NASA Water Scientist Jay Famiglietti

The Senior Water Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and UC Irvine ​Professor discusses the severity of California’s drought.

Hydrologist Jay Famiglietti is a professor of Earth System Science and of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Irvine, and the Senior Water Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. He was appointed by California Governor Jerry Brown to the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, and has been researching and communicating about water and climate change — in academics, in business, in government and to the general public — for over 25 years.   He appeared as a featured expert in the water documentary Last Call at the Oasis, and is a regular contributor to National Geographic Water Currents and to Huffington Post.  His research has been featured the New York Times and The Economist, among other respected publications.


Tavis: California’s water crisis is much more severe and its potential impact on the country far more devastating than most people realize, I think. If the nation’s leading agriculture state dries up, then the rest of the nation is sure to feel it.

Joining us to talk about California’s current drought, UC Irvine professor and Senior Water Scientist at NASA’s JPL, Jay Famiglietti. Professor Famiglietti, good to have you on this program.

Jay Famiglietti: Thanks so much for having me.

Tavis: Let me jump right in. How severe is this? How bad is it?

Famiglietti: It’s pretty bad and, like you said, it is worse than people recognize. California’s been losing on the order of about eight trillion gallons of water per year for the last three years.

You know, our mountains are devoid of snow this year. There’s very little water left in our reservoirs and our groundwater’s being depleted at a rapid clip. So we’re in rough shape.

Tavis: The reasons for this are?

Famiglietti: There’s many reasons. One is the natural variability driven by things like El Nino and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, so natural climate variations. But there’s a background of climate change and increasing global temperatures, so this particular drought is actually a combination of natural variability and extremely hot temperatures. So that combination makes it really unusual.

And then there’s population growth too. You know, if we had 20 million people in California instead of 39, it wouldn’t be the issue that it is.

Tavis: How much of this is manmade?

Famiglietti: Well, the manmade part of it comes from the population, the large population, and the significant agricultural productivity. So we use a lot of water to produce that food and to provide water for our 39 million people. So in that sense, again, if those things weren’t here, it really wouldn’t be much of an issue.

Tavis: Which parts of the state are being most acutely impacted by this?

Famiglietti: It’s the southern part of the Central Valley of California that’s in very rough shape. And in general, the southern half of the state. The northern half of the state is wetter. The southern half is drier.

And it’s in that southern part of the Central Valley where we have lots of agriculture. They don’t have much rain, that they are depleting a tremendous amount of groundwater so much that the ground is sinking as much as a foot per day in some places.

Tavis: A foot per day?

Famiglietti: I’m sorry, a foot per year [laugh]. Wow! That would be…

Tavis: There you go. If it’s a day, I was about to have a Fred Sanford moment, a foot a day [laugh].

Famiglietti: That would be a huge…

Tavis: But all jokes aside, though, a foot a year, though, is still extreme.

Famiglietti: Yeah. A foot per year is quite significant. It causes major problems for–think about it. Roads on the surface, our water distribution infrastructure on the surface. That stuff is literally caving in in some places.

Tavis: So your point now, beyond the impact of the water shortage on food and agriculture and those kinds of things, your point now about its impact with the ground sinking on infrastructure, this sounds like a domino waiting to happen.

Famiglietti: It certainly is, so we need to address it. And the fact is that, you know, in California in general, we rely on a lot of groundwater. In a normal year, we would rely on about 33% of our water supply will come from groundwater.

In a drought year like this year, we’re up at about 75%. We may go towards 100% as our reservoirs empty out. So that means more and more subsidence as we rely more and more heavily on this groundwater.

Tavis: So this is Earth Day and there are any number of reasons to have this conversation right about now, given the severity of the drought. But since it’s Earth Day, I wanted to make sure we got you in here today. So what is the impact of what’s happening in California on the rest of the earth or certainly on the rest of the nation?

Famiglietti: Well, we grow a lot of food for California, for the nation and really for the world. You know, we are the leading producer of many crops, certainly the nut crops and lots of fruit and vegetables.

The middle part of the country really grows the grains, right? And it’s here in California that we grow the produce and the nuts and, of course, the grapes for wine.

So as we start to run out of water, we’ll see rising water prices, rising food prices and, of course, that’s going to have a ripple effect. In the long term, we may see some of this agriculture migrate out of California, maybe move up north.

And, in fact, that’s actually happening. There actually is some migration of agriculture to northern states like Idaho and to North Dakota. You know, they’re getting a little bit warmer and they’re getting a little bit longer growing season.

Tavis: I may be getting a little bit out of your field, but I’m just curious anyway what your sense is of how this crisis is going to impact the markets? Because when you start suggesting now that prices are going to be impacted by this, now we’re talking about market fluctuation.

Famiglietti: That’s right. You’re right. I mean, I’m no expert, but I do think that we will start to see the ripple effect of the rising food prices. The rising food prices, I think, are inevitable. It’s really the groundwater that’s been a buffer against that, right? Because we’ve been using that groundwater, we haven’t yet fully realized the water shortages in agriculture.

I think that that’s going to change. I think that there will probably be some restrictions that are necessary so that we don’t completely deplete our groundwater supply. And that’s when I think we’ll see the rising prices. Hey, water’s already rising up in some markets, in some water markets.

Farmers are paying $3,000 per acre foot. An acre foot of water is an acre covered by a foot of water, and they’re paying, you know, as much as $3,000. So I think it’s just a matter of time before that ripples through food prices and then across the rest of the economy.

