Q&A with Leon Szeptycki: Climate change and water in the West

August 07, 2017 | Stanford News Service | News

Devon Ryan

The American West has always been a region of water extremes – from droughts that parch the landscape one year to extreme wet weather and flooding the next – but scientists warn the climate of California and the American West is becoming even more extreme. Just recently California had the driest 4-year period on record from 2011 to 2015, and then 2016 to 2017 produced the wettest year on record for the state.

Water scarcity, groundwater depletion and frequent flooding threaten both the environment and society, and as those problems become more extreme so too will the conflicts between groups who want access to the water. In an attempt to resolve these problems, Stanford’s Water in the West program is integrating science and policy to find solutions for water users, resource managers and other stakeholders.

Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Water in the West and an environmental lawyer, discussed the challenges and opportunities facing the West and its water and explained why he’s optimistic about the future.


What are the most significant challenges to a sustainable water future for the West in the long term?

In the West, 80 to 90 percent of water gets used by agriculture and 10 to 20 percent gets used by municipalities. In a normal year, everyone does fine, but in a dry year, we aren’t very nimble and that really causes more hardship than it should. We need to create more flexible ways for agriculture to adapt to drought so that farmers can keep making money and producing food in times of scarcity without seeing major drops in income, employment or productivity.

But the real challenge and the backdrop for all of this is climate change.

When a community puts together its long-term water plan, the decisions have been based on the assumption that the next 100 years will be the same as the past 100 years. That approach will no longer work in the era of climate change. The last 10 to 15 years have already been significantly different – warmer, with more extremes – and that will only get worse as the climate changes more. So we have to figure out how to keep agriculture sustainable, reduce our overall water footprint, and make smart planning decisions, all with the backdrop of a changing climate.

The other major challenge is allowing for the protection and restoration of aquatic ecosystems. Water infrastructure and water withdrawals have dramatically impaired the resiliency of those ecosystems. The added stress of climate change will place acute pressure on aquatic species and on our efforts to protect them.


Does the program work with the new groundwater law in California?

One of the goals of our program is to work closely with decision makers to provide research that can be immediately helpful, and the new groundwater law is a great example of that. Water in the West is working on a number of research projects that will produce tools to help state and local agencies implement a recent law – California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) – that was enacted in 2014 and requires sustainable groundwater management in the state. The law pushes responsibility to local entities – some of which have plenty of resources, some of which don’t.

By 2017, all the various entities in the state had to identify groundwater sustainability agencies, the actual entities that are going to implement the law for their area. Now those GSAs have to write groundwater sustainability plans by either 2020 if their aquifer is in severe overdraft and 2022 if it’s not.

Water in the West is looking to provide information and resources to local and state agencies as they implement the new law. This includes projects on governance, data needs and new geophysical methods to understand aquifers and their function.


What about infrastructure and the environment?

Our urban water policy work, in partnership with ReNUWIt, which is the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center for urban water infrastructure, is focused on creating cities that are more like sponges that can soak up water to use later and less like hard pavement where water runs off after flooding. That work includes developing policy and financing strategies to facilitate new urban water infrastructure tools.

Watershed health and making water more available to ecosystems is another priority. As a lawyer, I’ve worked with Stanford law students focused on legal tools that facilitate the transfer of water to the environment. We also have a new partnership with the Natural Capital Project that focuses on the value of ecosystem services, to look at different ways of managing forests for fire risk and grazing practices to improve water yield.


Are you optimistic about the future of water in the West?

I am fairly optimistic because compared to a lot of other places in the world we have a lot of water and there are a lot of inefficiencies in the system that can be tightened up. We’re not going to run out of water in the West, but both cities and farms are going to have to change. I’m confident we’ll get there in the end.

However, with such intensive human uses of water and modification of the natural landscape, the environment has really suffered. There’s a large number of aquatic species that are now listed under the Endangered Species Act. While we should have enough water for people, we’re not on a path for good stewardship of the environment. I really worry about that.

How achievable sustainability is really depends on how bad climate change turns out to be. Some climate futures will result in a radical reshaping of Western ecosystems and will require more drastic changes in management. This all depends on which predictions are correct and more critically on how much we mitigate carbon emissions over the next 20 years.

Leon Szeptycki is also professor of the practice at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Water in the West is a joint effort between the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Bill Lane Center for the American West.