Is this Drought a Precursor of the Future? Depends on Who You Ask. Highlights from the 2015 CCWAS Water Scarcity Conference
California has endured another winter of exceedingly low statewide precipitation on the heels of the 2013-14 record-breaking drought. The Sierras have accumulated a meager snowpack that is the lowest in recorded history. Mandatory statewide water restrictions have been implemented for the first time. Agricultural water diversions from state and federal water projects are projected to be 20% and 0% of normal, respectively. Residents, businesses, and policymakers in California and other western states are now scrambling to adapt with this ‘unprecedented' water scarcity.
Suggestions for solutions have been diverse, ranging from timid to outlandish. William Shatner has proposed a $30 billon Kickstarter campaign to build a pipeline from Seattle to California.
And although California has received the majority of media coverage, it's not alone in this crisis. Nevada farmers in Mason and Smith Valleys are contending with a 50% across-the-board cut in groundwater pumping, and Lake Mead dropped to the lowest recorded level in history just this week.
Never to let a good crisis go to waste, the 2014 cohort of CCWAS IGERT students held their annual conference—“Water Scarcity in the West: Past, Present, and Future”—amidst increasingly contentious discussions in the media about how the Western US is going to weather its water woes. Our two-day conference (April 6-7th) brought together a diverse group of experts to discuss the current drought within the broader context of water scarcity in the Western US.
The first day included a poster session of water-scarcity related research conducted by UC Davis and Colorado School of Mines students, a photo series documenting the drought's impacts on Central Valley communities by Matt Black, and a keynote presentation by John Laird, the California Secretary of Natural Resources.
|The second day comprised a full day of talks and panel discussions from twelve invited speakers. The focus was to (1) characterize past, present, and future water scarcity in the west, and (2) highlight methods for coping with water scarcity from a variety of sectors. Experts weighed in from a wide range of perspectives, including agriculture, atmospheric science, economics, geography, history, hydrology, and policy sectors.|
Given the diversity of voices participating in the conference, the CCWAS students were especially interested in gaining insight from all speakers on three driving questions related to water scarcity:
- Which sectors or groups will be most impacted if our future is characterized by less water?
- Is there a social responsibility to mitigate these impacts? Where does this responsibility lie?
- Is increased water scarcity the “new normal”?
Responses to these questions highlighted areas of consensus across disciplines and, indeed, some disparities.
Nearly all speakers noted that impoverished and underrepresented communities will likely suffer disproportionately under increasing water scarcity:
Poor, urban residents in the large urbanized areas in underdeveloped countries. Because they have the lowest resources, the lowest position of power and traditionally they have the highest cost of water too because they're not connected to a system.
— Richard Howitt
Agriculture and farm workers in particular. Anybody who's involved in agriculture production, downstream activities like food processing, trucking, all those ancillary industries.
— David Sunding
Some speakers noted that the most vulnerable communities are non human groups and the people who rely upon them:
… [I]t's the native fish and the fishermen who will be among the most affected because the development of water in CA has already created essentially a perpetual drought for native fish, salmon and so forth, and as you get into real droughts beyond that and additional demands of water for increased populations, and so forth, the environmental water is always the first to be sacrificed.
All speakers agreed that there is a social responsibility to mitigate the impacts of water scarcity on these groups. Many agreed that the responsibility should be shared:
It's a complicated social responsibility because it's an individual responsibility from the individual user all the way up through the various agencies, the state, and at the end of the day also for the federal government. I think it is irresponsible to not start talking about, use this as a learning lesson, what could we have done differently, where did we miss those opportunities. So yes, I think we do. We owe it to the people who live in the Western US.
— Pat Mulroy
I do feel like we have a responsibility, to take care of society as a whole … I'd prefer if it was done on a community level. I think that in California, it seems like that some communities respond really well and take care. But then when it's across communities, you do see some real disparities.
— Frances Malamud-Roam
To me, the responses to the third question were the most diverse. Many agreed that the science suggests that these drought conditions may be a harbinger of the ‘new normal' in a warmer future climate:
One of my colleagues describes [the atmosphere] as a giant vacuum cleaner in the sky that sucks water out of the ground ... if it's warmer, it's going to want more water, and that's a really big important piece even if all other things stay the same. That means that the amount of water going into the terrestrial system, going into streams, going into groundwater, going to lakes, going into surface and subsurface stores, it's going to be less.
— Reed Maxwell
Others noted that perhaps we should take a step back to remind ourselves that the current drought will eventually break:
I remind people, it will rain again. The drought is not going to last forever, we've been through periods like this before. In fact, by some measures, this isn't even the worst drought that we've had in California like in my lifetime. The '76-'77 drought was short, but more severe by many measures than what we're experiencing right now.
— David Sunding
Certainly this drought could be a preview of what's to come, but others pointed out that the bigger picture is more nuanced. Although water scarcity and drought are interrelated, we should be careful not to conflate the two.
From the climate perspective, [increased water scarcity is] probably not [the new norm]; from the consumer perspective, probably. I think what it is, is climate is highly variable, and on very long time scales you can have these mega droughts and mega pluvials where you have unusual wetness and unusual dryness … you know, you're not going to move Arizona now and plant a yard of grass. You are going to use xerophytic landscaping to make sure that you are not overusing water. But people are still moving to Arizona, they're moving to California, they're moving to Nevada, somewhat, and Utah, and all these places that are dry.
— David Easterling
Scarcity is a relative term, it's relative to how much we use so there's how much is available in the natural system but the other critically important part of that balance is how much are we using, when are we using it, how are we using it.
A consistent line of thought seems to be that we've created a regime where human-induced scarcity is the big player that we must grapple with, regardless of the current drought.
For me, the biggest take home message seemed to be that each of these disciplines provides an important but incomplete depiction of the state of the science. The knowledge base is a patchwork, and conferences like this are a step in the right direction, helping to bridge gaps for interdisciplinary research and provide new avenues for scientific communication.
An upside of the drought may be that it is fostering discussions among scientists, policymakers, and laypeople alike about the future of water scarcity in the west. What is the ‘new normal' that we should be preparing for? Are we in it? Or should we be preparing for something else?/table>/table>