How the “Al Gore of Water” is Turning Data into Action

NASA’s water expert thinks good science can help put a stop to the California drought.

Jay Famiglietti on Real Time with Bill Maher, March 27, 2015. Photo by HBO/Janet Van Ham.

For the last few years, Jay Famiglietti—hydrologist, UC-Irvine professor, and senior water scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labratory (JPL)—has written an annual op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, sounding an alarm about California’s epic drought that, for the most part, seemed to fall on deaf ears.

In an interview just days before his 2015 op-ed was to be published, Famiglietti said, “I don’t think people really understand the severity of the situation. The picture that comes out of our data is very very scary, and a little bit overwhelming. I don’t know if California’s water agencies consider our work to be informative, or just a major pain in the ass, but it seems like for some of them, it’s the latter.”

So it was a bit of a surprise when this year's op-ed (original headline: “California Has About One Year of Water Left. Will You Ration Now?”) took off the way it did. Though it would be folly to directly link the recent wild uptick in drought media coverage to his statements, Famiglietti followed publication with a dizzying run of print interviews and talk show appearances, including a memorable spot on Real Time with Bill Maher, during which the host referred to him as the “Al Gore of Water.” Within two weeks, California governor Jerry Brown had issued a precedent-shattering executive order imposing the state’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions.

Famiglietti says he can’t be sure why any particular op-ed or data set takes hold of the public imagination. Perhaps it was the frankness of this one’s headline that attracted attention. (On his website, Famiglietti uses the print edition title “Up a Dry Creek.”) Following rumblings that the story made the situation seem worse than it is, the Los Angeles Times changed the phrase “One Year of Water Left” to “One Year of Water Stored.” Still, Famiglietti believes in clearly and simply communicating his findings to officials and the general public whenever he has the opportunity, as well as being forceful when the data indicate that circumstances are dire.

“I wouldn’t call writing a scientific paper easy, but it’s easier than communicating with the public,” he says. “Scientist-to-scientist communication is about nerds talking to other nerds in our own nerd language, and we understand each other well. But the average person on the street doesn’t comprehend our jargon… You may think you’re sounding really smart by using big words, but if they miss 50 percent of what you say, they’re not coming back. And that’s been an important lesson.”

The kind of research done by Famiglietti is incredibly complex, the product of a technological marvel he calls GRACE (short for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment). GRACE is comprised of a pair of twin satellites that function a bit like a “scale in the sky,” says Famiglietti, “chasing each other in orbit 400 kilometers above the Earth.” Each satellite is about the size of a “mini-van,” he says, and “when there’s more water mass on the ground—say, after a big snowstorm in the Sierras—gravity pulls them down a fraction of a millimeter.”

Ever conscious of losing the layperson’s attention, Famiglietti inspired NASA to create a short, accessible cartoon detailing just how GRACE manages to track water levels so well. “The system is really quite accurate,” he says, clearly delighted. “It’s incredible.”

The amount of data continuously generated by GRACE is staggering. It takes about a month for the satellites to map the entire globe’s gravity field—then Famiglietti’s research team needs three or four months to pore over that month’s worth of findings. The process is, as he describes it, “extremely lengthy, complicated, and man-power intensive.”

This summer, Famiglietti hopes to release data from March 2015, which he expects will be significant. The March before, GRACE recorded California’s biggest water deficit ever: The state’s reservoirs had fallen short by 11 trillion gallons. March tends to be the most statistically significant month for the California drought, as it’s traditionally when the snowpack in the Sierras is at its peak—averaging about 66.5 inches deep before it melts and refills the state’s water supply.

But for the first time in 74 years, there was no snow left on the ground in the Sierras by the time March 2015 was over. Not a single inch.

Changes in total water storage in California from GRACE. Image appeared on NBC Nightly News (October 3, 2014) and in the Los Angeles Times (Oct 4, 2014).

Famiglietti is already starting to think about how to convey the March data in a manner that will resonate with the public. After all, that op-ed wasn’t his first experience making headlines. A few years ago, Famiglietti helped create a data visualization of GRACE’s findings that “just took off. It ended up all over the place.” Seen above, the visualization was very simple, containing three map-based “snapshots” from the GRACE data, taken in June 2002, June 2008, and again in June 2014. As California started to dry up, the color of the map shifted from green to yellow, then finally red.

“Like a traffic signal,” says Famiglietti. “We knew it would resonate, but didn’t anticipate the level of response.” After all, a lot of JPL’s visualizations are released in shades of red, yellow, and green—and not very many of them become topics of conversation at the average American’s dinner table.

Most of the time, Famiglietti loves it when his research catches on—at the end of the day, it’s all about generating awareness of the drought. But sometimes his work is misunderstood by the media, and he’s got to work nearly as hard to correct news stories as he did to get them written in the first place. “The 11 trillion gallon deficit last year? That got misinterpreted as, ‘We just need 11 trillion gallons of rain to solve the drought.’ And 11 trillion gallons of rain is practically nothing—maybe three and a half inches. So we had to correct the public perception about how reservoirs work. To replenish 11 trillion gallons of water in storage, you’d need 15 or 20 times that much in rainfall.”

Famiglietti worries about such misunderstandings, because if the public believes even for a moment that solving the drought problem is easy, then nobody is going to bother taking the daunting action that will be required to change course. It’s possible that recent water restrictions will signal a new era of savvy water management in California, but Famiglietti knows there is much work left to be done. That may mean stricter regulations around bottled water, or to extending cutbacks to California’s $46 billion farming industry, which uses up 80 percent of the state’s water supply. And whether or not climate change started the drought, it has definitely made it worse—so California’s water wars are really a national, even global, concern.

“A little information in the wrong hands is quite dangerous. The wrong message can get distributed and propagated,” says Famiglietti. “But I still believe in numbers. You have to be careful about how you assemble them, but the numbers just don’t lie when you put them in the right framework. There is tremendous power in information.”

NHM Vienna/Hans Reschreiter

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