Friday, December 28, 2007

Australia's Department of Climate Change

Yes, you read that right. Under the new leadership of a liberal government, Australia has jumped well ahead of the U.S. in establishing a government entity focused on climate change. Perhaps not surprising, given the exceptional drought that has afflicted a large area of the continent, but leaving me wondering, "What about the Southeastern U.S.? What about the Southwest? Don't we deserve such a department at the federal level, too?"

Using the domain "" the Department of Climate Change provides, through its Web site, consideration of agriculture, business and industry, community and household, emissions monitoring, energy, impacts and adaptation, national resources and science.

Under Impacts and Adaptation, the site includes Projections - Future Climate Changes, which includes a section on how projections are currently done, regional projections for Australia, and an "online projections tool" called, which allows the user to "generate your own climate change projections using different emissions scenarios and the outputs of various global climate models (GCMs)."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Atlanta - Pray for NO rain?

An article in USA Today: Thirsting for answers in dry Georgia makes an interesting comparison between the ways drought has been dealt with by authorities in Georgia and in San Diego. Begin with the fact that Georgia is normally a rainy place, while San Diego is a coastal desert. If San Diego can weather a long dry spell, why can't Atlanta?

The story provides some good lessons for adaptation. Atlanta did some stuff wrong:

...a drought that gripped this state from 1998-2002 seemed to sound the clarion call.

The Legislature, worried that fast-growing Atlanta was consuming water at the expense of the rest of the state, created a regional authority to chart a plan to manage the resource.

When a relentless drought hit last year, however, the agency's water-saving recommendations mostly had not been implemented.

...while San Diego did some stuff right:

Drought had ravaged San Diego, too, but its legacy was far different.

A six-year drought that ended in 1992 prompted conservation measures and other steps that enabled the metropolitan area to add a half-million people without substantially increasing water usage.

San Diego - being a chronically dry location - has developed what the article calls "a drought ethic" and has been innovating water-saving practices for years. Its residents are accustomed to conservation. But for Georgia to adapt to a drier future, it will take more than just hoping that the residents change their habits.
Strong, consistent leadership is necessary to create a conservation ethic, and that's been missing here, says environmentalist Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a group that seeks to protect Atlanta's prime watershed. "There's been a lot of nice talk, education programs and studies on water conservation," she says. "But I have not seen leaders providing real incentives and regulatory programs that would yield measurable reductions in our use of water."
Atlanta's making progress and San Diego is certainly not out of the woods, but one Georgia wag pointed out the reason Georgia hasn't learned from close drought calls in the past.
"Usually about the time everybody is screaming bloody murder, there will come a huge rain," he says. "Ironically, the worst thing that can happen now is to get a heavy rain."

Monday, December 17, 2007

A visit to Arizona

I just returned from four days visiting family in Scottsdale, the sprawling suburb of Phoenix. They'd recently been blessed with 5 inches of rain, coming down in unusually strong torrents, according to my relatives. This provided some reassuring relief from the growing apprehension in the Valley of the Sun that there was a major problem with their water supply. Some reservoirs had been replenished from this single storm. And adding to the sense of relief was the news that a "landmark agreement" had been signed by the seven states in the American Southwest that share water from the Colorado River.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada put it into perspective:

""I want to applaud the negotiators from the seven Colorado River Basin states and the Secretary of the Interior for successfully completing this important agreement which will govern how the states share water shortages. Unfortunately, it appears that this nine year drought may be the new norm and this agreement will ensure future cooperation among the states that rely upon the river to meet all our water needs."
"Share water shortages," indeed. I wouldn't describe the mood in Scottsdale - after rain and resolution - as euphoric. After 8 years of below average rainfall and a record-setting summer of temperatures over 110 degrees, Arizonans have gotten the warning. And yet, you'd hardly know that any limits had been recognized if you judge just by the amount of construction still going on, the amount of water shooting out of decorative fountains, and the number of gas guzzlers crowding the roads.

Central Arizona still appears to be a classic case of human denial and hubris. The agreement among the seven states does not provide Arizona with a guarantee of more water; it's more an update of an old agreement that became obsolete in light of the current drought in the Colorado River basin and the extensive development that has taken place in Arizona, Las Vegas and Southern California. It removed some uncertainty, but did not create new water.

There are some signs of sanity in Tucson, where the local government declared that it would no longer extend its municipal water lines into new housing developments outside of city limits.
City Manager Mike Hein revealed at Tuesday's City Council meeting that he had ordered a stop to expansion of Tucson Water's delivery system beyond city limits to instead focus on areas where it is legally obligated to deliver water.
The potentially risky move already is bringing other local government officials to the table for what Hein called a pressing need for joint discussions of growth and water.
"It just seems to me that we have to be able to set the table and have some rational dialogues that aren't built on turf, aren't built on egos and aren't built on political control," he said Wednesday. "When I talk about regional growth, we should as a region understand each other's intentions. I find more typically than not (that) all of our goals are aligned. They're just not communicated real well."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Time-lapse drought map

Watercrunch provides this neat 53-second animation of the U.S. Drought Monitor's maps from March of this year to the present.

Improving drought forecasting

Drought is called "the creeping disaster" because most people are unaware that their local water supplies are shrinking until the alarm goes off, announcing conservation measures and high-level concern with the impending crisis. With the prospect that more areas around the world may be subject to drought conditions - long range or short - we need better forecasting techniques for earlier detection of approaching drought. Such early detection will allow preparations to be made well in advance of the actual water shortage.

This article from Sign of the Times describes a focus on streamflow measurement and cloud reflectivity as a means of discovering higher risk for drought. One interviewee was Dr. Ashutosh Limaye, a hydrologist at the National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC) in Huntsville, Alabama. He described the stream flow part.

Streamflow is a term used by water management specialists to mean, very simply, the amount of water in streams and rivers. Areas of drought have reduced streamflow, and experts believe they can better forecast droughts by studying this key indicator of dry conditions.

"Streamflow is always changing, from day to day and even minute to minute, for a wide variety of reasons: evaporation from the soil and from bodies of water, runoff from rainfall and snowmelt, transpiration by plants and trees, and other natural and human influences," [Limaye] explains. National Weather Service River Forecast Centers have to consider all of these factors when they forecast streamflow.

"If we can help forecasters estimate any of these elements more accurately, they can better predict drought conditions months in advance," says Dr. Limaye. "These predictions are critical because they influence important decisions about measures like withholding water in reservoirs and restricting water use."

The reflectivity part? Dr. Mike Smith of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggests that satellite measurement of cloud cover could provide closer estimates of evaporation rates that directly affect stream flow.

Why clouds? "Because most of the water that falls on the ground goes up in evaporation, evaporation is a huge component of the total surface water," explains Limaye. "So it's important to get those numbers right. Clouds affect radiation, which has a big influence on evaporation."

National Weather Service cloud cover estimates from the 1960s to the 1990s went like this: A trained technician literally walked outside, tilted his or her head back, eyeballed the sky like an old farmer, and rated the cloud cover on a 1-8 scale.

In the 90s, these manual observations were replaced by a device called a "ceilometer," part of the Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS), which has a laser beam that aims at the sky. Returns from this beam are used to detect clouds.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Adaptation "Aha" Moment?

At the Framework Convention on Climate Change, taking place on Bali, there have been calls for having the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - which recently released its latest report and has normally convened to update its report every 5 or 6 years - convene to update its current report next year...and pretty much to continue operating continuously from now on.

As reported by Andy Revkin on DotEarth:

The discussions in Bali about more frequent climate assessments echo a growing call within the scientific community for the climate panel and other big climate-research institutions to shift more from basic science to real-world forecasting, helping communities exploit or withstand changes for the better or worse.

Such forecasts need to be improved because significant warming is unavoidable for decades to come even if countries begin to trim greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the climate panel’s latest studies.

Kevin Trenberth, a longtime contributor to the U.N. panel’s reports and senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., put it this way early this year:

“For me the issue is that the climate is changing and we cannot stop it. We can slow it down, and should, but realistically I don’t believe that we will ever get to level emissions, let alone reduced ones. So climate change will continue and we must adapt. But adapt to what?”

