UCR Magazine The Magazine of UC Riverside

Fall 2014

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A Water­shed Moment

California’s historic drought reveals the all-important ways that UCR can help the state — and the rest of the world — manage its water.

Michelle Woo

“Water cops” patrol neighborhoods to catch people hosing down their driveways or ignoring leaky sprinklers. Homeowners are spray painting their parched lawns green. Restaurants won’t serve water unless a customer asks for it. Marinas and boat ramps are shutting down for the season. Ranchers are selling off cattle they can’t feed. Wells are collapsing, food prices are rising, and in some areas where groundwater is being sucked dry, the earth is literally sinking.

California is facing what some experts say is the worst drought since record-keeping began in the late 1800s. According to a report commissioned by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, an estimated $2.2 billion in damages, along with more than 17,000 farm-related jobs, will be lost this year. Five percent of cropland will go out of production in the Central Valley, Central Coast and Southern California, the study also found. With the state reigning as the largest agricultural producer in the U.S., the drought will have ripple effects across the country and possibly the world.

And there’s no end in sight.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency, and in his 2014 State of the State address, charged all Californians to take action.

“Among all our uncertainties, weather is one of the most basic. We can’t control it. We can only live with it, and now we have to live with a very serious drought of uncertain duration. … We need everyone in every part of the state to conserve water. … Water recycling, expanded storage and serious groundwater management must all be part of the mix. … It is a tall order. But it is what we must do to get through this drought and prepare for the next.”

While the outlook remains grim, the good news is that the extraordinary amount of water we waste, everywhere from farming to bathing, means there’s room for real conservation. Riverside is the hub of the Southern California metropolitan water district system, and UCR has been instrumental in connecting science and policy to address challenges in water scarcity and quality. University experts are delving into every level of water management, bringing forth insight from an array of disciplines — engineering, economics, biology, agricultural operations, earth sciences and public policy. They understand that if we’re going to emerge from the drought, it will take more than simply tightening our belts, temporarily, until the emergency is declared over. It will require a push for fundamental changes in practices, and the cultivation of a new generation of scholars to make decisions on how we use and save this precious resource.

How Deep are Our Water Problems?

A statistical look at California’s historic drought


60 million
Californians expected by 2050. That’s more people, farms and businesses who will rely on our rivers, reservoirs and groundwater basins for their daily needs.

Gallons of water per day that Californians use on average (though use varies across the state).

Percent of the state’s developed water supply used for agriculture.

Agricultural workers expected to be out of a job this year.

Acres of irrigated cropland to go out of production in the Central Valley, Central Coast and Southern California.

Percent of the state facing dry to severe drought conditions.

Percent of California considered to be experiencing an “exceptional” drought — the harshest on a five-level scale.

$2.2 billion
Total statewide economic cost of the 2014 drought.

Rural communities that were within 100 days of running out of drinking water, given current patterns of water supply and demand.

The amount per day that water-wasters may be fined under an emergency state rule.

Here are seven bold solutions to managing the drought from UCR experts

The Problem:

Consumers are disconnected with water scarcity due to a one-price-fits-all billing system.

The Solution:

Adopt a smarter tiered pricing structure. Households pay more per unit when their water consumption exceeds an “efficient” level of use.

Shower runningIn California, we price water the way we price most other goods — each unit costs the same no matter who you are, where you live, how much you buy and when you buy it. This may work with golf balls or cans of soup, but it doesn’t make sense when we’re talking about a depleting resource. “Uniform pricing doesn’t send a signal to the consumer that water is scarce,” says Kenneth Baerenklau, an associate professor of environmental economics policy.

Baerenklau and his team were the first to study the water conservation potential of “allocation-based water pricing,” or simply, water budgets. The strategy alerts residents of the deficit in a place where they’ll surely notice: their water bill.

Under this innovative cost structure, a city’s water utility assigns each household an amount of water, or “block,” that should cover residents’ essential uses, such as cooking, cleaning and bathing. The block size can vary among households and change based on conditions — factors such as the number of residents, an area’s irrigation quality and the time of year can all be calculated into the amount. In the most basic blocks, water is priced fairly low. Use more water, and you’ll climb into a higher block, where water use is considered “excessive” and the price per unit increases substantially. Reach the top block and you’re now in the “wasteful” zone, where the price per unit skyrockets.

