July 13, 2015 - From the July, 2015 issue

Gov. Brown: California Drought Only Foretaste of Climate Change Impacts

Los Angeles Times Publisher Austin Beutner and California Governor Jerry Brown engaged this month in a dialogue about the state’s drought and climate-change challenges to come during “Water in the West,” held at the University of Southern California on June 9. Brown delves into an explanation of the Bay Delta tunnels and the challenges of water governance in California, linking the current stresses on the system to future conditions that are expected to be far more severe. MIR offers edited selections from the conversation, beginning with an introduction by USC President Dr. C.L. Max Nikias.


Jerry Brown

“Will our wisdom—our ability to use this technology to compensate and correct for climate impacts—accelerate at the same rate as the technological innovation?” —Gov. Jerry Brown

Max Nikias: USC is proud to host tonight’s event, which will feature California Governor Jerry Brown in a dialogue with LA Times Publisher Austin Beutner on an issue of concern to all of us: water in the West.

Da Vinci, I believe, once noted, “Water is the driving force of all nature.” Water is also the driving force of all civilization, coursing through every channel of human endeavor. Eighty percent of our human body is water. Because of water’s critical role in providing food and sanitation in our lives, the current drought in California commands urgent attention. By some expert accounts, California is experiencing its worst drought in 150 years, and some of her neighboring states are confronting similar water shortages. While conservation efforts may ease the crisis, it has become clear that we must develop new sources of water. Yet our current predicament does not only concern water, but also the problem of providing enough energy to obtain, treat, and deliver new sources of water.

Austin Beutner: I want to thank the governor for taking time to have this conversation.

A bit of background: Los Angeles is the second-biggest city in the world that resides in the desert, Cairo being the first. When the Spanish first came to San Francisco, there were no trees. It was too windy, too dry. Visit Golden Gate Park today and it looks like rural Virginia. That’s a man-made undertaking. It’s not what nature gave us.

To remake this state, providing water where people live as opposed to where it comes, California has had massive projects about every 30 years. In the 1890s and1900s, the Owens Valley; in the 1930s, the Colorado River; in the 1960s, the State Water Project; in the 1990s, for the first time, we curtailed certain use of water.

Mr. Governor, is it fair to assume there’s nothing coming in the next 10 to 20 years like the magnitude of new supply we saw from the Colorado River project, for instance?

Jerry Brown: Most of the river sites that would be good for a dam have already been located and dams have been built there. Yes, there are some remaining wild rivers, but they’re locked up under Congressional and state authority. There’s no silver bullet or big new river source for additional water. We are totally dependent on Mother Nature, for snowmelt and the rain that comes.

Down the road, there’s the ocean. If you have a long enough horizon and you expect technology to improve, there will be plenty of water. But that doesn’t mean plenty of water in the next five or 10 years. We’re still dependent on the current system, which includes wells, recycling and reusing, the aqueduct, and the various other local sources that Californians use.

Austin Beutner: Let’s try to dimension the problem. I’ve observed that it’s hard, in a state as big as this, to issue a call to action and get people to understand the magnitude of what we’re dealing with.

If the overall supply of the state is about 60 million acre-feet, about 20 of that goes for environmental use. Of the rest, about 80 percent goes to agriculture, and about 20 percent for residential and commercial use.

Would you think of this as a 1- or 2-percent problem as it comes to usage today, or more like a 10- or 15-percent problem—in terms of our baseline versus our sustainable resource pool?

Jerry Brown: The way you framed that question has within it one of the great dilemmas. What are we talking about?  How many people? How many almond orchards? How many buildings? How many swimming pools? And how many of the other hundred uses that you can conceive of?

We have 39 million people—and we could have 49 million people. We will. We need a lot more water. In whatever scenario, we need to use the water in an elegant and efficient way. That means you use it, you reuse it, and you don’t overuse it. Technology and wise use can bring that about.

Austin Beutner: Climate change, I assume, is going to make it worse.

Jerry Brown: Climate change is going to make it worse. We can take this drought as a foretaste of what will be occurring frequently with the climate changing. The temperatures are higher in California, and the drought is a manifestation of less water. Warming is a manifestation of higher temperatures. When you put the two together—which did not happen when we had the Great Drought in the ’20s—you get drier soils, drier forests, drier vegetation, more forest fires, more beetle infestations, more vectors coming from hotter climates—big trouble that we don’t even fully imagine.

Climate change is a radical disruption of the age-old, historic patterns of climate. As that changes, scientists can tell some things—like rising sea level; extreme weather events; differential impacts in the West, where it’s going to be worse than it is in, perhaps, Canada. But we don’t know where the tipping point is, and we don’t know what feedback loops will be activated. Outcomes could be far more devastating in an irreversible way.

