Sean Fleming: The Water Year in Review

The top five water-related news stories of 2017—and what to expect for 2018

FlemingThe thing about water is that something’s always happening, and the implications of that fact are growing – fast.  What are the top five water-related news stories of 2017?  Read on to see, along with a little context and some implications for next year and beyond.

Oops!  (The Oroville Dam evacuation)

Possibly the most obvious water story of 2017 happened right after the New Year: nearly 200,000 Californians were evacuated beneath Oroville Dam as it threatened to fail under record flooding, which in turn ended a historic drought that had cost the state billions of dollars.  Previously of little note to most living outside the region, Oroville is in fact the tallest dam in the US.  It’s located on the Feather River, a headwater basin to the Sacramento River that drains the western slopes of the snow-laden Sierra Nevada and Cascades in the wet, northern part of California.  Oroville Dam is a key component the California State Water Project, shifting water into the California Aqueduct to help irrigate the Central Valley, which produces about 25% of the food consumed in the US, and to transport water to southern Californian urban centers.  Critics charge that in spite of its size and status as a cornerstone of the civil works in a heavily populated but largely arid state where water is everything, dam maintenance and upgrading lagged far behind, setting the stage for problems.  Record rains in February provided the trigger, and the main spillway failed – which might in turn have undermined the dam as a whole, sending the entirety of massive Lake Oroville downstream all at once in a wave of destruction and death.  Disaster was averted, but the costs were tremendous and the risks were real.  For thoughts on improving America’s river infrastructure, see my recent Scientific American post.

Water goes bang on the India-China border

The most exciting, yet perhaps most under-reported water story of 2017 took place on the India-China border.  A military buildup and tense standoff over disputed ownership of a Himalayan frontier area shared by China, Nepal, Bhutan, and India this summer may have cooled off, but India charges that China followed up by using water as a weapon – withholding key data that India needs to manage lethal monsoon flooding on transboundary rivers.  Violent international conflict solely over water is extremely rare because it usually doesn’t work strategically, though it does happen from time to time.  For instance, in 1965, when Syria was building an upstream diversion of a tributary to the River Jordan that would deeply reduce Israel’s water supply – a catastrophe for a desert nation – Israel responded with air strikes against the facility.  And water has been used as a weapon in wars that were being fought for other reasons: Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in China opened the dikes on the Yellow River in 1938 in an effort to hold back the invading Imperial Japanese army. The action was only partially successful and had a disastrous humanitarian cost.  The soaring mountain ranges wrapping around the Tibetan Plateau – including the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Himalayas, spanning China, India, Pakistan, and  several other countries – host one of the world’s largest remaining icefields and are the source of the Indus, Yangtze, Yellow, Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Mekong Rivers among others, and thus help provide water to a full quarter of the global human population.  Perhaps nowhere else on Earth is it more important for nations to cooperate over water.

Two inter-state water lawsuits go to the US Supreme Court

The volume was turned up in the country’s water wars, with SCOTUS announcing this fall it will hear both Texas’s lawsuit against New Mexico over Rio Grande water rights, and Florida’s lawsuit against Georgia over the Apalachicola.  Rivers and aquifers don’t respect borders.  The geophysics of where water comes from and how and where it flows is complex, fascinating, and full of surprises, such as flash floods, alternating drought and flood sequences, and abrupt and catastrophic changes in river channel location.  And those are just the natural aspects – the engineering and management part can be just as complicated for some basins, and a high ratio of demand to supply, as we have in the increasingly heavily populated deserts of the Southwest for instance, exacerbates these issues.  Originating from snowy headwaters in the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, the Rio Grande flows south through increasingly arid country and then turns southeastward, forming the US-Mexico border until emptying in the Gulf of Mexico.  Water projects abound on the Rio Grande, and each influences the other in some way.  For example, the San Juan-Chama project diverts water from the Colorado River into the Rio Grande, municipal groundwater pumping in Albuquerque interacts with Rio Grande flows through subterranean geologic pathways, and a series of dams withdraws water from the river for agriculture, reducing what’s left for downstream users.  Water law is complicated.  Texas says New Mexico is taking more than its fair share of Rio Grande water; New Mexico says it isn’t.  The potential for disagreement over water will only continue to grow in the Southwest, though there are success stories as well: after some earlier missteps, Las Vegas has invented one of the most advanced and successful water conservation programs around, reportedly reducing its water consumption by almost a quarter over a ten-year period while its population grew by half a million.

