Fact check on Devin Nunes

On the floor of the House of Representatives last week, south valley Rep. Devin Nunes was calling attention to all of the “wasted” water that flowed out to the ocean this year when he made an interesting comment:

“Some on the other side of the aisle, they continually talk about global warming, and they continually talk about how the oceans are rising,” said Nunes, a Republican. “If you believe the oceans are rising, why would you want more water to flow out to the ocean? I don’t understand that.”

Photo by Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

The implication was that the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and their tributaries, were running so strong and so full this year that they might have worsened the danger posed by global sea level rise.

That’s not the case. Nunes said 46 million acre-feet of water flowed beneath the Golden Gate into the ocean, which has a total worldwide volume of… wait for it… 1 quadrillion acre feet, or about 321,000,000 square miles.

Runoff from interior California has a negligible impact on such a vast pool of water.

“It’s like spitting into Lake Tahoe,” said Bill Patzert, an oceanographer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

But wait: If you are rather generous in interpreting his comment, Nunes isn’t entirely off base.

Let’s back up and allow Patzert to explain.

For millions of years, the Earth’s waters have been in hydrologic balance. Water from the ocean evaporates, generating precipitation that falls over land and feeds our rivers, which then dump into the ocean and replenishes the water that evaporated in the first place. Not that complicated.

If you were to disrupt that cycle by damming all of the rivers in the world, with nary a drop trickling into the ocean, sea levels would indeed decline.

Conversely, if all of the rivers in the world were allowed to run unfettered to the sea, global sea levels would rise about 10 centimeters or 4 inches, Patzert said.

“He (Nunes) isn’t totally wrong,” Patzert said.

That said, rivers’ contribution to sea level rise is small in the grand scheme of things. One-third of sea level rise is blamed on heat which is absorbed by the oceans and causes them to expand, Patzert said. The other two-thirds can be blamed on the melting of the great ice sheets. Both causes are tied to carbon dioxide emissions by humans.

“The flow on the Sacramento River is so far down the noise level compared to those two things,” Patzert said.

Watch a short clip of Nunes’ comments here.

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    Alex Breitler

    A native of Benicia, he lives in Stockton with his wife, Ann, who forces him to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada or Trinity Alps at every opportunity. He has been writing mostly about natural resources since 2003, first in Redding and now in ... Read Full
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