That’s why well over 90-95 percent of climate scientists worldwide—the scientific academies of Russia, Germany, England, France, Italy, China, the United States, Canada, and Japan, representing the very best in scientific thinking—have all identified climate change as human-caused and as having longer-term consequences.

Key point: We don’t know all the consequences. They’re not linear. We’re at 400 parts per million greenhouse gases today, considerably higher than before the industrial period began. When are we beyond the point where temperatures will rise and then feed on themselves?

For example, as you melt the ice in the Arctic, in Antarctica, or Greenland, what was white and reflective becomes dark in the water of the ocean. Then the temperature rises from that and from deforestation, and you get the release of methane in the tundra. As you get the release of methane, which is 30 times more powerful than C02, you’re going to get more heat. More heat will generate changes in currents. You can imagine an absolutely catastrophic impact on humanity.

This crisis is not a political problem between conservatives and liberals. This goes to the very foundation of what it is to be human in a world of living things. We have to make use of the drought to respond in a very creative, thoughtful way, because we have technology impacting our environment. The question is: Will our wisdom—our ability to use this technology to compensate and correct for climate impacts—accelerate at the same rate as the technological innovation? At this point, that’s an open question. It’s probably less likely, so we really are very challenged.

Austin Beutner: It’s safe to say that we’ve got to change our behaviors 15 or 20 percent, not 1 or 2 percent, to get through this drought, correct?

Jerry Brown: Yes. I leaped into climate change because this drought may be over in a year or two (or if it’s like some droughts in history, it could go on for 10 years or longer). We have to deal with what we have, and then we have to see it in context: What if this is the new normal, and it’s going to keep getting worse? This is a great opportunity for science, government, and business to pull together and develop some good, thought-out responses that we can keep building on as we go forward.

Austin Beutner: Historically, the federal government has had a heavy hand in water infrastructure and the making of the West, including funding. That paradigm’s shifted. Cadillac Desert and others have chronicled the role of the federal government in big infrastructure and the paying of it. Today, about 85 percent of water is paid for locally. The funding almost inverted from what it used to be. I’ve seen estimates between 3,000 and 4,000 different agencies involved in water, from regulation, to distribution, to billing in this state. How do you, as our chief executive, bring order to that apparent chaos in a time of crisis?

Jerry Brown: First and foremost, through the State Water Board, which has overall authority. It sets ground rules that all these many water agencies have to follow. There are only 60 or 80 water agencies that account for the vast majority of the water used in California.

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Then, through working with the legislature and my administration to pass Proposition 1—to get a bond issue, but a bond issue not as a group of little projects to please various interest groups, but rather as a set of projects that coherently are part of a water action plan. That’s how we come to grips.

There are lots of water districts. But we have over 400 cities in California, too, and we still manage to deal with things. The real key is the big picture: conservation in urban areas, better management of our groundwater, and continuous innovation on the part of agriculture.

As you mentioned, it’s going to take a lot of money. We have to develop recycling, stormwater capture, and rainwater capture. Think of the metaphor of Spaceship Earth—you’re in a spaceship, so you reuse everything. They can’t get any more water because they’re out in space. We’re in space, and we’re going to have to find a way to reuse. With enough science, enough time, and enough funding, we’ll get it done. But a lot of heavy lifting is going to be done by the local water districts, and that will show up in your water bill.

Austin Beutner: To stay local, Sun Valley here has an innovative program where they’re taking water off roofs. They’ve redone how they think of roads, so water percolates toward the aquifer. The all-in cost is maybe $300 an acre-foot. Is there a path for projects like that to scale? How do other municipalities learn about that? Are there other funding streams they might tap into to help a project like that take hold across the state?

Jerry Brown: Some of the funding will come from the $7.5 billion water bond. Some will come from local bonds and local fees. Orange County has a state-of-the-art recycling plant—it’s very impressive.

Many of these things can be scaled up. It’s just a question of valuing these projects as things that need to be done. There’s always inertia—you’ve got to overcome the barrier of putting up the initial funding.

It is going to be local, but we do have the state bond and maybe the federal government will rejoin the solution. At the time of the Depression, California wanted to build the Central Valley Water Project, and they didn’t feel they could raise the money. That’s when the federal government created the Central Valley Water Project. I wouldn’t rule the feds out of the game.

Austin Beutner: At the state level, let’s talk about the Bay Delta tunnel project. It’s about a 1,000-miles-squared estuary at the confluence of the Sacramento River from the north and the San Joaquin from the south. Naturally it would flow east to west, out to the Pacific Ocean. A pumping system takes it north to south through the Delta. We’ve seen the consequence both in terms of destruction of habitat and uncertainty in terms of security of supply.

