Wednesday, July 2

The Data Race is On: Water Crisis Gordian Knot, Part 2

Even two years ago scientists working on drought related issues couldn't pay people to read their research; now rarely a week goes by without a study being published and snapped up by government agencies, journalists, columnists, and bloggers.  Drought is a hot topic. 

Problem:  several environmental activists focused on "man-made" global warming have seized on the growing mountain of drought data to promote their agendas, which can distort reporting on the research.  And their opponents in political, government, and business spheres have added to the confusion with their own interpretations of the data. 

Then there is the United Nations Dialing for Donations crowd, and the international nonprofit agencies that follow UN projects in the way seagulls follow an ocean liner.  These creative thinkers can actually translate data on anything, even the mating habits of the spotted nematode, into a plea for money.

All this makes it very hard to sort through an already complicated issue, one that has many parts.  Below are reports I've found helpful as I try to fit together a jigsaw puzzle that isn't accompanied by a picture on the box top.   

1.   (This is the report that mentions the New Mexico AG's remark that Texans are water rustlers.)  Times Record News; February 5, 2013; Texas Wrangles With 2 States Over Water:  "Other states are keeping wary eyes on the upcoming Supreme Court decision because the Red River Wars of the 21st century could have a huge impact on the many other water compacts across the nation." 

The Supreme Court ruled on June 13 and sided with Oklahoma.  Numerous reports and opinion on the Net about the far-reaching decision; here's one from State Impact NPR that really drills down.  One of the many points made in the report relates to the population increases in Texas, so it's not only more farming that's taking a big toll on the state's water supplies.

2. Nineteenth Century "Senior Rights Holders" Water Laws:  The Associated Press digs up shocking data on California's water crisis: 4,000 California Entities Are Allowed Unlimited WaterFrom a May 2014 article by Bianca Barragan at Curbed LA that's based on the report:     

[...]The AP has found that around 4,000 California entities—many of them companies, farms, or water districts—have not been affected by [water restrictions] at all as they continue to have access to an"unmonitored amount of free water", thanks to water laws dating back to the Nineteenth Century that are still in place. 
As a result of these laws, the so-called "senior rights holders" aren't required to have meters or devices that monitor water flow like all the rest of us. Instead, they're supposed to self-report their own usage -- a system that's led to incredible errors, like the one that showed a small-time cattle farmer on 15 acres of land using 10,000 times more water in a year than the whole LA Department of Water and Power. [...]In all, the nearly 4,000 senior rights holders use trillions of gallons of water a year and are not required to comply with drought-time restrictions and conservation measures, even though together they make up the majority of the state's water users.[...]
See also Curbed LA report Semi-Arid SoCal is More "Drought-Proof" Than Soggy NorCal  

3. June 9; Reuters reports political infighting in California about approaches to dealing with drought there.
4.  The above report is a perfect companion piece to the April 25 Reuters one, In California drought, big money, many actors, little oversight, which I featured in the previous post. 

5.  The Guardian has a fascinating special report on El Niño's projected impact in 2014.  It's chock full of facts that aren't generally known about the mysterious ways of the weather system, which affects everything from the price of gold to human conflicts.  The authors follow El Niño (EN) around the world to examine how it can affect each world region this year if it occurs. (The weather system's impact is almost global except for Europe and its impact varies widely.)  

One caveat:  The predictions quoted in the June 11 report about whether EN would occur this year have already been superseded. When last I checked it's now about 60 percent certain EN will occur but it could be a weak system, although that projection can change on a dime.

Bad News  

The report quotes an expert as saying that even a "godzilla" El Niño this year can't, on its own, rescue California from its drought -- although a godzilla would help.  If it's only a small or moderate EN, then no help at all.  We'll find out in a couple months what fates the weather pattern visits on the USA. 

Jaw-dropper from the report  

But despite better El Niño warnings nowadays, Martinez said many nations were worse prepared than in 1997: “In many cases the vulnerability has increased: more exposed population, more land degradation, river sedimentation, collapse of underground water sources, degradation of natural protection in riversides, badly designed infrastructure and lack of coordination and planning to cope with El Niño.”
6.  Subsidence 

USGS study:  Delta-Mendota Canal: Evaluation of Groundwater Conditions and Land Subsidence

In areas adjacent to the Delta-Mendota Canal (DMC), extensive groundwater withdrawal has caused areas of the ground to sink as much as 10 feet, a process known as land subsidence. In an effort to understand and manage land subsidence in the area, the USGS has put in place a land subsidence monitoring network. 
Lots more on the internet about this issue.  They're now doing so much pumping of groundwater that one water driller told NPR the other day that the valley was on track to run out of groundwater.  I guess that would solve the problem of the land sinking more. 

