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Running the Climate Rapids – An Interview with David Behar

We talked with David Behar of the San Francisco PUC and the Water Utilities Climate Alliance about decision-making challenges facing western water managers, with his perspective from a municipal utility seat.


What are some of the biggest challenges western water managers face in incorporating climate change into their work?

Water managers face three major challenges. The first challenge is finding partners to help us understand the nature of climate change and what the science says it will do in our local geography.

The second challenge is dealing with the uncertainties embedded in these answers, because we’re not going to get clear predictions – instead, we’re going to get wide ranges of possible effects. In some cases, particularly in the West, these ranges will fall on either side of zero – for example, in many areas, we aren’t certain whether precipitation will increase or decrease.

The third challenge is evaluating the timing and cost of adaptation measures – for example, different options for protecting infrastructure from various degrees of sea level rise. In most cases, these decisions lie in our future, not our present. But at some point they will come to dominate our thinking about climate change.

How have you seen the culture and practices of western water managers adapt in response to climate uncertainties?

As the famous article said, “stationarity is dead.” In the past, utilities planned for the future based on the past – typically 50 to 100 years of historical data on things like streamflow. But to quote the late [Denver Water General Manager] Chips Berry, “the future ain’t what it used to be.” Now utilities need tools that will tell us what will happen if temperatures warm by, say, three degrees Celsius. Our operational models can’t tell us that. We need to develop hydrological models that will physically model our entire watershed and allow us to input different numbers for temperature, precipitation, and solar radiation, and predict what will happen under a range of scenarios. Those models can be expensive to develop and calibrate.

As a water manager, in what way can you see yourself using the Carpe Diem West Academy?

If the Academy can contribute to the application of quality assurance/quality control principles to the use of climate information, that would be a major contribution to our ability to assess our vulnerability to climate change. Every water manager has to face the question of what climate information to use in their models – and it’s a non-trivial question. There is a very wide range of models out there, and there’s a real danger associated with using just one – even one that “predicts” the past pretty well – and thinking you understand the future. We need expertise from the climate science community to be able to apply the largest range of models possible, sift through data available today, and evaluate new information as it is developed in a rapidly changing field.

David Behar is Climate Program Director for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The SFPUC delivers drinking water to 2.5 million Bay Area residents, generates hydroelectric power, and manages wastewater and stormwater facilities in San Francisco. David has chaired the Water Utility Climate Alliance (WUCA) since its formation in 2007. WUCA is a coalition of ten of the largest water utilities in the U.S. and is dedicated to providing leadership and collaboration on climate change issues affecting drinking water utilities. WUCA includes water providers in Arizona, Denver, Las Vegas, New York, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Southern California, and Tampa Bay.

11/7/11

Image – Phillip Rubino / Shutterstock.com

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