Your administration, taking leadership on this, has shown us a path to tunnel beneath. What will that do for security—in a sense, serving as an insurance policy against the levees breaking and encouraging more saltwater into that system? What gets built? How will it be governed? Who or what will decide what’s appropriate use to preserve and protect habitat versus flowing south? Is this a scheme where the south is going to take again from the north?

Jerry Brown: Somebody has to be in charge. People are in charge right now. The federal government and the State Department of Water Resources manage the flow of water through the aqueduct and through the project. They have made almost 700,000 acre-feet available for farmers in the Fresno/Central Valley area. But they have to be very careful about the fish and general health of that ecosystem. There are scientific opinions for salmon and for smelt, as well. These did not exist 30 years ago when I proposed a similar project called the Peripheral Canal in 1981. They exist today, they have the force of federal law, and they’re very powerful, very controlling opinions that limit water. The project as it functions today is destroying the salmon and other species. Long-term, it will never be acceptable. The water project will be shut off if some way is not found to both protect the fish and ensure the reliable supply of water.

That needs a governing system, and that government, I think, would be similar to what we have now. The State Water Board sets rules on water quality—the mixture of seawater and freshwater, and how saline it can be. We have the federal government, and all the controls of the national fishery departments—expert bodies that are totally committed to managing these conflicts.

Some people who live in the Delta love the fact that the water just flows through and they can take all they want, whether or not their water rights justify that. But still, in very wet years, a tremendous amount of water is used by no one. It goes out to the ocean. It can be captured, but in order to capture it, you do need storage, and you need a proper system. The proper system can’t be the current pumping system, which, because of reverse flows, is killing the fish. At some point, that will stop the project.

You may say, “What’s a fish compared to a farmer?” That simplifies and distorts the equation. It’s the very system of life forms and the pattern of living things that we are a part of. As people understand a destructive force, they’ll stop it.

You can take the water before it gets into the Delta and put it into pipelines, or tunnels, without any of the reverse flows and without the destruction of fish. In many ways—although you’ll hear some environmentalists say something different—the Delta Conveyance project is intended to protect the habitat and species. That’s what it’s all about, as well as utilizing water that is now not utilized by anyone.

The environmental assessments are the result of seven years of analysis and over $250 million. They took a million man/woman-hours to create. Every conceivable alternative outcome from the mind of any scientist that was available has been enshrined in this massive set of volumes. And that’s just the environmental analysis! I’ve now added to that all the thousands of comments. Very soon, we’re going to add our responses to the tens of thousands of comments.

The best thinkers we have have come up with the best alternative they can. This is something my father was thinking about when he had the water plan. There are not a lot of new ideas out there. That’s why this is the time—now or never—to get it done. Otherwise, that water’s going to be shut down at some point—or if not shut down, the levees may fail because of rising sea level, earthquakes, or extreme weather events. If that occurs, then it’s not just Southern California that will experience a devastating impact (because so much of the water now is coming from the aqueduct), but also the City of Livermore in Northern California and Silicon Valley. People talk about how powerful the economic engine of Silicon Valley is. It won’t be powerful the day the levees break and 40 percent of the water is unusable for Silicon Valley. That will be hundreds of billions of dollars and economic dislocation. It would be a complete catastrophe. That’s why the project we have needs to go forward. I think it will, when people of goodwill take a look at it.

Austin Beutner: Is there somewhere in these documents one could look to understand how the tunnel project’s water flow is going to be governed?

Jerry Brown: Obviously, water is being managed. How much water flows is now dictated by federal biological opinions. They set the ground rules. When people say, “Let’s put more water through the aqueduct,” scientists look at the impact on various species that depend on the Delta. If the scientists say, “You can’t push that water through,” or, “You have to let it flow a certain way to protect the species,” that’s what happens.

The Water Board has a central role in that, as does the Department of Water Resources. Somebody has to decide. I don’t know what you could do. You can’t do a lottery and you can’t write it in some kind of code, because you have to manage on a daily basis the unpredictability of weather.

This question you asked is one of the key concerns. Some people want to put the Water Board totally in control, and other people say, “The Department of Water Resources knows how to allocate water. They have to have a role.”

This is a matter that bears scrutiny. We’ll discuss this as we get closer to the actual completion of the permit for the project. We’re still a good year away from completing the environmental analysis and saying, “Now the environmental impact report is certified and we can get a permit.” Then there’ll be lawsuits. There’s plenty of time to probe these various ideas.

This is not small potatoes. This is not for the faint of heart. This has defied five governors in 40 years. We’re getting it. But I will say: This is the time to get it. If we don’t get it this time, it’s going to be another 40 years. In another 40 years, the world and the climate is going to look very different.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.