Some of Southern California’s brightest thinkers and doers gathered on the Cal Poly Pomona campus on Aug. 27 to tackle one of California’s thorniest issues — water.
The SoCal Water Forum, hosted by the university and Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, brought together luminaries from academia, industry and government to discuss the challenges the state is facing amid a historic drought, possible solutions, new technological advancements and conservation achievements.
Among those in attendance were representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the California Natural Resources Agency, the Public Policy Institute of California, and numerous water agencies.
One key point of discussion was whether the drought is the “new normal,” and if people living in the Western United States need to fundamentally reform their relationship with water resources.
“For years, we’ve been saying we need to change the way we think about water,” said Napolitano. “If we don’t change our way of thinking about water, dealing with water, we’re going to be sadly up a creek.”
Caitrin Phillips Chappelle, associate director of the Public Policy Institute of California, described the dry spell withering the state as an example of the “drought of the future,” saying that these types of events are likely to become more common with climate change.
Without better management of natural resources, Californians will be facing economic harm, mass extinctions of native fish, die-offs of waterfowl and increased wildfires, Chapelle said.
Roger Pulwarty of NOAA said California has entered a period of climate uncertainty in regard to future droughts.
“We are not in a new normal,” Pulwarty said. “We’re in a period of rapid transition to a new climate.”
Despite widespread hopes for rainfall this winter, there was a sense of agreement among the panelists that even a very powerful El Nino condition will not reverse the effects of the long drought. Some also expressed that it could do more harm than good by causing flooding or by undoing the conservation mindset that California residents have begun to develop.
“My fear is that we’re hearing about this Godzilla El Nino and that we’re all going to go back to our old ways after the rainfall,” said Richard Hansen, general manager and chief engineer at the Three Valleys Municipal Water District.
It wasn’t all bad news at the forum, however.
Duane Waliser, chief scientist for the Earth Science and Technology Directorate at NASA JPL, described how the agency is turning its technological eye back toward Earth, focusing on finding solutions for challenges at home.
As an example, he spoke of how technology is making it possible to get a more accurate assessment on the depth of the Sierra Nevada snowpack. In the old method, which has been in use for over 100 years, a scientist would hike to test sites and take samples of the snow using a metal pole — a painstakingly slow process that can paint an incomplete picture. NASA scientists have developed a method that uses lasers attached to an aircraft to develop a more thorough snowpack map.
The panelists discussed other potential remedies to the crisis, including developing a water market in California similar to the one created in Australia in response to a prolonged drought in the 1980s, and finding better ways to capture stormwater before it runs into the ocean.
Janelle Beland, undersecretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, answered questions about what the state can do to streamline permits for residential gray-water recycling — systems that would allow homeowners to water their lawns and gardens with water accumulated after doing laundry or bathing.
Although the water situation in California remains bleak, water agency representatives pointed out positive achievements that have been made. Southern California has 14 times as much water storage capacity today as it did when the last major drought struck in the early 1990s, and the region has become much more efficient at using water, they said.
“So far, our major cities and suburbs are doing really well,” said Phillips Chappelle.