Patt Morrison Asks

Jay Famiglietti's mission: to rescue us from our bad water habits

If there are stars among the state's water experts, the UC Irvine professor is certainly one of them.

If there are stars among the state's water experts, Jay Famiglietti is one, with titles too long for a marquee: a UC Irvine professor of earth system science and head of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling, and a new member of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board among them. He'd like to rescue us from our bad H2O habits before the last reel, which is why he's laying out our thirsty realities in places like the 2011 documentary, "Last Call at the Oasis," and right here.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how scared should we be?

We should be at 11. Let me qualify that: If the drought continues, we should be at 11.

Even in Southern California?

Most of the water management in California and the U.S. is surface water: river flows, reservoir levels. That is extremely well managed in Southern California. They do it so well that things look pretty green and we have not seen mandatory restrictions. However, an implicit assumption is that when there is a gap in supply, everyone can fill the gap with groundwater. Groundwater is mostly unmanaged. We won't be able to rely on that reserve without long-term management.

We can see whether it snows or rains; we can't see groundwater. Is that part of the problem?

It is; there's a lack of awareness of how little there might be. In Orange County, [water] use is 50% groundwater, but statewide, our long-term average is probably a third. That can get over 50% in times of drought. There's been a long, steady decline in our groundwater supplies, back to almost a century ago, to the beginning of agriculture in the Central Valley, [where] groundwater has essentially been on a one-way path toward decline. Certainly there are ups and downs, but the downs are outweighing the ups.

You were flabbergasted at the NASA data showing disappearing groundwater.

It took awhile for the picture of global groundwater depletion to emerge. It was about 2009 when we published a paper on India, and for me it was, boom! I realized what that big red spot was on the map, and I looked around and saw all these other red spots. That was an unfortunate revelation.

It just rained and snowed like crazy up north. Doesn't that mean relief from the drought, if not an end to it?

Imagine you've been unemployed for a long time and you're in a huge financial hole. If someone offers you a temporary job, you're going to take that short-term income, but you're still in a giant hole. You really need a steady income. That's where we're at with our water supply.

The total supply of water on Earth doesn't change, so why are there shortages?

The water moves around. We see distinct regional patterns; the high latitudes, like the Arctic, and low latitudes, like the tropics, are getting wetter. Mid-latitude regions are getting drier, so the amount of water isn't changing, but it's moving around. Some people are going to have more and some are going to have less. In places where they're getting more rainfall, delivered as floods, it's a little too much.

Can an individual really make a difference?

Absolutely. The biggest amount of water we use is outside: over 50%. My gardener is going to get really upset with me, but my sprinklers are still off. What I tell people to do is make one or two small changes. I'll put my undrunk water in my dog's bowl. I stopped making ice cubes. It takes energy to make ice cubes. Or even using ice cubes — you go to a soda fountain, you take the ice, then you throw it out. That's one little thing.

Don't people turn off when they keep hearing "worst drought"?

I believe if people really understood where their water comes from they'd have a better understanding of future water resources. There are people who think their water comes from the tap, including unnamed members of my immediate family.

Should there be mandatory limits?

Some of it should be mandatory. We should start moving toward gallons-per-day limits, maybe, 90 gallons per person. Some water districts are doing tiered pricing. There are people who feel it's their right to have water, and to some people it's right up there with gun control.

My first experience with the agricultural community was a congressional field hearing [in 2010]. People had come down from the Central Valley, and any time anyone said anything about climate change, decreasing snowpack, replenishment of groundwater systems, that crowd would boo. If they'd had rotten tomatoes, they would have thrown them. I've done more communicating with the ag community, and I'm seeing a change to more understanding of the need to sustain this precious groundwater supply for the future.

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