Water in an Uncertain Future: Planning the New Normal

November 14, 2017 | 7:27 pm
Adrienne Alvord
Former Contributor

Northern California breathed a sigh of relief this weekend as rain and cooler temperatures finally arrived in force after the devastating fires in October. Now the question is, what kind of a winter will we have, and in particular, how much snow and rain will we or will we not get?

After a four-year drought from 2013 to 2016 and an unprecedented rainy winter in 2017, I’m hoping for a normal winter and not another year of water rationing, land subsidence, dead or dying forests, flooding, infrastructure failures, or transportation disruptions.

The Great Water Supply Shift

But with climate change upon us, nothing is normal anymore. (UCS has discussed the issue of the changing paradigm for water management with climate change here, here, and here.) One thing we have learned in the last few years of “new normal” conditions is that we can no longer rely on past precipitation patterns to predict reliable water supplies for our future.

One way in which California’s water management is changing is our increased reliance on groundwater, in part because groundwater has traditionally been the state’s fallback when surface water has been in short supply. But during the drought, decreased precipitation and temperatures were so extreme that several groundwater basins wells were pumped literally dry, and in some areas pumped so much water out of the ground that the land above the basins subsided (or sank) several feet, causing damage to roads, bridges, and canals on the surface.

In 2014 during the height of the drought, California lawmakers were forced to grapple with the fact that extreme drought was putting unsustainable pressures on state groundwater basins, and passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

SGMA requires active governance of groundwater basins in the state and says water managers must set “measurable objectives” in their plans to achieve “the sustainability goal for the basin.” One of the great challenges now is that water managers must create new groundwater basin plans at a time when they can no longer rely on yesterday’s climate to manage future water conditions. Instead, they must rely much more on scientific and quantitative tools, like climate models, to understand the kinds of conditions we could be facing over the next decades.

Report Shines a Light on Much-Needed Changes

Researchers and scientists at UCS and the Stanford Law and Policy Lab released a report today that says much more needs to be done to ensure adequate groundwater management, and, by extension, overall water management in an era of rapid climate change.

The report found nearly half of the 24 groundwater plans analyzed did not include the kind of quantitative analysis of climate change required by the state.

The researchers also found that state and federal water delivery projections that local agencies rely upon to make water management decisions are inconsistent and therefore confusing to use. They found that too often models were used inappropriately or with unreliable assumptions. For example, many agencies were not using a range of climate data but relying on “moderate” scenarios to plan—a bit like planning for a “moderate” earthquake rather than the maximum force that can result in damage to life and property.

The problem unstated in water circles is that many water managers are well into their careers and are unlikely to have had formal training in climate science or how climate is affecting precipitation and water supplies. Consultants who they rely on may not have training or incentives to do climate science well.

Many water managers are doing their best to cope with often imprecise state guidelines and conflicting information on climate science, especially when they may not have enough information to even know what kinds of questions they should be asking. Right now local water managers have no requirements or real regulatory guidance to understand or engage with climate science.

But that should not be an excuse to do nothing. A hallmark of our era is change that requires people to master new skills and information- for example, a car mechanic today needs to understand how to deal with complex electronics which wasn’t true in the past. Learning new information and skills should not be the barrier to good management.   The report also provides guidance for how and under what circumstances water managers should use particular climate models—a necessary and important start, but the challenge we face requires much more effort and resources to be met effectively.

Wanted: Support For Science

To ensure we have planned for the uncertainties of a changing climate, state water managers should be provided with, trained in, and encouraged to use the kinds of science and tools that will ensure a state with a world-class economy can cope with adequate water supplies under changing climate conditions. Anyone who lived through the last five years in California, when ultra-dry and ultra-wet conditions had widespread impacts on our lives, understands that living with extremes is not easy. But we have no choice. We must learn to cope more effectively with much more difficult conditions if we are to adapt successfully.