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Meet the Minds: Roger Bales on Climate Adaptation and Water Security

Water will be central to how we, and the environment, adapt to climate change, says University of California professor Roger Bales, who studies climate adaptation and water security.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
In this Nov. 17, 2014 file photo, boat slips sit on the dry lake bed at Brown's Marina at Folsom Lake, near Folsom Calif. Global warming worsened the record drought in California.Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

How well is our environment and society adapting to climate change? That is one question that has made up the research efforts of Roger Bales, a distinguished professor of engineering at University of California, Merced and an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of California, Berkeley.

Bales directs the U.C. Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative and the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, studying how California can create policies to meet the challenges of climate change, including protecting vital ecosystems and the economy.

As part of our Meet the Minds series, he told Water Deeply about his most recent research and what is most critical for the state to be doing now.

Water Deeply: What are you working on that you want the world to know?

Roger Bales: 1. The Earth’s critical zone, and specifically the critical zone in California’s southern Sierra Nevada. The critical zone is the Earth’s zone of life, between bedrock and the top of vegetation, and is the zone that must adapt in order to sustain the world’s 7 billion and growing population. It must adapt in a rapidly warming and disruptive climate, and in a social environment where most of the global population are realizing that they cannot modernize to the level of resource extraction and consumption achieved by the “fortunate” few.

Water is at the center this adaptation, and is central to whether our management of the Sierra Nevada, watersheds and similar regions worldwide provide a hard or soft landing to the unprecedented, rapid changes that are upon us.

The integrated knowledge that we are developing from research at the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory, and our systems approach to that research, provide the knowledge and tools to both understand critical-zone response to the history of human-directed change, and predict responses to future perturbations.

  1. Water security and sustainability, focusing primarily on the integrated understanding and management of California’s source-water areas, groundwater and agriculture. Through the U.C. Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative, we address questions that are central to water-resources management in the state.

Our research is motivated by larger questions posed by the state, including: i) how much water do we have, ii) where should we move excess water, iii) how can managers save for droughts, and iv) what are long-term land-use solutions for water sustainability?

It is our premise that the cornerstone of water security, and priority need for California, is a modern, robust water-information system that enables accurate, timely and transparent accounting through the water-supply and use cycle. This system must extend from mountain headwaters through valley groundwater.

Investments are also needed in capacity building for use of water information among institutions and stakeholders across the state. Priority infrastructure improvements are needed for central elements of the state’s “green” infrastructure: restoration of Sierra Nevada and other forests in source-water areas, and additional groundwater recharge on farmland and expanded floodplains.

Water Deeply: What surprised you in the past year about work in the water field?

Bales: I will start with a couple of disappointments, followed by a couple of encouraging points.

  1. The slowness of water managers at multiple levels, and other water-dependent stakeholders, to address the urgent need for investment in and management of green infrastructure in California, especially given the unprecedented drought and apparent unsustainable condition of our source-water watersheds.
  2. The relative lack of leadership on adapting our water infrastructure and institutions to climate warming, and the interacting stresses that will render a warmer climate disruptive to the state’s water security.

  3. There was serious debate about advancing the timetable for implementation of some aspects of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. This should provide a foundation for further debate in the coming year.

  4. The legislature passed the Open and Transparent Water Data Act. This should provide a foundation for further development of a modern, robust water-information system in the coming year.

Water Deeply: Who or what do you find most inspiring in your field?

Bales: My colleagues and collaborators working on the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory, and the U.C. Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative. Given the multifaceted nature of our research questions and the state’s sustainability challenges, a multidisciplinary group of mutually supportive investigators is essential.

Water Deeply: What’s the one most important thing California should be doing right now to create a sustainable water future?

Bales: Developing and investing in a modern, robust water-information system that enables accurate, timely and transparent accounting through the water-supply and use cycle. This system should address requirements outlined in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the Open and Transparent Water Data Act.

However, it should also be designed to more broadly address water-resources decision making in the state, and thus enable considerations of sustainability to enter into a wider range of actions and decisions.

Water Deeply: Looking out 10 years from now, what do you hope California will have accomplished on water issues?

Bales: 1. Have established a functioning, expandable, modern, robust water-information system as a sustained partnership between state agencies, the private sector, UC/Cal State and other stakeholders.

  1. Have implemented a sustained program to upgrade and maintain essential green infrastructure, including source-water areas and groundwater-recharge facilities. This program should be a partnership for financing and adaptive management, engaging state, federal, private-sector, university and other stakeholders.

  2. Have engaged all water agencies in the state in adapting to climate change, and implementing measures to meeting the state requirements for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Water agencies have the opportunity to be leaders in their communities, in the state, and more broadly on both adaptation and mitigation. Water agencies should establish themselves as trusted sources for information on climate and sustainability issues.

Read more in our Meet the Minds Series:

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