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The State of Our Water “Union”

By Charley Pow, GreenTown Water Committee

In mid-November, Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute gave a talk on “The Present and Future of Water”. Gleick covered four areas in his talk: 1) the present state of water in California, 2) climate change, 3) water and conflict, and 4) solutions

State of Water in California

We are in year three of a drought. In November, California voters passed a $7.5B bond measure on water that with interest will cost $14B. The Pacific Institute’s assessment is that hefty sum is merely a down payment as more will be required to solve the problem.

GTLA usTemperatureRising

GTLA CO2andTemperatureChange (1)

The data surrounding our water tells a compelling story:

• Eighty percent of California’s water is used for agriculture

• The remaining 20% is used by urban and suburban users

• Residential users consume 64% of that 20%, with half the residential use outside the home.

• Californians use more water than is supplied by rain, so each year we pump 1-1.5 million acre-feet of groundwater more than is replaced. Groundwater supplies are finite, so this massive overdraft is not sustainable.

• This November, California passed its first laws to measure and manage groundwater, but implementation will takes years.

• Drought affects? This year, 10% of the agriculture land is fallow. While California normally generates 15% of its electricity from dams because of the drought, only 7-8% will come from hydroelectric this year. To replace the missing hydroelectric power, we’ll burn more natural gas, adding more CO2 to the atmosphere.

Climate change: the big nut to crack

Carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere had not exceeded 300 parts per million for 400,000 years, until 200 years ago with the industrial revolution coincidentally, when we began burning burned fossil fuels to generate energy, dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is now at 400 ppm, and rising.

The earth’s temperature rises and falls as atmospheric carbon dioxide rises and falls. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “One of the most remarkable aspects of the paleoclimate record is the strong correspondence between temperature and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere observed during the glacial cycles of the past several hundred thousand years.” From the Woods Hole graph below, notice how temperature (red) rises and falls as the atmospheric carbon dioxide (blue) rises and falls.

Earth’s temperature rises and falls with atmospheric carbon dioxide (ORNL).

  1. Rising temperature: The US temperature has been rising since 1895, consistent with the atmospheric carbon dioxide level (Source:, 2014).

  2. Shrinking snowpack: The snowpack and the moisture content of the snowpack is shrinking in the western US as the temperature rises.

  3. Diverted moisture. In the western US, our rain comes with storms, and storms come when a plume of moisture (or atmospheric river) is pointed at California. One cause of California’s drought is a high pressure ridge that has diverted the atmospheric river away from California. The current buildup of greenhouse gases makes thiss high pressure ridge more likely (see Stanford study.)

  4. Increase in natural disasters: Gleick displayed a graph showing that natural disasters are getting more frequent. Hurricanes get their energy from warm ocean water. As the earth’s oceans have warmed, hurricanes are more frequent and stronger. As glaciers melt, ocean rise increases the flood damage from storms. Hurricane Sandy caused $50B in damage, flooding Ellis Island and subway ventilation shafts. Stronger hurricanes and ocean rise due to higher temperatures are causing more frequent and more destructive natural disasters.

The Rising Tide of Water Conflicts

Since the 1980s, water conflict has been on the rise. Water supplies have not increased, while population has. One example is Syria. The Euphrates River starts in Turkey, flows through Syria, and then to Iraq. The amount of Euphrates water flowing into Syria has been dropping, while Syria’s population has grown from 3 million in 1950 to 22 million people today. Syria has had a deep drought since 2009, ruining farming and causing widespread migration from rural areas to cities. Areas receiving the most immigrants have experienced higher conflict in Syria’s civil war.

Gleick discussed California, and in particular, Proposition 1. Of the $7.5B water, $2.7B is set aside for water storage. Gleick notes, with hope, that this substantial funding could be used to create groundwater management systems, accelerate groundwater storage and clean up contaminated aquifers. Traditional solutions, such as building new reservoirs are, according to Gleick, “tapped out”. He showed storage capacity over time. California has 40 million acre-feet of water storage. Most dams were built between 1920 and 1980, with only minor additions since then. The best sites have been built so the marginal benefit of new reservoirs is small. Public oversight of the commission responsible for spending $2.7B is critical. “Only one percent of bond funds will be spent on conservation and efficiency”, and these are the only items that will “provide immediate relief from the drought”. In other words, water wars of the western US aren’t over.


There is no silver bullet. Broadly, increasing supply and reducing demand are the two means of addressing our current and future water challenges. As for supply, we already use all the rainwater we have, and we overdraft groundwater at an unsustainable level. To increase supply, we could treat wastewater, use storm water, and desalinate water (very expensive). To reduce demand, measures such as carrying shower water outside to water plants or not washing cars are temporary. Replacing lawns with drought-tolerant plants and flushing toilets with non-potable water are recurring solutions that will save water every year.

Water is an underpriced utility — we pay less for water than other utilities. As a result, people have little economic incentive to conserve water. Our water bill doesn’t pay for large infrastructure, such as building new dams or replacing aging pipes and aqueducts. At some point, the pipes bringing Hetch Hetchy water from the Sierras to San Francisco and the Peninsula will have to be replaced. We’ll need to find funds to do so.

California’s water institutions and management aren’t set up so that we use water efficiently. California allocates water based on historic water rights, and not the efficient use of water. One result: California is exporting alfalfa, an extremely water-intensive crop, to China in increasing numbers. Exports have increased eight-fold since 2009. But we could save water and boost the productivity of California’s agriculture, by shifting from low-value crops like alfalfa and rice to higher value crops like al

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