Adapt to what, indeed? Getting more specific local forecasts would help localities set proper directions for preparations for climate change. But such forecasts are not simple to make. As the Pew Center for Global Climate Change says in its paper, "Coping With Global Climate Change: The Role of Adaptation in the United States,"
The processes of adaptation to climate change in both human and natural systems are highly complex and dynamic, often entailing many feedbacks and dependencies on existing local and temporal conditions. The uncertainties introduced by the complexity, scale and limited experience with respect to anthropogenic climate change explains the limited level of applied research conducted thus far on adaptation, the reliance on mechanistic assumptions, and widespread use of scenarios and historical analogues.
But it's not too early to begin improving the local communications infrastructure and habits that communities will need when their forecasts become more concrete and reliable. Some places are already thick into adaptation - to what may become annual flooding, chronic drought, frequent storms, more extreme temperatures and all of the indirect consequences of these weather effects.

The Flooded Northwest

There have been more than a few incidents of flooding on Route 101, running through my home county of Marin. These have always been the result of torrential rains - which raised the level of Larkspur Creek - and high tides combined with some storm surge. It's been deep enough in the northbound lanes to shut them down on a few occasions. Whenever I consider the prospect of sea level rise, I know that this entire stretch of highway will have to be rebuilt.

Interstate Route 5, between Seattle and Portland has been shut down since Monday. Railways have been buried in mud. The closures could last into the weekend and the business impact is considerable.

About 54,000 vehicles traverse that portion of the highway daily, and 10,000 of those are trucks. The I-5 delays alone are expected to cost businesses $4 million a day, the Transportation Department estimates.

The effect on commuters could be the least of the problems; road closures are making it difficult to deliver emergency supplies and groceries to the flooded areas, said department spokesman Stan Suchan.

The department also is concerned about the effect on business.

"We know that a lot of companies are using just-in-time delivery so that they don't have a huge stock sitting in the back of their store," he said. "They rely on the trucks on the freeway to keep them in business."

Just another data point in understanding the potential impacts of climate change. The effects tend to cascade.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Pew Center Paper on Adaptation Planning

Reinforcing my focus on local adaptation, the Pew Center released this new report: Adaptation Planning – What U.S. States and Localities are Doing. First, the report reinforces the need for adaptation, beyond mere mitigation.

While governments act to mitigate future climate change, they must also plan and act to address the impacts. This preparation includes risk assessments, prioritization of projects, funding and allocation of both financial and human resources, solution development and implementation, and rapid deployment of information sharing and decision support tools. Corresponding to the size of the challenge, impacts span entire communities and regions. As such, adaptation is dependent on numerous stakeholders from federal, state and local government, science and academia, the private sector, and community residents to develop solutions to complex problems for which prior solutions may not exist. Adaptation will require creativity, compromise, and collaboration across agencies, sectors and traditional geographic
It then emphasizes the importance of more localized approaches to adaptation, at the state and local levels, and reveals how little has been done at these levels to put adaptation planning into action.
This paper focuses on adaptation plans and actions in progress by state and local
governments. Many of these efforts are in their earliest stages. Some states are including adaptation planning within the scope of their state Climate Action Plans to address GHG emissions. A few others have recognized the need for separate and comprehensive adaptation commissions to parallel their mitigation efforts. Many are simply responding to climate impacts
as they occur, without necessarily attributing the impact to climate change.
And validating another of my beliefs - that local entities need to be networked to learn from one another, the reporting team writes:
Regardless of the basis for the adaptive response, states have much they can learn from each other, and from localities where adaptation is already occurring. While comprehensive and proactive adaptation planning is still in the early stages, as states complete their GHG mitigation plans, adaptation planning is gaining greater attention and resources from states and localities.

Cities - far more than counties - are beginning to adopt the adaptive approach to planning, but there are few examples cited in the report. King County, Washington, is one great exception that has been blogged here.

One county in particular, King County, Washington is a leader in the United States for adaptation planning. In 2006, King County formed an inter-departmental climate change adaptation team, building scientific expertise within their county departments to ensure climate change factors were considered in policy, planning and capital investment decisions. Partnering with the Climate Impacts Group,1 the county has already begun many adaptation efforts, including the development of water quality and quantity models and monitoring programs. The 2007 King County Climate Plan lays out detailed goals and actions for six (6) “Strategic Focus Areas” for adaptation efforts going forward.

Leading adaptive planning is clearly one of the reasons we have local government. That is the closest we citizens get to the people we elect to represent us and to work for our interests. It is also the most practicable level on which we citizens can converse with our government. We can show up at our local civic centers and speak directly to our planners and supervisors. We should also be able to communicate through the Web much more than we do. If there was ever a need for an effective Web-based interface between government and citizen, it is right here in the present, around local climate adaptation.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Living on the flood plain

Can we all at least agree that living (much less building) on a floodplain - especially one that has recently flooded severely - and in light of the warnings of more similar or otherwise crazy weather in a very likely future - is not an adaptive activity.

Apparently, the submersion of much of England last spring and summer has not served to halt the building of new homes on many of those recently submerged sites. This sounds nuts to me, but it's an indication of how far we are from having everyone on board for adaptation.

This from a Press Association article, released by the Guardian:

New research has identified the top 20 places in Britain most at risk from flooding, with more than half of homeowners facing the threat in the worst affected area.

Analysis of official data by Channel 4's Dispatches revealed Boston in Lincolnshire - where 57% of homeowners are at "significant risk" - to be the most susceptible to flood waters.

In the programme, the chief executive of the Environment Agency, Baroness Young, calls on insurers to refuse insurance to houses built on floodplains against advice.

Dispatches: Britain Under Water reports that an increasing number of new homes are being built on Britain's floodplains.

This has led to a surge in the number of homes at "significant risk" of flooding - described as having a one in 75 chance of flooding in any given year.

What kind of numbers are we talking about? Big numbers. And it's not just homes and businesses.

In Boston, a market town with a population of around 65,000, 15,906 homes are placed in this category.

In Windsor and Maidenhead - second on the list - one in five homeowners face the same level of danger.

The programme reports that in addition to the potential threat to homes, more than 2,000 energy installations are at significant risk of flooding. It raises concern over whether the authorities are setting aside adequate resources to battle the threat.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Power or Water? TVA's dilemma

With extreme drought affecting southern Tennessee and northern Georgia and Alabama, the 9 trillion gallons of water that still flow through Chattanooga and feed hydroelectric plants at TVA's reservoirs are being tapped. Hydro provides the cheapest 10 percent of the total power distributed by TVA, but in this past fiscal year, hydro production was down 33%.

The trend is continuing in fiscal 2008 amid an anticipated 1.9 percent growth in power demand.

"We still have hope," TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore said. "We have had a fair amount of rainfall lately. But until the ground gets saturated it is not going to get any better (in the lakes)."

In other business, the TVA board approved a decrease in the quarterly fuel cost adjustment charge beginning Jan. 1. Consumers should see a savings of $1.40 to $2.70 on their monthly power bill, reflecting about a 3 percent savings in wholesale power.

Oregon gets FEMA flood warning

It's encouraging to see FEMA out ahead of the game for the La Nina-influenced rainy season in Oregon. The risk of flooding is also raised due to the 600,000 acres burned by wildfires in the state this past year. According to the FEMA press release:

This year, predictions for La Nina call for an even wetter-than-average 2007-2008 winter season in parts of the Northwestern United States, including Oregon. The time to prepare for this year's rainy season and possible flooding is now.

"Recovering after a flood can be overwhelming. With flood insurance, you have the financial support to get back on your feet as quickly as possible," said David Maurstad, Assistant Administrator of Mitigation and Federal Insurance Administrator for FEMA. "Too often, people mistakenly think flood damage is covered by a homeowners policy. Flood coverage must be purchased separately, and there is typically a 30-day waiting period before a new flood insurance policy becomes effective."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Designers, planners and serious thinking about climate change

Two university teachers in planning and design wrote an article in the current Harvard Design Magazine titled Design for Rising Sea Levels. In spite of its title, the most important subject of the article is "our apparent inability to comprehend change that occurs not in dramatic steps, nor at a steady linear rate, but rather exponentially, starting out with a low slope that steepens over time."