“Uniform pricing doesn’t send a signal to the consumer that water is scarce.”

Kenneth Baerenklau

The goal is to motivate consumers to reassess their old water use habits and develop new ones, while also creating a more fair system. With uniform pricing, when demand for water is high, and especially during periods of drought, water districts must find additional supply sources and the expense is passed on to all customers, even those use little water.

Right now, only a handful of water utilities in California use water budgets. But the ones that do are seeing results. The Irvine Ranch Water District, one of the earliest adopters of the conservation strategy, reports that in the 13 years following the introduction of water budgets, average per-acre outdoor water use declined by 61 percent. Baerenklau wanted to analyze the pricing tool more extensively so he followed the monthly water use records of 12,000 single-family households from the Eastern Municipal Water District of Southern California, which covers a diverse region of western Riverside County. The district switched from flat-rate pricing to water budgets in 2009. About three years after its implementation, water demand was 17 percent below where it would have been under the old pricing structure.

With water budgets, those who waste water will be hit the hardest. “Maybe they’re leaving the hose running while washing their car or watering their lawn during the day,” Baerenklau says. “They can get down into the first two blocks just by paying a little more attention.”

The Problem:

The drought has brought on the fire season earlier than usual, leaving more opportunity for extreme fires in areas that haven’t burned in a while.

The Solution:

Reduce fire suppression and accept natural burning.

Lit fuse burning toward trees.“The drought could make this the worst fire season ever in California,” reads a typical news headline about the state’s exceptionally dry conditions.

But this may not be the case, says Richard Minnich, a professor of earth sciences and fire ecology expert. The two natural hazards are connected, he says, though not in the way that many assume.

Yes, the drought has turned the state into a tinderbox on the verge of igniting. “Fire season” began earlier than usual this year as plants quickly used up the water in the soil—or what little of it was available, then dried down to a flammable state. Yet according to Minnich, it’s not simply ignitions we should be worried about.

“With avalanches, you don’t count every snowflake,” Minnich says. “You worry about the weight of the show. With wildfires, it’s not about the little spark. What drives fires is decades of growth.”

In predicting fire catastrophes, Minnich says it’s crucial to note how long it’s been since the last time the area last experienced a fire. Young vegetation is very difficult to burn, even during a drought. Therefore, fire hazard is very low in grassy areas of Riverside and San Bernardino counties and the Los Angeles Basin, and the danger is “virtually zero in the desert,” he says. But Minnich warns that dense, old-growth forests are filled with dangerous levels of fuel energy, and residents there are basically “living on a carpet bomb.” This includes Idyllwild, Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear. The land east of Redlands should also be on high alert, as much of the chaparral has not burned in 60 to 100 years.

Rich Minnich

Richard Minnich

“With wildfires, it’s not about the little spark. What drives fires is decades of growth.”

Richard Minnich

While his views are controversial, Minnich believes that the massive wind-driven fires of the last few decades are the result of fire suppression, which is driven by policy makers. In other words, we cause fire disasters by stopping the natural cycle of fire. Before we intervened, fires were a natural part of the California ecosystem, says Minnich, who is working on a book that examines the patterns of fire and how they’ve changed over time since 1860. “In the 1800s, fires burned slowly and over long periods of time—many individual fires would persist for months,” he says. “Fires have become larger and more severe with time.”

Minnich proposes using more livestock to clear out the combustible underbrush. Even bolder, he’s pushing for more burning in California to reduce fuel buildup and increase water yield for our reservoir and aqueduct system. “In Southern California since 2002, we have burned 3 million acres of chaparral and forest. Three million. That’s a huge number. We are seeing outbreaks of fire that are unprecedented historically because of the management. Suppression is not stopping the process—it never will. When do we declare the policy a failure?”

The Problem:

The drought is forcing California to reuse water for agriculture, but our country doesn’t have the right tools or policies in place.

The Solution:

Adopt strategies from Israel, a worldwide leader in reclaimed or recycled water.

Plants growing in a bathtubIn the Negev, an expansive region of southern Israel, farmers tend to a colorful harvest of tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, dates, zucchini, grapes, melons and avocados, all ripening in the sun.

If it wasn’t for hot, dry air torching your skin, you’d almost forget that this is a desert, once thought to be uninhabitable.

