When Peter Gleick fell, California's water world lost big

  • Peter Gleick lectures at SkeptiCalCon last May in Berkeley.

    CC via Wikipedia, Susan Gerbic
  • Gleick's blog on the Huffington Post.


updated 4/17/2012

On Feb. 14, an anonymous source released internal documents from the Heartland Institute, a conservative Chicago-based nonprofit that casts doubt on global warming science, to more than a dozen climate bloggers. The documents revealed Heartland's major funders, including the Charles Koch Foundation and many large corporations, detailed a nearly $1.6 million program to pay scientists to challenge the International Panel on Climate Change's findings, and ostensibly exposed plans for a high school curriculum skeptical of manmade climate change. "If these documents are real, they revealed the desperate efforts of a fringe denial group to deceive children and ruin their future," wrote Joe Romm at Climate Progress.

Most of them are real; the authenticity of parts of one remains uncertain. But the leak was overshadowed six days later by another scandal: Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland, Calif.-based Pacific Institute, an environmental and global security think tank, admitted on Huffington Post that he "solicited and received ... materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else's name." Soon after, the Heartland Institute announced that Gleick had impersonated one of its board members to obtain the documents. Gleick wrote: "My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts -- often anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated -- to attack climate science and scientists."

He has since resigned from the American Geophysical Union's Task Force on Scientific Ethics, and is on indefinite leave from the Pacific Institute, which is investigating his actions. The Heartland Institute may seek to have him prosecuted for wire fraud.

Gleick -- 55, bearded, thin and precise -- seems like a man with a lot on his mind. He's often labeled as a climate scientist, but that is an incomplete description of his public persona: For 25 years, he has played a unique role in California's water world, as both a gadfly, pushing water bosses to rethink the way they run the system, and as a trusted counselor to those same water managers.

Gleick can be prickly. Last year, in a Sacramento Bee editorial, he lambasted the authors of a study on California's water problems, including several widely respected University of California-Davis faculty members, accusing them of "ignoring the most serious pieces of the puzzle" and misunderstanding "how it works in the real world."

"Peter does not suffer fools gladly," says one person who knows him well.

Yet many water czars respect Gleick, who has frequently been invited to brief water agencies, including the massive Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, on subjects like climate change.  Steve Macaulay, former chief deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources and head of California Urban Water Agencies, a consortium of some of the state's biggest water providers, says, "Even though there was some distrust of Pacific Institute, and Peter in particular" as he pushed water bosses to plan for climate change and use water more efficiently, "a lot of what he was saying was right."

Gleick received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley's interdisciplinary Energy and Resources Group in 1986 and helped start the Pacific Institute in 1987. He testified before Congress for the first time that year, about climate change and its impacts on water, and a year later, made his debut at the California Legislature. "He's sort of bilingual, in that he can speak the science," says a Capitol staffer in Sacramento, "and he can speak in a way that a real estate agent can understand."

Since then, Gleick has appeared regularly before the Legislature and congressional committees. He is a relentless advocate of what -- borrowing a term from energy-efficiency guru Amory Lovins -- he calls "the soft path for water," employing technological efficiency and smarter pricing to reduce consumption. In 2003, a Pacific Institute report declared that California cities could get by on one-third less water "using existing technology without harming our economy or quality of life." Gleick believes significant savings can be reaped by replacing inefficient toilets, showerheads, washing machines and dishwashers, and by not watering lawns during the daytime. "It's not shorter showers, it's not brown lawns," he says. "It's doing what we want to do with less water."

California has dramatically cut its water use over the past several decades: In 2001, the state used less water than it did in 1975, despite a 60 percent larger population. Gleick has crusaded to push these numbers down further. At times, he has been censured for overselling that potential; in 2008, for instance, he was roundly criticized for exaggerating the amount of water farms could save. Yet, Macaulay says, Gleick has opened up the debate about water conservation, and made moderate conservation measures, once considered unrealistic, seem more tenable. As Lester Snow, the former head of California's Department of Water Resources, puts it, "Peter and some of his colleagues have taken a much more analytical look and said, 'Boy, there's a lot more that can be done.' "

Whether Gleick is directly responsible or not, the soft path has become increasingly important to state water planning. One of the biggest shifts came in 2005, when the California Department of Water Resources released its updated water plan, which focused on combining "portfolios" of soft approaches, including increasing water efficiency and reusing wastewater, "as opposed," Snow says, "to the build-this-dam-and-fill-that-gap approach." Gleick's efforts have, unquestionably, softened public and institutional averseness to water conservation. "I think Pacific Institute has ultimately helped urban water utilities make an easier transition to more aggressive water conservation," says Macaulay. "What was deemed beyond the pale 30 years ago is now an accepted part of life."

Still, Gleick's reputation could suffer greatly from the Heartland incident. And it's not clear who could assume his aggressive stance in the public debate and keep the pressure on water managers and lawmakers. As one political insider noted, the California Legislature is "not going to be able to use him as a witness for a while.

"The Republicans," he said, "would come unglued."

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