Brian Stranko

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Finding a decent photograph of the 204th Quaz selection was pretty impossible.

It’s not that Brian Stranko is an ugly dude, or particularly camera shy. Nope. Unlike many others who appeared in this space, he simply doesn’t seem to care about images and surface impressions. Which, in this case, is a good thing. Because Brian has a significantly more important issue to focus upon.

Though you almost certainly haven’t heard of Brian Stranko, he’s an increasingly strong voice in the fight to save California—drought-stricken state—from itself. Or, really, Californians from themselves. As the director of the water program for the Nature Conservancy, one of California’s most influential environmental organizations, Brian is working tirelessly to help this state survive the worst drought in modern history. He also happens to be a fan of Sherman Douglas and killer whales, but needs not another Spice Girls reunion.

Brian Stranko, Quaz No. 204, save us from ourselves …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Brian, blunt question and I truly fear the answer: Is it possible within the next, oh, 10 years, that California runs out of water, and we’re a dry state and there’s this crazy mass exodus? Because I’m starting to freak out.

BRIAN STRANKO: Believe me, I’ve thought about selling the house now and moving to a wetter state so that I don’t risk the dramatic decline of real estate and subsequent near-refugee feeling my family might undergo, but I’ve come to the conclusion that California won’t run out of water in the next 10 years. Instead, we will make fundamental changes to how we manage our water. Certainly the outlook is dire now—farms are fallowing, communities are running out of water and nature, particularly rivers, streams and wetlands are suffering.

And evidence suggests that two sobering realities will further challenge us to responsibly manage our water: 1) climate change will modify our precipitation and snow-melt patterns for the long run, and 2) the last 200 years (when we built up California) have been some of the wettest in the last 8,000 (meaning “normal” for us is drier than we’ve experienced in generations), suggesting that “normal” is drier anyway. But, with the crisis of the drought, momentum has been building toward widespread foundational changes that bring the promise of the Golden State returning to a level of water use that is within the limits nature provides us—both in wet and dry years.

In 2014, we passed a $7.5 billion water bond that provides investment capital for improving how we manage our water, improve our infrastructure and restore and protect the natural components of our water system. We also passed a package of groundwater reform bills that finally makes California the last state in the nation to embrace statewide groundwater management rules. And we established a governor-led initiative called the California Water Action Plan that charts a course for long-term, sustainable water management. We are nowhere near where we need to be, and this year’s incredibly dry, anemic snowpack backdrop will exacerbate our challenges, but we have building blocks and willingness amongst many stakeholders we have not seen in a long time. Just today, I participated in a roundtable discussion in the capital about our long-term water future. Australia faced a similar challenge recently. They did not run out of water. They kick-started a broad set of efforts to transform how they deal with water. It is both worthwhile and sensible to be hopeful.

J.P.: The wife and I moved to California from New York seven months ago. It was my idea, because I love the west coast and I hate winter and I’ve always cherished Southern Cal. But—because of the drought—was this a really dumb thing to do?

B.S.: Jeff, I thought I knew what snow was, growing up in Pennsylvania. Then I went to Syracuse for college. Sheesh. Eight months of the year walking through tunnels of snow. I get what you mean when you say you hate winter. No doubt I’m here in California for a similar reason (and I love it, by the way).

I don’t think it was really dumb to come to California. We do have a drought, but, as I describe above, I think we will work things out (though we’ll break some eggs in the process). I think living here does come with a responsibility though—one that we all have as Californians since we live in a water-scarce state. This doesn’t mean only showering three minutes instead of seven, it also means, in my mind, understanding the bigger picture issues (groundwater, responsible urban and ag water use, and sustainability of freshwater ecosystems) and being conversant with them. You’ll do fine. Urban centers will do fine, but we will be strapped to balance across urban, ag and environmental needs—and we will need to reconcile what this balance is.

J.P.: So I live in an area where people truly don’t seem to give a crap. They wash their cars, they sprinkle their lawns, they take 10 minutes before little league games to spray down fields. And I feel … lost. What am I supposed to do? What action should I be taking? Can I scream at people?

B.S.: I’m a bit divided on this, I have to say. Residential water use in the state is about 10 percent of the overall human developed water use—not much. Yet most of our population is residential (about 80 percent live in coastal cities). So, on the one hand, residential and urban water use reductions don’t actually contribute a lot to the big picture (agriculture uses about 80 percent of the human-used water annually on average). That said, in some residential communities that do have local shortages, cutting down is essential so that all families (rich and poor) can receive the water they need, and residential users participating in cutting back helps to advance the cause and the momentum toward us all cutting back given that they represent a strong share of the voting population.

