By Michele Lanctot
Health/Science Reporter

Humanity survived the black plague. Our economy made it through the Great Depression. The time has come to embark upon the battle against global climate change.

Last week, local water departments voluntarily stepped up to the plate, sponsoring a forum entitled “Tools for Addressing Climate Change and Local Water Resources.” The event was organized to allow everyone to be equally informed about climate change and identify real solutions to ensure that customers don’t get left high and dry.

The audience ranged from city and county officials in suits and ties to concerned residents in jeans and baseball caps. No one was required to attend, but everyone came eager to learn.

One question on the agenda was: What are the potential impacts of climate change on local water resources?

Quick to answer was Lisa Sloan, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz and the director of Climate Change and Impacts Laboratory.

Sloan explained that the central coast will experience an average annual temperature increases of 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit and 5.2 degrees in the summer. The number of rainy days will decrease, but the amount of rain will be the same, which means intense winter storms.

Sloan uses regional climate models instead of widely used global models to explain particular climate change effects locally. Regional models operate a finer spatial resolution, unlike global models, which group Monterey and Tahoe as one elevation level.

“Santa Cruz has many micro-climates and diverse ecosystems that are highly susceptible to climate change,” Sloan said. “Agriculture will have to adapt because different bugs come with warmer climate. We also have to be concerned about health because insects carrying disease will no longer be contained in the tropics.”

John Ricker, a UCSC alumnus of environmental studies and biology, has worked locally since 1974 protecting water resources.

“Currently we already have a gap between demand and our sustainable supply [of water],” Ricker said. “For 2008 there has only been 80 percent of mean rainfall. Some individuals are already reporting dry wells. The climate is already changing.”

So how can water agencies plan for these potential and very real impacts?

A MacArthur fellow, Peter Gleick is president of the nonprofit Pacific Institute, which studies development, environment and security. Gleick’s research tackles critical connections between water and human health.

“It is vital that water agencies integrate climate change into their planning and management of engineering designs, operation, contingency plans and water allocation policies,” Gleick said. “The cost of increasing infrastructure is less than the risk of not taking any action in the face of a potential disaster.”

Agencies like San Lorenzo Valley Water District (SLVWD) and Santa Cruz Water Department are investing in new equipment and projects to ensure that residents don’t face crisis situations. Projects like diverting intense storm runoff to fill underground aquifers to alleviate drought-caused shortage have been traditionally pushed aside, but this forum motivated agencies to get started right away.

Currently, a tiered pricing method penalizes customers for using large quantities of water. Rebates are widely available to encourage purchasing efficient toilets, washing machines and dishwashers.

The agencies’ final question was: How can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions to lower the intensity of potential impacts?

Jim Crowley, a professional engineer for Santa Clara Valley Water District, leads an innovative team at the forefront of water supply planning for climate change and sustainability.

Crowley’s team created a guide for water agencies to inventory total emissions and develop strategies to quickly become carbon-neutral. Many water agencies, including SLVWD, have signed up with the climate action registry to take vital first steps toward lowering their emissions.

“What is often not considered when estimating an agency’s carbon footprint is embedded sources such as suppliers’ emissions, employee commuting and watershed management,” Crowley said.

“Turning your hot water faucet on for five minutes uses the same amount of energy as leaving a 60-watt light bulb on for 14 hours,” Gleick said to emphasize conservation.

Because water use requires 20 percent of our state’s electricity and most of that energy is for customers, it is going to be a big challenge to reduce that energy demand.

“We need bold and courageous leadership,” Crowley said. “We must understand the enormous interlinked complexity of life and therefore be tireless in our efforts to incorporate sustainability into all decision-making.”