When it comes to agriculture in Israel, nature isn’t on its side. The land is plagued with poor soil conditions, a harsh climate, rugged terrain and chronic water shortages from drought and disputes with neighboring countries over water rights. And yet this desert blooms. What is Israel doing right? And how can the arid landscapes of California follow?

Sharon Walker, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering at the Bourns College of Engineering, went to the country to find out. About five years ago, she spent 10 months in Sde Boker on a Fulbright scholarship at the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research of The Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, a satellite research campus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Sharon Walker

Sharon Walker

“Israel’s re-use strategy is one that California must adopt at a large scale … if we are to not only survive the drought, but to flourish in a climate-change-plagued future.”

Sharon Walker

“When you are an arid tiny country — approximately the size of New Jersey — you must be deliberate in your water management and consumption,” says Walker, a world expert on why bacteria stick to certain surfaces, a crucial issue when it comes to treating water by removing those particles. “Water conservation and reuse is an ingrained part of their culture.”

The country goes to heroic lengths to use resources sparingly. According to the Global Water Fund, over 80 percent of all municipal sewage is reclaimed in Israel, far more than that of any other country. (The U.S., by comparison, recycles 2 to 3 percent of its municipal waste.) It’s estimated that treated wastewater will cover 50 percent of Israel’s agricultural needs by 2020.

For many years, Walker says, Israel has been practicing “desert agriculture” techniques, many of which were learned from the Nebateans, an ancient people that ruled the region for a few hundred years beginning before 300 B.C. They collected and conserved rainwater, which allowed them to establish and run thriving spice trade routes across the Middle East.

More recently, Israeli scientists have been able to genetically engineer crops with salty “brackish” water from large aquifers beneath the Negev — a technological and biological breakthrough. Brackish water agriculture has achieved record strides and enabled Israel to export 50 percent of its produce.

With a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, Walker created an exchange program for UCR and Israeli graduate students and faculty, so they can kick-start and collaborate on projects that will last for years. She also established a curriculum exchange with the Israeli professors to share course materials.

In the U.S., agriculture accounts for 80 to 90 percent of the nation’s consumptive water use. And yet in a USDA report, the U.S. ranked last among 147 countries in water efficiency.
Walker says we need to turn those numbers around. “[Israel’s] re-use strategy is one that California must adopt at a large scale, for agriculture and other potable applications, if we are to not only survive the drought, but to flourish in a climate-change-plagued future,” she says.

The Problem:

The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is melting earlier than it used to, reducing runoff and the amount of crucial water available downstream.

The Solution:

Reduce particulate pollution.

Snowpack meltingA critical source of California’s water supply is snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountains. The process is a wonderfully predictable one — snow accumulates from November through March or April and then melts from April through June or July, just in time for farmers to use the spring runoff to grow crops. But there has been a general trend toward an earlier snowmelt, which can mean longer dry seasons and reduced water resources in the summer. Dams aren’t big enough to hold so much water at once, so they flood. It also allows water to evaporate into the atmosphere before it’s captured, and exposes vegetation sooner, so plants lose water through the exhalation of vapor.

Most scientists blame the phenomenon on global warming, but James Sickman, a professor of hydrology and the department chair of the school of environmental sciences, has a different idea.

His explanation for the dilemma: The snow is too dirty.

“White snow is really reflective,” he says. “You have to wear sunglasses to look at it. Really clean, fresh snow is resistant to melting. Solar energy is what melts the snow. When air pollution, including soot from diesel engines and power plants, falls on the snow’s surface, it becomes darker, reducing its ability to reflect sunlight and increasing the solar energy that it absorbs.”

An annual average of approximately 35-billion cubic feet of water is lost from exhalation and evaporation — enough water to supply Los Angeles for 18 months.

The theory hasn’t yet widely caught on, but Sickman says the phenomenon is happening worldwide. A team led by a NASA scientist examined the impact of human-produced dust deposits on mountain snowpacks over the Upper Colorado River basin between 1915 and 2003. The amount of dust falling in the Rocky Mountains increased by 500 to 600 percent since the mid-to-late 1800s, the report stated. An advanced hydrology model simulated the balance of water flowing into and out of the river basin under current dusty conditions, as well as previous conditions. What was revealed: An annual average of approximately 35-billion cubic feet of water is lost from exhalation and evaporation — enough water to supply Los Angeles for 18 months.

