National Geographic

Water Issues Ripple Through Obama Climate Change Speech

President Obama’s climate change speech on Tuesday from Georgetown University was full of references to climate change impacts on water availability, flooding, and drought.  He dealt head on with key issues of changing water cycle intensity, and in particular, with the increasing frequency of hydrologic extremes.  From the outset, the President invoked the Blue Marble view of Earth from space that has served as the inspiration for modern environmental stewardship.

It was an image of Earth -– beautiful; breathtaking; a glowing marble of blue oceans, and green forests, and brown mountains brushed with white clouds, rising over the surface of the moon,” the President said.

View of Earth from Apollo 8

View of Earth from Apollo 8.

However, President Obama moved quickly to the subject at hand, and also, almost immediately, to water and fire issues:

The 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the last 15 years… Droughts and fires and floods, they go back to ancient times. But we also know that in a world that’s warmer than it used to be, all weather events are affected by a warming planet.

Here at home, 2012 was the warmest year in our history. Midwest farms were parched by the worst drought since the Dust Bowl, and then drenched by the wettest spring on record. Western wildfires scorched an area larger than the state of Maryland. Just last week, a heat wave in Alaska shot temperatures into the 90s.

Farmers see crops wilted one year, washed away the next; and the higher food prices get passed on to you, the American consumer. Mountain communities worry about what smaller snowpacks will mean for tourism — and then, families at the bottom of the mountains wonder what it will mean for their drinking water. Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction in insurance premiums, state and local taxes, and the costs of rebuilding and disaster relief.”

Most scientists, myself included, expect that this is what our future has in store for us.  We’ll see a stronger and more variable water cycle, with well-defined regions of haves and have-nots: the dry areas of the world will become drier, and the wet areas will become wetter. Prolonged drought will be the norm in some regions, and more severe storms and flooding will become routine in others.  And as the President points out, we can expect our western U. S. snowpack to shrink continuously in the coming decades.

Have a look at this figure from our recent paper on how climate change will pose new challenges for water management. It was derived using data from the NASA GRACE satellite mission, and it shows how total freshwater storage (all of snow, surface water, soil moisture, and groundwater combined)  has changed over the last decade. In the figure, we can see that the United States is headed towards two categories of water availability: having too much, as in the northern tier (shown by the blue colors), and having too little, as in the southern tier (shown in yellows and reds).

Embedded within these regions are hotspots where groundwater depletion (California’s Central Valley, the southern High Plains aquifer, and a broad swath of the southeastern U. S. from Houston to Alabama to the Mid-Atlantic states) or flooding (the Upper Missouri River basin) have been the source of major water problems over the last decade.

Groundwater storage trends around the United States as measured by the NASA/German Aerospace Center Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites between 2003 and 2012. GRACE data show water losses in major US agricultural regions such as (1) California’s Central Valley (-1.5 ± 0.1 centimeters, or -0.59 ± 0.04 inches, per year) and (2) the Southern High Plains Aquifer (-2.5 ± 0.2 centimeters, or -0.98 ± 0.08 inches, per year), caused by over-reliance on groundwater to supply irrigation water. Regions where groundwater is being depleted as a result of prolonged drought include (3) Houston (-2.3 ± 0.6 centimeters, or -0.9 inches, per year), (4) Alabama (-2.1 ± 0.8 centimeters, or -0.83 inches, per year) and (5) the Mid-Atlantic (-1.8 ± 0.6 centimeters, or -0.71 inches, per year). Water storage is increasing in (6), the flood-prone Upper Missouri River basin (2.5 ± 0.2 centimeters, or 0.98 inches, per year). The graphs surrounding the main image are monthly time series of GRACE-derived anomalies of total water storage (in centimeter-equivalent water height) for the points annotated (1) -- (6). Monthly data are displayed as darker blue lines. Trend lines (in centimeters per year), in red, have been added to each time series plot. Monthly errors are shown as light blue shading.. Data from University of Texas CSR Release-05 and prepared by Caroline de Linage, UC Irvine. Credit: J. S. Famiglietti and M. Rodell, Water in the Balance, Science, 340, 1300 (2013). Figure appears as Figure S1 in Supplementary Online Materials, Prepared by Caroline de Linage, UC Irvine and Preston Huey, Science Magazine.