Saying goodbye to the Paris Agreement on climate change

Why is climate change important to rivers?  Lots of natural processes and human activities affect how high rivers run and how much water arrives at your tap, and climate variables like precipitation and temperature rank high among these influences.  While the new administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017 was obviously a setback for action on climate change, it was also a democratic response to widespread sentiment.  And this fact suggests that explaining climate change may be turning into the greatest science communication failure in history.  As scientists, we clearly need to adjust course – but in what direction?  Consider a recent article by a multi-disciplinary team in the respected research journal, Global Environmental Change.  Applying complex network theory (kind of a mathematical formalization of the seven degrees of Kevin Bacon) to social media feeds about climate change, they demonstrated the dominance of so-called echo chambers, and that constructive progress is made only when groups with opposing views actually talk with each other.  Consider also that populism – which is by nature skeptical around the competence and integrity of designated experts – has been growing over the last decade on both the left and right, as evidenced by the mayoralties of Rob Ford in Toronto and Boris Johnson in London, the Tea Party and Occupy movements, Brexit, and Bernie and The Donald.  If there is a silver lining to withdrawal from the Paris accords, it’s that it may teach us valuable lessons around communicating about climate change: reach out to people who don’t believe us yet, treat them with respect, and focus on just explaining our science.

Houston, we have a problem

Hurricane Harvey hit Houston hard.  In late August, the fourth largest city in the US, with over 4 million residents counting Harris County, was at the epicenter of what some are saying will be the costliest natural disaster in US history.  Though no hurricane is to be trifled with, why was the flooding so intense in this case?  To be sure, the rainfall generated by this particular storm was unusually heavy.  But risk is, by definition, what you get when you take the probability that something bad will happen (like record rainfall under a hurricane) and multiply it by the impact it will have if it does happen (like flooding and the associated economic cost and human suffering).  In the case of Harvey’s visit to Houston, it had a lot to do with local-scale choices that affected the second part of that equation.  In fact, parts of the greater Houston metropolitan area have seen a spate of floods over the last few years, and they weren’t all associated with huge storms.  The region has experienced an explosion of population growth and urban sprawl.  Lots of residences were built in low-lying, flood-prone areas, which is the single best of way of increasing flood risk.  And urbanization – the conversion of wild or agricultural land to rooftops, parking lots, and roadways – is another powerful flood risk factor.  Soils and wetlands hold on to rainwater for a while, and then gently release it to natural drainage systems like aquifers and rivers.  If you pave and build over these things, their ability to attenuate flooding is removed.  While these effects are particularly noticeable in Houston, and especially so when the city gets hit by a major hurricane, they’re ubiquitous; increased flooding in the UK over the last decade has been attributed to exactly the same causes.

What will 2018 have in store for us?  If we can be sure about one thing, it’s to expect the unexpected.  But the larger trends are clear.  Global water demand will increase 55% in the next few decades, urbanization will spread, tens of millions more will congregate in floodplain-located megacities, the climate will subtly but profoundly shift overhead, and cooperation and conflict over water will vie for supremacy.  We can, in short, expect that water stories will make the news with increasing frequency and force.

Sean W. Fleming has two decades of experience in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors in the United States, Canada, England, and Mexico, ranging from oil exploration to operational river forecasting to glacier science. He holds faculty positions in the geophysical sciences at the University of British Columbia and Oregon State University. He is the author of Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways.