In New Film, UCI Prof Warns of Water Crisis
Water supplies are dwindling around the world, and a rapidly changing climate will likely make the situation far worse in coming decades.
And with a likelihood of increasing drought, Southern California is in the “crosshairs.”
That is the message conveyed by UC Irvine Earth System Science Professor Jay Famiglietti in “Last Call at the Oasis,” a new film now showing in Irvine.
Famiglietti is one of the experts who appears in the film, delivering his warning about too-rapid drawdown of water supplies, and a changing climate that will render some parts of the world too dry while inundating others.
He can back up his claims. Using NASA satellite data, Famiglietti for years has studied the effects of climate change on water movement around the world.
He’s measured depletion of groundwater in California’s Central Valley. And while that appears to be mostly the result of over pumping, a changing climate will likely continue to reduce the snowpack in the Sierra, in turn reducing the amount of snowmelt that can be captured and stored.
The film was made by the same company behind Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth,” as well as “Food, Inc.,” and directed by Academy Award winner Jessica Yu.
It is showing at Edwards University Town Center.
Q. What is the thrust of the film?
A. It paints a picture of the global water crisis, and most important, many aspects happening right here in the United States already. Water quality and water availability are worsening. There are issues of water pollution all around the world. It kind of looks around at other countries — Australia and Singapore and the Middle East — and looks at what people are doing in other countries to tackle their water problems. And it offers those as advice on what we may do here in the United States.
Some of these countries are further along in their problems. Australia is in the middle of a prolonged drought — more realistically, probably climate change. They’re going to be having severe water shortages in the future. It’s used as an example of how to deal with water conflict peacably.
Q. What is your role in the movie?
A. My role is (as) one of the featured experts. The movie is really composed as a set of vignettes, really a set of stories. It starts in Las Vegas, goes to California, goes to Australia. Then back in the United States, in Michigan, in Hinckley, California, with Erin Brockovich. My story is mostly about California. We get brought back to it a few different times.
Q. What are the implications for the United States, the western U.S.? What is going on with our water?
A. In the western U.S. the situation we’re facing is much more (one of) quantity than quality. With climate change comes a decrease in snowpack. We rely on snowpack for our water supply. By the end of the century it will mostly be gone. And the other thing we face in the western part of the country is population growth. And so those two together will pose great challenges for water managers, to figure out where the water will come from and how to get the water to this growing population in the face of this changing climate and disappearing snowpack.
Q. Is the reduction in snowpack definitely the result of climate change?
A. Oh yeah. And other issues in California are going to be food production and groundwater depletion in the Central Valley. So altogether it is not a pretty picture. When you think about all the things that are happening in California — disappearing snowpack, disappearing groundwater, population growth, impacts on food security, and of course the economy, not only of California but of the nation — it’s quite a compelling story.
Q. Is the loss of groundwater also related to climate change?
A. Yes and no. The reason it is related to climate change is through recharge and replenishment of groundwater. Most of the groundwater in the Central Valley has accumulated there over thousands and thousands of years. And so we’re using it now at a much faster rate than it is being replenished. The climate change part comes in with lack of snowmelt that would normally come in with the groundwater.
It’s disappearing because we’re using it a lot. When farmers stopped getting surface water allocations from the Delta, surface water was reduced by as much as 90 percent. Farmers had no choice but to start pumping groundwater to meet their irrigation needs. That’s when we start seeing a very very big decline in groundwater. It’s a very natural human response to drought. When you have a drought, you don’t have any rain, there’s not as much stream flow, not as much snow in our case. We’re hitting the reserve very hard, and it’s one that won’t be replenished.
We live in a part of the world that is going to see more and more drought. I think we’re fooled into thinking we’re not going to be because of the great infrastructure we have to move water from Northern California to Southern California. The reality is, we’re going to see more (drought). Much of Southern California right now is in the crosshairs of climate change. We’re in that part of the world that is going to get drier.
Q. Is there more we should do? Conservation, production, recycling?
A. Whenever we look at the water budget in almost any area, most of it is used for agriculture. All around the world, about 80 percent of the water is used for agriculture. So the biggest gains that can be made, with respect to conservation, will be made in agriculture. We talk about conservation and efficiency together. So doing things more efficiently and conserving are the same thing. They go hand in hand.
The biggest segment of home water use goes to irrigation. Sprinklers, lawn and landscape irrigation. Anything we can do to cut back on that, whether it’s watering existing landscape less, cut way way back on it, or replace it with more drought tolerant vegetation — those are some of the best things we can do. Home landscaping accounts for somewhere between 50 and 75 poercent of home water use, at least in the dry parts of the world.
In the house, toilets and showers, those are the biggest ones. More efficient toilets, shorter showers, all the usual stuff.
But people really need to think about it because we are, again, in the crosshairs.