Jay Famiglietti’s mission: to rescue us from our bad water habits

If there are stars among the state’s water experts, Jay Famiglietti is one, with titles too long for a marquee: a UC Irvine professor of earth system science and head of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling, and a new member of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board among them. He’d like to rescue us from our bad H2O habits before the last reel, which is why he’s laying out our thirsty realities in places like the 2011 documentary, “Last Call at the Oasis,” and right here.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how scared should we be?

We should be at 11. Let me qualify that: If the drought continues, we should be at 11.

Even in Southern California?

Most of the water management in California and the U.S. is surface water: river flows, reservoir levels. That is extremely well managed in Southern California. They do it so well that things look pretty green and we have not seen mandatory restrictions. However, an implicit assumption is that when there is a gap in supply, everyone can fill the gap with groundwater. Groundwater is mostly unmanaged. We won’t be able to rely on that reserve without long-term management.


We can see whether it snows or rains; we can’t see groundwater. Is that part of the problem?

It is; there’s a lack of awareness of how little there might be. In Orange County, [water] use is 50% groundwater, but statewide, our long-term average is probably a third. That can get over 50% in times of drought. There’s been a long, steady decline in our groundwater supplies, back to almost a century ago, to the beginning of agriculture in the Central Valley, [where] groundwater has essentially been on a one-way path toward decline. Certainly there are ups and downs, but the downs are outweighing the ups.

You were flabbergasted at the NASA data showing disappearing groundwater.

It took awhile for the picture of global groundwater depletion to emerge. It was about 2009 when we published a paper on India, and for me it was, boom! I realized what that big red spot was on the map, and I looked around and saw all these other red spots. That was an unfortunate revelation.

It just rained and snowed like crazy up north. Doesn’t that mean relief from the drought, if not an end to it?

Imagine you’ve been unemployed for a long time and you’re in a huge financial hole. If someone offers you a temporary job, you’re going to take that short-term income, but you’re still in a giant hole. You really need a steady income. That’s where we’re at with our water supply.

The total supply of water on Earth doesn’t change, so why are there shortages?

The water moves around. We see distinct regional patterns; the high latitudes, like the Arctic, and low latitudes, like the tropics, are getting wetter. Mid-latitude regions are getting drier, so the amount of water isn’t changing, but it’s moving around. Some people are going to have more and some are going to have less. In places where they’re getting more rainfall, delivered as floods, it’s a little too much.

Can an individual really make a difference?

Absolutely. The biggest amount of water we use is outside: over 50%. My gardener is going to get really upset with me, but my sprinklers are still off. What I tell people to do is make one or two small changes. I’ll put my undrunk water in my dog’s bowl. I stopped making ice cubes. It takes energy to make ice cubes. Or even using ice cubes — you go to a soda fountain, you take the ice, then you throw it out. That’s one little thing.

Don’t people turn off when they keep hearing “worst drought”?

I believe if people really understood where their water comes from they’d have a better understanding of future water resources. There are people who think their water comes from the tap, including unnamed members of my immediate family.

Should there be mandatory limits?

Some of it should be mandatory. We should start moving toward gallons-per-day limits, maybe, 90 gallons per person. Some water districts are doing tiered pricing. There are people who feel it’s their right to have water, and to some people it’s right up there with gun control.

My first experience with the agricultural community was a congressional field hearing [in 2010]. People had come down from the Central Valley, and any time anyone said anything about climate change, decreasing snowpack, replenishment of groundwater systems, that crowd would boo. If they’d had rotten tomatoes, they would have thrown them. I’ve done more communicating with the ag community, and I’m seeing a change to more understanding of the need to sustain this precious groundwater supply for the future.

Lady Gaga agreed to do a drought public service announcement. You already tried to enlist some celebs to get out the word.

Matt Damon ignores my emails to [Damon co-founded the website on the world’s water crises]. I tweeted to Mark Ruffalo; he doesn’t follow me so he probably didn’t see it. A little star power would help quite a bit. There’s an actor named Mark Famiglietti in L.A. He’s from my hometown of Providence. If he’s looking for a cause, give me a buzz!

Why did the governor appoint you to the Santa Ana regional water board?

I think he wants more scientists on these boards. I went to my first meeting and it was great. I feared it might be just a bunch of permit requests, but I learned a lot about the Santa Ana River basin. I want to bring an understanding of how it all works together and how it’s changing.

How does it all work together?

We move water around like no other state. We can do that because we’re big and we have a big mountain range that usually has a big snowpack.

The biggest thing we face is the right of capture. If you own the property, you can dig a well and pump as much as you want. If you have thousands of property owners pumping away on groundwater, that’s the equivalent of having multiple straws in a glass and everyone drinking at the same time. The level goes down, and no one’s really watching out for that.

In the future we’re going to see big inequities. As the water table drops, it becomes more expensive to pump. You may have to dig a deeper well, which is very expensive. As you get to lower levels of groundwater, the quality degrades so there’s that treatment cost. Smaller farmers may go out of business. That’s the future.

What can big water construction projects do?

The biggest challenge is climate change, so it doesn’t make great sense to me to undertake huge infrastructure projects. We hear people talk about more storage; my response is, there may not be any water to put into that storage. The Bay Delta Plan might be necessary and it might not be. Before spending millions if not billions, our water managers have to think much more carefully about water conservation, efficiency, pricing, more appropriate crops, then big projects.

There’s a new hue and cry for desalination.

We went through the buildup of dams where we really didn’t understand the full implications — trapping sediment, killing fish, hurting ecosystems. Now there’s a rush toward desalination. It’s important in some places; I don’t think it’s a solution everywhere. What about disposal of the brines? I don’t think there’s been significant science done on the impact.

We use drinking water on lawns; we flush it down toilets. And what about gray water? I put a bucket in the shower to collect the water before it gets warm and use it on plants.

Retrofitting [to use gray water] would cost millions. I wish we could make that process easier. I had this conversation with my wife: If we had enough money to build a new house and make it a net-zero water-use house, wouldn’t that be amazing? In this country, we have a very, very high water standard of living. Taking water from the shower and physically moving it — that’s way beyond what most people want to do. We’re spoiled, and we have to move progressively toward this lower water standard of life.

What’s your favorite water movie?

“Last Call at the Oasis”! But besides that, I really like “Rango.” And “Quantum of Solace,” the James Bond movie — it’s all about water.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. Twitter: @pattmlatimes