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.