By Andy Evangelista
|Photo/California Department of Water Resources
|Lake Oroville in the Sierra foothills is one of many California lakes and reservoirs depleted by three years of drought.
Struggling through a third consecutive year of drought, California faces a bleak reality: Change the way we use our scarce water supply or face recurring cycles of economic and environmental emergencies.
Given the urgency of the drought crisis, the University of California has declared water one of its top research priorities.
"UC historically has played a major role in understanding urgent problems in the state and creating solutions," said Steven Beckwith, UC vice president for research and graduate studies. "We've identified sustainable water supply as a key area of systemwide research. With our vast expertise on our campuses and throughout the state, we can hope to offer answers to this serious problem."
Throughout the UC system, researchers are tackling the water crisis head on. They play a vital role in monitoring the state's water supply, documenting the environmental side effects of drought and leading the research on water-saving strategies and even creating new sources of water.
They also advise policymakers and water managers how best to distribute water through this thirsty state - a critical public service when lawmakers now are debating a package of water legislation and conservation efforts. Water-focused research, outreach, education and resource centers are located at nearly every UC campus.
No inch of California's topography has escaped the ravages of the current dry spell. From fallow farms in the Central Valley to scorched urban lawns to depleted lakes — all parts of the state are showing the devastation of water shortages. But the agriculture industry is hardest hit.
Water shortages in the Central Valley could mean up to $960 million in lost income and a loss of 16,150 to 23,000 jobs, according to UC Davis' latest provisional estimates. In some rural cities, unemployment rates have soared above 30 percent, three times the state average.
Droughts are nothing new
Centuries ago, California suffered droughts much more severe than now. The state has continued to endure periods of drought, most recently from 1987-92. But today California's water supply faces even more pressures, from agricultural (the state produces half of the nation's domestic fruits, nuts and vegetables) to environmental to urban. The water crisis, if allowed to grow unchecked, could cripple California and have global ramifications.
Many factors exacerbate California's water crises: population growth, lack of conservation, deteriorating systems that move water, flawed allocation policies and a new player in the chronic drought story — global climate change.
"Climate change carries with it almost a certainty that we're going to see a warmer environment in California and of course that's going to affect the California snowpack," said Daniel Cayan, research meteorologist at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "We'll have to contend with drought in a warmer climate — a climate in which springs essentially end earlier, summers start earlier, our warm dry season becomes more acute and lasts longer. It's another part of the climate change future that is a huge challenge to water resources — to our drinking water, to the water that grows our crops."
The state and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recognize the crisis and have set water conservation goals, including reducing California's per capita water use 20 percent by 2020.
But the drought problem certainly is not confined to California. If present climate and consumption patterns continue, two out of three people in the world will live in a water-stressed condition by 2025, according to the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization.
Tracking water cycles
The newly launched, state-funded Center for Hydrologic Modeling will link researchers at eight UC campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories.
|'The research comes out of necessity, certainly, for California, but there are also many places around the world that share our same challenges.'|
|— Yoram Cohen, director, UCLA's Water Technology Research Center|
They will study how water availability will shrink because of climate change and diminishing snowpack and how water supply may vary in response to climate oscillations, such as El Niño. Experts say El Niño is intensifying this year and could warm the Pacific Ocean and bring a wet winter to California. But a few heavy storms or one watery winter will not be enough to solve the state's water supply situation, experts say.
"The need to understand the highly complex workings of the water cycle, and the need to project its changes, has never been greater," said Jay Famiglietti, director of the center and professor of earth system science and civil and environmental engineering at UC Irvine.
Famiglietti knows people hit hard by the water crisis, and he pushes for comprehensive research to help bring relief to the state.
"It struck me after talking to a family whose acres of farms and livelihood are suffering because they don't have enough water," he said.
The center will use satellites and field research to more accurately determine how much water exists in California and where it's located. The results will be shared with water agencies throughout the state to help them develop their policies and allocation plans.
Tapping new sources
In some parts of the state, water may be plentiful, but it isn't clean enough for drinking or farming. Scientists at the Water Technology Research Center at UCLA are finding better ways to turn seawater and the brackish water found in bays and deltas into fresh water.
Desalination offers a potential way to produce great amounts of consumable water, but the price of building desalination plants is hefty. High amounts of electricity are needed and, paradoxically, desalination produces a salty waste stream of brine that can be difficult to dispose of, as pumping brine back into the ocean disrupts the marine ecosystem. When it comes to costs and risks versus rewards, most researchers agree that without new technologies, it's right now a wash, at best.
Yoram Cohen, a UCLA chemical engineering professor and director of the center, is improving a method of reverse osmosis desalination, which was pioneered at UCLA in the 1960s. The process normally turns into freshwater only about 30 to 80 percent of the brackish or seawater put into the system. The remainder is left as highly salty wastewater. After a more efficient osmosis membrane was developed, Cohen added a process aimed at achieving 95 to 98 percent recovery of freshwater. In the end, it's a system that produces much more usable water and at a lower cost than conventional osmosis systems.
The Water Technology Research Center's graduate students recently tested this technology with a new mobile water desalination system in the San Joaquin Valley. It can generate 6,000 gallons of drinking water per day from the sea or 8,000 to 9,000 gallons per day from brackish groundwater. That's enough to produce drinking water daily for up to 12,000 people, Cohen estimated.
These systems can be set up all around the world, he said, and monitored from a central location. His team is working with U.S. and international water agencies and industries.
"The research comes out of necessity, certainly, for California, but there are also many places around the world that share our same challenges," Cohen said. "I feel we have an opportunity to make a real impact with our work. We're pointing out where advanced technology can make a difference."
Andy Evangelista is research communications coordinator in the UC Office of the President's Integrated Communications group.