This inability to comprehend is, most disappointingly, shared with the people who are responsible for planning the spacial and physical changes to the infrastructure and facilities we depend on as residents of our local areas. Sea level rise is an apt climate change impact to use because the preponderance of projections for how fast it will rise make it seem like not much of a threat. When most planners accept a pace of a foot of rise over the next 40 years, there's not much urgency there. A few sea walls, some levees, some problemo.

But such estimates ignore the low percentage risks that the sea level might rise much faster than that. The two authors, Jonathan Barnett and Kristina Hill, have studied the actions of local planners and have concluded that for the most part, climate change has not yet shown up on their radars.

As far as we can tell, most designers and planners aren’t thinking seriously about climate change in the U.S. unless they work closely with the insurance industry, which is dropping tens of thousands of East Coast customers and raising rates on the rest, in part as a result of climate predictions. Ecologists all over the world also know that it’s a very big deal. The World Bank knows. But building and landscape architects, engineers, and planners don’t seem to have connected the dots. Jonathan, the other author of this article, worked on the first reconstruction plan for New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and saw the devastation from a storm surge that could have been prevented if the flood walls had been properly constructed. He became frustrated with the many comments from people outside New Orleans that the city had simply been built in the wrong location and ought to be a write-off, and he began to wonder what would happen if we applied the same standard to other places. Biloxi and other Gulf Coast cities also suffered severe damage from Katrina and Rita. Key West had flooding comparable to that in New Orleans from Rita. If we looked around the country at other vulnerable cities, we’d have to write off many more than New Orleans.
As I've blogged repeatedly in the past, the authors point to the insurance industry as the real bellweathers of change in perspective. They recommend that government policy-makers begin working with insurance companies to implement realistic planning for coastal areas subject to sea level rise.
By working with large insurance companies, government regulators could encourage rationality when either the private sector or public agencies make major investments in coastal urban futures. Important dialogues could begin about how to share the significant investment costs of adapting coastal areas to sea-level rise and new flooding patterns. Because they would bring insurers and institutional leaders together, these new investment and cost-sharing discussions provide a way to allow flexible design and planning solutions to emerge that would be insurable, politically feasible, and recognize the need for social equity in how citizens are protected from immediate and longer-term dangers.
This article makes it clear that even with minor sea level rise and occasional storm surges, the planning required to protect low-lying infrastructure is far from simple and affordable. The impacts on natural and man-made systems will be far-reaching. This is not the time for local planners to be sitting back and waiting for more dire predictions to come from climatologists. The changes are happening now and even best-case forecasts deserve serious mitigation efforts.

ESPACE learns what doesn't work in local adaptation planning

ESPACE (European Spacial Planning Adapting to Climate Events) is an international project acting on the belief - as stated by German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel - that,

"We have to start adapting to climate change now so as to not be overwhelmed by its economic and social consequences later."
Part I of this project took place between 2003 and 2007. It aimed "to promote awareness of the importance of adapting to climate change and to recommend that it is incorporated within spatial planning mechanisms at local, regional, national and European levels. Focussing on North West Europe, ESPACE [looked] at how we manage our water resources and plan for a future with a changing climate."

What ESPACE participants learned in those first four years was that adaptation planning - and the implementation of the resulting plans - come with problems, at least in the context of that chunk of time. Of course, our context is rapidly changing. Part II of the ESPACE project has begun and extends into 2008. Part II is introduced as follows:

Through the delivery of ESPACE Part I, we have found that there are some major obstacles to the delivery and implementation of adaptation to climate change at the local level.

ESPACE Part II will build on the earlier ESPACE work by developing some of the ideas and challenges that have been uncovered. Through a combination of research and two focused case studies, work will be undertaken to:

  • Examine why policies at higher levels promoting adaptation fail to be translated into actions on the ground. This will improve our understanding of what is needed in terms of co-ordination and management to achieve adaptation to climate change.

  • Develop an ‘Organisational Change Tool’ through in depth evidence and theory based research. This tool will give organisations a clear understanding of the things that need to work together and be supported for them to be able to respond to climate risks.

This is an important effort, because it applies some science to the exploration of how important and urgent action needs to be shepharded throught the maze of different agendas, value systems, priorities and perspectives. What things need to work together to achieve response? Hopefully, ESPACE will discover some answers for all of us who focus on local adaptation planning.

Local adaptation: making new water where there's not enough

The idea has been raised several times in the 25 years I've lived in Marin County, but this time there seems to be much more resolve around it - to build a desalination plant to provide potable water to supplement the county's watershed-collected source.

We've been through dry periods here since 1983; I distinctly remember a 7-year period spanning the late '80s and early '90s when low-volume showerheads were distributed and we all put bricks or filled plastic containers in our toilet tanks to conserve water. If we don't get at least our average rainfall this winter, we'll certainly be facing a water shortage next summer.

According to the drought forecast map maintained by the U.S. Government's National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) , Marin County sits near the northern boundary of the "persistent drought" region in the American Southwest. Just north of us is the region labeled "dought ongoing, some improvement."

The prospects look threatening enough that the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) has released a report to begin the environmental impact study of the various energy sources required to power the plant. The project is proposed to roll out in three progressive stages, each adding 5 million gallons a day to the county's supply. In addition to adding water, the project adds substantionally to the county's energy needs.

The energy requirements summarized in Table 1 indicate that the projected electricity demand for operation of a new desalination plant will be substantial, representing an 85%, 162% and 246% increase above current MMWD electricity needs for the 5 mgd, 10 mgd and 15 mgd capacity phases, respectively.
The county is considering many alternative energy sources, from methane harvested at the county landfill to photovoltaic arrays and even tidal energy generators. This could be a good test case of how fast adaptation planning can progress at this time, when a crisis may be looming within the next year. We've got the situation in Georgia staring us in the face - a stark illustration of what happens to a region without a backup plan for drought.

Even in the best case scenario, Marin won't be harvesting potable water from the San Francisco Bay in time to alleviate a water shortage in 2008. But will there be enough public support to fast-track this alternative water supply? Or will the project entail too many environmental questions and compromises to gain the support of Marin's varied constituencies?

Monday, November 26, 2007

And then? A writer dares to ask the question

Tom Engelhardt, creator of the TomDispatch website and fellow at The Nation Institute, wrote a moving essay that questions why major American media have been so obviously avoiding the question of What if Atlanta - a city of 4.5 million - actually runs out of water?

I'm not simply being apocalyptic here. I'm just asking. It's not even that I expect answers. I'd just like to see a crew of folks with the necessary skills explore the "and then" question for the rest of us. Try to connect a few dots, or tell us if they don't connect, or just explain where the dots really are.
Of course, I've been asking this question all along in Climate Frog. I just don't qualify as "major media," or even - at this point - "minor media." I'm a guy looking at the reality and wondering when - like the frog - we're going to cop to what's going on and start making some contingency plans. For Atlanta, it's late in the game. The plans should have been made long ago. Engelhardt is not judgmental in his essay; he's looking at the big picture, where many regions are facing the "what then" question and many millions of people stand to be affected to a life-or-death degree.
I know answers to the "and then" question are not easy or necessarily simple. But if drought -- or call it "desertification" -- becomes more widespread, more common in heavily populated parts of the globe already bursting at the seams (and with more people arriving daily), if whole regions no longer have the necessary water, how many trails of tears, how many of those mass migrations or civilizational collapses are possible? How much burning and suffering and misery are we likely to experience? And what then?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Agricultural Adaptation in the Central Valley

California's semi-arid Central Valley is one of the great garden regions of the world, but its fertility depends almost entirely on water transported over distance to irrigate its fields, vinyards and orchards. In recent decades, many farmers have converted acreage from annually-planted field crops to permanent crops such as nuts and grapes. But as this L.A. Times story describes, the current drought and changes in state water allocations is forcing many farmers to consider reversing the process. The impact will first hit the farmers themselves, forcing them to adapt their businesses to a more uncertain future water supply. But in the short run, it doesn't seem that consumers will need to adjust to shortages or higher prices. There are still fruits and vegetables being produced in Central and South America.

