and we have channels that move water all over the state, which means we are controlling supply, where it goes and how much. So droughts are not solely acts of God. They may be partially acts of God or nature or whatever, but they are always also partially acts of humanity.

The second feature of drought is that the condition of demand exceeding supply is not the norm. We don’t think of drought as the usual condition for any part of the world. The term “drought” carries the implication of a temporary emergency. The distinction between emergencies and the norm is important to envisioning solutions to drought, in both a substantive and a procedural sense.

If demand temporarily exceeds supply, that argues for one set of responses. It argues for advance emergency planning for what to do if the rains don’t come. It argues for providing disaster relief for people who are affected, who lose their livelihoods in a dry year. It argues for making easier the switch from one water source to another. In California we have historically made it quite easy to switch from surface water to groundwater, which is great if droughts are occasional and not too deep.

But if the world we are in today is the new normal – if California is going to get a lot less precipitation or parts of California are going to get less precipitation, or if the precipitation is going to fall as rain instead of snow, or if we are going to get it in different seasons – that argues for different substantive solutions.

We might have to reallocate water rights. We might have to put caps on population growth, on how many people can live in various cities. We might have to impose new conservation regulations.

There is also a difference, I think, in the procedural way we approach temporary emergency conditions versus the new normal. With emergencies we understand that some of our ordinary decision-making rules should not apply because we have to do things in a hurry and perhaps without the level of deliberation we would otherwise use. But for the new normal we should not be constantly acting on an emergency basis, an emergency footing.

The governor of California, starting in January 2014, issued orders declaring that we are in a drought emergency, and those orders have allowed more flexibility in some of our laws. I think that is unobjectionable for an emergency, for a temporary situation, but if this is the new normal, we should make a new set of decisions differently.


Anna M. Michalak

Chris and Holly have talked about water from the perspective of too much or too little and how both of those conditions can be problematic. Another dimension to this discussion is water quality. Water is usable, whether by a plant, an animal, or a person, only if it is actually clean enough to use.

Last summer a toxic algal bloom on the west coast of the United States stretched from southern California all the way to Alaska. Consequences of that bloom ranged from fishery closures to sea lions that developed permanent neurological damage and seizures after eating fish that had consumed the toxins from the algal bloom.

In 2014, the water supply for Toledo, Ohio, was completely shut down for two or three days after a different species of phytoplankton caused the concentration of toxins in the city’s water to reach levels tenfold higher than the World Health Organization standard. Today the city of Flint, Michigan, is experiencing its own tragic water crisis.

As we think about water, both in California and around the world, we need to consider water quality as well as water quantity. In thinking about our role in maintaining the usability of water, we need to consider the different scales at which human action impacts water quality as well as water quantity.

At the climatologic scale, changes in climate can affect not only water quantity, but also water quality. The harmful algal bloom that occurred last summer on the west coast of North America is an example of how climate variability can impact water quality. The unusually warm waters along the West Coast likely created perfect conditions for the kind – and scale – of toxic bloom we saw last summer.

At the intermediate or regional scale, how we address land management has a huge impact on water quality. For example, the amount of fertilizer used in the agricultural sector can lead to excess nutrients in streams, lakes, and coastal areas. In the Great Lakes region, the runoff of phosphorus from agricultural fields is creating toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie year in and year out. The exact size and where they occur might change, but every year Lake Erie experiences a toxic algal bloom.

At the local scale, we often believe that municipalities are directly responsible for insuring a dependable source of safe water to residents. To me that point should be obvious, especially in a developed country such as the United States. But, as we have been seeing in Flint, Michigan, that is not a given to the extent we might think it ought to be.

Water quantity and water quality need to be thought about together when we think about water sustainability and water usability. Human activity affects the quality of water in ways we might not immediately think of and at scales we might not imagine – whether at the scale of the water at our tap or at the much vaster scale of water quality being affected by climate variability and climate change.

The example of Flint, Michigan, resonates with environmental justice issues. We usually think of access to safe water as a problem of developing countries, but is it also relevant to California? How do issues of equity and justice play out in California when it comes to accessing safe and plentiful water? How do these issues play out in California compared to other parts of the world?

