Water’s New Path: Water, climate, and interdisciplinary thinking with Dr. Peter Gleick

Dr. Peter Gleick

This past Friday I had the pleasure of attending an Environmental Engineering Seminar hosted by Dr. Peter Gleick at Davis Hall. Gleick is an environmental scientist and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a non-profit policy research center whose mission statement is to create and advance solutions to the world’s most pressing water challenges. Standing up at the podium after a brief introduction, Gleick wasted no time in beginning his presentation.

His focus? Water.

Gleick discussed both the global challenges and interconnectedness of water and climate, especially in the context of California’s droughts. The result is a convincing argument for the need to rethink the direction, framing, and management of California’s water issues.

Most Californians reading this article will likely be familiar with California’s precipitation problem. For the last 5 years, arguably the last 11, California has faced a severe drought. Precipitation levels have fallen, our dams have run dry, rivers have stopped flowing, and the snow is thinner than ever before. Yet the problem is not just limited to California’s water supply. The issue at hand is climate change, and while Gleick hesitates to declare climate change responsible, he is confident that it is at the very least influenced by man-made climate change.

In many ways, California’s water problem is a human-caused climate change problem. The Pacific Institute has various theories for this relationship. Gleick estimates, for example, that the drought worsened because average temperatures were higher. One interesting phenomenon Gleick refers to is what is commonly known as the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge”, or RRR. This is a persistent region of atmospheric high pressure located in the northeastern Pacific Ocean. As Gleick explains, “This storm system has driven storms in the Pacific that would have otherwise hit California and brought its rain further north than it otherwise would have been. There is some indication that the melting arctic and the influence of pressure systems in the pacific has influenced the rainfall patterns in California.”

Yet outside of California, the image isn’t very pretty either. Warmer waters along coastlines are like fuel to hurricanes, allowing them to grain strength and last for longer periods of time. Sea levels have increased about 9 inches over the last several years, meaning that storm surges from hurricanes will be worse than otherwise.

I struggle to find ways to write this article without relying on simplified cliches, but this does need to be said: water is an essential, irreplaceable resource for human society. We need it to feed our crops, to wash our clothes and dishes, to bathe, to cook, to manufacture, to produce energy. The list goes on, so much so I couldn’t fit it all in this article. Hell, 70% of our body is made of water. As Gleick explains, “Water is connected to everything: public health, forestry, agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the environment.”

Water is such a crucial resource that countries over the centuries have fought wars for it. Even today, the pattern of competition for water continues. Growing populations around the world require even more resources to sustain them. While Gleick doesn’t expect to see any water wars soon, water does hold significant value in many conflicts today. Access to water resources has. in many ways, triggered conflict. Water can also be used as weapon or even a target in warfare.We’ve seen civilian water resources targeted in places like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The Pacific Institute maintains a database known as the Water Conflict Chronology, available at worldwater.org, which lists every violent history over the last 4500 years involving water as a trigger, a weapon, or a target in conflict.

We can certainly see the importance of water, or at least the severity of its deficiency. Turning back now to California, the 5-year drought has prompted a number of responses. Of California’s water supply, 20% goes to urban centers for residential, industrial, institutional, and commercial usage, with the remaining 80% to farmlands and agriculture. In January 2014, Governor Brown called for a voluntary 20% reduction of urban water usage with only 10% achieved. A mandatory 25% reduction was successfully met in April the following year. Californians were offered rebates to remove their lawns or to upgrade to more water-efficient toilets and washing machines, all of which were fairly successful. In the agricultural sector, farmers were forced to pump more ground water. Doing so faster than nature can produce is harmful in the long run and can harm natural ecosystems. Farmers also invested in more water-efficient crops or began using tributary irrigation systems for more efficient water distribution.

We like to think that California’s drought is simply an issue of supply. Gleick recounts how often he is interrogated about desalination, the process of purifying and filtering salt water.  People often say “well, all we need to do is desalinate water because it is a scarcity problem; we just need to build desalination plants” Gleick responds, “OK, talk to me about economics, about coastal planning, about ecological problems associated with brine disposal” This all points to the larger issue at hand and the heart of Gleick’s argument: the interdisciplinary nature of water. Water issues in California can’t simply be solved in one dimension. We can’t rely solely on economics, politics, environmental science, law, or engineering alone. In one way or another, all are affected by water. Water, by its nature as an essential resource, is multidimensional.

This graph illustrates California’s hydroelectricity generation from 2001-2014. During the height of the drought, hydroelectricity generation fell dramatically. Without electricity, California was forced to compensate by burning more gas. This 5 year period cost Californians about $2 billion in additional energy costs. Gas emissions increased during this year by around 10% more than normally.

Sustainable development, global warming, energy, and water and food shortages are all connected in one way or another. That’s the nature of the nexus of the environment. Water is simply a part of the larger issue. But by tackling those issues one at a time within only one field, we miss out on the opportunities and synergies to do things better. We need to look at all of these issues from an interdisciplinary fashion because these issues are multidimensional by nature.

California’s water issues aren’t purely economic or purely engineering issues; they are complex social, political, cultural, and technological issues that require a fundamentally new approach. Gleick thus introduces what he calls the “Soft Path”, a new approach to solving California’s water-related issues rather than relying on the infrastructural, institutional, and economic techniques of the past. “The Soft Path” Gleick begins, “involves rethinking the concept of water supply, rethinking the concept of water demand, how we use water, protecting water quality and the matching the quality of the supply of water that we need, smarter economics, protecting ecosystems and understanding their needs and health, and rethinking water institutions, management, public participation, and corporate strategies.” The soft path stands in contrast to what he called the “Hard path” of water, characterized by the constant construction of water infrastructure, such as pipes, aqueducts, and dams, the increased construction of which he argues won’t solve the many pressing issues related to water today.

From the perspective of supply: California collects and treats a huge amount of wastewater and just disposes of it. Increasingly, California treatment centers are beginning to treat the water to whatever standard we want and reuse it. Today, treatment centers reuse around 18% of wastewater, yet other countries, like Israel, are reusing 75-80%. Waste water can now be an asset, rather than a liability. Stormwater capture, groundwater recharge, and desalination, despite its expensive and ecologically destructive drawbacks, are becoming viable sources of water. In terms of demand, Californias can continue to engage in more efficient uses of water, from washing machines to toilets to sprinklers. There is an enormous potential in California and world-wise to do what we want with less water. We can reduce the risks of climate change by changing the way we manage water. Water-related conflicts can also be mitigated by a combination of policy, infrastructure, and design. This involves more peaceful political strategies, water treaties, and sustainable development to meet people’s basic water needs so they don’t have to fight over water. This can give way to more technological development and institutional design.

While Gleick unfortunately lacked the time to fully develop the other aspects of the “Soft Path” of water, his argument remains clear and convincing: Californians, and humans in general, need to rethink the issues surrounding water. We don’t have to, and we shouldn’t, focus on solving these issues within only one field. The nature of environmental issues is that they are all connected. Only by engaging in new interdisciplinary and multidimensional approach will Californians be able to deal with its most pressing water issues.

Jacob Solzberg

Born and raised in San Marino, California, Jacob is a third year majoring in Political Science with a focus on International Relations and minoring in Sustainability. Jacob joined the SERC blog team to help with spreading more information about environmental issues throughout campus. Jacob supports clean energy, sustainable design, clean technology, nature preservation, and climate change. (Wait, no. He supports combating climate change.) Jacob enjoys nature photography, video games, (Marvel) movies, animals, language learning, and rainy weather. Jacob Solzberg covers photography and campus events.

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