November 29, 2016 - From the November, 2016 issue

Safeguarding California: CA’s Natural Resources Secretary on Resiliency & Climate Change Plans

The California Legislature has increasingly focused on the need to adapt the state to the risks of climate change. Continuing on their leadership of addressing climate change, the Natural Resources Agency is preparing an update to the Safeguarding California action plan. Natural Resources Secretary John Laird joins TPR to educate readers on the scope and significance of this crucial undertaking, which aims to optimize and protect the state’s water supply, energy grid, forestland, and all resources on which California’s economy and quality of life rely. This interview comes in advance of the January California Climate Science Symposium in Sacramento.


John Laird

"We produced one [Climate Adaptation] plan during the Schwarzenegger administration and one in 2014, and now we are moving on to the next one: an adaptation strategy [Safeguarding California] that measures the climate impacts of key government actions and recommends actions for the future." -Secretary John Laird, California Natural Resources Agency

The mission of the Natural Resource Agency is “to restore, protect, and manage the state’s natural, historical, and cultural resources for current and future generations”—no small assignment. Speak to the new Safeguarding California plan that you’re working on, and its relationship to the challenges of climate change adaptation and resiliency.

John Laird: The Natural Resources Agency, by executive order and now by statute, is responsible for major pieces of the state’s climate resiliency and adaptation strategy. We produced one plan during the Schwarzenegger administration and one in 2014, and now we are moving on to the next one: an adaptation strategy that measures the climate impacts of key government actions and recommends actions for the future.

Some of the things we’re dealing with are sea-level rise, a strategy for healthy forests, and assessing the safety of the power grid. Then we have to look at agriculture, considering our many crops, some of which are specialty crops.

We not only have to work on resiliency against drought, but ironically, we also have to deal with the flip side: resiliency against floods. When Australia came out of their decade-long drought, they were subject to flooding afterward; we’re not immune to that.

These are just some of the sectors that we are trying to address with a strategy at the state level.

Let’s drill down on the energy sector and challenges to the grid in the context of climate adaptation and resilience. How is distributed generation likely to change the resiliency paradigm?

We are looking at additional renewables to meet the governor’s goal. But we also have to make sure that the generation of renewables is consistent with the location of transmission infrastructure. In other words, the existing grid doesn't necessarily match up to where solar and wind resources are.

This raises regional issues. It may turn out that there’s incredible wind potential in some parts of Wyoming, or that there’s sun in California later in the day than in other parts of the Western region. We are exploring the possibility of a Western grid that allows conjunctive use to account for these variables.

The impacts of a changing climate on the energy sector are, frankly, varied. There might be decreased efficiency of thermal power plants and substations, or reduced capacity of transmission lines. There might be increased risk to the actual electricity infrastructure. As we move in a boom-or-bust cycle of rain, hydropower resources might become less reliable. During major storms, coastal power plants might be exposed to higher water levels.

What do you recommend that utilities do to ensure the resiliency of their operations?

Our goal is to lay out some of the things that they have to consider. Because of the variables I mentioned, utilities will have to decide how to apply them to their systems on a case-by-case basis.

We have to understand that rising sea level is not like filling up a bathtub; it’s more like a two-year-old cannonballing into a bathtub. It is the extreme event. So if utilities are doing coastal power resources, they need to measure against extreme events.

If they’re doing transmission that comes through fire-prone areas, they need protections and calculations with regard to moving through those areas. If there are spikes in heat in some places, they need to account for how that might affect transmission lines.

We can raise the major issues, but they’re the ones who are the experts moving power and constructing infrastructure on the ground.

You mentioned a report on sea-level rise that was done during the Schwarzenegger years. TPR spoke with USC Professor Dan Mazmanian, who chaired the study, at the time. As it turned out, that report got about 48 hours of attention before disappearing. How will your work grab the attention of leadership so that we can execute on your findings? 

We’ve done independent work on sea-level rise, some of which started in the Schwarzenegger rise. In May 2011, the Ocean Protection Council—a part of the agency, which I also chair—adopted a formal guidance document on sea-level rise.