Isha Ray
Isha Ray is Associate Professor of Energy and Resources at the University of California, Berkeley and Co-Director of the Berkeley Water Center.

Safe drinking water or the lack of the right to safe drinking water is, in the main, a problem of developing countries. When I started work in California, however, my colleagues and I found that, even though this right is granted to most Californians, maybe greater than 98 percent, it was not enjoyed by 100 percent of them. So where are these 2 percent of Californians? Why don’t they have safe drinking water? And what happens when people don’t have safe drinking water?

For the most part, these 2 percent of Californians who do not have safe drinking water live in the Central Valley. I gradually realized California is not as developed as I thought it was.

The Central Valley is beautiful and very agricultural. It also has the highest levels of nitrates in the groundwater of any place in California. And it is home to a significant Latino population that has been settled there for a long time. They are not necessarily recent migrants. They are often homeowners who have lived in the Central Valley for generations. Some of these communities started out as labor camps and then became farm worker communities.

Groundwater is the main source of drinking water for these people. Over 95 percent of the valley is dependent on groundwater. Even though several canals pass through the valley, residents, as opposed to farmers, have no right to touch that water. So they depend on groundwater. But the groundwater has very high levels of nitrates, regularly exceeding the maximum contaminant level, above which you can have blue baby syndrome if a very young child drinks that water. The groundwater also regularly exceeds the maximum contaminant level for arsenic.

Where do the nitrates come from? From agriculture, specifically the type of high-chemical-use agriculture the Central Valley has practiced for decades. (Arsenic is much more naturally occurring, so you can’t blame arsenic contamination on human action to the same extent you might be able to blame high nitrate concentrations.)

What made this an environmental justice problem? When my student, my colleagues, and I started our work in the Central Valley, the dominant thinking was that small community systems would be the ones to get stuck with the nitrate and arsenic problems because they don’t have the economies of scale needed to tackle the problem and actually solve it. What we found within these small communities was a clear racial divide. Areas with large Latino populations that depend on community water systems have a much higher likelihood of high rates of nitrates in their water than areas that are not predominantly Latino. Similarly, areas with predominantly Latino populations and low rates of home ownership – that is, with greater relative poverty (since home ownership is a proxy for wealth) – also had a higher likelihood of exceeding the maximum contaminant standards for arsenic.

After establishing what was happening, we asked, why? Why, despite the Safe Drinking Water Act, did these inequalities exist, and why had they persisted for decades?

What we did not find was an egregious situation like in Flint, Michigan. Instead we found that no single entity was able to cope with the scale and nature of the problem. It was nobody’s “mandate.” The Safe Drinking Water Act wants water systems, system by system, to be responsible for the quality of their drinking water. But these are small, poor systems in communities where not everybody speaks English well. So they often are not able to make their case well enough – they cannot write a two-page proposal in English – to get some of the money that has been set aside for the small systems of California. The issue is not that no money has been set aside but that these communities are not in a good position to lobby for that money.

The regulators at the county level know what is going on. They are frustrated because they know these people pay taxes, their children go to school with the regulators’ children, but they cannot do anything for them. Why not? Because they are so underfunded, they are cherry-picking what they can do. They are coping the best they can with the funding they have, but that funding just doesn’t stretch to all of these small, affected systems.

So what are the households doing? They can see what their water is like. Sometimes they can smell what their water is like. So they are buying water, which means they have two water bills, the utility bill and the bottled water bill. In the poorest neighborhoods, the total of these bills is reaching approximately 7 percent of monthly income. The Environmental Protection Agency says the most a household should have to pay for its water is 2.5 percent of monthly income. Most of us pay much less than that, and 7 percent would feel like a fortune. For the people in these communities, 7 percent really is a fortune.

Unfortunately, this is the situation we find not just in the Central Valley, but in hundreds of small communities around the United States. As we think through what water solutions are being proposed and what solutions are not being proposed, we need to keep these small communities in mind, because on a system by system, contaminant by contaminant basis the Safe Drinking Water Act cannot actually be fulfilled in these communities.


