Steven Chu is a Water Guy

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu is passionate about water.  In case you missed Chu’s widely publicized interview with the LA Times back in February 2009, just after he took office, it is worth a read.  Dr. Chu rightly expresses grave concern over water issues in the U.S., including their potential impacts on agriculture in California, his (and my) home state.

U.S. Secretary for Energy and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu addresses the IAEA’s 2011 Scientific Forum on Water Matters

Last September Sec. Chu gave the keynote science address to the Scientific Forum of the IAEA 2011 General Conference in Vienna.  The topic of the Scientific Forum this year was “Water Matters,” and, as a participant in the conference and a member of the audience, I believe that the Secretary hit a grand slam. Unfortunately, Chu’s water address went unreported, as it was overshadowed by the events of the larger, General Conference, including discussions of the Fukushima Daiichi tragedy.  So, I’m happy to share some of the high points of his water address with you here. Click here to watch the video of the address.

First of all, Dr. Chu gets it. He understands the big picture of current and emerging water stress, including the shortcomings with which it is calculated.  He recognizes the need for more efficient agricultural water use.  And he places it all in the context of global change, including man’s impact as drivers of increasing temperatures, melting ice sheets and glaciers, and sea level rise.  He grasps the intimate links between energy, climate change and the water cycle.

It was, after all, an IAEA conference, so Dr. Chu spent a considerable amount of his presentation highlighting the contributions of isotopic methods, for dating groundwater, for remediating contaminants and in developing new membrane technologies for use in reverse osmosis, which could ultimately lower the very large energy requirements for desalination.

Secretary Chu’s address ended with a call for scientists to lead the way in proposing new approaches for mitigating the risks that the human race has new exposed our planet too.

Dr. Chu is very clearly a super smart guy. After all, they don’t just give those Nobel prizes away.  It is rather reassuring to know that the water community has a smart guy giving sound, science-based advice to the White House.

On the evening before his keynote, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to brief Sec. Chu on our work using the GRACE satellite mission to quantify current rates of groundwater depletion around the world.  I got to see firsthand what sets the really smart guys apart from the rest of us.  Not only did the good doctor immediately embrace and understand the scientific underpinnings and societal implications of our work, but then he retired to his hotel room, where he whipped together his own GRACE slide, and the next day in his address, gave a better explanation of how it all works than I and most of my colleagues on the GRACE Science Team.

As is all this weren’ t impressive enough, in addition to being a water guy and a smart guy, it turns out that the Secretary is also a nice guy.   I found Dr. Chu to be so…normal. Down to Earth. Easy to talk to. Engaged.  And engaging.

So, it comes to this. Steven Chu is a water guy, a smart guy, and a nice guy. Which makes him…my hero.

About Jay Famiglietti

Jay Famiglietti is a hydrologist, a professor and the Senior Water Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. He and his research team use satellites and develop computer models to track changing freshwater availability and groundwater depletion around the world. Famiglietti is an active speaker, a frequent advisor to national and international government officials on water issues, and avid writer for the general public. In July 2018 he will join the faculty of University of Saskatchewan, where he will direct the Global Institute for Water Security.


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Design professional Richard Vijgen's rendering of GRACE and USGS groundwater depletion data displayed on Times Square beginning on World Water Day, March 22, 2012.

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