Groundwater storage trends around the United States as measured by the NASA Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites between 2003 and 2012.
Credit: J. S. Famiglietti and M. Rodell, Water in the Balance, Science, 340, 1300 (2013). Figure appears as Figure S1 in Supplementary Online Materials, Prepared by Caroline de Linage, UC Irvine and Preston Huey, Science Magazine.

Much of the President’s talk focused on energy sources, energy policy, and greenhouse gas emissions. While these critical choices will affect our waters through the climate and associated hydrological changes that the President highlighted, they are also intimately linked to water supply.  It takes huge amounts of water to produce energy.  Roughly 40% of all freshwater withdrawals in the U. S. are used in energy production.  Meanwhile, the heating, treatment, and transport of water accounts for over 12% of energy use in the United States. That number approaches 20% in California.

But it was the President’s statements on the Alberta oil sands and the Keystone Pipeline, or really what he did not say, that warrant our close attention. Developing the Canadian oil sands (we also call them tar sands in the U.S., which is now politically incorrect up north) directly impacts water quantity and quality.  For example, oil sands production requires vast amounts of water – something like a 4 to 1 ratio of water to oil – so this must absolutely be considered in the full environmental cost.

Oil companies should be required, once the water is used for production, to return it to the environment at a quality that is equal to or better than that before its use.  However, they are not.

“Now, I know there’s been, for example, a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a pipeline, the Keystone Pipeline, that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done. But I do want to be clear: Allowing the Keystone Pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. (Applause.) The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.”

When it comes to huge infrastructure projects like this one, transparency in the evaluation process is essential to build trust between the public, the oil companies, the pipeline company (TransCanada), and the many stakeholders.  My personal opinion is that such evaluation is fraught with challenges, that it typically ignores important environmental costs (like those associated with water, ecology, and habitat), and that the modeling tools available for the job are woefully inadequate.

And then there’s the issue of the pipeline’s route, which, unfortunately, still includes at least one phase that would traverse the northern section of the United States’ largest and most important aquifer, the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer.  The proposed pipeline route has already been modified once, in order to largely bypass the environmentally sensitive Nebraska Sand Hills, where much of the water in the aquifer is replenished. A possible pipeline rupture there would have posed an unacceptable level of risk to our nation’s water and food supply.  The risk of other such ruptures, and of the full environmental impacts, must be fully evaluated, and openly reviewed, along every inch of the pipeline’s proposed route. Go State!

Now seems like a good time to bring up the President’s fracking comments from his State of the Union address.  You may recall that President Obama became very excited about the tremendous reserves of shale gas that we have in the United States.  In case you missed it, he was talking about fracking, then, and on Tuesday.  There are clear benefits to using shale gas. It does burn clean, we do have a lot of it, and it does create jobs.

However, the jobs are short-term boom and bust, and are often filled by a transient work force. Importantly, fracking is an environmental disaster of the highest order.  It uses ridiculous amounts of water, and it injects highly toxic, secret chemical cocktails into the fracked wells, some of which leak through the hydraulically fractured rock, through or along well casings, or onto the land surface…ultimately contaminating local groundwater supplies. All I can say is, I’m glad I’m not the President.

Check out this wonderful map from Ceres called the competition for water in US shale energy development. It combines shale oil and gas play maps with those of water stress from the WRI.

Check out this wonderful map from Ceres called the competition for water in US shale energy development. It combines shale oil and gas play maps with those of water stress from the WRI.

“The hard truth is carbon pollution has built up in our atmosphere for decades now. And even if we Americans do our part, the planet will slowly keep warming for some time to come. The seas will slowly keep rising and storms will get more severe, based on the science. It’s like tapping the brakes of a car before you come to a complete stop and then can shift into reverse. It’s going to take time for carbon emissions to stabilize.

“So in the meantime, we’re going to need to get prepared. And that’s why this plan will also protect critical sectors of our economy and prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change that we cannot avoid. States and cities across the country are already taking it upon themselves to get ready. Miami Beach is hardening its water supply against seeping saltwater. We’re partnering with the state of Florida to restore Florida’s natural clean water delivery system — the Everglades.

