UC scientists, students and water agency professionals took a critical look inwards and a radical look outwards when they gathered in Sacramento in October to reimagine California water.
The event was the fourth annual gathering sponsored by UC ANR's California Institute for Water Resources and the University of California Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative, UC Water.
While science is the hallmark of a research-oriented institution like UC, the participants were asked to recognize their important role not just as scientists but also communicators.
“We have a big role in educating the public,” said Roger Bales, engineering professor at UC Merced who has been active in water and climate research for more than 30 years. “Scientists are political actors. Facts do not speak for themselves.”
Felicia Marcus, chair of the California Water Resources Control Board and a conference panelist, asked the scientists to make their work accessible, and if they are uncomfortable with plain language, “write it both ways.”
“Complexity can lose people easily,” she said.
The conference keynote speaker, futurist Kim Stanley Robinson, also addressed the divide between scientific discourse and popular understanding, in particular when speaking about climate change.
“There is a strange disconnect between what the scientific community is telling the world and what the world is hearing. As a result of data analysis, science is announcing to the world there is climate change. Individuals cannot perceive climate change,” he said. “Show them in ways that can be understood by the senses. The story has to be told with pragmatism and common sense.”
From headwaters to groundwater
The Reimagining California Water Conference pursued the water journey from the high-mountain headwaters of the Sierra Nevada to the vast groundwater basins in the valleys below. Over the last century, the mountains were blanketed with snow each winter, storing water that melted slowly in the spring and summer to provide a reliable source of water for farming and communities below. However, climate change is telling a new tale. Warmer weather means less snow and more rain will fall on the mountains during the winter. The quick runoff must be managed in a way that preserves it for use in the summer.
“We need groundwater recharge because we're losing the snow pack quicker than we thought we would,” Bales said.
The new California water narrative has prompted scientists and policy makers to take a serious look at the potential for “flood-managed aquifer recharge” or Flood-MAR. Flood-MAR is a management strategy that uses water from rain or snowmelt to flood agricultural lands and working landscapes, such as refuges, floodplains and flood bypasses.
Successful implementation of Flood-MAR requires the identification of land for groundwater recharge, understanding the economic and agronomic impact of using agricultural land for recharge, and impacts of high-volume recharge on groundwater quality. But the potential is enormous.
“The state's underground basins are capable of storing 500 million acre-feet of water,” said Graham Fogg, UC Davis professor of hydrogeology. “That's like 500 Folsom reservoirs.”
Though the enormity of rewriting the California water story might seem an insurmountable challenge, panelist Debbie Franco noted that the passage of Sustainable Groundwater Management in 2014 happened when the state's unsustainable reliance of groundwater spiked during the 2011-2016 drought, reducing municipal water quality, drying domestic wells and causing land to sink.
“What seems impossible, after four years of drought, can be possible,” Franco said. “What will be the next thing? Get a sense of the solutions now.”