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Extreme Future conference brings scientists, policy-makers to Petaluma

There’s nothing quite like impending global disaster to grab a group of scientists’ attention, especially right after breakfast.

Within the first 30 minutes of last week’s North Bay Watershed Association conference — a day-long summit held Friday, April 6, at the Sheraton hotel on the Petaluma River — the steep scientific, environmental stakes currently being faced by the assembled scientists, administrators, environmentalists, engineers, politicians and agency employees were made strikingly clear.

“Extreme weather events are now impacting us on a daily basis, and they are getting more and more extreme each year,” stated the morning’s keynote speaker, Grant Davis. “And we’re all going to need to be more creative, more innovative, more entrepreneurial, and more collaborative … if we’re going to make our way through this.”

Grant is the General Manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency, a position he’s just returned to following a stint as Director of the California Department of Water Services. His dire and sobering warning, delivered toward the end of his twenty-minute talk, was right in line with the title of the conference itself: “Extreme Future: Fire, Floods, a Rising Bay.”

The title is a variation of that from a similar conference held last month in the South Bay, titled “Droughts, Floods and Sea Level Rise, Oh My!” And that’s just two. All around the state, similar conversations are being held, with equally alarming pronouncements. But according to Grant, it is gatherings like these that could make the difference in facing the climate-related environmental changes that are already upon us.

“Conferences like this,” he said, “are the best forums for exchanging information, and strengthening our commitment to working together.”

Throughout the day — as rain fell steadily outside — an array of experts from diverse fields of expertise presented their findings and shared data related to the North Bay’s current level of vulnerability to flooding, drought, watershed loss — and wildfires like the one Sonoma County experienced last fall. Several speakers remarked on the irony of this specific conference — with its frequent emphasis on prevention against sea-level rise — taking place at sea level on a tidal slough in the middle of a major “precipitation event.”

In this case, Grant noted, that event was a meteorological occurrence known as an “atmospheric river.”

A relatively new term — coined in the 1990s, and just one of many colorful phrases tossed out by the days’ stream of speakers — atmospheric rivers are narrow corridors of concentrated moisture in the atmosphere. So called “Pineapple Express” storms are one kind of atmospheric river, which can carry as much moisture as there is in the Amazon River. Unique to the West Coast, Western Europe and the West Coast of Africa, atmospheric rivers, according to Grant, are rapidly becoming a primary cause of extreme weather events in the region.

“Atmospheric rivers are a Western phenomenon,” Grant explained, adding that that’s a major obstacle to winning federal assistance in helping the West Coast prepare against future atmospheric river-related catastrophes.

“Atmospheric rivers,” he continued, “are not as high profile as the deadly hurricanes that you hear about, or the tornadoes that rip through the Midwest, or the nor’easters on the East Coast, which our elected representatives back in D.C. are well aware of. But atmospheric rivers are the things that create our floods, and break our droughts. We’re handicapped, here, by the fact that people in government are not aware of these phenomena. We have to make them aware. We simply have got to do a better job at developing the science around understanding the phenomenon of atmospheric rivers. The good news is that we are doing that.

“Now,” he added, “we just have to do it faster.”

Following Grant were a number of notable speakers, including Allison Brooks of Resilient by Design, who spoke on strategies for defending our watersheds against a rising bay. Lt. Colonel Travis J. Rayfield of the Army Corps of Engineers, gave a progress report on a number current sea level-rise projects in the Bay Area, and the need for streamlined, better integrated permitting in getting the funding and approval for major environmental defense projects. Dr. Lisa Micheli, President and CEO of Pepperwood Preserve, gave a talk titled, “Watershed wakeup calls from the Wine Country fire zone.”

The 32-acre preserve, at the headwaters of the Russian River, she reported, lost all of its wooden structures but one in the firestorm.

“It’s clear that we need better ‘extreme event-smart’ strategies for rebuilding the communities that were burned in the fires,” she said, adding her concerns — illustrated by an array of charts and graphs — about the little-discussed consequences of toxic fire zone sediment entering our watersheds during major rains. That sediment, she pointed out, now contains many of the toxins that were present in the building materials of the homes and structures that burned.

“We were simply unprepared,” said Micheli, “for the reality that that our homes were going to become toxic waste dumps.”

The lunchtime keynote was by Congressman Jared Huffman, who engaged in a lively conversation with Brad Sherwood, Government Affairs Manager for the Sonoma County Water Agency. In response to a question about federal disinterest in extending environmental protections, the Congressman decried recent attempts in Washington to put an end to what Huffman called “years of environmental progress,” suggesting that protecting the environment actually makes economic sense, when looked at as part of the big picture.

“The obvious truth is, environmental rollbacks will, down the road, lead to increased infrastructure spending,” Huffman said, adding that the necessity of working together in government, on all manner of environmental issues, has never been more necessary, or more difficult to accomplish. “In Washington,” he said, “the idea of working together now seems positively quaint, and sort of innocent and sweet.”

Along with “atmospheric rivers,” the conference was crammed with similarly colorful expressions and terminologies that sound like jargon from futuristic science-fiction disaster movies.

“Superstorms,” “Sea level rise adaptation projects,” “Shoreline armoring,” “Flood flights,” “Fuel loads,” “Climactic water deficits,” “Downstream impact,” “Vertical retreat,” “Horizontal retreat,” “Hardening the grid,” “Hardening our homes,” and “Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations.”

That last term, often called FIRO, is another relatively recent idea, suggesting management strategies that incorporate data from watershed monitoring, along with state-of-the-art water and weather forecasting, to guide water agencies in retaining and/or releasing water from reservoirs in strategic ways that reflect current and forecasted weather conditions.

One major takeaway from the conference - for those outside the scientific community, anyway - is a striking awareness that the language of climate change and environmental science has shifted from a focus on prevention of global warming, climate change, and sea level rise, to a focus on protection and defense against the inevitable.

“Oh, it’s happening,” said Sherwood, at a reception following the conference. “That’s what projects like Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations are all about. We know we’re not going to have new reservoirs being built, and we know that climate change is impacting the way we manage water. So how do you utilize existing infrastructure, with existing or new technology, to outsmart climate change? That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Asked if we can actually outsmart climate change, Sherwood says, “Well, we have to, don’t we? We in this business have to look 100 and 150 years down the road. We have to build infrastructure - not to last a year or two, or five or ten years - but for fifty years or a hundred years. That’s what we’re all trying to do here today. We’re asking, ‘How do you take what we know and make it extend beyond several administrations with constantly shifting politics? How do we take control of that locally?’”

And how do we do that?

“Through watershed restoration, water reuse, forecast informed reservoir operations,” he says, ticking them off on his fingers. “There are a lot of tools — a lot of low-hanging fruit — that we should be investigating, and that we should be implementing. If we’re not trying to do that, than we’re just not being good stewards of the resources we have. So we’d better do what we can. And we’d better do it quickly.”

(Contact David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)