Anna M. Michalak

Annie, you lead a philanthropic organization that describes its mission as “confront[ing] global threats imperiling humanity by seeking solutions, strengthening alliances, and spurring actions needed to safeguard the future.” One of your areas of focus is water security. Given the drought and water supply issues here in California, how do you think about California’s situation in relation to the global context? Do you think the problems we are experiencing in California are unique, or are they universal? And what strategies do you think might be effective at tackling these kinds of complex problems?

Annie Maxwell
Annie Maxwell is President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund.

What is happening in California is highly relevant to the global context. Three images come to mind that I think really capture the issue. The first is of California Governor Jerry Brown last April standing in a dry, barren field in the Sierras, a field that in April is normally covered in several feet of snow. The governor was there to announce his historic restrictions on water usage. At the time, the Sierra snowpack measured just 5 percent of normal (compared to the previous record low of 25 percent). California was facing an epic drought.

This image shows that we can no longer look to the past to understand the future. Climate change is already contributing to greater uncertainty and variability about when and where water falls and in what form, whether snow or rain. So as we think toward solutions, we have to focus not only on the science and the modeling, but also on the tools and techniques we have to plan for the future.

At the Skoll Global Threats Fund one of the things we have looked at is the security space and how we can use war gaming and scenario planning to better understand the impacts of climate change in the far future. I often think back to the 9/11 Commission Report, which, despite being a very thick report, managed to capture in one line what had gone wrong with U.S. security: It was a failure of imagination. With climate change and the water challenges we are facing, we have to think about both the scientific foundation and how we capture our own imagination in thinking about the problem and the solution.

The second image I have in my head is of Alan Kurdi. He was the Syrian boy who washed up on the shores of Turkey. His journey out of Syria was driven by years of unrest and violence that have plagued the Middle East, but many scholars, journalists, and politicians have also pointed to the role of drought, in fact the worst ever recorded in the Middle East, as one of the catalysts of unrest in Syria.

For me, Alan’s story is a reminder that we live in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. And while the rapid exchange of goods, information, and ideas has brought a lot of wealth to people, including many who live here in Silicon Valley, we also now face a network of risks in which floods in one region of the world may lead to high food prices in another, in which a drought in one region or country can contribute to migration to neighboring regions or countries.

Solving such a complex problem is going to involve looking not just at rainfall, not just at the metric measurements we traditionally use when thinking about drought, but also looking at the complex water system in which we operate.

California presents an incredible opportunity to think about such systems, because our agriculture is connected to a larger global economy. We do not exist as an island. You cannot talk about water rights without also talking about exports to China, for example.

I was born and raised in Santa Barbara, California, and one of the many things our city is known for is a defunct desalination plant. What this image means to me is not that desalinization doesn’t work or isn’t important but that in order to solve these sorts of issues we have to think of the complexity of the problem and the complexity of the solution. If we think we are going to solve our way out of this with a single technology and without thinking about interconnectedness, we are going to be in a lot of trouble.

We have to be creative in how we define the problem, and we have to understand the complexity on both the problem side and the solution side. And we have to figure this out in California. Our state is incredibly well resourced, whether at a state level, in our local communities, or in our academic communities. If we don’t figure this out, not only will California be in trouble; the whole world will be in trouble.


Anna M. Michalak

Joya, you are also based at a philanthropic organization, and your specific focus is to catalyze advances in integrated management of California’s water resources. From where you sit looking at the state’s water challenges and solutions, is the glass half full or half empty? If it is half empty, what keeps you up at night? If it is half full, what makes you feel optimistic despite everything the rest of us have said thus far?

Joya Banerjee
Joya Banerjee is a Senior Program Officer at the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.

Water is a system, and we need to be thinking about it as a system. Here in California, the complex array of laws, institutions, and infrastructure that is our present-day water management system developed over a century. It reflects our semiarid climate. It reflects an ambitious and evolving economy, and it reflects shifting cultural norms and priorities. And it is not all bad. California’s water management system has enabled incredible economic growth, it supports 30 million people, and in many ways it is the envy of developing countries. But the system is failing us for many reasons.