"My water manager calls it an impending Armageddon, and I would probably agree with that," said Bob Polito, who grows avocados in Valley Center in San Diego County.

California farmers probably will take 82,000 acres out of cultivation next year if the state gets an average amount of rain and snow this winter, according to a study commissioned by Western Growers, which represents the California and Arizona produce industries.

The economic loss would reach at least $69 million in farm production, according to the study.

Prices for consumers probably wouldn't change because cuts in supply could be replaced by imports. But the state's overall agricultural output would be affected, said Chris Scheuring, a lawyer with the California Farm Bureau Federation's natural resources and environmental division.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A UK Q&A - "Can we avoid more flooding?"

The BBC invited its Web readers to submit questions to an expert on urban flooding about the chances that the widespread and severe flooding of this past spring and summer would repeat itself in the future.

Given the wake-up call from the extensive damage, localities and the national government have said all the right things about improvements in flood mitigation and readiness. Professor Tom Coulthard, of the Department of Geography at the University of Hull points out some of the all-too-human obstacles to the most obvious solutions.

First there's the issue of who owns the responsibility for factors like flood water drainage.

There is an interesting split in responsibilities here, as gulleys at the edge of the road are the responsibility of the local council. However, the sewers that the gulleys drain into are the responsibility of the local water utility.
Then there's the issue of whether property owners will consent to having their property registered as being in a flood zone.

Your local water utility should have a DG5 register of properties/areas liable to flooding from sewers, and it may help to be registered on that. But people are reluctant to do this as it may blight houses when it comes to re-selling them.

There were several questions - of course - about allowing development on flood plains. This is being made more difficult by zoning restrictions, but some places still seem to be able to force development through, based on local economic benefits. Professor Coulthard described the following idea as one way to develop a flood plain with minimal land use and coverage by paving.

Multi storey development, with water resistant garages in the ground floor - that can be flooded is one idea that could allow for development on floodplains. I think we need to be creative and think more about living with flooding rather than just trying to stop it.

For most of the questions, the professor had no clear black and white answers. His final sentence summed it up: "It is a difficult issue though and there is no simple answer." We've made so many changes in the natural shape of the land in our watersheds, that property rights get in the way of wise land use. Only if Nature reclaims its natural flood plains through repeated destruction will we let loose of the lands we've occupied so boldly.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Adapt: more smart people agree

The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment (yep, THAT Heinz - of the 57 varieties, the late U.S. senator and Teresa Kerry) published a survey in October examining adaptation planning guidebooks and frameworks and adaptation planning efforts that are currently underway. I've blogged one of the guidebooks, written by the U. of Washington and King County, WA here. In this article, I'm pointing to a second guidebook featured in the survey.

Cities Preparing for Climate Change: A Study of Six Urban Regions, was written and published in May 2007 by the Clean Air Partnership of Toronto. As stated in its Executive Summary:

The study provides lessons from the experience of six of these early adapters: London, New York, Boston, Halifax, Vancouver and Seattle. The report also outlines a systematic process for municipalities to adapt to a changing climate and provides many examples of municipal adaptation policies and specific adaptation measures and actions from the cities studied.
The six city study was meant to serve as an initial scan of Toronto's climate risk exposure. Ian Burton, Scientist Emeritus, Environment Canada wrote the Introduction and he states the overall case for adaptation - as differentiated from mitigation - very well.
The benefits of adaptation fall largely where the costs are expended. If a city protects itself from storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, invasive pests, species, and diseases, it is the people of the city that benefit. Their environment is better, their health is more protected, and their economic activities are less liable to damage and disruption. Many political leaders and business managers in cities have enlightened attitudes to the problem of climate change and would like to make a contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and so they should. However, mitigation requires action at senior levels of government – provincially, federally and internationally. The primary task of municipal leaders is to care for their own citizens. That is what they are elected to do.

Why should the leaders of Toronto and other Canadian municipalities grasp the threats and opportunities of climate change adaptation vigorously with both hands? They should act because adaptation is now an imperative, and because it is primarily their responsibility to see that it happens. This research by CAP is therefore timely and appropriate.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Adapt or Croak

That's the Climate Frog speaking, but don't you think she has a point? If only because a frog (not an alarmist blogger) is saying it, it's not a scary statement. It's a plain and simple choice.

In fact, it's the next great human adventure, but this time - unlike with other historic societal cataclysms - we've got the benefits of science, research, forecasting, high tech inventions and the Internet to help us prepare intelligently for what's coming down the pike.

I say adapt locally, for that's where you can have the greatest effect. But network globally, for that's where you get the big picture.

It's a mistake to think that you're adapting only for new weather patterns in your neck of the woods. You're adapting to the impact in your neck of the woods of changes that are happening elsewhere, miles or thousands of miles distant, not all of them climate-driven:

  • changing climate all over the world, which will affect the global economy
  • changing climate where your food comes from, which will affect what you can buy and eat
  • the inexorable rise in fuel prices, which will make everything you buy (and everywhere you go) more expensive
  • the increasing level of dysfunction in national governments (I'm sure you've noticed) that puts responsibility for smart decision-making in the local community
  • the distraction of global leadership and sidetracking of big money into war and wealth maintenance rather than environmental restoration
Yes, we've had a comparatively affluent and stable ride (at least we lucky few) for most of the years since WWII. But as Jared Diamond points out in his exceptionally illustrative book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, societies tend to be both short-sighted and near-sighted. Leaders set the wrong priorities and followers, well, they tend to comply with those priorities.

There's no guarantee that the increasingly fragmented and stratified American experiment is going to last in its current state until its 300th birthday. Certainly not if it we don't all do our parts - in our own local communities - to prepare intelligently and collectively for how things are going to be, and to prepare our kids and grandkids for the world they'll inherit from us.

This is a good thing, folks. It will be challenging, but uplifting. Frustrating but inspiring. Disruptive but oddly comforting. Adaptation is what we do now, in how we live sustainably.

But adaptation is also voting loudly to demand that our governments and our big industries reset their priorities and lead the world in the right direction for all, not just for the elite few. There's still time for our society to choose to succeed.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Voting on local transportation - Get your assessments straight

Gristmill provides a great article on Seattle regional transportation initiatives voted on in the recent election. In "Transportation and climate get hitched," Eric de Place describes how "voters just sank an $18 billion transportation megaproposal that would have built more than 180 lanes miles of highway and 50 miles of light rail."

The local media seems to have missed the most significant factor in the vote - the extent to which climate impact concerns drove voters' choices. And that voters on both sides of the issue - for and against the proposal - considered that their votes were pro-environment.

In the run-up to the vote, a surprising amount of the debate centered on the package's climate implications. (The state has committed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and many cities, including Seattle, have been national leaders on climate.)

The opposition argued global warming. So did the measure's supporters. If you don't believe me, see, among others, the Seattle P-I (yes), The Stranger (no), the Yes Campaign, the Sierra Club's No Campaign, the right-leaning Washington Policy Center (no), and even the anti-tax/rail No Campaign, which oddly enough kept trumpeting the Sierra Club's opposition as a primary reason to vote no.

The turning point may have been when King County Executive Ron Sims suddenly withdrew his support. He cited the climate-warming emissions from added traffic as one of his chief objections -- he was thinking about his granddaughters, he said, not just the next five years.

King County, of course, is one of the more active American counties in doing local adaptation planning, and is a primary contributor to Preparing for Climate Change: A Guidebook for Local, Regional, and State Governments.

