2007 Convocation Speech by Rick Hazlett, Stephen M. Pauley M.D. ’62 Professor of Environmental Studies and Professor of Geology
"Engineering Sustainability for California’s Future—A Bottom line Perspective"
It’s a great honor to be invited to speak to you folks today, Mr. President, Trustees, faculty, staff, honored guests and most important of all, students of Pomona College.
I was an undergraduate geology major at Occidental College, about 30 miles west of here. I should have known what the future had in store for me. My frosh year I watched Pomona beat Oxy something like “70-to-nothing” in a fall quarter football game. I assure you, I am no longer bitter about this.
The summer of my junior year I volunteered to be a research assistant at the Volcano Observatory, perched on the rim of Kilauea Crater on the Big Island of Hawaii. There, at about noon on the 19th of July, 1974, I had the transformative experience of my life, delivered by the most effective teacher of them all, Nature herself. Standing nearly alone on a bare plain of pumice, back to the wind, I watched the ground at my feet slowly split open like a scene out of a Hollywood thriller. The dusty rootlets of native ohelo berry and pukiawe bushes stretched tight and snapped in a widening fissure, accompanied by a discharge of hot air, then a lazy emission of steam strengthening over the next few minutes to the force of a screaming jet engine. Boy, did that make me back off! Molten lava followed. It flew out of the Earth in head-sized globules the color of blood. Suddenly many geological concepts I’d studied at Oxy about a thing called magma, the Earth’s core, and states of stress in the crust--resonated. I was yanked from abstraction into reality. But the impressions left by this experience could not really be learned gutwise in school. I now perceived that Destruction is often a Yin and Yang affair. A centuries-old forest full of precious native birdlife, one of my favorite picnic spots, died in this eruption. I watched it go during the evening. But the calamity created a new landscape too—an opportunity for new life. Indeed, without such violence, the gentle beauty of Hawaii would not exist.
The other impression was this—that Nature really does call the shots. The notion, implanted by three years of education on an urbanocentric campus, that people could ever permanently tame Nature to become the stage on which our human drama unfolds, was in the sharpest way overturned. Best think we are the molding clay, not the masters of Nature. The Hawaiian chant for volcanic eruptions celebrates the Fire Goddess Pele--” E Pele e, ke akua o ka pohaku eneana, ele ele ka’u mai. “Oh Pele, goddess of the Burning Stones, let awe possess me.” And it has ever since.
I mention this recollection because we too, in our age, are awakening to an awesome display of Nature, albeit environmental rather than volcanic, forcing us to reorient ourselves culturally and socially to a world that will never look the same again. That we are the agents for the lopsided destruction taking place in the surrounding world makes the matter all the more personal. Tim Flannery’s text The Weathermakers concludes that we must achieve “sustainability”—a reckoning with our consumptive ways—to avoid causing collapse in the planet’s natural ecology more widespread than that of a large volcanic eruption—and frighteningly more enduring.
“Sustainability,” however, is a word much like “freedom,” or “cool” for which there is no consensus or even definitional specificity. What does it mean? According to the 1987 Bruntland Report, released by the United Nations, it is “a lifestyle lived today that does not subtract from the ability of future generations to live in the same way.” But how do we lead such a lifestyle, and is it really a lifestyle any of us in our private wishes would happily choose? If the answer is “no,” then can we in good conscience live with what our selfishness means for the future? That is a moral question that quickly makes sustainability a topic of ethics, values, and literature.
This much, at least, can be said: Each one of us, wherever we live, is tied to a local region or area-specific network of resources which must be respected to achieve sustainability. You can guess what these resources are—they are the same as they have been throughout most of human history: low-energy access to building material; food; and fresh, clean water--largely contingent, if we want to live in a sedentary way, upon a stable climate. The area-specific demands of sustainability are fundamentally antithetical to proponents of our current form of globalization—a Wal-Mart development strategy characterized by absentee management and increasingly fuel consumptive supply streams, owing to intensive concentration of specialized production.
As an example of how achieving sustainability must first and foremost be approached on a local or regional level, consider this question. What does it take to achieve sustainability in California? The political organism we call California lives on a lifeblood of water, plus the energy required to supply it to 35 million residents. Seventy-five percent of these residents live in the thirsty south. But of the 78 million acre-feet of water that flows down our streams and rivers every year, 75 percent is naturally restricted to the far north, on the remote redwood coast and in the Sacramento River watershed. (An acre-foot, for you uninitiated, is the amount of water it would take to cover an area some 200 feet square on each side to a depth of one foot). We need that water if we plan to live in Southern California for more than a few months. After all, 65 percent of your body is nothing more than H2O. If you weigh 150 pounds, you normally contain 12 gallons of water inside your skin. Each of your brains, bright enough to have turned you into a Sagehen, is 95% water. You are, in fact, a thinking water bag—an animated bota.
