In the Midst of Dry

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[by Zubair Dar

If there is one challenge that California would have wanted to avoid facing this decade, it is the drought.
Having taken upon itself the leadership role in carbon emission reduction through clean energy development, the state would rather invest its energy in fulfilling the 2020 and 2030 targets than worrying about its water security. It is not to say that the state was unaware if its water availability, and management practices are not being intensified, but little can be guaranteed about their effectiveness after the worst drought in the recorded history has hit California. The bad news is that the drought is here to stay.

Despite recent rains, precipitation in 2013 and 2014 (so far) is nowhere close to the annual average. Lack of sufficient water is putting the $45 billion agriculture sector that produces a third of all vegetables and two thirds of all nuts in the United States at risk. Experts predict inflation, loss of income and related distress as a few of the impacts on the residents of California. Coupled with the fact that no guarantees can be made about future water availability either, California has to instigate a water management revolution along with the energy revolution it has set off.

What would a water management revolution mean in practice?
As Prof. Lynn Ingram at University of California Berkeley will tell you, that the precipitation of the past 150 years in California has been a ‘wet anomaly’ in California’s deeper history of aridity. And it is in the last 100 years that California framed its water policy, developed its water infrastructure and through legislative instruments distributed water rights. Allocations to agriculture and other industries shaped according to these known patterns of precipitation. In this new phase of aridity, which climate-scientists predict can be worsened by the climate change-induced variability, California needs to rework the whole system. While the impact of the drought might not be homogenous, there is little chance that any sector of the economy can ignore any measure of efficiency.

With few precedents, however, the challenge becomes even tougher. But that is where the opportunity lies. The crossroad where California today stands with respect to its climate history has taken away any uncertainty about the impact climate disruption could have on consumptive and non-consumptive uses of water. And as many thought leaders have suggested, California can take a queue from its energy policy to implement same practices of efficiency and renewability for the most efficient use of its water resources. No doubt the task shall mean a major shift in infrastructure development, irrigation practices, domestic use and industrial water allocations. The state shall need to employ best available technology in combination with most innovative ideas laid out by thought leaders in water management. Yet, the opportunity cost will not outweigh the gains of the new age integrated water management practice.

Past droughts are generally seen to have set off policy rethink as well as technological innovations. The current drought will also trigger innovations and, at the same time, speed up the adaption of the technologies built over the past few years. Already, a range of public dialogues and policy revaluations are underway in the state to find the beat way forward and create a synergy between research, policy and practice of water management.

This year, the Resources Roundtable by Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative (BERC) brings together thought leaders, climate scientists, water managers, rights activists and businesses to engage in focused discussions on the topic “California in Drought: Challenges and Opportunities”. As the subtitle puts it, we aim to understand how responding to water crisis today will help develop resilience for tomorrow. It is a unique opportunity for students to understand where the frontiers of water research in California lie.

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