But as Gristmill points out, even in such an environmentally conscious area, there was no comprehensive impact assessment done to inform the voters of the tradeoffs of supporting or not supporting the proposal. If voters are going to be in control of local adaptation planning, it's essential that such huge issues as highway expansion and widening and light rail systems be put under the microscope so that voters understand the short- and long-range impacts of their implementation.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

California water shortage warnings

It's not just Marin, with its plans to start desalinating Bay water, or just southern California with its record dry spell, but it's the rest of the Sierra snowpack-dependent portion of the state that's facing possible rationing. So say the water authorities in this SF Chronicle piece. La Nina is back and it's being blamed for the prolonged drought in the American Southeast already.

California needs an especially wet winter if it is to fill its reservoirs and abide by court-ordered restrictions to reduce pumping by up to a third from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, said John Leahigh, a top administrator with the State Water Project.

That is particularly true in the Sierra Nevada, which stores much of the state's water supply in its winter snowpack. But so far, there is no indication of wintertime salvation.

Government experts predict much of the country will have a warmer and drier winter than normal because of moderate La Nina conditions, in which air cools over the Pacific and the jet stream gets pushed farther north.

But it's already been drier than normal, and unless we get way above normal rain and snow this winter, we'll already be starting with a deficit come next year's dry season. The environmental protection of the Delta Smelt has also prompted a court order to pump less water out of the Sacramento river that would normally go to agriculture and domestic users.

The amount of rain and snowfall California received during the 2007 water year — measured between September 2006 and Oct. 1 of this year — was the lowest since 1988. Southern California is experiencing a record dry spell, leading officials in Los Angeles to warn about mandatory rationing for the first time since 1991.

The dry conditions have left state and federal reservoirs below normal levels. Additionally, state water managers over the summer had to draw down reservoirs to make up for the court decision that halted pumping from the delta for several weeks.

Adaptation would entail learning to use less water in all applications at home, for business and for recreation. But some lawmakers don't seem to want their constituents to have to change habits, and are now writing legislation that would allow - and fund - localities to build their own dams.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special legislative session to address the state's water supply, although those efforts have stalled over a disagreement about building dams. He has proposed a $10.3 billion bond to add reservoirs and underground storage, increase water recycling and promote conservation programs.

Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, has floated a $6.8 billion bond that would allow communities to compete for state grants to build their own dams, improve water efficiency, recycle water and store more water underground.

Monday, November 5, 2007

No salt, please. Desalinating the Bay for Marin

My home county does not, like most of California, depend on snow melt from the Sierras for its water supply. Nor does it, like most of the remaining regions, rely on water from a river. Marin - specifically southern and middle Marin - gets its water from seven reservoirs in the hills covering the central region of the county. These catch run-off from Mt. Tamalpais and its greater water shed. But the rising population and the needs of more large houses with expensive landscaping have combined with the acknowledgement of a greater chance of drought to create a need for another source of water.

I've mentioned the option of a desalination plant, sucking water from the San Francisco Bay and filtering it by reverse osmosis. Now, the talk has escalated to a public environmental impact hearing at the Marin Municipal Water District HQ, where the $115 million first stage plant will be described. No, there are no funds available for the plant; new taxes and/or higher water bills would raise the money. And no, there is no firm plan for mitigating damage from the return of concentrated brine to the bay after the pure water is extracted. Nor is there a plan for generating the electricity required to run the plant, especially in the case of drought, when the plant would need to produce up to twice as much drinking water as during more normal times.

So, lots of unanswered questions. But at least it's a sign that my county is thinking adaptively. Hopefully, this proposal will be accompanied by more public education about conserving the water we have now, when we're only in a mildly drier than normal period.

Monday, October 29, 2007

This blog is adapting, too

Check out the new tagline: Adapting Locally, Networking Globally.

And the new description: Collecting reports of local climate change impacts and responses from around the world, I'm accumulating a database that can be used for strategic planning by other localities as lessons learned, best practices and valuable contacts.

We're on the verge of new social movement. Where it's going is hard to tell at this point, but the pressures to change and adapt are growing. This year will be regarded from the future as a tipping point where the combined effects of extreme weather, economics and dysfunctional government spurred many people to adopt new viewpoints on the way ahead.

Business as usual just ain't gonna cut it from now on. Especially if you've got kids and grandkids, this is a time to begin thinking and acting adaptively. The path ahead may not be clear, but the articles I'm gathering here show that it's smart to stay light on your feet.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Busy professions for extreme drought

If you live in the drought-affected areas of northern Georgia and Alabama, your employment fortunes might be in the dumpster or they may be soaring. Clearly, you'd better be a creative landscaper or nursery owner to be getting any business these days, but as this AP story tells us, well-drillers and water recyclers are unable to keep up with the booming demand, even when an average new well will cost $6500 to drill with no guarantee that water will be found.

"The drought's got people thinking about water more," said Charles Cone of Southern Energy Solutions in Marietta. "I think there's going to be a gradual shift toward this sort of thing."

This summer, Cone's company sold its first residential gray water recycling tank in Atlanta. The system recycles bath, shower and laundry water and reuses it for toilet flushing.

"I think it's going to change people's mind-set," he said. "You don't need potable water to flush your toilet. It's just something we've always done."

And not all landscapers are crying in their begonias. Those who sell and install miserly watering systems are being called on to save private and public greenery with drip irrigation systems and water salvaging reservoirs.

The RainHarvest Company, a suburban Atlanta business that outfits homes with systems that capture and reuse rain, said business has quadrupled since the drought began.

"People have suddenly decided that water is a lot more valuable than it was a few weeks ago. It's pretty typical — the less we have of something, the more valuable it is," said Paul Morgan, the company's co-founder. "We can't do all that business, so we've had to pick and choose."

He installs large underground tanks that capture and store falling rain water. The water can be pumped back into the home and reused in the shower, dishwasher and irrigation system, or it can be purified and used as drinking water.

"We don't want people to change their lifestyle," said Morgan. "But we'll show you how to continually reuse the water so you're not wasting it."

S. F. Bay Area Residents Indicate Willingness to Adapt

Early indications from a poll show that many residents would be willing to live in smaller homes and pay taxes on gasoline if it would lower the emissions levels that cause global warming.

The random telephone poll of 1800 residents of the greater Bay Area elicited the following responses:

64 percent thought global warming was the most important factor to consider when developing transportation and land-use plans. Another 28 percent considered it at least somewhat important.

Asked whether they would choose to live in a small house with a small backyard instead of a larger house that required a longer commute, 74 percent said yes.

On the controversial issue of gas taxes, a 25-cent-per-gallon boost was OK with 45 percent of those responding, but was opposed by 30 percent. At 50 cents, 28 percent approved the tax increase, and 49 percent were opposed. Only 17 percent said yes to a dollar-a-gallon tax increase.

The Association of Bay Area Governments - faced with meeting state-mandated emissions cuts - was relieved to hear of such receptivity on behalf of residents, but the task they face is huge.
The Bay Area might need smaller houses, higher gas taxes and tolls on busy roads and congested business districts if it is to meet the state's goals for the reduction of greenhouse gases, transportation and land use officials said Friday.

"The challenge for us is, are we going to be able to walk the talk?" said Henry Gardner, executive director of the association. "We've been talking for a long time about focused growth, smart growth, but there has not been a lot of smart walk."

For the Bay Area to meet the state goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1999 levels, people will need to drive less and growth patterns will need to change to emphasize infill development over suburban sprawl, said Gardner and Steve Heminger, his counterpart at the commission. That is likely to mean smaller homes and more trips on mass transit, bike or foot.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Wildfire close to home

Looking out my home office window, Mt. Tamalpais can be seen through the haze of smoke that has drifted north from San Diego. Appropriately, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story today about how the homes on the slopes of Mt. Tam are one of the most at-risk homes in the Bay Area.

We've had a few days of heavy rain and it's tempting to think that the fire season is over for us. We haven't had anywhere near the heat and extended drought of San Diego. Yet a fire department engineer stationed on the slopes of the mountain told the reporter, "We regularly take the fuel moisture reading here, and the fuel load right now is at 64 percent. Sixty-six percent is what we consider critical, so I'd say we have to be pretty careful right now."