Hence, we have constructed the most impressive aqueduct systems on Earth to feed and grow our hydrophilic society. Living in California requires that we maintain this engineering marvel--and in the face of a climate that is characterized by extreme swings in precipitation. In 1924, Nevada City in the Sierra Gold Rush country, received only 20 inches of rainfall. But in 1997 it received over a hundred. Rain gauges record as much as a 60 inch difference from year to year at some localities, droughts like the one at present typically following deluges.
These are not the same forces of nature that people in Chicago or New Jersey must contend with to sustain their lives. Apart from the fresh produce that we send their way and periodic trips to Disneyland, why--when the chips are down--should they care about us?
California’s water infrastructure grew in six big bursts, in each case supporting a tidal wave of development having little concern for the future. The Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in 1913, takes water from the eastern Sierra Nevada, providing it to 3,200,000 people within the city limits of Los Angeles. Hydrologists estimate that LA now supports 8 times the population it could if that Aqueduct had never been built. As its first engineer, William Mulholland said, “Who brings the aqueduct brings the people!” Two similar conduits convey water to San Francisco and the East Bay from the western slope of the Sierra. The Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct gives San Francisco perhaps the purest fresh water of any city in the world, quite in contrast to the mineral-laden brew we receive from our taps here in Southern California. To build it required flooding a beautifully glaciated valley inside Yosemite National Park, which some say broke the heart of John Muir. He died shortly after the Congressional Baker Act authorized the project. President Woodrow Wilson, a self-identified agent of God having little understanding of the natural world, commented that domestic water supply was the “highest use” of Hetch Hetchy Valley, never mind its parkland status.
Claremont’s water comes from several sources. Much of it is simply pumped from the Earth via College-owned wells—an admirable practice within limits. But our community must also draw supply from the Colorado River. In fact, the Colorado aqueduct and canals provide 12 percent of California’s developed water, three-quarters of which goes to irrigate crops. Unfortunately, the aqueduct must cross the San Andreas Fault to get here, a geological tear that can slip as much as thirty feet in a single earthquake, shattering concrete, rupturing steal and shutting off water to millions of people in a matter of a few minutes. The newest reservoir in California, Diamond Valley Lake about 30 miles to the southeast, was filled five years ago with 800,000 acre feet of emergency reserve water—about a six month supply for us just in case the Big One strikes. Time enough to affect repairs!
The rest comes via the State Water Project—SWAP--the chief distributor for the whole State in fact. SWAP originates 600 miles to the north in 3 big reservoirs and a natural lake. To reach us, the water first enters the Delta Area of the Sacramento River from where it is pumped south through the western Central Valley via the California Aqueduct. Reaching the 2000 foot tall barrier of the Tehachapi Mountains, it enters the A.D. Edmonston Pumping Plant for transport through 10 miles of tunnels and pipes across the range. Water is heavy. Try carrying five gallons of it—forty pounds—in a backpack, as I’ve done to replenish my desert wilderness camps. It takes enormous amounts of energy to bring SWAP water over our local mountains; 3,000 kilowatt hours per acre foot, two-and-a-half million acre feet a year. That is equivalent to the energy consumption of over a million California residents. In fact, A.D. Edmonston is the single largest consumer of electricity in California—the one engineering facility upon which practically our entire economy and social cohesion depend. To help power this monster, SWAP has built five hydroelectric plants along its supply routes, generating clean, renewable energy. The closest to us is the Devil Canyon Power Plant whose turbines are spun by water falling through tunnels beneath the San Bernardino Mountains.
Together SWAP turbines generate 5.8-billion kilowatt hours per year; but it turns out this is only about 75 percent of the total required to be energy self-sufficient. The rest largely comes from a dirty coal-fired power plant near Las Vegas, the coal mined out of scenic red rock country in northern Arizona and southern Utah. To make this system completely carbon neutral and sustainable would require, for example, increasing the number of wind turbines in the State from the present 13,000 to nearly 20,000--Or, covering about one-and-a half square miles with the newest type of parabolic trough solar collectors—expanding current solar energy production in the Mojave Desert by 50 percent. To pump and treat all the water needed in California by means of solar power alone would require shading over 16 square miles with collectors. Moreover, because of available sunshine and transmission line loss, this ambitious engineering project would have to be built in or close to California, not in Chicago or New Jersey.