We are overpumping our groundwater basins to the point that land in the Central Valley is sinking due to subsidence. Our streams are being depleted, and we may lose iconic species like our salmon and steelhead. Farms are being fallowed, especially in the Central Valley, and people are losing their jobs. Entire communities lack access to safe drinking water.

When it comes to water, California has a nineteenth-century set of laws, uses twentieth-century infrastructure, and faces twenty-
first-century challenges. Californians are concerned and for good reason. A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California asked respondents to name the number one issue the governor and the legislature should work on this year. Drought and water topped the list.

If you dig into those survey results, you find they don’t follow partisan lines. Drought and water are not a Republican issue; they are not a Democratic issue. They are an issue for Californians – and, really, the globe.

What can be done? Water is at the core of so many of the issues California is grappling with; it impacts the environment, people, health, and energy. Because of this, finding solutions can seem too hard, too complicated. As someone recently told me, “Water has too many entrenched interests, and I just don’t see a path forward.”

My response was that you need to look more closely at what is happening. Take time to look, and you will see remarkable examples of progress. If you look north to the Sacramento Valley, you will see conservation organizations and rice farmers working together using crowdsourced data, scientific analysis, and economic incentives to flood fields in a way that supports a thriving agricultural economy but also provides critical wetland habitat for migratory birds.

Look south to Los Angeles, often known as the villain in California’s water wars, and you will see a city that is becoming a global leader in urban water management because of what they are doing on conservation and efficiency, but also what they are doing with projects to collect storm water, slow it down, clean it up, and put it in the ground for future use instead of flushing it to the ocean. That has water supply benefits, improves water quality, and provides open space in traditionally park-poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

Look to Sacramento, where California’s leaders have come together in recent years to do some really impressive things. In 2014, the state passed a sustainable groundwater management act that requires local basins to bring their basins into balance and to manage them sustainably. Prior to 2014, groundwater was not regulated in California and was often seen as the “third rail” in California water politics.

So, yes, I am an optimist, because in each of these examples – and in many more both in California and well beyond – you can find perseverance, you can find creativity, you can find ingenuity, and you can find incredible leadership. That gives me plenty of reason to think the glass is half full.


Anna M. Michalak

Water issues do not occur in isolation. They are linked to issues of food, issues of energy, issues of security, and so on. How are these linkages manifested in California, specifically within the context of the drought and El Niño conditions we have seen over the last few years?


Christopher B. Field

We often write about the nexus of water, energy, climate, and food, and without question we are looking at a series of densely interconnected linkages between water that is available for urban areas, water that is available for manufacturing, and water that is available for agriculture. Agriculture tends to dominate California’s water demands, which means that being more efficient with agriculture can release a large fraction of other users’ water demands.

In addition to the connections between water and human health, one other set of connections I encourage people to think about are social and economic teleconnections. The concept of teleconnection comes up in climate science, where we might talk about an El Niño event in the eastern Pacific causing a decrease in corn yields in eastern Africa. More locally, we might see that changes in the amount of lettuce that can be grown in California impacts food prices in Texas, which has implications for how many people are moving back and forth across the border with Mexico. In a world that is as densely populated and as densely interconnected as ours is, we need to recognize that every issue has the potential to spiral into a global set of teleconnections.


Annie Maxwell

Something that sometimes gets lost in the nexus conversation, or even in the human health conversation, is what we are seeing with emerging infectious disease. Part of the reason we are seeing diseases like Zika and chikungunya emerge or have the potential to emerge in the southern United States is because we are seeing changes in climate.

Many of these emerging diseases are mosquito borne, which means that for them to emerge you need a habitat in which mosquitoes can live. Some of the interventions we talk about for addressing drought involve rainwater collection and standing water. Mosquitoes like standing water.

As we seek solutions, we need to think about connections like this. And we need to get a handle on things sooner rather than later, because the complexity is only spiraling out of control.

© 2016 by Christopher B. Field, Anna M. Michalak, Holly Doremus, Isha Ray, Annie Maxwell, and Joya Banerjee, respectively

To view or listen to the presentations, visit https://www.amacad.org/watercalifornia.