Thursday, June 30, 2016

Holding out for a hero

So often in life, we want to be saved. We want miracles. We want to be rescued by a parent, by a prince, by a god, by technology, by science -- by a hero. And, who can blame us? It's the stuff of myth and legend and the stories we were all raised with.

Over the past many years of California drought, the want for a savior come up repeatedly. Last fall, it was the hope that El NiƱo would bail us out (and, well, we all know how that turned out).

The latest manifestation is being called a "water windfall" -- a newly described store of deep groundwater underneath the Central Valley. In short, a research study done by Mary Kang and Rob Jackson at Stanford was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy this week. The scientists provide estimates that there is three to four times the amount of deep "usable" groundwater there than has previously been measured.

There are lots of things going on in this study (and a million more in terms of its implications). The water is really deep underground. It's salty and may have other contaminants. At the same time, the authors note that the water is vulnerable to other kinds of contamination, largely from oil and gas development.

What's most interesting to me is the way it all ends up getting reported*. Just a smattering of recent headlines:
Is California sitting on the solution to its drought? CNN
Researchers say there’s actually plenty of water underneath California CurbedLA
Researchers just found a giant cache of water underneath California Gizmodo
California has an immense groundwater supply, study finds San Francisco Chronicle
As the recipient of several no-so-great headlines, I get it. Some of these articles (and others not listed) go on to describe the many caveats, and controversy, involved here, with the usual folks commenting:
"The authors have not 'discovered' more freshwater. They have simply included huge volumes of waters of very low, nonpotable quality in their estimates." Jay Famigilietti in the Mercury News
"Just because they’ve seen that the depth of freshwater in this basin is deeper than people thought does not mean that you can go pump more freshwater out of this system at all. It unequivocally does not mean that." Graham Fogg in the Washington Post
"From a policy perspective, Californians would be better served by protecting shallow waters from overuse than to pump deeper." Jay Lund in Science
All good points. I know there's a pretty pragmatic piece to this.

At the same time, on a symbolic level it's really just fascinating how often we get caught up in stories being saved -- by a good winter, a new dam, new water. I wish I didn't find it so depressing. Maybe this really is a great time to be thinking about our deep groundwater -- we are, after all, in the middle of a very large experiment in managing groundwater.

At the same time, it feels...bad. In a way I can't quite put my finger on. Like a neverending search for an elusive buried treasure? A lost Atlantis? Eden? With a dash of manifest destiny? I don't know, but guess it makes for better headlines than the mostly invisible work so many people do every day to make the best of what we've got.

*This would be a fine candidate for a case study in science communication -- the framing, messaging, hype game here is strong and reiterates my sense that those tools are only semi-helpful some of the time when it comes to social change.

Related writing:


  1. I really like your science communication question at the end. How are these messages received in California's current unruly water policymaking environment? What impact, if any, do they have?

    1. Thanks, John. I really think the California drought has had some very interesting turning points that would make great several master's thesis or a dissertation in science communication (the natural scientists are doing it, so why not?!). For this particular study, I think it will take a while to unfold. While there have been a lot of headlines, and I've seen a tweet or two on some conspiratorial theories about shutting down the oil and gas industry, I largely think it's a hard one to integrate. I worry that it gives a sense, again, that we are in abundant times if we can just conquer with technology. We're already challenged with mixed messages around water conservation, and in the midst of a lot of struggle over groundwater regulation, so this kind of thing can make it seem like we should just keep delaying all these really hard decisions. That fear may be unfounded. Have to wait and see. In the meantime, if you know a smart student... :)