So, I’d say don’t freak out on people, but educate them on the issues. They can decide for themselves. But often folks want to contribute to a solution. Enable them. Help them.

J.P.: A lot of people seem to hate guys like you, because they feel like environmental protections are hurting farmers. In particular, you hear a lot about smelt, and protections preventing more water from being used. Is there some legitimacy to this criticism? Why should I give two turds about smelt?

B.S.: If I had a nickel for every “two turds” conversation I’ve had …

OK, I need to underscore one thing—the environment and endangered species did not cause the drought. In fact, on average, our freshwater species today receive only about 50 percent of the water they received in previous centuries/millenia because so much of it is now diverted out of the environment to provide for human uses. It is easy to blame smelt or salmon or waterbirds, but they experience a perpetual drought now that is exacerbated when we have actual drought.

Instead, what works really well is finding ways to provide for people while also providing for nature. This can work because nature doesn’t need just some bulk amount of water all year long. Rather nature is used to annual boom and bust cycles (i.e. nature receives big flows when it rains and when snow melts in the winter/spring and receives low flows when they both end in the summer). Recognizing this allows us to consider how we can provide precise, “dynamic flows” for nature when it needs it while also providing for farms and cities. Oftentimes this recognition of dynamic flow needs for nature simply changes the game in terms of farms versus nature or nature versus cities. We at the Nature Conservancy have plenty of examples of how this can work—for example, between ranchers or vineyards and salmon or between rice farmers and birds.

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J.P.: Jerry Brown recently came out with a demand of 25-percent mandatory water cuts—without turning toward agriculture. Yet it seems like farmers use far more water than civilians—even greedy ones watering their McMansion lawns. Is farming—almonds and alfalfa—the biggest problem here? Does it truly even matter if my neighbor stops washing his car?

B.S.: Governor Brown’s executive order is a good thing. It puts an exclamation point, particularly among our population centers that we need to get serious. Also, despite some reports to the contrary, the Executive Order does actually require some things of agriculture. It requires some ag areas to develop and report agricultural management water use plans. It also requires some agricultural areas to report their groundwater and surface water use. That said, given that ag is 80 percent of the human used water in the state, we need more conservation and cutting back by ag. The big question is: What ag should cut back and who gets to choose? That is a tough issue. Right now those who cut back are the more junior water rights holders, not necessarily those ag producers who are providing the least value to the state, the country or the world. And some of those who are not cutting back are purely pumping groundwater (for example, for thirsty crops such as alfalfa and almonds as you mention)—an action that can negatively impact other ag producers (when groundwater slurps water from surface supplies) as well as the environment and communities, and they aren’t necessarily the producers who provide the greatest benefit to all of us. So, we need to get deliberate about how we cut back on ag. Only then can we be sure we are providing the highest benefit with the lowest amount of water use.

If your neighbor stops washing his car, does it matter? The actual big picture contribution to water use reduction would be insignificant. That said, the symbolism is important—”We are all in this together!” And, if you are convincing your neighbor, it is a nice teaching moment that can bring him/her into the dialogue that can lead to support for broader changes.

J.P.: Does it make me a jerk that I flush after peeing? Serious question.

B.S.: Certainly not a jerk. Again, your flushing is a rounding error in the whole water scheme of things. That said, the symbolic commitment to conservation when not flushing (after a few pees not like a hundred) is appreciated.

J.P.: I know you’re the director of the Nature Conservancy’s Water Program, I know you’re big into the drought, I know you spent nine years at California Trout. But, well, how’d you get here? Like, what’s been your path—womb to now? And when did you first get bitten by the nature bug?

B.S.: Womb to now? Wow—there’s a lot to that. Anyway, I have to say, I’m very glad that I’m in the career I’m in and in the state I’m in at this time. The solutions we come up with here and now, will provide solutions for the future and for other parts of the world. Not a bad position to be in.

So, I think I got the conservation “bug” from growing up in a rural area (central Pennsylvania) and playing outside in creeks, forests and fields a lot. There wasn’t much else to do (not that I’m complaining). Also, my dad was an avid outdoorsman and took my brother (who is now a fisheries biologist) and I hunting and fly fishing quite often. To this day, I find it hard to resist chasing after lizards, frogs and bugs. I also have a bit of a trout fishing obsession (which my young girls now have as well). I went to college at Syracuse (Go Orange!) for communications and subsequently did wildlife videography and photography for a while until I figured out that I was not having any real impact. Then I went to B-School at Georgetown and was the only weirdo who was doing it purely to apply to environmental conservation. My internships were like at Trout Unlimited and National Geographic, and I worked for free. My investing-bank-oriented friends thought I was nuts (as well as poor).

