Pacific Institute celebrates 30 years of groundbreaking environmental research

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Peter Gleick stood up in a crowded assembly hall on the edge of downtown Oakland holding Pacific Institute’s first publication—“California in the Greenhouse: Problems and Opportunities”— which was released months after the organization was founded in 1987.

“This isn’t available electronically,” like many of Pacific Institute’s more recent publications, Gleick joked. “Electricity didn’t exist.” The crowd erupted in laughter.

Gleick, a co-founder of the organization, its president emeritus, delivered that joke Thursday evening in a speech reflecting on the past 30 years of Pacific Institute, an Oakland environmental research institute turned global water think tank.

Over the last three decades, the group has studied the effect climate change could have on the environment and promoted strategies to make more efficient use of water at the local, state, federal and international level, pushed California officials to consider climate change when making long-term plans for its water supply and successfully lobbied the United Nations to recognize access to water as a human right. Pacific Institute was one of the first groups to call attention to “peak water,” the idea that the amount of water available for human use is reaching its limit.

Last week, about 125 of Gleick’s colleagues, environmental scientists, Pacific Institute funders and well-wishers joined him for the anniversary party at Nile Hall in Preservation Park, a lush office park where the institute is located. A jazz trio played standards by Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, while supporters shared memories, conservation strategies and theories on how to fight and adapt to climate change.

That moment of laughter was one of several, along with commemorative moments like Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf reading a proclamation recognizing the group’s 30th anniversary and “its great ability to bring together people from diverse sectors to solve real-world problems in [California], from community workshops to high-level policy briefings and extensive media coverage on issues related to water, climate, energy and environmental security.”

“The Pacific Institute has effectively translated its research into action at home in Oakland,” Schaaf said. “Therefore, the City of Oakland is looking forward to the next 30 years of exemplary leadership and commitment from the Pacific Institute.”

But the event was also an occasion for serious dialogue about water resources. Pacific Institute President Jason Morrison and California State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus joined a panel discussion about the future of water in California, moderated by Joel Makower, executive editor of the environmental news site GreenBiz.

“What are the biggest [lessons] from the California drought?” Makower asked, referring to the recent end of the 5-year drought, which was followed by the state’s wettest rain season on record.

“How much water we can save,” Marcus quickly replied. Although she said she had been skeptical of residents’ ability to save water during the drought, she concluded that Californians did “really, really well,” reducing their water usage by nearly 25 percent, as ordered by California Governor Jerry Brown in April 2015.

The state government’s emphasis on water efficiency (or reducing the amount of water wasted) and water resiliency (the ability of a water utility to provide an uninterrupted supply of safe, clean water), are strategies that Pacific Institute has been advocating for throughout its history.

“California water policy, for example, now fundamentally accepts things that we pushed 20 years ago on water efficiency, on the need to recycle and reuse wastewater, on the need to integrate climate change into long-term planning,” Gleick said. “Those are things we weren’t doing as a state 20 years ago or 30 years ago.”

***

Thirty years ago, Gleick was a doctoral student at UC Berkeley in what was then called the Energy and Resources Group. In 1986, he had published one of the first studies that examined the effect of climate change on water resources.

The article, “Methods for evaluating the regional hydrologic impacts of global climatic changes,” was published in the Journal of Hydrology and included research from his dissertation. Gleick concluded that water-balance models (equations used to measure the flow of water in and out of a water system, like a drainage basin or column of soil), mixed with general circulation models (which measure the general circulation of a planetary atmosphere or ocean) will show the effect of climate change on a regional water system.

Gleick was doing his earliest work studying the effect of climate change at a time when there was little awareness on the issue. For example, the year Gleick’s article came out in 1986, only 39 percent of Americans reported having “heard or read anything about the greenhouse effect” caused by global warming, according to a 2007 study of public opinion on climate change published in Public Opinion Quarterly.

“I don’t recall specific reactions except for broad interest in the climate science community, given that it was the first detailed regional assessment of how climate change could impact water resources,” Gleick said. “Within a few years other studies started to come out and they all confirmed/replicated my results, which was both gratifying and worrying, given the findings.”