Tavis: You talked about migration a moment ago. That is to say, some foods that we grow here may be grown someplace else. But what about the idea of certain foods that we grow here just not being grown, period?

I think about almonds, for example. I was just doing some reading about how much water it takes to grow almonds, so there’s now some conversation starting for all of us almond lovers around the country–sorry…

Famiglietti: I’m one of them.

Tavis: I’m one of them as well. There are two of us here.

Famiglietti: In fact, I had some on the way up [laugh].

Tavis: Two almond lovers and we might be in trouble if one of the solutions that is being discussed were ever to become reality, which is that maybe we just don’t grow almonds anymore.

Famiglietti: So there’s a couple of issues there. One is that the orchard crops like trees, many of them are nut trees, not just almonds, but just pistachios and walnuts, in the vineyards, right? They have to be watered year round. So that’s a problem. You can’t fallow those crops in the dry years like you could with broccoli, okay?

So by planting–and there’s a rush. There’s an almond rush in the Valley to get almond trees in the ground, so that’s going to be a problem for the long term. But, you know, there’s a flip side to it from the farmers’ perspective.

That is, as water gets more expensive, then it makes sense to plant the higher value crops of which almonds are one. So, you know, we’ll see how it plays out over the long term.

Tavis: How evenly is the impact of this drought being felt across the state? When I say evenly now, I’m talking about class.

Famiglietti: Yeah. Well, okay. So I think that we are–in fact, I know–that we are starting to see inequities arising in access to water, and one of the ways…

Tavis: Surprise, surprise.

Famiglietti: Yeah, right. One of the ways that that is playing out is with respect to groundwater. I mean, it’s playing out in other ways. Some of the wealthier communities haven’t been asked to cut back as much on their water use.

But with respect to groundwater, what we’re seeing is that, with continued groundwater depletion, the water table level the groundwater is dropping, it becomes very expensive–maybe a couple of hundred thousand dollars–to drill a deeper well.

And only the wealthier farmers, farms, individuals, will be able to afford to dig those deeper wells. That leaves, you know, the less fortunate with no access to groundwater. Their wells have run dry and they can’t afford to dig a deeper well.

Tavis: This might be laughable to some tonight who think this could never happen, but I’m one of those who believe–and I’ve read enough material over the years hosting this program–that into the future, wars, I believe, are going to be fought over who controls access to water around the globe.

How do we make sure that in California and in this country we don’t end up where the politics get to be so tricky around who gets access to water?

Famiglietti: Right. Well, you know, I could see smaller skirmishes happening around the state because there are the haves and the have nots, and that divide will get greater in the decades, in the centuries, to come. But one of the things, of course, that we have going for us in California and in the United States is that we have strong governance.

You know, we’re fortunate in the sense that we live in the same state and we can transfer water from the north to the south. If this were two different countries, if it were Pakistan and India or two countries like Tunisia and Libya, that might be a different situation.

Tavis: I just noted last night that our governor, Jerry Brown, made the list of the Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. So, congratulations, Governor Brown. I haven’t had a chance to read the piece yet.

But I suspect it has to do with his stewardship on the State of California. So, politically, how is the governor and the state legislature, to your view, at least, handling this crisis at the moment?

Famiglietti: I think they’ve been amazing, actually. I mean, we all have our criticisms, but if you think about where our state is in terms of the drought and how severe it is, we’re quite fortunate to have Governor Brown at the helm, to have the people that we do on the State Water Resource’s Control Board, our State Secretary, the Governor’s cabinet, they are water warriors.

So in my opinion, we couldn’t be in better hands. Now we may have issues with one thing or another. I think it’s time to start addressing the agricultural water use. But in general, we’re in very good hands.

Tavis: And finally, I don’t need to call names here, but there have been news stories of late about one company in particular. But what do we say to those companies who have and are in the business of taking this water and then selling it back to us?

Famiglietti: So you’re talking about maybe bottled water, right.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Famiglietti: Well, so it becomes kind of more of a moral, ethical issue at this point because those companies are within their legal rights to do that. And that just, I think, underscores how crazy and antiquated our water policy and water rights system is in California and in much of the United States.

Much of it was put together, was figured out, back in the 1700s, 1800s, before we knew a darn thing about how the water cycle worked and what our population might look like in the year 2015. It no longer works for us.

However, these companies are within their rights. They have permits that allow them to take, in the case you’re talking about, to take bottled water from a national forest or to take water directly from a spring in a national forest, bottle it and sell it back to us.

Tavis: So we’re in a crisis mode at the moment. Are you hopeful about our future?

Famiglietti: I’m hopeful that we can manage our way through. We’re not going to change things like climate change or population growth, but I’m hopeful that we can manage to our way through. There’s lots of things that we can do and there’s no silver bullet.

So things like desalinization, sewage recycling, are going to become more important. Of course, the number one thing that we can do is more conservation and efficiency both in agriculture and in the home.

I think we’re going to see changes in water pricing. There’s many, many things that we can do. And I think if we do those things, we will be okay for the decades to come.

Tavis: Glad to hear that. Professor Jay Famiglietti of UC Irvine and the JPL, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA’s JPL. Thanks for the insight. Good to have you on.

Famiglietti: Thank you.

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Last modified: April 24, 2015 at 2:14 pm