After grad school I worked at National Geographic for a while and then headed to the Millenium Institute where I worked on sustainability issues mainly for developing countries, in particular Africa—man, I have some stories there. My wife and I (who had been with me since college) wanted to settle down, so we looked for at cities we liked around the country and the job at California Trout came up. To this day, I respect and love my CalTrout friends and colleagues. I also get to work with them quite often. The Nature Conservancy, though, provides a larger canvas, stronger brand, higher level of influence and global reach that doesn’t compare.

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J.P.: Can you explain the big problem with groundwater? Also, how do we know how much is left?

B.S.: Ah … groundwater, a dang sexy topic. So picture California and its rivers, streams, reservoirs and canals as “just the surface.” Beneath that surface, picture a vast bathtub many times the “depth” of the surface. That’s what California is like. It’s geomorphology consists of vast quantities of water underground that bubble up to the surface providing vital contributions to river and stream flow (and therefore our surface water resources). Now, picture a gazillion straws pock-marking the surface and sucking the water from the bathtub and then water levels in the bathtub going down, down, down until they disconnect from the surface layer. This is what’s happening. Once the disconnect occurs, all sorts of crazy can happen—rivers can go dry, wetlands can vanish and surface water supplies for ag, communities and the environment can disappear. What’s more the ground can actually cave in (and has in some places), forever burying a part of our bathtub. We can do all we want to fix our surface water system, but if we don’t fix the straw-sucking, we have a leak that will compromise everything.

J.P.: Brian, I’ve lost faith in humanity. I really have. We worry about inane and trivial crap like a “War on Christmas” or Ted Cruz’s presidential ambitions, yet few people seem to truly care about the drought. How do you maintain a belief in humanity? Seriously …

B.S.: I worry about who Miranda Lambert’s dream honky-tonk date is. Do you know? Anyway, yes. We get caught up in a bunch of inconsequential silliness. I have to say, I’m as guilty of it as the next guy—I was glued to the World Series last year and must have cheered for an hour after Madison Bumgarner fouled out the last batter in the ninthinning of the seventh game. I also about killed myself when the Seahawks threw an interception at the one yard line at the end of the Super Bowl (I’ve been a Seahawks fan since I was a kid. Yes, I chose them because I like the colors).

So, I guess, I recognize I’m part of the silliness, certainly not perfect. Others aren’t either. But I have enough friends and colleagues in conservation work who are in the same boat I’m in. We care. We try. We suffer. We fail. And occasionally we win. We do it all together.

J.P.: In the back of my head, I keep thinking, “Eh, science will ultimately get us out of this.” Am I being naïve?

B.S.: Science provides, for the most part, the best real answers we can get. Yet it can’t do the job alone. Science can be manipulated, misrepresented and distorted. Diplomacy, collaboration with unlikely partners…and the willingness to do enter in such collaborations, and—yep, I’m gonna say it—politics is needed because our decision-makers make decisions, and those decisions are not always based on science.

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• Five all-time favorite Syracuse athletes: Jim Boeheim (yes, he actually played for Syracuse); Sherman Douglas, Gerry McNamara, Stephen Thompson (not that famous, but I actually played pickup ball with him in college), Carmelo Anthony (questionable, but he did win the title for them).

• Rank in order (favorite to least): David Wingate, Huffington Post, Killer Whale, Antonio Tarver, Courtney Cox, Volkswagen Beatle, Charli XCX, Home Depot, Joe Buck, Jay Leno: Killer whale, Killer whale, Killer whale.

• Three reasons you have hope for California: Human ingenuity, crisis, my colleagues (in and outside of the Nature Conservancy).

• I once went out with a really hot woman who threw her garbage out the car window. I never went out with her again. Should I have given her a second shot?: Not a chance.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Dude. Ever fly in an old Soviet plane with burn marks on the side and pilots who only spoke Arabic? I got stories.

• Do you kill ants in your house? If so, are you conflicted?: Kill them, yes. But we don’t get many, so I don’t have to be that conflicted.

• Four words that pop into your head when I write the words, “Spice Girls reunion”: Only remember Mel B.

• One question you would ask Wayne Tolleson were he here right now?: Dude, why go to the Yankees? I mean, really …

• The next president will be …: Jon Stewart

• Would you rather eat 200 raw smelt or drink a small cup of your high school gym teacher’s snot?: If the smelt are already dead I’m goin’ with them (you can’t imagine my high school gym teacher).