Skip to main content

Dr. Peter Gleick's Soft Path to Water

Peter Gleick

Dr. Peter Gleick sat in his office at the Pacific Institute, a research institute he cofounded in 1987, monitoring recent news about the Oroville Dam in northern California. A crater had appeared in the dam’s spillway amid what’s shaping up to be the wettest water year on record for California, according to the National Weather Service. Reckoning with so much rain and snow may be an anomaly for Californians, but it’s something Gleick has been doing his entire professional life.

Gleick’s fascination with the environment took hold when he was a child growing up in Manhattan, which he admits “is not the most natural environment.”

He continued to study the environment as a teenager and throughout his 20s at Yale University and the University of California-Berkeley. At Berkeley, Gleick studied in what was known then as the Energy and Resources Department, focusing on hydroclimatology, which is the influence of climate on the waters of the land.

In 1986, Gleick published his dissertation, which modeled the regional impacts of climate change on California’s water resources. The next year, he cofounded the Pacific Institute, which provides independent research and policy analysis on issues of development, environment, and security, with a focus on global and regional freshwater issues.

So the AAAS Fellow has a different perspective on the water issues facing California, particularly whether or not the drought that has plagued the state since 2011 is over. While residents of the state may think the heavy precipitation signals the end of the drought, Gleick said it’s more complicated than that.

“We’re coming out of a five-year severe drought and we’re having an incredibly wet year. By the narrow definition of how much rain and snow we get, the precipitation drought is over.

“But that’s not the right way to think about drought, in my opinion. The simplest way to think about drought is do we have enough water to do all of the things we want to do. And the answer to that is no, even in a wet year.”

He includes farmers, commercial salmon fishermen, and homeowners as examples of people in California who have different levels of demand for fresh water and different uses for it. When he spoke to AAAS MemberCentral in early February, all of northern California and part of central California were out of the drought, according to U.S. Drought Monitor, which releases a map monitoring droughts every week. Since then, the drought monitor, which colors drought-stricken regions with yellow, orange, or red based on severity, has cleared up for most of California, but Gleick said that we still don’t have enough water to waste.

“It doesn’t mean that the farmers are going to get all of the water that they want. It doesn’t mean ecosystems are going to be restored. It doesn’t mean that the groundwater is going to be recharged,” Gleick said. “It’s a communications problem. ... You don’t want to tell them that they can go back to the old ways of doing things.”

The old ways of accessing and transporting water, according to Gleick and the Pacific Institute, is called the hard path for water.

“The construct of big dams and infrastructure, centralized water treatment and distribution systems, big aqueducts that move water from [one] place to another—that is what we did in the 20th century. And it brought enormous benefits to us. It was critically important to the growth of the 20th century United States. … But the hard path also had unintended negative consequences in terms of impacts on ecosystems and impacts on local communities that we didn’t understand at the time or we didn’t care about.”

Gleick said that the soft path for water considers impacts on ecosystems and how to protect them. It also means using smart economics and institutions to examine the demand for water and bringing communities into the conversation.

“I think we’re moving in that direction. … but there is still among the old guard, the idea that the things we did in the 20th century are what we have to do in the 21st century ... and I think that’s a mistake,” Gleick said.

Last year, after 29 years of leading the Pacific Institute as president, he stepped down to take on the role of president emeritus and chief scientist for the organization.

“We have the unfortunate situation, politically, of new, potentially really severe, threats to science; new attacks on scientists from politicians, and new pressures for scientists to engage in things they are not always comfortable engaging in,” Gleick said. “I don’t know yet how bad it’s going to get. And I don’t know yet how I’ll be most useful and able to engage, but now’s the time for scientists who are able and willing to challenge the threats to science to do so.”

Meet More AAAS Members

Representative Image Caption
<p>Peter Gleick</p>
Blog Name


Drew Costley

Related Scientific Disciplines