Not your father's wildfire

Yeah, Southern California is a natural desert area and yes, it gets especially dry every year in early fall. And yes, the Santa Ana winds blow every year creating a heightened risk of fast-moving fire. But this year the conditions were different. It had been hotter and drier through this past summer. The winds blew harder. And housing development further into the brush was just tempting disaster.

My friend, Paul, who lives in San Diego, tells me that San Diego County used to have a 40 acre minimum lot size in the backcountry and there was intense debate on changing the zoning. In what is called GP 2020, the general plan is to make room for a million more residents by 2020. Here's a Sierra Club call for action sent to its members in 2003. It calls for lower density development, lower population and (as a result) less commute traffic in what was were the rural boundaries of eastern San Diego. It could be argued that development alone did not cause the current firestorm, but obviously the exposure of more housing to the potential of wildfires stretches the ability of fire departments to respond and protect. In other words, you move into one of those developments and YOU'RE ASKING FOR IT. Impacts on insurance, taxes, lives and our collective emotions are unavoidable.

The Chief of the U.S. Forestry Service, Gail Kimbell, says, "Fires are burning hotter and bigger, becoming more damaging and dangerous to people and to property. Each year the fire season comes earlier and lasts longer." And as the same S.F. Chronicle article points out:

The 16 wind-blown fires that forced the largest mass evacuation in California history may or may not be the result of climate change, but studies have shown that the hot drought conditions that fed the flames are becoming more common.

The flames stretching from Malibu to the Mexican border struck during the driest year in Southern California history. Measurements taken by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection detected less than 10 percent moisture in the region's vegetation. The moisture level in kiln-dried lumber is generally 12 percent.

"They got less rain than they've ever gotten," said Hugh Safford, a Forest Service ecologist. "Any time you have a dry year like this one, you are going to get fires."

It is so dry that state forestry officials said a newly shod horse started a fire earlier in the year from the sparks it created running on the pavement.

Chronically drier than normal conditions promotes the growth of invasive plant and insect species that may add to flammable material. We all know about the bark beatles that are killing off conifers and leaving forests of firewood. And sources of ignition - specifically lightning - are predicted to increase with the increase of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.

Other experts quoted in the Chronicle article pointed out that the Santa Ana winds had sustained longer than usual in fanning the San Diego flames. And though none could say for sure that the fire was a result of climate change, it was undeniable that the smoke from the fires is contributing to global warming.

One link that can be made, according to Tom Bonnicksen, a California forest and wildfire expert, is how the fires are contributing to global warming. Almost 20 million tons of greenhouse gases - the equivalent of what is emitted in one year by 3.6 million cars - have been spewed into the atmosphere, he said.

"The problem isn't global warming causing fires," he said. "The real problem is these fires contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming."

All of which could be a foreshadowing of worse problems in the future. Kimbell said the fire threat in California and other states is more severe because cities are now pushing up against the wilderness.

Monday, October 22, 2007

How Not to Deal with a Drought in Progress

Athens, Georgia, may have had its act together - at least from what the local utility manager said. But the rest of the state, and its neighboring southern states, too, seemed to have ignored the fact that they were rapidly running out of water. This New York Time story (thank goodness one major paper is closely following these extreme weather stories) tells a story of neglect, irresponsibility, delusion and probably gross over-optimism.

Maybe the past has included plenty of dry spells. A couple weeks during the normal rainy season. A couple months through a hot summer. Even a whole season of hot dry weather, lowering the reservoir levels. But this situation has been going on intensely since the last rains of the winter. Even I've been following the story long enough that it's been plain to me that there was a crisis. But look at what's been going on down there while I've been worrying about them from way out here in California:

The response to the worst drought on record in the Southeast has unfolded in ultra-slow motion. All summer, more than a year after the drought began, fountains blithely sprayed, football fields were watered, prisoners got two showers a day and Coca-Cola’s bottling plants chugged along at full strength. In early October, on an 81-degree day, an outdoor theme park began to manufacture what was intended to be a 1.2-million gallon mountain of snow.

In late September, with Lake Lanier forecast to dip into the dregs of “dead storage” in less than four months, the state imposed a ban on outdoor water use. Gov. Sonny Perdue declared October “Take a Shorter Shower Month.”

On Saturday, he declared a state of emergency for more than half the state and asked for federal assistance, though the state has not yet restricted indoor water use or cut back on major commercial and industrial users, a step that could cause a significant loss of jobs.

Jeez Louise! Can we please elect some intelligent problem solving managers to public office? Soon? Here's more evidence of criminal incompetence:

The sense of urgency has been slow to take hold. Last year, a bill to require low-flow water devices be installed in older houses prior to resale died in the Legislature. Most golf courses are classified as “agricultural.” Water permits are still approved on a first-come, first-served basis.

And Georgia is not at the back of the pack; Alabama, where severe drought is more widespread, has not passed legislation calling for a management plan.

A realistic statewide plan, experts say, would tell developers that they cannot build if no water is available, and might have restricted some of the enormous growth in the Atlanta area over the last decade. Already, officials have little notion how to provide for a projected doubling of demand over the next 30 years. The ideas that have been floated, including piping water from Tennessee or desalinating ocean water, will require hundreds of billions of dollars and painful decisions the state has been loathe to undertake.

What can you say but, "Oy!"

Adapting to Drought in the US Southwest

This week's New York Times Magazine has a long article on the drought in the Southwest by Jon Gertner. I've blogged about this situation here and here, but you've got to read all of this article to come to grips with how water shortage may be the climate change impact that takes a greater toll on humanity than a slow rise in the sea level.

Just considering the Colorado River - one of many rivers in the world that is depended on by people living in otherwise arid climates:

Some 30 million people depend on that water. A greatly reduced river would wreak chaos in seven states: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. An almost unfathomable legal morass might well result, with farmers suing the federal government; cities suing cities; states suing states; Indian nations suing state officials; and foreign nations (by treaty, Mexico has a small claim on the river) bringing international law to bear on the United States government. In addition, a lesser Colorado River would almost certainly lead to a considerable amount of economic havoc, as the future water supplies for the West’s industries, agriculture and growing municipalities are threatened. As one prominent Western water official described the possible future to me, if some of the Southwest’s largest reservoirs empty out, the region would experience an apocalypse, “an Armageddon.
Bradley Udall, whose testimony before Congress was described in the article, took the author to visit some of the reservoirs in Colorado that are being impacted by the drought in the Southwest. He was, in essence, trying to illustrate the need for all of the dependents on the dwindling water supply to begin adapting to the current and future reality.
As he put it, he wants to connect the disparate members of the water economy in a way that has never really been done before, so that utility executives, scientists, environmentalists, business leaders, farmers and politicians can begin discussing how to cope with the inevitable shortages of fresh water.
The water manager for Aurora, Colorado described his town's efforts to find water sources where there are none. Drilling wells next to a nearby river, sucking the river water out through the "filter" of its shoreline, using the water and then releasing treated wastewater back into the river, upstream from their wells allows them to re-use the same water repeatedly...for a while. It's still going to be one of the most expensive municipal water systems in the US, but it may be the method used by other cities in the Southwest to replace the shrinking snowmelt water sources. It may even be adopted by towns in the drying Southeast, like Athens.

But if the current drought is, indeed, the leading edge of climate change and not just a periodic climatic variation, then such measures are just stop-gap. One scientist quoted in the article - Richard Seager - put it this way in a Q&A with the author:
“You know, it’s like, O.K., there’s trouble in the future, but how near in the future does it set in?” he told me. “In this case, it appears that it’s happening right now.” When I asked if the drought in his models would be permanent, he pondered the question for a moment, then replied: “You can’t call it a drought anymore, because it’s going over to a drier climate. No one says the Sahara is in drought.”
This is how they're approaching the megadrought in southern Australia, where it's become known as the Big Dry. Another climatologist, Roger Pulwarty - who has long studied adaptation to dry climates - is worried about this present stretch of drought.
Pulwarty is convinced that the economic impacts could be profound. The worst outcome, he suggested, would be mass migrations out of the region, along with bitter interstate court battles over the dwindling water supplies. But well before that, if too much water is siphoned from agriculture, farm towns and ranch towns will wither. Meanwhile, Colorado’s largest industry, tourism, might collapse if river flows became a trickle during summertime.
The article also includes extensive interviewing with the water manager of Las Vegas, who is endowed with enough money to offer to build large desalination plants on the Pacific coastline to supply California with water in exchange for getting some of Cali's share of the Colorado River water. (Desalination requires lots of energy and produces lots of brine.) Las Vegas continues to grow, and to use water lavishly as a desert city. Perhaps its collapse will come as a result of rising fuel (and airplane ticket) costs before it comes from lack of water.

