In recent years, evidence that global climate will have significant effects on water resources in California has continued to accumulate. Climate change can affect the amount, timing, and form of precipitation, whether rain or snow, that California receives, as well as the sea level of the Pacific Ocean. Moreover, changes in weather, especially temperature, and atmospheric composition can affect water use and consumption. Changes in climate have occurred during the 20th century, with noticeable warming in the last two decades.
Most scientists feel that changes during the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities, but natural causes and variability cannot be ruled out as a significant component. Likewise, projections of amount of warming and other climate changes during the 21st century are wide ranging, depending on assumptions and models.
A major cause of expected climate change is the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere as a result of man’s activities. These gases, as well as water vapor, allow solar radiation to pass inward through the atmosphere, but trap the longer wave infrared radiation reflected back from the earth’s surface. Greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere; the following chart shows the gradual build up in carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, as measured by Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientists. The annual cycle is caused by northern hemisphere vegetation uptake during the growing season. Other significant greenhouse gases are methane, nitrous oxide, halocarbons (like freon and its replacements), and, of course, water vapor itself. Cloud cover is an important element in the global radiation balance.
Whatever the causes, the prospects of significant changes warrant examination of how the State’s water infrastructure and natural systems can accommodate or adapt to climate changes and whether more needs to be done to detect, evaluate and respond to water resource system effects. Many uncertainties remain, primarily on the degree of change to be expected. Responsible planning requires that the California water planning community work with climate scientists and others to reduce these uncertainties and to begin to prepare for those impacts that are well understood, already appearing as trends, or likely to appear. In this section we review possible impacts and address some of the responses appropriate for water planners and managers.