OAKLAND -- Nearly three decades ago, when Peter Gleick started the Pacific Institute to work on water and other environmental issues, California was in the grip of a fierce drought.
Today, things don't look much different. The state is parched, the reservoirs low, and Gleick finds himself in the familiar position of pushing decision makers to adopt new water policies and alerting the public to just how dire the water shortage is -- and how much worse it will get.
"In California, we have a belief that we'll muddle through" the droughts, he said. "And we do muddle through, but it's getting more and more difficult."
It's a slow and often heated battle Gleick, an internationally recognized expert on climate and water issues, has chosen to fight since founding the Oakland-based environmental research center in 1987. The politics around climate change are often combative; water management can be difficult and expensive, and many Californians are quick to resume their lawn watering and long showers during the wet years.
"Peter really is a standout voice for some basic common sense," said Gavin Schmidt, a New York-based climate scientist for the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "Peter understands not just the water utilization issue, but climate change's impact on water."
This year, water is center stage in California, as the drought now entering its third year has left farms to wither and put at least 17 communities in danger of running dry. But Gleick's 30 years of effort are starting to bear fruit, according to some climate scientists. These days, California is focused on conserving and recycling water, rather than carving out new reservoirs.
"Peter and his organization were talking about this well before it was fashionable, and they broadened the discussion away from old-style solutions like building more dams," said Michael Mann, a professor of meteorology at Penn State University whose work was influenced by Gleick.
But Gleick, 57, got tripped up in heated climate politics in 2012 when he admitted to using a fake name to obtain internal documents from the libertarian Heartland Institute, an anti-regulation group that works to minimize or refute global warming. He took a four-month leave of absence and was reinstated after the Pacific Institute cleared him of wrongdoing. The incident gained national attention, and Gleick was forced to resign from the chairmanship of the American Geophysical Union's ethics committee.
The Heartland Institute continues to push for criminal charges.
Gleick proved he "has no moral qualms about committing serious crimes to advance an ideological agenda," said Heartland spokesman Jim Lakely. No one "should take seriously anything he has to say about the climate. To the extent he's shaped public opinion, he's actually decreased the public's understanding of the climate."
Gleick is not remorseful: "The science of climate change is incredibly strong," he said. "There is a remaining small group of deniers who try to misuse the science but I think are really afraid of the policy debate about what to do about climate change. Like the tobacco industry, I think history will show them for what they are."
Despite claiming an aversion to domestic politics, Gleick has very much been a part of the political scene, meeting with state and White House officials to discuss water management practices. He wrote a report in 2003 on urban water use that helped shape the California Water Plan in 2005.
Among Gleick's recommendations for better water management: improved ground water management, stricter water restrictions, improving inefficient agriculture and industry water systems, charging consumers more on their monthly water bill, and replacing manicured lawns with native plants and home appliances with water-saving models -- both of which he and his wife have done at their Berkeley home.
"His work certainly affected California water planning," said Gary Wolff, executive director of StopWaste, the Alameda County waste and water management division, who worked at the Pacific Institute from 2000 to 2005. "But federal policies have been so backwards I can't really say it affected national policy that much."
In 2000, Gleick helped write the national assessment on climate change, and a couple of years ago, he published a book outlining proposals for federal water policy reform. Still, few of his recommendations have been considered, he says.
Although the U.S. House of Representatives this month passed a relief package for California, Gleick isn't convinced water is a priority.
"At the federal level, water is not yet a crisis," he said. But, he cautions, the fight for water is really the fight for life.
"It's tied to energy and climate and health and economics and politics and natural resources," he said. "In the end, it's really tied to everything. "
Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.
Occupation: President and co-founder of the Pacific Institute
Hometown: New York City
Family: Wife and two sons, ages 22 and 25
Education: Yale University, bachelor's in engineering and applied science; UC Berkeley, master's and Ph.D. in energy and resources
Accolades: MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship in 2003; elected to National Academy of Sciences in 2006; United States Water Prize Recipient from the U.S. Water Alliance in 2011; Lifetime Achievement Award from Silicon Valley Water Conservation Awards in 2012