Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Taking the science of drought to Capitol Hill

Professor Famiglietti uses NASA satellites to track disappearing groundwater. (Kitty Felde/KPCC)
Professor Famiglietti uses NASA satellites to track disappearing groundwater. (Kitty Felde/KPCC)
Kitty Felde/KPCC

There’s been a lot of political battles lately on Capitol Hill over California water.

Earlier this month, the House passed drought legislation introduced by California’s GOP delegation. It would set aside environmental regulations and water agreements to bring water to Central Valley farmers. Then California’s two Democratic Senators introduced their own water measure that offered funds and flexibility to address the drought.

Now, a UC Irvine professor has been making the rounds of Capitol Hill delivering even more bad news about water. And he’s not afraid to push the politics to the side to make his point.

Jay Famiglietti is a professor of earth systems science at UCI with a side expertise in civil and environmental engineering. He has his own opinions about the two drought measures. But he’s delivering a message to both Democrats and Republicans: the drought is the least of your worries. Start thinking about disappearing groundwater. 

For more than a decade, Famiglietti and his team at the UC Irvine Center for Hydrologic Modeling have been using a pair of NASA satellites to monitor groundwater depletion from space. His surveys show over the past two years, the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Basins have lost roughly the amount of water used by the entire population of California for everything but agriculture and environment. It's the steepest decline in the 12 years that they've been monitoring California water. His message to Democrats and Republicans alike is that we need to manage our groundwater resources and plan for the future to “sustain the availability of that very precious, strategic subsurface reserve.”

Famiglietti says both the Pentagon and GOP staffers at the House Foreign Affairs Committee understood that water shortages become a trigger point for violent conflict. The Pentagon was particularly interested in water issues in India and China. Famiglietti says satellite data show underground aquifers that are “transboundary” and cross political borders.

Given the partisan nature of water politics in Congress, you might expect a lukewarm reception to Famiglietti's groundwater lobbying efforts. But Famiglietti insists he’s presenting “good science” that gives decision-makers the best available information. “Without that information,” he says, “then it is pure politics.” He put that principle to the test as he made the rounds of Congressional offices.

Famiglietti calls the water bill passed by the House “not particularly useful,” but he met with staff of Hanford Republican David Valadao, the author of that bill, and Fresno Democrat Jim Costa, who broke with his party and voted for it. He met with folks in Democratic U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer's office, as well as with folks in the office of House GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy of Fresno. Famiglietti says Democrats and Republicans alike were “stunned at the graphics” showing disappearing groundwater and understood the seriousness of the situation. They asked for talking points and copies of slides to help their colleagues from parts of the country understand the water situation in the west. They even asked for research money. “They’re getting it,” says Famiglietti.

He insists you don’t have to debate global climate change – “issues that the right might be less comfortable talking about” – to talk about water. He says you can see dirty drinking water, lower lake and river levels, and wells running dry. And when talking to a true climate skeptic, like Huntington Beach Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, Famiglietti finds a way to start the conversation. “While he doesn’t believe in global change, he’s very excited about technology.” Famiglietti says his center does “cool satellite work and so it’s easy to have a conversation with him.”

But groundwater isn’t the focus of the current drought conversation in Washington. At least not yet. Which is why Famiglietti is on Capitol Hill now. He understands that Congress has a short attention span and that the drought could quickly be swept away by the next crisis du jour. He says it happens in California, too. “It stops raining, and we start to pay attention, and then it’s a drought and we get panicked, and then it rains and we go back to being apathetic.”