Sickman believes the effects of particles on the Sierra Nevada mountains are much more subtle, but he wants to research the theory further and is currently looking for funding. He says California must regulate particulate pollution more stringently. “One of the biggest sources of particulate matter is the truck fleets that move all the goods from the container ships,” he says. “And there are other sources in agriculture and industry. We can counteract some of the damage and maintain the snowpack a little longer.”

The Problem:

Policymakers, scientists, water managers and residents all face different concerns and restraints, making it difficult to come up with clear conservation strategies.

The Solution:

Foster collaboration and take a “portfolio approach” to water management.

Hands reaching toward dry skyKurt Schwabe can talk about water all day. He may be meeting with a grape grower about irrigation strategies on one afternoon, and then interviewing a lawyer about water rights the next. He’s had conversations with agronomists, ecologists, economists, hydrologists, irrigation specialists, water managers and policy makers, all with the mission of turning science into solutions.

It can be easy for water professionals — academics and those in public utilities departments — to work in a bubble. “Researchers are often interested in more methodological issues and are given the luxury of extracting from real-world constraints imposed upon water managers,” says Schwabe, an associate professor of environmental economics and policy. “On the other hand, water managers may identify cost solutions without considering political implications and issues of fairness.”

Schwabe, along with colleagues Ken Baerenklau and Ariel Dinar — all members of UCR’s Water Science and Policy Center (who will be moving to the university’s School of Public Policy) — have been charged with better understanding the day-to-day water challenges confronting the public. This summer, they helped organize the first urban water management workshop at UCR, which connected academics from a number of research institutions with water agency officials. In their discussions, they found that much of the effort to balance water supply and demand must be at the local level.

The UCR experts have given talks to water managers on what works and what doesn’t, and helped them better analyze the results of conservation programs. They’ve developed a partnership with the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority, which aims to create a sustainable Santa Ana River.

Kurt Schwabe

Kurt Schwabe

Kurt Schwabe encourages individuals, agencies and the state to arm themselves with an array of options to reduce their vulnerability to water scarcity.

Managing the drought isn’t going to require just one solution from a single entity. Schwabe encourages individuals, agencies and the state take a “portfolio approach” to water management, and to arm themselves with an array of options to reduce their vulnerability to water scarcity.

Within the agricultural sector, that would likely mean having access to a groundwater source and a surface water source. Groundwater often serves as a good buffer against drought, but unfortunately, many groundwater systems are poorly managed and suffering significant overdraft. So agencies and growers must seek out other options to add to their portfolios — groundwater banks, water markets, reuse of agricultural drainage water or treated municipal wastewater, and increased storage capacity. “The use of groundwater banks during the last significant drought in the early 1990s was estimated to reduce the impact of drought in the Central Valley region by nearly $104 million,” Schwabe says. “Water markets, alternatively, have been estimated to reduce the economic impacts of drought to agriculture by over 3o percent in the U.S. and Australia.” He adds that most Southern California water agencies, and particularly the Metropolitan Water District, have been extremely proactive in increasing and diversifying their water portfolios since the drought in the early 1990s.

Through collaboration, all those who manage water can have the tools necessary to implement clear, science-backed strategies. Schwabe and other UCR experts want to provide water agencies with information they believe is relevant to them. “But we also want to hear what they have to say,” he says.

The Problem:

Current guidelines overestimate the amount of water needed to maintain necessary salinity levels for healthy crops.

The Solution:

Propose new guidelines.

Garden hose dripping water on salt shakerWhen it comes to agriculture, salinity is a sensitive issue. If various salts in irrigation water — chloride, sulfate, bicarbonate, sodium, calcium and magnesium — build up in the root zone, plant growth and yields can be affected. In the worst cases, the soil can become too saline to use at all.

“Leaching requirement” (LR) guidelines were published in the 1980s to help growers manage salt buildup in crop fields. They specify how much extra water should be applied to maintain maximum health and growth.

Chris Amrhein

Chris Amrhein

But it turns out the guidelines may be off. UCR’s Laosheng Wu, Christopher Amrhein, John Letey and James Oster were part of a workgroup appointed by the UC Center for Water Resources that revisited the values and found that they were too high — a promising discovery in addressing the drought.