Can humans adapt under these crisis situations? Can much less water still be enough water?
To Peter Gleick, head of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit based in Oakland, Calif., that focuses on global water issues, whether we can adapt to a drier future depends on whether we can rethink the functions, and value, of fresh water. Can we can do the same things using less of it? How we use our water, Gleick believes, is considerably more complex than it appears.

And the Drought Goes On

It's not like Athens, Georgia's government didn't prepare for a drought. In fact, most responsible local resource districts have contingency plans in place for what they define as a drought - which is an extended period with no rain that most likely won't happen again the next year. In a column responding to public criticism, the manager of the local unified district described what looks like a competent plan, which is still being "methodically implemented." Yet, the actual drought has gone beyond what had been thought of as a "100-year" event.

The column explains that in 1996, a reservoir was planned and subsequently built as a 90-day backup water supply. A Comprehensive Drought Management Plan was developed by the government, in concert with local businesses in 2000 and updated in 2004. In response to that plan, measures were put into action to reduce water usage by 10%, and then by 20% - with public response hitting those goals in both instances.

None of these decisions were easy. As the governing authority, the mayor and commission were called upon to make difficult community-value decisions to provide for critical community needs. They have held to those decisions despite unwarranted criticism from some sectors of the community. They might be called upon to make even more difficult decisions if the drought continues and a 30 percent or greater sustainable reduction in water use is needed.
Now the local government is poised on the verge of implenting what they call "Step F," where "the plan gives first priority for water use to health and public safety; second priority to residential use; and third priority to industrial, commercial and institutional use." In other words, business is going to suffer.

Athens may have been the best prepared community in the drought area, but without rainfall that preparedness may only have bought them a bit more time than their neighbors before the impact lands on livelihoods.

Bioneers boosts hope, fosters inclusion

This past three days I attended the 18th annual Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, CA. For the past 18 years Bioneers has been held there, at the Marin County Civic Center. I live about a 10 minute drive away. I've always considered myself to be at least 50% a counter-culture fellow, but I'd never gone to Bioneers. Without having investigated much, I'd considered it more of a new age festival than a practical, educational opportunity. (So maybe I've been less counter-culture than I've wanted to believe.)

I went this year because, as I changed my focus to climate change, my wife, Nancy, thought it would be a good for me to mix it up with more "environmental types." Little did I know.

No, I did not learn much about how we will adapt materially to changing climate. And no, I didn't make connections with people who might fund my work - at least not to my knowledge. But the 3-day experience was invaluable for the inspiration it brought, and the optimism it bred.

One of the greatest obstacles to adapting to any new environment is the attachment to the old environment. And in American consumer culture, much of that old environment is composed of the conveniences of the modern life that depend on the factors that are causing our climate to change. Look at our dependence on the petroleum-burning engine and the stubbornness with which so many of us cling to the freedom to drive gas guzzlers. Adapting to $10/gallon gasoline is going to be difficult and painful for most Americans.

There are countless other examples. And there are many solutions that can make that adaptation less extreme - more of a transition to other means of transportation, to other sources of food, to less harmful chemicals, to more ecological clothing. Bioneers was more about the hope for such futures than about tearing down the establishment. It was about creativity and care for human life in our approach to the future. It was definitely not a consumer-oriented program. But it included a mix of science, spirituality, compassionate activism, and community building.

I learned that in Climate Frog's presentation of future scenarios, where radical climate change is likely to force social transformation in countless localities, it will be much more effective to foster trust and mutual caring than to foment conflict by jamming change down people's throats. Taking the long view and planning well in advance, communities can come to agreements for mutual benefit and make sure that all residents are included in the decision making. Adaptation must be an inclusive process.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Climate Frog Manifesto

The conscious frog in a heating pot of water knows when to act.

Climate Change impacts are happening.

You cannot afford to wait until state and federal governments get their acts together. They will not save your community.

Each community must assess its local risks.

Each community must motivate and unite its people to plan the best adaptation strategy for its unique location, population and vulnerabilities.

Communities must track the current science as reported by the majority of climatologists

Communities must learn from the experiences of other communities already dealing with impacts of climate change.

You’re going to need to change. Some of you may have to relocate.

Sustainability and greater self suffiency must be essential community goals.

Time's a-wastin'. Start now; it’s going to take a long time to implement your plans.

Don't be unprepared. You have no excuse. You know enough to act.

Staggering sun power stats

John Schaeffer, founder of Real Goods (now owned by Giaim) and the Solar Living Institute (SLI), sold his first photovoltais (PV) module in 1978 and has never stopped. He's the host of the annual Solarfest that I attended last August.

In his latest message to the SLI mail list subscribers he tells about his visit to an annual solar energy conference.

The Solar Power 2007 Conference in Long Beach, California, in late September, was a real eye opener. This young conference has doubled in size every year for the last three years and this year there were nearly 9,000 paid attendees - the largest solar conference ever, unless of course you count SolFest and the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair, which are consistently larger. I've been going to solar conferences since the early 1980s, and most were noted for their rag tag conglomeration of mission passionate solar pioneers with stars in their eyes.
More impressive than the number of attendees, though, were the projections of solar power as a growing portion of total energy needs in California and the world at large. Not bad! Factor in the optimism that inflates every press release from industry-specific industry annual conferences, and it still looks like a good share of the sustainable energy needs we're looking for. Let's hope these positive trends continue and let's do what we can to make them come true.
  • PV has been growing 70% - 80% annually in the U.S.

  • Solar hot water is growing 50% - 80% every year

  • California has an RPS (renewable portfolio standard) of 20% by 2010, meaning we need to have 20% of our power coming from solar by then.

  • Most CEOs estimate that by 2010 we the world market for PV will be about 15 GW (gigawatts or 15,000 megawatts). Compare this to our current level of a little over 2 GW.

  • Today, worldwide, we get 1/10 of 1% of our power from solar
  • By 2030 we will get 30% of our power from solar

  • By 2100 we will get 70% of our power from solar.
The silicon shortage? As John had it explained to him,
One of the biggest challenges in the solar industry today is the silicon shortage, which has caused the major PV manufacturers to limit the supply to its dealers for the last couple of years, which has wreaked havoc for many smaller installers. It is expected now that this silicon shortage will be gone in approximately two years and the solar floodgates will again become wide open. Many manufacturers are working on PV modules that use less silicon like thinner wafers, thin film technologies, concentrators, and metallurgic grade silicon.
John's perspective of the solar industry - as one of the groundbreakers - was also interesting.
Driving home from the conference my strong sense was that the PV market right now is where home computers were in the late 1970's and cell phones were in the late 1990's. It's both gratifying to be a pioneer in this industry having sold the first PV module in America back in 1978 and daunting to see the tidal wave of the solar economy washing up on our shores so quickly. In the long run it's just what we need if we're to have a chance to mitigate global warming.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Georgia drought on my mind

The American Southeast has been baking and shriveling through drought conditions not seen for at least a century. With much larger populations and more land devoted to agriculture and timber, the demands on water supplies have grown proportionately.

Now northern Georgia is facing what may someday be regarded as "classic drought adaptation." What Georgians do over the next year may provide a model of how to (or how not to) change habits, choices and perhaps a regional economy to deal with a radically different definition of "normal."

Today's New York Times story, "Drought-Stricken South Facing Tough Choices," describes " an emergency so serious that some cities are just months away from running out of water."

