Co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security,
Dr. Peter Gleick is an internationally recognized water expert. He recently sat down with Cindy Paulson, senior vice president at Brown and Caldwell and editor of BC's California Water News, to talk about the water debate in California and the role of the Pacific Institute. This interview is available exclusively to BC Water News readers and is the type of content you receive free with your subscription.
Aug. 2, 2011

10 Minutes With …

Peter Gleick

What role does the Pacific Institute play in the water community, here in California and across the country?
Actually, we are not geographically focused. We are a research organization tackling water and sustainability issues around the world. About 50 percent of our work is international ó in West Africa, India, Indonesia, Singapore and elsewhere. We publish The World’s Water report every two years. Much of the rest of our water work is in the western United States.

What do you see as the most important issues in California water today?
Weíre working in California to broaden the nature of the ongoing water debate from traditional stakeholders and policies to include more voices and more integrated solutions. There are many factors at work, not just agriculture vs. urban vs. environmental interests, but also the need for new thinking about technology, economics and education. There is diversity within different interest groups that can be engaged to broaden the conversation and allow for more creative, sustainable solutions.

Probably the most important water challenge facing California is our apparent inability to implement solutions. Thereís no shortage of good ideas, but there is a shortage of willingness to compromise. Overall, there is plenty of water in the state, but we lack mechanisms for coming to agreement on how to manage it. The ways in which water is allocated create several difficulties and we need more information on how water is actually used and can be used more effectively.

Any other issues outside California?
Californiaís issues pale in comparison to global problems. There are a billion people without access to safe drinking water, and 2.5 billion without access to safe sanitation. Add global climate change and shifting water supplies and the situation looks very bleak. We have less time than we think to prepare. We tackle all of these issues.

There are many stakeholders and agendas in California water resource management. How do you think we can take the biggest steps forward?
Sometimes, I donít know — and Iíve been working on this for 30 years! Iím normally optimistic, but watching the political wrangling can be depressing. There just doesnít seem to be genuine effort being made beyond defending narrow self-interests. It doesnít seem to matter who is in charge.

On a positive note, there have been some small steps forward recently, and there are innovations and many success stories in water management today that we can build on.

If you could change one thing about California water policy, what would it be?
Alas, the things that are most important to change are the hardest: water rights, the design of infrastructure, the decision to pump water from the Delta, people’s expectations. There doesnít seem to be a way to undo many of the things that were defined 100 years ago. I look to South Africa, which after apartheid failed, rewrote its water laws. Here, it seems we can only fiddle around the margins instead of making real changes.

Whatís the most significant project youíve been involved with in your career?
There isnít just one. It is important to me to broaden thinking about water beyond traditional disciplinary approaches. We need a more comprehensive way to think about sustainability ó integrating smart technology with new thinking about economics and ecosystems and management. I call this the “soft path” for water, and have written about it extensively.

What is the biggest challenge your organization has faced in the past 10 years?
Next year will be our 25th anniversary. As founder, Iíve been there since the beginning. Funding has always been a challenge, but we have maintained a staff of 25 and are strong and stable.

Whatís something people might be surprised to know about your organization?
Itís hard to know what people do know about the Pacific Institute. Most do not realize the remarkable diversity of issues that we tackle. Another surprise is the diversity of groups and place we work with, from local communities to the U.N. to water efforts with the world’s largest corporations. People in California are surprised that we work in the rest of the world, and international groups are surprised that we work in California.

What was your reaction to the Pacific Institute being named an inaugural winner of CWWA’s U.S. Water Prize?
The Pacific Institute is honored to be recognized as a leader among organizations working to change the water paradigm with sustainable solutions. The U.S. Water Prize highlights the critical importance and the value of the work of the Pacific Institute in seeking and implementing real-world solutions to our water challenges.

Whatís the one thing you canít live without at work?
Here are three: good coffee, high-speed internet, and interaction with colleagues.

Whatís on your to-do list?
A Google mobile phone app that locates public drinking fountains. A book on 21st century water policy. The paperback edition of Bottled and Sold, which is coming out soon.

Dr. Peter Gleick

Name: Dr. Peter Gleick

Title: President, Pacific Institute

Background: Dr. Peter Gleick is co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security in Oakland, Calif. His research and writing address the critical connections between water and human health, the hydrologic impacts of climate change, sustainable water use, privatization and globalization, and international conflicts over water resources.

An internationally recognized water expert, he was named a MacArthur Fellow in October 2003 for his work. In 2001, Gleick was dubbed a "visionary on the environment" by the BBC. In 1999, he was elected an academician of the International Water Academy in Oslo, Norway, and in 2006 was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 2008, Wired Magazine named him "one of 15 people the next president should listen to."

Dr. Gleick received a bachelorís degree from Yale University and a masterís degree and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He serves on the boards of numerous journals and organizations, and is the author of many scientific papers and eight books, including the biennial water report, The World's Water. His latest book is Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water.

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