John letey

John Letey

In an Agricultural Water Management article, the workgroup explained the problem: “Mathematically, a steady-state flow analysis does not include a time variable … Steady-state specifies that applied irrigation water is continuously flowing downwards at a constant rate, irrespective of irrigation frequency … that evapotranspiration is constant over the growing season. Consequently, steady-state solutions assume that the salt concentration of the soil solution at any point in the soil profile is constant at all times. None of these are real.”

James Oster

James Oster

“In the context of drought, every drop of water saving is meaningful.”

Laosheng Wu

Laosheng Wu

Laosheng Wu

The bottom line is that growers may be able to get by with less water. If that’s the case, as the workgroup shared with California Agriculture, groundwater might be more easily protected from pesticides and nitrates carried in drainage water. And if water with elevated salinity levels can be used for irrigation, more water might be available other uses.

The workgroup has recommended new guidelines for regulatory agencies, such as the California State Water Resources Control Board, that manage the quality standards for bodies of water that supply irrigation to growers, such as the San Joaquin River.

“In the context of drought, every drop of water saving is meaningful,” Wu says.

The Problem:

Extreme weather events, including drought, leads to an inevitable loss of crops.

The Solution:

Treat plants with a new chemical to help them retain water.

During periods of drought, plants try to cope by activating a set of protein molecules called receptors, which turn on processes that help them survive. Some make it. Many do not. The loss of crops can be devastating for growers and increases the cost of food worldwide.

With his team of plant cell biologists, Sean Cutler has discovered a chemical that mimics a naturally occurring stress hormone in plants that arms them against extreme conditions. It’s a monumental step in improving crop yields in extreme weather.

Sean Cutler

Sean Cutler

“Since farmers have always desired fast-growing varieties, their most valued strains did not always originate from drought-tolerant progenitors,” Cutler, an associate professor of plant cell biology, told UCR Today. “As a result, we have crops today that perform very well in years of plentiful water but poorly in years with little water. This dilemma has spawned an active hunt for both new drought-tolerant crops and chemicals that farmers might use for improving crop yield under adverse conditions.”

The plant hormone abscisic acid (ABA) orchestrates the opening and closing of the pores, an important process when it comes to adapting to stress. Scientists have tried simply spraying ABA on plants, but that’s too expensive to do on a large scale. Cutler and his team searched through many thousands of molecules to identify inexpensive synthetic chemicals that could mimic ABA. They finally came across one they named quinabactin, a molecule that’s nearly indistinguishable from ABA in its effects, but much simpler chemically and therefore easier to make.

The UCR Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) is working with an agricultural leader, Syngenta Biotechnology, Inc., to develop the technology.

At UCR Every Drop Counts

Director of Sustainability John Cook talks about water-saving measures on campus

Last January, UC President Janet Napolitano made it a goal to reduce water use throughout the UC system by 20 percent by the year 2020. “The 2020 goal builds on the groundbreaking water-related research that takes place on our campuses every day,” she added. “These efforts are critical to addressing the formidable water, energy and climate challenges facing California, the nation and the world.”

As a response, here are five ways UCR has stepped up to contribute to the preservation of the state’s most precious resource.


UCR has reduced the amount of water used in irrigation by 15 percent, or 18 million gallons. “Approximately 50 percent of our potable water use goes to landscaping irrigation,” said Director of Sustainability John Cook. “Almost none of the agricultural research lands use potable water.”

The campus is also switching the Botanical Gardens from potable water to nonpotable water for irrigation, with an estimated annual savings of 22 million gallons.

In addition, landscaping at newly constructed buildings such as the School of Medicine uses drought-tolerant plants.

Physical Plant is working to fix leaks in the chilled-water system, providing another 300,000 gallons of savings.

Housing is retrofitting the showers and faucets with aerators in Glen Mor 1 with an expected water savings of 1.2 million gallons.

The Office of Sustainability, Plumbing and Housing, Dining & Residential Services have been auditing restrooms across campus looking for leaks, missing aerators and inefficient toilets. “If funding is available from an outside source we would replace the toilets,” Cook said. Housing was able to replace over 200 toilets in Oban through a full cost rebate program.

Water conservation will be promoted throughout the academic year with outreach campaigns at the nooners, the Green Labs and Green office certification programs. At nooners, information will be disseminated through games and presentations.