Baykeeper Update

Tough Questions Considered at Baykeeper’s Water Forum

How is California faring during a major drought? What can we do locally to help turn around the acidification of the ocean? Can the many different interests in California come together to deal creatively with the state’s water woes? These were some of the questions considered at Baykeeper’s January 13 forum on The Future of Water in California.

Our speakers were Felicia Marcus (above, center), who chairs the State Water Resources Control Board, and Cat Kuhlman (above, right), who holds two state government posts, Deputy Secretary for Ocean Policy at the California Resources Agency, and Executive Director of the Ocean Protection Council. KQED Science and Environment Reporter Lauren Sommer (above, left) moderated the event.

Below are highlights of the discussion. You can also listen to a complete audio recording of the event. Thanks to Making Contact Media for our audio recording. (Requires Windows Media Player, Apply iTunes, or other digital audio player.)  Click here to see photos from The Future of Water in California Forum. Thanks to Jane Philomen Cleland, our volunteer photographer for the evening.

Californians conserving water. When California residents were required to conserve water this year, “people hit it out of the park,” Felicia Marcus said. Her agency set targets for local and regional water agencies to meet, and in most California locations, people conserved as much or more as their targets.

Uneven pain from the drought. “We’re going through the worst drought in modern history with remarkably little economic impact,” said Marcus. But the pain from the drought is uneven. Because California water rights for agriculture are “all or nothing,” some farmers are doing just fine. But others are wondering if they can hold on to a farm that’s been in the family for decades. Some rural communities are running out of water, and in others, people are drinking contaminated water and have been doing that since before the drought. And because of the way water was allocated to salmon habitat, she said, “we lost two years of winter-run salmon, and that’s my biggest regret.” Meanwhile, most urban areas have enough water, thanks to people using less and agencies securing emergency supplies.

When dealing with ocean acidification, avoid “ice cream brain.” Cat Kuhlman’s responsibilities include sparking collaborations among California government agencies that will help make the ocean ecosystem healthier. As global warming causes the world’s oceans to become warmer and more acidic, with lower oxygen levels, local impacts can vary. One very visible impact this year, related to changes in the ocean ecosystem, is the closing of the Dungeness crab season. Changes in the ocean caused the crabs to have high levels of a substance poisonous to humans, domoic acid. But when people try to think about something that could be done locally about big ocean issues, it’s easy to feel that nothing will do any good, and get depressed, with the mind frozen—“what I call ice cream brain,” said Kuhlman. The cure for ice cream brain is to realize that when it comes to healing the ocean, “we need to take risks.” Certain measures may help improve the ocean ecosystem, such as reducing pollution from fertilizers or planting eelgrass beds, though there’s hasn’t been enough scientific research to know for sure. We can’t wait for scientific certainty on these measures, she said. We need to go ahead give them a try.

Multiple benefits of storm water capture. Capturing storm water for reuse makes a lot of sense in many locations, said Marcus, and “Los Angeles is going pedal-to-the-metal on storm water capture.” While it may be cheaper to import water, reusing storm water can also help control flooding, and improve water quality by preventing the contamination of waterways with polluted storm water. Kuhlman also pointed out that reusing storm water could help prevent contaminated storm water from polluting the ocean. This is one way to avoid “ice cream brain” and act locally toward a healthier ocean ecosystem.

How will California meet the challenges posed by water issues? With farmers, environmentalists, cities, and many other interests competing for scarce water, Marcus said the best hope is for people to come together, be pragmatic, and try to come up with new approaches that will help guarantee water for all needs. The drought may create an opportunity to do that, by pushing people to consider new solutions.

In addition, negotiations toward new agreements about water will be helped by making better data available on water use in the state, something the State Water Board is pushing. “You’d be shocked at how little data we have about who took water when. But players in the water user community finally get it that transparency and data are essential,” she said.

Kuhlman said she’d spent her career fostering collaborations across agencies and organizations that were each stuck in their own silos of activity. On ocean policy, collaboration is key. For example, “How do we turn academic science into what the state needs for ocean policy? I pin my hope on talking outside of the silos. New PhDs I work with come preloaded with skills to do that. They see the importance of using science to help decision-makers make decisions, and make them faster, cheaper, and smarter.”

One wish for a big change to improve water in California. Moderator Lauren Sommer closed by asking each speaker what she would do if she had a magic wand and could change one thing about water in California. Felicia Marcus said, “I’d give clean drinking water to poor disadvantaged communities in the Central Valley.”

Cat Kuhlman said, “Our fishing communities and our fishing fleet are slowly dying. More and more of the fish we eat comes from places where it’s farmed unsustainably or fished unsustainably. I’d knit the fish and environmental community together to get to a place where we can all eat fish that was caught sustainably.”

Baykeeper thanks our speakers for their insightful discussion, and all who attended The Future of Water in California. The forum was a benefit to support Baykeeper’s work to protect San Francisco Bay from pollution.

Photo by Jane Philomen Cleland