While researching his dissertation, Gleick had been talking to Ronnie Lipschutz, Michael Maniates, fellow students in his department, and Gail Kimmel, a master’s student at  Berkeley, about the need for a new kind of scientific research group.

“The idea was that there were not many places that really did interdisciplinary research and policy work on the environment, economic development, and international security,” Gleick said in an interview hours before the anniversary party. “And that was the mission of the institute to do that kind of policy work.”

The following year, the four of them founded Pacific Institute in a two-room office in Berkeley.

Over the last 30 years, two of the more well-known concepts to come out of Pacific Institute are “peak water” and the “soft path to water.”

Peak water doesn’t mean that the world is literally running out of water, according to Gleick and Meena Palaniappan, a former researcher with Pacific Institute. But it does mean that, in many parts of the world, humans are close to using much of the world’s renewable supply of water. In some parts, humans are beyond the point where damage to the environment caused by taking water from it exceeds the benefits of using the water.

In some instances, like California’s recent drought, the water available for human use was past its limit. Rapid population growth and inefficient use of water, mixed with the increased evaporation of water from the ground and rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water due to rising air temperatures, is causing regions throughout the world to approach or surpass peak water.

The “soft path to water” is a strategy advocated for by Pacific Institute scientists and researchers in which humans would seek out more efficient and innovative ways to use water they have already taken out of the earth, rather than seeking new sources. This includes creating decentralized water systems, using water-efficient technologies like low-flow toilets, and recycling wastewater for use on farms, gardens and lawns, industrial usage, toilets in homes and refilling groundwater basins.

This differs from how industrialized and developing countries accessed water in the 19th and 20th centuries–what Gleick calls the “hard path to water.” This includes, Pacific Institute staff argue, the use of large dams and reservoirs, water pipelines and treatment plants, public water departments and agencies and private companies. The soft path incorporates some of those tools and organizations, but with a greater emphasis on “the delivery of water-related services matched to user needs and resource availability,” according to the group’s website.

Both terms were inspired by phrases that came from scientists who study energy. Peak water was inspired by the concept of peak oil and the soft path to water was inspired by the concept of soft path energy, which was created by co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute and Pacific Institute advisory council member Amory Lovins.

These phrases are now widely known in the environmental and water resources community, and beyond. WIRED featured a 2008 article about how three regions are responding to peak water. In 2010, the New York Times listed peak water as one of its “Words of the Year.” And in 2011, Scientific American asked: “For Peru’s Rio Santa, Has ‘Peak Water’ Already Passed?”

At the anniversary party, Schaaf mentioned Pacific Institute’s role in popularizing the phrase the soft path to water as part of the organization’s legacy and the crowd cheered and clapped in response.

But Pacific Institute has done much more than popularizing those two terms. They have been pushing for the recognition of water as a human right since 1996 with Gleick’s paper “Basic Water Requirements for Human Activities: Meeting Basic Needs.” In 2010, thanks to this paper and other advocates for water as a human right, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution affirming that safe drinking water and sanitation water are human rights.

In 1999, Michael Cohen and Jason Morrison of Pacific Institute and Edward Glenn, an environmental biologist at the University of Arizona, published “Haven or Hazard: The Ecology and Future of the Salton Sea” about the condition of California’s largest lake, which is in the southeastern part of the state. According to Pacific Institute’s website, the lake has a “declining water supply, rising salinity, very high levels of nutrients that generate excessive algal growth and very low oxygen levels.” The 1999 report was the first of several from researchers at Pacific Institute calling for a restoration plan for the Salton Sea that “is based on principles of environmental sustainability and social equity.”

Pacific Institute’s website praised the $80 million in the state’s 2016-17 budget for Salton Sea restoration projects. But the group, along with a coalition of California-based environmental groups like Audubon California, Defenders of Wildlife, Environmental Defense Fund and Sierra Club California, are still pushing for the state to act to restore the lake. In September 2017, representatives of those groups and Cohen, a senior associate Pacific Institute, wrote a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board voicing their concerns.

Gleick also touted the group’s role in pushing the state to consider the effect of climate change on a water system when creating long-term policy. Marcus, who works on water conservation in California with the California State Water Resources Control Board, said that the 10-point California Water Action Plan that Governor Jerry Brown’s administration adopted in 2013 “has water conservation as a way of life, and I think Pacific Institute’s work had a lot to with that.”

