Governor Brown Urges Water Managers to Plan for Climate Change

January 15, 2016 | 2:06 pm
Juliet Christian-Smith
Western States Regional Director

Yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown spoke at the release of the updated State Water Action Plan, emphasizing the impact of climate change on water resources and the importance of applying climate science to water planning. At the release, one of his senior staff, Wade Crowfoot, put a finer point on it:

“Water planning and infrastructure need to deal with the climate reality…longer and more severe droughts and flooding”

This is interesting in light of decisions made by the Brown Administration’s own California Water Commission just a few weeks ago. Tasked with allocating $2.7 billion to new water infrastructure projects, the Commission approved regulations in the last days of 2015 that do include planning for climate change, but stop short of dealing with the “climate reality.”

The irony is that California has some of the most proactive climate policies and some of the best climate science in the nation. Indeed, at a time when international consensus has been achieved around the real and present dangers of climate change and the need for global action, California should be positioning itself as a leader, not a laggard.

Climate reality or climate fiction?

While the Governor’s office is asking for water managers to plan for the “climate reality,” the California Water Commission approved draft regulations suggesting that climate change impacts do not occur after mid-century:

“After 2050, climate conditions shall be assumed to remain at 2050 conditions.” (Excerpt from draft regulations for Water System Investment Program, approved by the California Water Commission on December 16, 2015)

They also require project planners to build for what is being termed a “median” scenario—not for a range that includes more extreme scenarios that would significantly stress the system.

These regulations are problematic for two main reasons. First, climate science tells us that the most significant changes in temperature, water supply, and water demand occur after 2050. Stopping the analysis of climate change at 2050 makes very little sense, particularly when project benefits can be calculated out to 2099. Secondly, when it comes to building long-lived infrastructure, we are most concerned about extreme conditions, not average or median conditions. Together, these provisions call into question whether new water infrastructure will be able to deal with the impacts of climate change.


California has prepared for earthquake uncertainty, and can prepare for climate uncertainty

Think for a minute about how we build buildings for earthquakes. Because California is crisscrossed with active earthquake faults, almost all buildings are constructed to withstand a severe earthquake, not a “median” earthquake. In addition, the uncertainty of whether, where, and with what force an earthquake will happen has not stopped the state from continuing to construct buildings, highways, or bridges. Rather, it has required a new level of analysis and robustness in building safety that is continually evaluated and updated.

The same should be required when it comes to climate change. In fact, the Department of Water Resources’ Climate Change Technical Advisory Committee advised that water planning and infrastructure use a similar standard, what they called a “stress test framework” to analyze the impact of future climate conditions on water resources:

“A stress-test approach using scenarios of constructed extreme events along with analyses of vulnerability to these events, offers a vehicle to assess extremes in a planning process… Stress tests focus on identifying weaknesses and breaking points to the water system that stem from different facets of extreme events” (DWR Climate Change Technical Advisory Committee 2015, pgs. 41-42).

When California voters approved the water bond, they provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure our water needs well into the future. In discussions at the California Water Commission proceeding approval of the project regulations, several Commissioners suggested or supported important amendments that would have helped ensure that taxpayer money would be well-spent. But pressure to finish quickly led to the approval of inadequate regulations that do not follow the advice of the state’s own Climate Change Technical Advisory Committee, and fall short of what is needed to ensure a reliable and resilient water system for the future.

Posted in: Climate Change

About the author

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Dr. Christian-Smith is an expert in water, climate, and sustainability issues. She leads UCS's efforts to create effective policies addressing climate change in California and the Western United States.