Why Some Water Managers Are Unprepared for Climate Change

California water managers vary in their willingness and ability to take climate risks into account, according to a recent study from U.C. Davis. Improved relationships between scientists and decision-makers may help.

Written by Lindsay Abrams Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Lake Success, a reservoir and dam along the Tule River in California. Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it provides water to small towns at the eastern edge of the Central Valley. A new study has found that water agencies differ widely in their use and understanding of climate change research.Citizens of the Planet/Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

Water utility managers in California are far from unified in their use of climate change science to guide decisions, according to a recent study from the University of California, Davis. And as a result, they may be putting water supplies at risk.

The study’s authors were interested in finding out what was happening on the ground, right at the local utility level. They interviewed 61 water managers across the state, ultimately dividing them into three groups based on how they engage with climate information.

There were those who did integrate climate information into their work through long-term planning. However, the researchers also spoke with managers who tended to view climate change as “too unpredictable” to consider in future planning. Finally, there were those who had little interest in considering climate change – or who had little institutional support to do so.

The work is part of the Climate Adaptation Program, a project supported by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute, looking at ways in which individuals and organizations are building climate change resiliency.

Water Deeply spoke with two of the study’s authors: Zeke Baker, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Davis; and Julia Ekstrom, a regional climate change specialist and senior environmental scientist at the state Department of Water Resources.

Water Deeply: I’d like start out with the premise behind your study, which is that climate change is projected to impact water supplies. How did you take this into account?

Julia Ekstrom: Well, the original premise was looking at the potential of water quality to be impacted by climate change. The projections are showing an increase in extreme events – such as wildfire, increased frequency in severity of droughts, the likelihood of some dry years followed by high precipitation events under warmer conditions and the seasonal shifts changing flow patterns – where we would have more water flowing in earlier in the spring or winter instead of later in the spring.

Those things shift the stability of how people have been managing water: the increase in algal blooms and the reduction of flows; higher residence times of water in reservoirs, or storage, which can increase disinfectant byproducts. We’ve seen people tapping into deeper groundwater that has had higher concentrations of arsenic – they’re tapping in deeper because of droughts.

Zeke Baker: Also, sea-level rise has a supply and quality impact, such as saltwater intrusion into surface water sources like the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, for example, and coastal groundwater as well.

Water Deeply: You call some of these effects the ‘usability problem’ of climate information. Can you explain how that manifested?

Baker: Water managers don’t consider climate change in the same way, nor do they experience these impacts of climate change in the same way. So some of them would identify this kind of usability problem where they’re already invested in adapting to climate change but have information needs that are unmet. Or they’re dealing with uncertainty around common information in the form of projections of climate change on their water resources or the resources that they draw upon. But that wasn’t universal.

Ekstrom: We looked at water managers to try to understand where they are in thinking about and using climate information. Some had their own unit looking at doing their own modeling on climate projections and how that would affect their own water system. Others could look at climate projections that were made available from outside sources or work with consultants to do some of their work.

To some degree, it’s valid to just be looking at some of the tools or some of the write-ups about how climate change will change temperature in extreme events and incorporate it into their thinking. That wouldn’t be the internal modeling of the water system, but they would be taking it into account and thinking about how climate change could affect their system.

Water Deeply: You found that failure to incorporate climate information into modern management is a particular risk to marginalized communities. Why is that?

Ekstrom: Let’s just set up the scenario where you’re not planning for climate change and what its risks may present to you in your water system. Then in the future, say, you could be putting yourself in a pathway that’s at higher risk.

You could increase your efficiency, you could diversify your supply portfolio and there are other measures you could take. Say you don’t take any of those, and then you get to a point in the future where, oh no, these extreme events are happening. Sea-level rise is coming into my groundwater basin and we haven’t taken measures to safeguard that, or we hadn’t diversified our portfolio to find other available supplies in case this happens.

That water system serves a given number of customers. One implication is that maybe their rates need to be increased because the system needs to mitigate these risks all of a sudden. If you are a lower-income customer, that rate increase can really hit your household hard. I’m not saying that’s the only implication, but that is a possibility and we’ve been doing economic studies to look at rate increases.

Baker: There are also ways in which some climate change impacts to water supply and quality overlap considerably with what you could call small disadvantaged communities – economically depressed areas, essentially – that are served by smaller water systems. They not only face impacts to water directly, but also they tend to be disadvantaged in other ways – for example, around the capacity of those systems to do their own long-range planning, or their often subordinated role within governance. For example, other research shows smaller systems have had a difficult time being integrated into the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). There’s ways in which communities may be disadvantaged with respect to governing climate change impacts and governing water, too.

Water Deeply: What surprised you in conversations you had with water managers?

Baker: After analyzing the interviews, we ended up looking at how water managers envisioned the future. That’s a little bit of a different way of looking at water management. It’s not something you can classify into size or what kind of water they have. It’s essentially cultural.

I think that way of framing it was surprising, but also the ways in which water managers and utilities envision the future are just remarkably different. That has to do with resources. That has to do with the kind of organization they are. It has to do with the kind of water they manage. A very complex system that has different kinds of supplies, a lot of financial investments and financial risks in infrastructure is, as a matter of course, looking into the future. Climate information comes into that process in a predictably important way.

Water Deeply: Did you hear any cases of flat-out denial of climate change?

Baker: There were water managers who expressed disagreement and concern with the boards that govern public water systems. That was a concern among some. It wasn’t a lot, but there’s a soft version of what you could call political denial of the relevance of climate change. There’s a hard version of that, and then some water managers talked about it in terms of being upset, for example, that trends in groundwater were projected using models that didn’t take climate change into account.

Those problems are much trickier to overcome, and that might be an information problem, in so far as some systems don’t know or don’t have the resources to integrate something like a projection of the future climate into their management.

Water Deeply: What is the next step of the project?

Ekstrom: A lot of science and understanding around climate change exists. There are some water systems that are really thinking about it and starting to take action to mitigate the risks and understand them better for their own system, and there are a lot of water systems that aren’t doing so much. We’re still asking the question, “Why, what’s going on here?”

And there’s been other research outside of our group that points to the value and the success of what’s called coproduction between scientists and practitioners for incorporating climate change into decision-making. That involves often highly engaged climate scientists or climate researchers helping develop research questions in consultation and collaboration with the practitioners or, in this case, the water managers. That’s been found to be highly valuable.

One question we have is looking back at the production of climate science and just trying to understand what motivates researchers who have published on climate change to engage with practitioners. What are some of the barriers they’ve run into that mean they may not engage as much as they’re interested in doing?

Baker: Many systems have very few ties to scientists and, therefore, often view climate change in abstract global terms, and have a very unclear understanding of its impacts. So a sort of open question is not simply an information question. If we gave the water managers we talked to some sort of relevant scientific literature that may bear on their area, that wouldn’t solve problems. That’s what a lot of this coproduction literature defines: It’s not just about information, it’s about ongoing relationships between science and decision-makers.

We can find a lot of cases where that seemed to be a critical factor, where systems were otherwise very similar but some had more sustained engagement with researchers and were thinking about climate change in a much more practical way, as if it mattered to them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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