At the 30th anniversary party, Gleick held up another of Pacific Institute’s book-sized reports, this one called “California Water 2020: A Sustainable Vision.” In it, Gleick, Santos Gomez, Penn Loh and Morrison said that “a prosperous, healthy California is possible by 2020 with enough water for urban dwellers, a vibrant farm sector, and a robust environment.”

***

As California’s most recent drought proves, there isn’t always enough water for Californians living in cities or operating farms. And as recent natural disasters show, like the 22 wildfires that burned 170,000 acres of land in Northern California, the environment is showing the stress/strain of warmer temperatures and scarcer water. Gleick acknowledges the progress yet to be made.

“The bad news is that there are plenty of water problems out there,” Gleick said. “The good news is that over three decades, I think there’s been a radical transformation of understanding of the nature of global water problems and a much greater push to solving them.”

“When we started working in this field, there was not as much of an understanding of the critical nature of water, the connections between water and climate and energy and conflict. And now I think those connections are much better understood,” he said.

Kathryn Phillips, the director of the Sierra Club California, said that Pacific Institute is part of a broader environmental movement in California that has been going on for decades, not who occupies political office. The institute’s work “helped change the conversation about water in California,” Phillips said during an interview the day before the party. “And it’s done it at a time when it’s essential to change that conversation given what we are facing and are going to continue to face because of climate change.”

Sam Schuchat spoke about Pacific Institute while sitting in his office at Coastal Conservancy in downtown Oakland, days after wildfires started burning over 170,000 acres of land in the North Bay. Winds from the fires carried smoke into the atmosphere of San Francisco and the East Bay, obscuring the view of the San Francisco skyline from Schuchat’s office window.

“California and the West face deep and growing environmental challenges, one of which we’re experiencing today,”  said Schuchat, executive officer of the Coastal Conservancy and one-time board member of Pacific Institute. “I mean, looking outside my window, I can’t see San Francisco from Oakland anymore. That’s how smoky it is.

Schuchat said that water is scarce in California and only will get more scarce, which makes Pacific Institute’s work “more timely, useful and necessary.”

Gleick said that not a lot has changed about Pacific Institute’s mission over the 30 years since it was founded, but one major change took place in 2016: he stepped down as president, handing off leadership to Jason Morrison, who has been working with the organization since 1993.

Gleick said that in addition to the change in leadership, the group is going to partner more with other environmental groups to bolster the amount of research it does. In a phone interview, Marcus pointed out that one of the challenges of the organization is the small size of its staff (21 employees) and Schuchat said one of the biggest challenges was getting funding.

“That’s a good point,” Gleick agreed. “We are a small staff, but we punch way above our weight, given the size of our staff and our budget.”

Speaking to a group of about 30 in Nile Hall prior to the anniversary party panel, new president Morrison told the guests that he sees an opportunity for California to be an example to the rest of the country, and even the world, of how to adapt to a changing environment and create sustainable ways of living.

“Others will be watching,” Morrison said. “If we can solve the problem here, it can have a huge impact globally.”

Today, Pacific Institute is working on several projects. It is helping the United Nations carry out its CEO Water Mandate, an initiative that encourages business leaders to think about water, sanitation, and sustainability. It is continuing its advocacy for the restoration of the Salton Sea. The group has created a “Water Conflict Chronology,” which charts all of the major water disputes in recorded history going back to 3000 BC.

And, realizing that California wasn’t going to reach the goals Pacific Institute had for it in its “California 2020” report, they are still pushing California to cut water use by 20 percent in 25 years, like they predicted the state could do.

“Maybe we won’t be there by 2020, but maybe 2030,” Gleick said at the party. “And frankly, I think we should probably get to work on California 2050.”

Gleick is optimistic about the future of the environment and water, despite the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters–three Category 4 hurricanes made landfall within a month in 2017–and the global water crisis.

“I think we’re really in a transition from the bad old days of the 20th century to what I think will be long-term sustainability and I think that it’s slow and it’s painful,” he said just hours before the anniversary event. “But we’re moving in the right direction.”

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