There’s a reason I can precisely pinpoint the time we adopted it: Roughly an hour before I gaveled the meetings to order that morning, the tsunami hit from Japan on the California coast.

It was surreal. I was in Sacramento getting ready to go to the meeting with the TV on, and I was amazed: They were broadcasting live from just over the Santa Cruz harbor, and they were not even assessing correctly that the second wave was coming in. As it turned out, Santa Cruz and Crescent City were the two harbors that experienced the most damage from that tsunami.

The interesting thing about the tsunami was that it came in at low tide, before there was appreciable sea-level rise. That illustrates two points: that sea-level rise is the extreme event, and that it is already in process.

The report we adopted at the time projected roughly a median 14-inch rise in sea levels by 2050, and a median five-foot rise by the year 2100. It only looked at the results going forward. But sea-level rise is a progression. When I asked our scientists what the sea-level rise had been over the last century, they said: seven inches.

Why are we only talking about what’s going to happen in 40 and 90 years? Why aren’t we talking about how sea levels have risen already—and that we are therefore in the middle part of increasing sea-level rise?

We have another preview of increasing sea-level rise in king tides. In Marin County in Northern California, there is one particular onramp on the Highway 101 that floods over whenever there are king tides. This is what is going to happen regularly if there is sea-level rise.

Here’s an interesting variable that people don’t talk about very much: Sea-level rise is measured against land mass. In some places in Alaska, for instance, the glaciers have melted so fast that soil that had been compressed over centuries is now actually rising slightly. As a result, sea-level rise does not appear appreciable next to the land mass.

Conversely, in some places away from the coast in California, in the Central Valley, there is subsidence: Water or oil has been taken out to a significant degree, and the level of the land is subsiding a little.

There are variables to this, and I think it’s important to develop the science, bring it home to the public, and use examples that people have experienced—like the tsunami—to make sure that people understand the urgency.

You recently authored an op-ed in San Jose’s Mercury News regarding the Loma Prieta earthquake, reminding us how vulnerable the state’s water supply is to damage to our north-south water infrastructure. Can you speak to the Delta’s structural resiliency?

I had the misfortune of being a Santa Cruz City Councilmember at the time of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. We lost 60 percent of the square footage in our core Downtown, which was built on a riverbed. It may be a hard concept to grasp, but our Downtown was closed for several years after the earthquake.

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During the quake, everything went down. As we slowly started to hear about the Bay Bridge, the Cypress Street Viaduct, and the highway in the East Bay, we thought: All this is 60 or 70 miles away from us.

But when the waves hit, wherever the earth was soft fill or something that could liquefy, there was damage. Some places in between, like San Jose, didn’t suffer a lot of damage. But in the Marina District in San Francisco, which was on fill, they had buildings collapse and had fires.

The message was this: The earthquake doesn’t have to be immediately under a particular piece of infrastructure to cause damage. The waves can be miles away.

The Delta contains more than 1,000 miles of levees that could well liquefy. Moreover, the Delta has changed over the more than 150 years since California has been a state. Those levees were built around agricultural fields to allow them to produce. Over time, agriculture caused subsidence and created lower elevations. Today these levees actually surround islands that, in some cases, are 15-20-feet below sea level. If there is significant levee failure, water would drain into the islands from the San Francisco Bay.

Now, the water in the San Francisco Bay is salty. The water in the Delta is fresh. Salty water flooding in there would be tough to recover, and it could knock out the water supply. Depending on how strong the earthquake was and how big the levee failure, the outage be a matter of weeks or months. In an extreme event, it could be years. The question we have to ask is: Are we doing what it takes to be resilient in the Delta?

Seismic events are a major issue, but they are not the only concern. With just a one-foot sea-level rise, what is now considered a 100-year tidal event in the west of the Delta could start to occur every 10 years. We have real resiliency questions to address in the Delta.

Comment on the courageousness of the governor to pursue the Delta Fix, given that your constituencies in Santa Cruz and the north don’t quite buy the argument that it’s an indispensable infrastructure investment.