Officials in the central North Carolina town of Siler City estimate that without rain, they are 80 days from draining the Lower Rocky River Reservoir, which supplies water for the town’s 8,200 people.

In the Atlanta metropolitan area, which has more than four million people, worst-case analyses show that the city’s main source of water, Lake Lanier, could be drained dry in 90 to 121 days.

Typical of our culture of denial, many people are now asking how things could have gotten so bad with no warning or efforts to prepare for it. The Georgia state climatologist called drought "the Rodney Dangerfield of natural disasters." It doesn't get the respect and attention of hurricanes and floods until it reaches extreme conditions where radical conservation measures are demanded.

Local businesses are suffering, especially those that attract customers to what were once lakeside locations.
The lake keeps sinking further and further away from the Little River Bar and Grill, costing the owner a quarter of his customers. As a result, he was forced to layoff four employees on Monday -- and that may not be the end.

"We're trying to hold on to everybody we can," said Ridley. "But you can only pay payroll for so long and continue to operate. So I guess there will be more layoffs down the road."
The Chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce is calling for state legislators to enact a new water plan, including creation of more reservoirs. Those won't solve the current problems, though. There are no wet periods in the winter forecast to offer relief.

Meanwhile, the University of Georgia has created a Drought Website to report on emergency conservation measures, the status of agriculture and condition like the rising number of mosquitos and the accompanying threat of West Nile disease.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A science teacher simplifies your risk management decision

Leave it to a guy who teaches science, probably to high schoolers, to clarify the risk assessment process for taking action on global warming, or as he posits the threat, "climate destabilization." If you've been reading my blog for while, you'll have noticed that I've tried to frame climate adaptation in much the same way, but this guy nails it.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Obama gets it right

Barak Obama is the first - and so far only - to set the bar for capping carbon emissions where it needs to be. We'll see if any of the other viable candidates (Clinton and Edwards) can match it. Gristmill's David Roberts blogs it here. Joe Romm blogs it here. Obama's campaign description of it is here.

Sea Level Rise in a Countywide Plan

In a previous article I questioned whether my home county of Marin was looking closely enough at the impacts of sea level rise on the local built environment including homes, businesses and transportation routes. After having read through the latest draft of our new Countywide Plan, I feel a bit more at ease. I'm not sure if I had much to do with the incorporation of these statements, having grilled one of the county planners about the department's consideration of this elephant under the carpet, but at least the Plan acknowledges the looming danger. It does not, though, make any definitive declarations of zoning changes or plans for levee development. Such changes, when sea level rise is regarded as a conceptual future risk, would no doubt create a political firestorm with business owners, homeowners and Marin's lucrative real estate industry.

Again, I'll go on record to say that nothing in the Plan acknowledges the potential of amplifying feedbacks to speed up sea level rise beyond one meter by the year 2100. The next iteration of the Plan will surely include a reassessment. So here are a few excerpts from the Countywide Plan that other county governments might be interested in seeing:

The Role of Science
Achieving and maintaining sustainability requires keeping up with science. At times, land use and other public policy decisions operate within an institutional framework that does not reflect current scientific information. This is understandable as cutting edge science is always on the move. For example, the multiple causes and effects of climate change, described below, are now well established and current land use decision-making needs to reflect the link between fossil fuel consumption and sea level rise. Keeping up with science is an underlying principle of this Plan. Towards that end, employing evidencebased strategies combined with up-to-date scientific knowledge will provide sound guidelines for taking care of the land, our communities, and the generations that will follow us.
Are threats from environmental hazards increasing?
Many structures lie in hazardous areas, and land for new development may be even more hazardprone. With most easily buildable land already developed, construction increasingly is being proposed on the remaining marginal lots with difficult access and steep hillsides which are subject to slope instability and are vulnerable to rapid changes in fire behavior. Bluff erosion is threatening coastal homes built when bluff edges seemed safely distant. Vegetation that can fuel fires has increased because
natural fires have been suppressed, and residential development continues to encroach on wildlands. Proliferation of impermeable surfaces, alteration of natural drainage patterns, and the effects of climate change have increased the frequency and severity of flood events, and estimates indicate that sea level could rise as much as 36 inches by 2100. Maps 2-9 through 2-15 are utilized by the County in reviewing land use activities proposed in areas with hazard potential.
EH-3.3 Monitor Environmental Change. Consider cumulative impacts to hydrological conditions, including alterations in drainage patterns and the potential for a rise in sea level, when processing development applications in watersheds with floodin or inundation potential.

With increases in sea level due to global warming, flooding is predicted to increase in the future. Locating development in flood-prone areas can expose structures to damage and create risks for inhabitants in the immediate and surrounding areas.
EH-3.k Anticipate Sea Level Rise. Work with the U.S. Geological Survey, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, and other monitoring agencies to track bay and ocean levels; utilize estimates for mean sea level rise to map potential areas subject to future inundation (including by updating information about watershed channel conditions and levee elevations); and amend the Development Code to incorporate construction standards consistent with the policies of BCDS’s Bay Plan for any areas subject to increased flooding from a rise in sea level.
EH-3.l Limit Seawall Barriers. Limit repair, replacement, or construction of coastal sea walls and erosion barriers consistent with Local Coastal Program requirements, and as demonstrated to be necessary to protect persons and properties from rising sea level.

EH-3.n Plan for Sea Level Rise. Consider sea level rise in future countywide and community plan efforts. Consider revising Marin County Development Code standards for new construction and substantial remodels to limit building or require elevated buildings and infrastructure or other applicable mitigations in areas that may be threatened by future sea level rise as shown on maps released by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission in February 2007.
EH-3.o Seek Levee Assistance. Pursue funding for levee reconstruction in those areas threatened by sea level rise, including but not limited to Santa Venetia.

Transition Towns - localized sustainability

One of the smartest things a community can do to prepare for the impacts of climate change is to strengthen its local systems for:

  • disseminating current information
  • dealing with emergency situations
  • developing sustainable energy, food and water resources
  • being as self sufficient as possible
This may sound radical today, when practically every community is reliant on food, goods, water, fuel and power brought in from long distances, but the onset of climate change puts these dependencies on a razor's edge. Extreme weather, rising seas and skyrocketing oil prices are likely to isolate your city, your town, your community and make all of the above abs0lutely necessary.

There's a budding movement afoot in England called Transition Towns. Its founder, an Irishman named Rob Hopkins, is now leading a process called Transition Town Totnes, which he describes as "the UK's first town exploring how to prepare for a carbon constrained, energy lean world."

Transition towns prepare themselves for the day when fuels for transportation become so expensive that imported goods will be unaffordable and local goods and services will have to take their place. A town that has gone through such a transition will grow most of its own food, produce its own essential goods, even use its own currency in order to retain local prosperity. It
will "power down," which is learning to live with less power, and generating power on a hyperlocal level. This adaptation is what Hopkins calls "resilience" - the ability to withstand the shocks that will come with climate change and unaffordable oil.

Transition towns will invest today in teaching their residents the skills required to grow their own food, compost their organic wastes, produce goods that require minimal energy to recycle, and build infrastructure such as greenhouses that will strengthen their sustainability. In Totnes, citizens are conducting "oil vulnerability audits," where business leaders examine the impact of rising oil prices on their as-usual practices. "How will you be impacted when oil is $80/barrel? $100/barrel? $120/barrel? Land is being allocated for planting "food forests" including nut and fruit trees that serve the double purposes of absorbing carbon and providing food.

The town of Willits, in Mendocino County, California, is embarking on a similar path to that of Totnes, UK. Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL) states its mission as:
To foster the creation of a local, sustainable economy in the Willits area by partnering with other organizations to watch for opportunities and vulnerabilities, incubate and coordinate projects and facilitate dialogue, action and education within our community.
Like Transition Towns, it is based on an alliance of community leaders who meet regularly and cover the various aspects required to attain local self-sufficiency and reduce dependency on oil. Here in Marin County, the citizens of West Marin ("over the hill" from the much more developed towns of east Marin) are on a simliar path, with the town of Fairfax providing the best example of a sustainable movement.