Current Environmental Issues in California

Aptopix california wildfiresNearly 30 years after founding the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank, Peter Gleick talks about California’s current drought, how it compares to past crises and how the state needs to change water-use mentality.

Embers from a wildfire smolder along Lytle Creek Road near Keenbrook, Calif., on Aug. 17, 2016. Five years of drought have turned the state’s wildlands into a tinderbox.Noah Berger, AP

In 1987, California was at the beginning of what would be a six-year drought – the second driest in the state’s history. Fittingly, that same year Peter Gleick helped to co-found the Pacific Institute, a global think tank that would become a leader in global environmental and California water issues.

In 1987, Gleick had just finished a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, in the Energy & Resources Group, where his dissertation was the first to study the impact of climate change on water resources. Eager to use his background in climate science and hydrology in a multidisciplinary endeavor, he and graduate school colleagues launched the Pacific Institute, turning a $37, 000 grant into an internationally recognized research institute that has just celebrated 29 years in existence.

Gleick’s academic training taught him that environmental problems are not technology problems, economic problems or political problems – but all of those things. That lens has helped inform the research perspectives at the Pacific Institute.

Peter Gleick co-founded the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank, in 1987 and now serves as its president emeritus and chief scientist. (David Rabkin)

In July, Gleick transitioned his role at the organization to president emeritus and chief scientist, to focus less on the daily tasks of running the organization and more on research and writing.

Water Deeply recently sat down with Gleick to talk about the evolution of California water issues over the last three decades and the biggest problems facing the state.

Water Deeply: Since you started the Pacific Institute, California has been through several droughts. Is this drought different, or are we handling it differently this time?

Peter Gleick: Yes and yes. Droughts are a natural part of our landscape. We have wet years and dry years. But this particular drought is unusual for a couple of reasons. One of the big differences is that we have around 39 million people now. We have millions more people than the 1976–77 drought and the 1987–92 drought.

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