Aside from a shortfall in self-generated renewable electricity, there are other challenges facing our life-support system. One is simply that people are demanding more than it can supply, with the deficit growing over time. Every 5 years, the California Department of Water Resources updates its California Water Plan. The latest data show that demand exceeds supply by 1.6 million acre feet during an ordinary year—more than half of what Edmonston pumps. The visible signs of this are persistently dropping reservoir levels, the drying up of waterways and springs, overtapping of groundwater storage, and forced conservation measures—a step called “wringing out the sponge.”
…“Wringing out the sponge”--What a mournful metaphor, I know, but paradoxically, it’s a blessing in disguise. We’ve required this kick in the pants to begin taking action toward achieving sustainability. Already it has led to reduced per capita consumption and cost of water despite rising population. And life seems no less pleasant for it. Our Metropolitan Water District, for instance, has developed a program of giving away or exchanging low flush toilets to users, which reduce water loss with each flush by as much as 70 percent. Nevertheless, by 2020, the Department of Water Resources estimates there will be nearly 50 million Californians—four times more than when I arrived here as a child--with yearly shortfalls in SWAP water increased 4-fold. How long can we keep wringing the sponge before quality of life is compromised by rationing and restrictions?
Water pollution increases apace with demand. But here again, thinking about sustainability has led to remarkable local innovation. Just a few miles south of campus, dairy cattle have contributed so much nitrate to local groundwater that their manure, the source of this poison, is now being trucked out of the valley. You’ll catch a whiff of this excrement on certain days in the spring when the wind blows unfavorably across Claremont. To clean up our aquifer, the Inland Empire Utilities Agency has built a desalinization facility for extracting cow waste contaminants. The agency uses methane from towering piles of cow poop to power the operation—a neat closed-loop system. And artificial wetlands are being constructed in Orange County to clean up contaminated surface waters—at little or no energy cost.
In the end, though, all of this is requiring ever increasing amounts of infrastructure and power to provide each customer a clean glass of water, and to grow the food we eat. And this leads us finally to look at what this is doing to the natural world. My greatest reservation about the Bruntland definition of sustainability is that it does not explicitly mention the natural environment. I much prefer Article 20 A of the German Basic Law Code: “… the State shall protect the natural basis of life…mindful of its responsibility toward future generations.”
SWAP combined with its predecessor, the Central Valley Project, has turned California into one of Earth’s greatest extinction epicenters. There are more species listed as threatened or endangered in California by the U.S. government than any other state in the country. Ninety-five percent of California’s original wetlands and 89 percent of its riparian woodlands are gone—dried up or converted to irrigated agriculture and subdivisions supplied by State or Federal water. The important Pacific Flyway—vital for millions of migrating wildfowl in North America—is seriously imperiled. Except for rice production in the Delta region it might have died out years ago. Some 1,400 dams block our rivers and streams, converting them into reservoirs, flooding over 600 miles of former river channel in the Sierra Nevada alone. The dams impede fish migration, and by release of cold, nutrient-depleted reservoir waters, create conditions downstream intolerable for native species. Coho salmon, estimated to have numbered a million in California’s waterways at the time of Statehood, now number only about 5,000. That commercial fishery collapsed long ago. A rapid warming of climate in the American Southwest can only turn this screw tighter.
I’ve no time to chat up specific solutions, or to put a necessary socio-demographic spin on all of this. We are in a vexing regional situation when it comes to sustainability, but one which it is certainly possible to improve, putting on our thinking caps, watery brains and all. We must live in Nature, and to do so sustainably requires as a baseline for action conscientious systems engineering of a sort we have yet to implement—of a sort that considers the whole environment so as to ensure its self-renewal, not simply the economic needs of vastly overdeveloped dry land cities and a few agricultural water pirates. Nature reminds who she really is from time to time, and also provides us, in kindness and cruelty, the awesome guidelines for building a better future.
Mr. President, Trustees, colleagues, and students, I submit to you that as we enter a wonderfully interesting, revolutionary new world, Pomona College is squarely placed in one of its most important, yet vulnerable locations. We now are undertaking exciting steps to prepare our students for their role in this world, through enhanced opportunity for environmental education. Class of 2011, I hope that you embrace the rich options for meaningful life provided by these circumstances. Welcome and thank you.