On his second time around, the governor has been fearless because he doesn’t feel like he has anything to lose by being right. The challenge of his governorship is to get things done, and he has moved ahead.

I sometimes say that dealing with the issues in the Delta is bit like dealing with peace in the Middle East. People have their basic beliefs, and they don’t cross over. But the issue of resiliency could provide a way to talk about it that everyone can understand.

The governor knows that if there’s an earthquake or a major outage, the first question is going to be: Wasn’t anybody thinking about this? He is, and he’s determined to do something about it.

In this issue is an interview with Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, in which she discusses the role of water data in conservation efforts, particularly in shaping the mindset toward water use. Is the Department of Water Resources—part of your agency—also focused on utilizing data?

Yes. Data is very much a part of what we do, and we’re always looking for improved collection technologies and better ways to use it.

We need data to inform our forecasts of hydrological system conditions during winter storms, both for flood management purposes and water-supply availability. We have to define current watershed, reservoir, and river conditions in order to enable resource management and prioritize decisions. We have to track the quality and quantity of water in the State Water Project system.

With our federal partners, we even have to measure water temperature to make sure that, when there are water releases for salmon in the key parts of the season, the water is cool enough to facilitate the lifecycle of the salmon and make their run possible. With the National Weather Service, we do flood forecasting to determine what storms will turn into what events, which could turn into what kinds of floods.

We do snow surveys to measure the water content in the snowpack. Given the drought and the amazingly reduced snowpack we’ve had, that has really taken on more value and necessity.

I authored some bills on measurement and conservation when I was in the Legislature. Now, amazingly, I’ve been assigned to implement in the Department of Water Resources what I pushed for in the Legislature.

One bill that I introduced, which became law after I left, called for reducing per capita water usage in urban areas by 20 percent by 2020. That became a key policy area. We also voted to finally phase in water-metering in urban areas, because when water is measured and metered, people tend to reduce their use by as much as 30 percent.

Our last issue featured Senator Bob Wieckowski, who recently authored legislation to increase climate adaptation and resilience capacity for local governments. How well has the Legislature supported Safeguarding California and other climate efforts that you’re championing?

The Legislature has stepped up in a number of ways. Senator Wieckowski’s bill is one example; there have also been bills on sea-level rise. There is support for resiliency projects in the cap-and-trade deal negotiated by the Legislature and the administration. But we can always do better.

One thing that is helpful is informational hearings, like the ones Senator Gordon has done on sea-level rise, or that Senator Wieckowski has done on the general subject of adaptation and resiliency. These give us a chance to let lawmakers know just what we’re doing on the ground across California, as well as for them to identify statutory or budgetary gaps and offer guidance.

In the context of the election we’ve just had, what is the federal and western states’ role in the planning and ecosystem challenges that your agency is charged with addressing? Put into context what is California’s place within the western region and the national political landscape.

California is a leader on environmental and energy issues in many ways, but we can never be smug about it. We need to work in complete partnership with other parties in the west, and we need to be educating ourselves all the time.

For example, we work integrally with Nevada on Lake Tahoe. About two months ago, we had a meeting of a joint, bi-state science committee on the science of climate adaptation in Lake Tahoe. At that meeting, it was discussed that the drought has led to much less melted snow going into Lake Tahoe.

Now, typically, melted snow goes straight to the bottom of the lake, where it circulates and provides coolness. But in the last five years of the drought, more warm water has come into the lake from increased precipitation, and it has mostly remained at the top. As a result, Lake Tahoe is now heating up more than almost any warm-water lake in the world.

The problem is that we currently measure the health of Lake Tahoe in terms of water clarity. That dates back to concern about development in the 1960s and 1970s. But temperature, invasive species, and other issues are not taken into account. In a changing climate, we have to think of new measurements for resiliency, and work with partners outside of our state to do so.

California might be a little more regulatory and Nevada a little more libertarian in terms of our approach to these issues. But we are determined to work on them cooperatively, because both of us have a stake in the health of Lake Tahoe—whether it’s the sheer beauty, the environment, or the tourist industry and the economy it serves. Climate change and resiliency are right at the heart of that two-state issue.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.