Water Hub Blog

Rising Voices: California adapts to water change

Sunset by a well, image courtesy of @canuck1133 via Twenty20

Each month, we check in with advocates and organizers in California to talk about the water issues impacting local communities. As the global community meets in Glasgow for the latest UN climate talks, we spoke with the Union of Concerned Scientists’s Dr. José Pablo Ortiz Partida about climate change in California, how communities are adapting and why water is just one of the issues threatening quality living conditions.

What are the water issues that are top of mind for you and your community right now?

Dr. José Pablo Ortiz Partida: Top of mind is definitely the drought and the impacts that derive from it. I’m most worried about the people who are getting their wells dry and also the small underserved farmers who are struggling to keep their crops alive. That’s like an immediate concern and then I also have medium and long-term concerns… from both climate change and also from human decisions and human actions that basically put us in the place where we are now. 

In California, we use data from mainly 10 different climate models… All the climate models agree on a nearly complete loss of snowpack in the lower elevations of the Sierra by the end of the century. The models agree that the entire state is going to have shorter, wetter winters and longer, drier summers. More very wet years and more very dry years, and as this drought and the past week of heavy rain have shown, we are already shifting into those extremes and part of the state infrastructure and many institutions are not ready.

How are people adapting? 

There is no overall state plan and that’s one of the biggest problems. The communities that have money, in this case the big cities, they are planning, they are implementing things, they are developing infrastructure. Some of the examples can be found in DWR’S Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment. Many rural communities in the Central Valley don’t have the capacity to start planning for that. The question is how [people in power] also help these other communities to adapt. 

What [people] are already doing in some cases is changing the crop patterns or changing to more water wise crops and using cover crops, and regenerative farming practices, but certainly not at the level that is needed, so that needs to be amplified. For the past 20 years or so, there have been changes in irrigation efficiency. There are also changes happening on the local level like changing your lawns to more drought resistant plants or choosing mulch in your backyard to reduce evaporation and to protect the soil, also irrigation at night, so that most of the water is actually used by the plant. 

In your report, Troubled Waters, you make the case for how California can better plan for climate impacts. What policy changes or resources are most needed?

In California, water infrastructure, like many states, was designed for the climate of the past. Many of the biggest reservoirs receive water from snowpack in the Sierras. Now, we are not going to have the amount of snow where the reservoirs were planned for — policy changes need to account for that. As Congress and the White House consider major infrastructure bills, we need to be thinking about infrastructure of the future and investing in projects that will withstand the climate changes that we are having. Not big concrete projects, like cement projects, but I’m talking about green infrastructure, which is about using natural landscapes and systems. For example, recovering floodplains will allow for the water to dissipate in larger areas and at the same time helps reduce the risk of flooding and recharge aquifers and bring back migratory birds. I’m also talking about forest management and conservation of the mountains…

Policy changes we have in the report and accompanying paper are related to ensuring that there is consistency in climate change planning across agencies. This is because [the Department of Water Resources] could be planning in some way for climate change or the State Water Resources Control Board can be integrating climate change information in a different way, and the same goes for other state agencies. How can we homogenize across the different agencies so that we are planning in a similar way?

What do you wish decision makers and reporters better understood about climate change in California?

I would like them to better understand  that there is no more time. The time was a year ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Things are only getting worse. What I would like policy makers and reporters to know is that I hope they can focus more on the most disadvantaged first. So basically, their attention should be focused on covering the perspectives of these groups, which are the first and most affected by climate change.

Anything else we should know?

I went to some disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin Valley of California and did some interviews and I made the mistake of assuming that water was their main environmental concern. So we went to ask about their different environmental concerns and they were like, yes, water is bad, but air quality is really bad. There are no sidewalks, there are no streetlights, public transportation is either non-existent or unreliable, our closest food store is a convenient store in a gas station, and there is no fast speed internet. So, we could solve the water issues and that wouldn’t change much of the living conditions of many of these communities. I think that is something I want people to know. Water is one issue, but there are so many inequities in existence that need to be solved together. Otherwise, we keep leaving many communities behind.

What’s your happy place? 

My friends and family are my happy place. Being around water… I like to go to Monterey Bay and get some coffee, sit by the beach in the morning and take a walk. I like to just walk next to rivers or go hiking.

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