“The overwhelmingly Republican legislature in Texas voted to spend money on a new water development bank as a long-running drought cost jobs and forced a town to truck in water from the outside.

“So the budget I sent Congress includes funding to support communities that build these projects, and this plan directs federal agencies to make sure that any new project funded with taxpayer dollars is built to withstand increased flood risks.”

To be clear, the President is really mixing two or three things here – enhanced coastal flooding due to sea level rise, saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers, and inland flooding from severe storms and heavy snowmelt.  However, he gets it. Preparations and bolstered infrastructure are the key to withstanding strengthening weather extremes. They are essential to our resilience in the face of future environmental challenges. They also create steady jobs while protecting our population and our environment.

I got pretty fired up about this next part, because it really resonates with my personal message and with what we do in my research group:

“And we’ll partner with communities seeking help to prepare for droughts and floods, reduce the risk of wildfires, protect the dunes and wetlands that pull double duty as green space and as natural storm barriers. And we’ll also open our climate data and NASA climate imagery to the public, to make sure that cities and states assess risk under different climate scenarios, so that we don’t waste money building structures that don’t withstand the next storm.”

In fact our recent paper and the hotspot figure above point clearly to the importance of satellite data for enhancing the predictability of flood and drought potential.  Look at the Upper Missouri River basin, point 6 in the figure. If I were a flood hydrologist, I would be taking that persistent upward trend in total water storage quite seriously. The great Missouri River floods of 2011 sit right on that spot; and the current, massive floods in Calgary occur on the northern extension of this blue hotspot.

Think of the river basin as a bucket that keeps filling until it overflows.  Knowing the rate at which the bucket fills, and when you are approaching the top of the bucket, is essential for monitoring flood potential. Likewise, if I were managing water resources in Texas or the southeast, I would have implemented my drought conservation measures, and perhaps called in the reserves, long ago.

The problem is that some of the data that we use, namely data from the NASA GRACE satellite mission, while almost uniquely suited to predict flood and drought potential, are not yet released quickly enough for seasonal forecasting.  This is a big problem because use of these data in our national and regional river basin forecasting models has the potential to save hundreds to thousands of lives, and tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in disaster relief and recovery efforts.  I hope that Congress and NASA will agree to make the investment that the President is implicitly asking for to make early release of these key data possible.

Overall, I would have appreciated even more talk about water and climate change, like the need to monitor groundwater withdrawals and water use, the need for more realistic water pricing, even greater conservation and efficiency, and hmmm, how about a national water policy?  However, I’m just being selfish. It was a climate change speech after all.   (But please don’t forget about the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts en route to saving the planet. Oh yeah, and closing the Halliburton Loophole.)

Finally, let me stitch together some of the President’s comments on taking action and on investing in our environment, taken from various points in his speech. They are not directly related to water, but they are themes that I often include in my own talks.  They just sound so much more…presidential…coming from him.

“So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late…

“Don’t tell folks that we have to choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy.

“The old rules may say we can’t protect our environment and promote economic growth at the same time, but in America, we’ve always used new technologies — we’ve used science; we’ve used research and development and discovery to make the old rules obsolete.  So, obviously, we can figure this out. It’s not an either/or; it’s a both/and.

“A low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come. And I want America to build that engine. I want America to build that future — right here in the United States of America.”

Damn straight POTUS, and not just with respect to climate change. We can and we must preserve and protect our waters, and that in no way precludes growing the economy. In fact, a green economy can and will be a strong and vibrant economy. We have the technology and the intellectual resources to monitor, to model, to map and to manage our nation’s surface and groundwaters, far better than we are doing at present.  All we need is the political will, the vision and leadership, to build that sustainable water future right here in the United States.


  1. George Richardson
    Jackson, TN
    July 21, 2013, 4:18 pm

    I am an environmental scientist. Why doesn’t anybody ever talk about the gasoline in the drinking water?? THAT is by far is our largest threat. Our drinking water is full of gasoline, causing diabetes, alzheimers, parkinsons, autism and cancer!

  2. Anny | Global warming
    July 14, 2013, 11:21 am

    I have come to the conclusion that we all have a little blame global warming and its consequences and guilt even more politicians who do not slow down.