A Significant Challenge: Adapting Water Management to Climate Change
Perhaps no other issue has rocketed to prominence in such a short time as climate change. A decade ago, discussion about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the connection to warming temperatures was but a fraction of the attention now given to the issue. From the United Nations to local communities, people are talking about climate change – its characteristics and what steps need to be taken to mitigate and adapt to the anticipated impacts.
The impacts – from changes in the amount, timing and distribution of precipitation – will fall on many parts of society, including the storage, treatment and delivery of water to a growing population.
“The water industry is in the eye of the storm,” said Kathy Caldwell, senior project manager with CH2M Hill, at the California Water Policy Conference Nov. 15 in Los Angeles. “No other industry is as affected as they are.”
Coming amid a plethora of water related news items such as restricted Delta pumping, lingering drought fears and the debate over new storage, climate change promises to shake the foundation of the many assumptions regarding California’s water use. The changed future in terms of increasingly variable water supplies and the need to reduce carbon emissions compels leaders to re-think how water agencies move forward.
“We are the first responders to climate change effects,” said David Behar, deputy to the assistant general manager at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. “It’s time for us to get our act together … even as we are getting our own carbon house in order.”
Although there is a tendency to view climate change as something that is coming, many experts say it has already arrived. “We … know that there are major precipitation changes that are taking place,” said Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in a September speech to the U.N. “In general, in the temperate regions there’s an increase in precipitation, rainfall and snow, but in the tropical, subtropical and Mediterranean regions there is a decline.”
The IPCC’s research notes that the rate of change is more rapid than anything seen the last 10,000 years and that the concentration of GHG is greater than at any period during the last 600,000 years. “Most of the observed increase in globally-averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations,” the IPCC says.
California’s water system is expected to change as the weather pattern shifts to less snow, more rain and earlier snowmelt. Consequently, reservoir operations will have to be further adapted to the concurrent and conflicting needs for increased water supply storage and increased flood storage space. The altered nature of the Sierra Nevada snowpack – the state’s largest reservoir – has sparked the discussion regarding whether new storage capacity is needed to boost the state’s water system.
“There are a lot of opportunities and a lot of directions to go in,” said Lester Snow, director of the Department of Water Resources (DWR), at the California Climate Change and Water Adaptation Summit Oct. 3 in Santa Monica. “We need to make intelligent decisions. Climate change will keep moving forward even if we are not ready.”
Determining how climate change will affect communities is an evolving process, spurred forward by an international conglomeration of scientists. In November, the IPCC released its fourth summary report, which synthesized the latest climate change science. While outlining some dire predictions such as a rapid rise in sea levels, the panel notes that measures can be taken to reduce the emissions that cause climate change and help absorb the impacts that result from changing global temperatures.
“There is high confidence that neither adaptation nor mitigation alone can avoid all climate change impacts; however, they can complement each other and together can significantly reduce the risks of climate change,” the report says.
Snow and other water leaders throughout the West are working to ensure the expected climate change impacts are accounted for in future water planning.
“Adaptation is essential to respond to changes that are already occurring due to warming temperatures,” Snow said. “The overwhelming scientific consensus is that these changes are already upon us, and that even if the world were somehow able to cease all emissions immediately, the Earth’s temperature would continue to rise for at least another century as a result of the existing concentration of greenhouse gas emissions.”
With that in mind, water managers are furthering their efforts on measures (including greater water use efficiency) already in use to adjust an already variable water picture while improving self-sufficiency. This is part of what is described as integrated regional management – a cooperative, locally driven process that is part of the overall drive to further diversify water supply sources. While issues such as the crisis in the Delta have been an instigating factor, “climate change probably pushes the local and regional efforts even harder,” said John Andrew, DWR’s executive manager for climate change activities.
On the mitigation side, many efforts are underway to address GHG emissions. In 2006, California passed a landmark law (AB 32) that requires GHG emissions to be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020, with mandatory caps beginning in 2012 for “significant sources.” By 2050, the state aims to reduce emissions 80 percent from the 1990 level.
New water management strategies will be a part of the effort to reduce GHG emissions. “The climate changeenergy connection is quite eyeopening,” said Brad Udall, director of the University of Colorado and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Western Water Assessment in Boulder, Colo. “Water and energy use are inextricably linked.”
The water-energy connection in California is often illustrated by the roughly 20 percent of total electrical demand that is used to bring water to consumers and send it away for sewage treatment. The correlation is important because the greater the demand for electric power, the more GHG emissions are pumped into the atmosphere.
In California, the extraction, conveyance, local distribution, treatment and use of water accounts for 19 percent of the total demand for electricity and 30 percent of the non-power plant natural gas consumption. Some electric power is generated by processes such as coal burning, which pumps heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere causing what scientists call the “enhanced greenhouse effect.”
Meanwhile, the prospect of reduced runoff means that less water will be available for hydroelectric generation, a source of clean, renewable energy that accounts for about 15 percent of California’s power supply. According to the California Energy Commission, hydropower production could decrease by as much as 30 percent as temperatures increase and precipitation decreases.
Because of the energy-water connection, water officials already are bracing for how they will comply with new climate-related requirements. Moderating a panel on the potential impacts of AB 32 on water agencies at the California Water Policy Conference, Otis Wollan, executive director of Public Officials for Water and Environmental Reform (POWER) and a Placer County Water Agency board member, asked whether the law would usher the same “shock and awe” that accompanied the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act decades ago.