7.  Can California
 Conserve Its Way Through Drought?

I'm afraid the following National Geographic report and the study its based on don't take into account the simple fact brought out in the Reuters (4/25) and AP reports quoted above:  it's really hard to talk about a target water conservation number and put a number on the water deficit when no one has an accurate figure on water usage in California!

That observation aside, the report, after summarizing the current water situation in California, details some good water conservation strategies.  Excerpts:   
Can California Conserve Its Way Through Drought?by Brian Clark HowardNational GeographicJune 13, 2014
With worsening shortages, the Golden State turns to water conservation. Will it work? [...]This year, the state is expected to have a water deficit in excess of six million acre-feet, enough water for 1.5 million typical households, according to a report released this week by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pacific Institute on the need for more conservation.
To fill that shortage, water agencies are turning to sources, such as groundwater, that are not easily replenished and may decrease the available supply in the future.
Kate Poole, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, told National Geographic that water conservation efforts to date have "been a mixed bag across the state."[...]The report first turns its attention to agriculture, which is responsible for 80 percent of California's water use. If farmers adopt the latest efficient technologies, such as drip irrigation and precise irrigation scheduling, they could slash water use by 17 to 22 percent. That's equivalent to all the surface water the Central Valley is expected to use this year. (See "Arizona Irrigators Share Water With Desert River.")
Such improvements have an upfront cost, roughly $2,000 an acre for drip systems, but Poole says farmers who have already switched are seeing short paybacks of a few years. Not only do they use less water, which saves them money on their substantial (and rising) utility bills, but many find their yields improve with more efficient watering, she says.
"I also think there is probably a lot of ability for state and regional governments to help with some of that initial investment by providing creative financing or cost shares that would speed up implementation of some of those measures," says Poole. (See "Can California Farmers Save Water and the Dying Salton Sea?")
If cities boosted their efficiency and reuse of water, they could readily save 5.2 to 7.1 million acre-feet of water per year, the report says, or more than enough water to supply all of urban southern California.
Earlier this year the state allocated nearly $700 million toward those kinds of investments, and some projects are already under way around the state. "Cash for grass" programs, in which residents are paid to replace their lawns with water-free plantings, have been particularly popular, says Poole. On June 3, the State Water Resources Control Board issued revised rules that make it easier to use recycled water for landscaping.
Poole says there is much work to be done, including ramping up investments in traditional water infrastructure and improving water-use data collection. But, she says, "with more concerted effort and policy support, we can easily get to that 20 percent savings and beyond."
Whether that will be enough to help the state get through the drought isn't known, but Quinn says it would go a long way. He'd also like to see more development of the state's emerging water market, in which different users sell water to others. But, he said, some districts may still have to implement even stricter restrictions on usage starting later this summer.[...]

8. A ray of hope.  Despite the grim title of the Guardian report, a study just published in June holds out hope that it's now possible to pinpoint the role that human activity plays in climate change.  If the approach pans out this will settle many costly and time-wasting arguments, and make better use of charitable and taxpayer funded resources for dealing with climate-related crises.   

Caveat: I haven't checked whether the online journal that published the study is peer reviewed. And even if it is reviewed, the research paradigm and conclusions drawn from it will have to run the gauntlet before it's time to celebrate.  Quotes from the report: 
Global warming makes drought come on earlier, faster, harderBy John Abraham Monday 30 June 2014 The Guardian
We all know that some climate change is natural, in fact, even without humans, the Earth’s climate changes. But, as we have added heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, we have seen human influence “emerge” from natural variability.
Droughts, one of the most intensely studied climate events, are a perfect example of an effect with both human and natural influences. Separating the relative strengths of the influences is a challenge for scientists. But, when we deal with drought, with its large social and economic costs, it is a challenge we must undertake. 
very recent study tries to do just this. Published in the Journal of Climate, authors Richard Seager and Martin Hoerling cleverly used climate models forced by sea surface temperatures to separate how much of the past century’s North American droughts have been caused by ocean temperatures, natural variability, and humans.
What they found was expected (all three of these influence drought), but it's the details that are exciting. Furthermore, the methodology can be applied to other climate phenomena at other locations around the globe.[...]

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