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California's Thirst For Water May Accelerate Global Warming

A water-efficient sprinkler sprays plants in a Chula Vista yard in this undated photograph.
Katie Schoolov
A water-efficient sprinkler sprays plants in a Chula Vista yard in this undated photograph.

A new study finds the push to secure more water in California may hurt the state’s ability to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals.

The nonpartisan group Next 10 and the Pacific Institute, a think tank focusing on water issues, found the state’s drive for drinkable water may exacerbate the conditions that are warming the global climate.

California’s Thirst For Water May Accelerate Global Warming
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson

The warming climate is increasing the frequency and length of droughts in Southern California which heightens the urgency to develop new water sources.


The study concludes that finding new water sources frequently carries a hidden environmental cost and the report predicts carbon emissions could spike in coming years.

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“It takes a tremendous amount of energy,” said Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute president emeritus. “To collect, to produce, to treat, to distribute and to use the water that we use.”

Two San Diego strategies, desalination and treatment of used water, both carry high energy price tags. Consuming high amounts of energy can release more greenhouse gasses, increasing the chance of drought, and which then circles back to drive up the need for more water.

But there is a solution.


“Water conservation and efficiency can help us meet, not only our water goals but or energy and climate goals,” said Heather Cooley, Pacific Institute's research director. “And there are many things that we can be doing in our homes and businesses and agriculture to help advance efficiencies.”

Cooley said conservation has tamped down the demand for more water in the region.

In fact, water use has been flat in Southern California for more than a decade even as the state’s population has grown.

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Conservation can come inside the home, with more efficient appliances and practices and outside the home where nearly half of the region’s water is used.

“We spend a tremendous amount of water irrigating our landscape,” Cooley said. “In many cases irrigating very water-intensive lawns for example. We have tremendous opportunities now to be moving away from lawns and putting in low water use plants.”

Beyond conservation, the report calls on local leaders to encourage the use of renewable power.

“We need to electrify our residential houses in California,” said Noel Perry, the founder of Next 10, “The way to do that is to move away from natural gas to use heat pumps in order to heat our water both for heating and also domestic use.”

The report says relying on fossil fuels to move and make water only compounds the situation creating the region’s thirst.

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Video: California’s Thirst For Water May Accelerate Global Warming

The report authors identify specific water policy recommendations that could help the state meet its energy and greenhouse gas reduction goals:

● Expand urban water conservation and efficiency efforts;

● Accelerate water heater electrification;

● Maintain groundwater levels and expand more flexible, high-efficiency groundwater pumps;

● Provide financial incentives and regulatory pathways for water suppliers to invest in less energy- and greenhouse gas-intensive water systems, including through existing financial incentives and programs for energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction;

● Expand and standardize water data reporting and energy usage tracking; and

● Formalize coordination between water and energy regulatory agencies about forecasted energy demand changes.