Climate change response proposals come amid a growing sense of urgency. “If we wait 10, 20, 30 years to reduce emissions, atmospheric concentrations will increase to potentially dangerous levels,” said Robert Wilkinson, director of the water policy program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The cost is that with greater accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions, we will have more of an impact. So reducing now vs. reducing in the future reduces the cumulative amounts of gases in the atmosphere.”
This issue of Western Water examines climate change – what’s known about it, the remaining uncertainty and what steps water agencies are talking to prepare for its impact. Much of the information comes from the October California Climate Change and Water Adaptation Summit sponsored by the Water Education Foundation and DWR and the November California Water Policy Conference sponsored by POWER. Additional information on climate change can be found in previous issues of Western Water (“An Inconvenient Future? Assessing the Impacts of Climate Change,” September/October 2006) and River Report (“Preparing for an Uncertain Future: Climate Change and the Colorado River Basin,” Winter 2007-08), both published by the Foundation.
Click here to purchase a copy of the complete article.
This issue of Western Water is dedicated to climate change and adaption to that change. With the recent passing of former California Department of Water Resources (DWR) Director David Kennedy, I‘ve been thinking about change in the water world. Dave did not have to deal with issues like climate change but he certainly had his hands full dealing with other crises.
Dave was the longest serving director of the DWR in the department’s history. As former DWR Director Bill Gianelli said when he learned of Dave’s death, “The state and nation have lost a great leader with the passing of David Kennedy.” Lester Snow, currently serving as DWR director, echoed those sentiments when he talked about Dave’s commitment to efficiently running the State Water Project, “His efforts have permanently improved water management for all Californians.”
As DWR Director, Dave led California through the longest modern drought and through three major floods. He made major decisions to improve the system and motivate Californians to care about their water resources. I agree that the importance of his service to the state should not be forgotten.
From the time he accepted the DWR director’s job in 1983, I had many opportunities to interview and work with Dave. In fact, I interviewed Dave just last spring for a video discussing his involvement in Colorado River issues during his 16-year tenure as director. In that interview, he talked about how the issues had changed on the Colorado River. At the beginning of Dave’s term as director, there had been many years of peaceful co-existence between states and interests on the Colorado River. By the late 1980s that peaceful co-existence was no longer the case. Explosive Western urban growth, the farmers continued need for water, and endangered species issues were causing tensions between the federal government, the seven states that share the river, and various interest groups. So it was good to interview Dave and get those thoughts about that period recorded.
Dave‘s family has included the Water Education Foundation among the charities that people can donate to in honor of his memory. We were very honored and pleased to be selected as one of the charities. If you or your organization would like to remember Dave Kennedy and help create future leaders in his memory, you may want to honor his family’s wishes and contribute to the Water Education Foundation’s Water Leaders Program.
The Water Leaders Class is a one-year program that identifies young community leaders from diverse backgrounds and educates them about water issues. Leading stakeholders and top policy-makers serve as mentors to class members. Today’s class members are some of tomorrow’s water leaders and helping them understand water issues is something Dave always encouraged.
In the News
Water Recycling Proponents Hone Efforts to Expand Use
Prompted by the reduction of State Water Project (SWP) deliveries through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, water recycling proponents are taking the opportunity to educate elected officials and the public about the benefits of the practice and the need for further investment. Controversy remains, however, as the prospect of using treated wastewater for irrigation or to recharge potable supplies is a hot-button topic.
In San Diego, a multimillion dollar proposed pilot project to mix treated wastewater with other sources in an existing reservoir was nixed by Mayor Jerry Sanders for being too expensive. The city council subsequently voted to override the veto.
Regardless of the discussion, state officials have pegged water recycling as one of the main ways California expects to meet its future water demands. According to the Department of Water Resources’ 2005 Water Plan Update, the “primary benefit” of recycled water is its augmentation of the water supply, with as much as 1.4 million acre-feet of additional water annually from recycled sources by 2030.
“Recycled water is one of the alternatives we really have to explore,” said Bill Jacoby, president of the WateReuse Association’s California Section.
Water recycling is prevalent in Southern California, where the Orange County Water District (OCWD) in January inaugurated what it calls the largest of its kind water purification system. The district takes highly-treated wastewater and adds further advanced treatment to produce an end product of “near-distilled quality.” That water is used to fortify a seawater barrier to prevent ocean water from contaminating the groundwater supply and to mingle with other water sources as it percolates into the groundwater basin.
“The Groundwater Replenishment System produces the highest quality water we can put into our groundwater basin, and ensures water reliability for northern and central Orange County at a time when alternative water resources in the state and Colorado River basin are in jeopardy,” said Steve Sheldon, OCWD board president.
Proposals involving the use of recycled water to augment drinking water supplies have come under assault by critics who dub the practice “toilet to tap,” an alliteration that causes recycling supporters to cringe. Citing public health as well as cost concerns, several public officials in California municipalities say they are not against the use of recycled water in limited circumstances but are not convinced it can be used to boost drinking water supplies.
The city of Los Angeles had its own very public experience with recycled water use, an episode that culminated with the 2000 shuttering of a $55 million treatment plant because of vocal public opposition. Jacoby and others are concentrating their efforts on expanding state assistance for water recycling to facilitate expanded operations. He said the installation of “purple pipes,” which convey recycled water for use in irrigation, is expensive, as is the construction of treatment facilities.
“If the state is going to depend on recycled water there is a role for it to assist,” he said.
While the argument about the use of recycled water continues, water agencies are faced with the reality of reduced imports from the SWP. Last year’s shutdown of the pumps by a court order “was a real eye-opener,” as was the dramatically low level at the San Luis Reservoir, Jacoby said.