Q-and-A with Jay

Jay Famiglietti has a strong message about managing ground water responsibly
Carolyn Camilleri
June 16, 2019
By Carolyn Camilleri
He has been called the “Al Gore of Water” – most notably when he was interviewed on Real Time with Bill Maher. One of his many op-eds in the Los Angeles Times inspired a James Corden monologue on The Late Late Show.

He has been interviewed by Lesley Stahl for 60 Minutes and was the featured expert in the 2011 documentary, Last Call at the Oasis, about the world’s water crisis.


Those are just a few items from his list of media appearances and references. His career includes positions as senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology and faculty member at both the University of California, Irvine and the University of Texas at Austin.

Jay Famiglietti is as top-ranking and influential an expert on water as they come – and now he lives here in Canada.

In 2018, Famiglietti was recruited by the University of Saskatchewan to be the Canada 150 Research Chair in Hydrology and Remote Sensing and director of the Global Institute for Water Security, as well as a professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability, Department of Geography and Planning. He has a strong message about how much trouble we are in as a planet – and he has the scientific evidence to prove it.

He explains: “Most ground water data are collected on the ground, from wells and boreholes around the world. Typically, water levels and the various measures of water quality are monitored. Canada, the United States and many other developed nations do an excellent job collecting important ground water data and making it accessible to everyone. However, in many parts of the world, such monitoring may be scarce to non-existent, as is management and protection of ground water resources.

“Our research, using NASA satellites, has allowed us to map how ground water storage is changing all over the world, including in those places where data are not being routinely collected on the ground. This work has revealed a startling picture of the severe and global nature of ground water depletion. For example, our work has shown that over half of the world’s major aquifers are past sustainability tipping points and are being rapidly mined. Because ground water provides roughly half of the water for agricultural irrigation, this situation puts regional and global water and food security at far greater risk than people realize.”

What are the implications of that data for Canada, specifically?
“What our satellite data show us about Canada is that since 2002, Canada has gotten wetter but with some important exceptions and caveats. There are regions of profound water loss, including the disappearance of snow and glaciers of western British Columbia and into Alaska and on Baffin Island. Both of these are contributing significantly to rising sea levels. Other places like the Great Slave Lake-Lake Athabasca region have suffered prolonged drought. In contrast, the southern Alberta region has grown much wetter, an indication of the disastrous floods of 2013 that occurred around Calgary.

“An important aspect of what underlies these data is that the timing and amount of rainfall delivered to Canada is changing in many places. This could easily lead to greater demands for ground water, in particular, if rainfall begins decreasing during the growing season. Some major growers are reporting that this is already happening, and that they need to turn to ground water during peak growing season.”

What are your thoughts on drilling in canada and how resource management is divided between federal and provincial levels of government?
“Water-well drillers play a critical role in developing and protecting Canada’s ground water resources. As climate changes, ground water will become an increasingly important component of provincial and federal water supplies.

“Just like in the United States, ground water in Canada is managed at the provincial and not the federal level. This is good because it allows for local control of the resource. However, it can also be problematic, since aquifers don’t correspond to political boundaries, and also because what is in the best interest of the country may conflict with provincial desires. A good example from the U.S. is that much of its produce is grown in California, yet California is running out of water. If the U.S. had a national water policy, it might have been possible to move water from wetter regions in the U.S. to provide the water required to grow food for the nation. Climate change may well result in an analogous situation in Canada, where some federal oversight may be important.”

You’ve Stated: “We have a shared responsibility to educate the public and to raise awaremenss around those critical water issues where we may have expertise.” What should water-well drillers and hydrogeologists be doing to support that message?
“We all rely on water and, in many parts of the world, available resources are being stressed beyond their limits. In Canada, our issues include the changing extremes of flooding and drought, changing patterns of precipitation, melting ice, sea-level rise, and more.

“So first, we should all be thankful that Canada is a water-rich country. However, much of our ground water in Canada is contaminated and will need to be remediated as necessary and protected from further contamination.  

“Ground water will become increasingly important for Canada’s water security. It will become the key resource for water resilience during drought. Furthermore, as mentioned above, we should expect that we will begin using more ground water to irrigate agriculture, as the timing of precipitation changes and more ground water will be required to supplement the missing rainfall.

“Hydrogeologists and well drillers all have a stake in ground water stewardship and sustaining it for future generations. We all need to acknowledge the critical importance of ground water, communicate that to the public, and work together to develop and use it responsibly.”

You have said it is too late for climate change but not for managing water. Can you explain?
“It is too late to reverse the tragedy that is human-induced climate change. At this point, the best we can do is to mitigate the amount of change by curbing emissions and adapt to the profound changes that we expect.

“With respect to water, that means preparing for the increasing frequency and intensity of flooding and drought, for rising sea levels and coastal storm surges, for the disappearance of snow, ice, and permafrost, and importantly, for more limited ground water recharge.

“We can adapt and prepare for this, but we are not going to change it. Previous generations have fuelled the climate change bullet train. The burden of slowing it down and dealing with its consequences is up to current and future generations.”

To learn more about his work and for links to his media appearances, visit Jay Famiglietti’s website, jayfamiglietti.com.

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