Maven’s Minutes: California Water Policy Seminar Series presents Mark Cowin: “What’s so Funny ‘bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?”
The Director of the Department of Water Resources, Mark Cowin, was the final speaker in the California Water Policy Seminar Series which concluded on March 18, 2013. Mark Cowin has worked for over 30 years at the Department of Water Resources in a variety of positions, including Assistant Director for the CalFED program and as Deputy Director of Integrated Water Management. He has served as director since 2010. During his speech, Mr. Cowin spoke about the success of the Integrated Regional Water Management Program as well as the challenges of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, and even shared his perspective on career opportunities at DWR.
Mark Cowin began by explaining why he chose the title, “What’s so Funny ‘bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?” for his speech. “Well, Elvis Costello is just cool so that’s enough reason for the title,” he began, “but frankly I get pretty frustrated with media coverage of water in California. I think we tend to glorify California’s historic water wars, and I think that does us a disservice. There are certainly plenty of things to fight about out there. It’s been awhile since somebody actually got shot over a water dispute in California, but there are plenty of disagreements. Our system cultures and fosters those disagreements, I think, but there’s also a lot of consensus these days and movement towards a shared vision of sustainable water management for California, so that’s what I want to talk about a bit today.”
“But first, I am asking for pledges from all of you to join me in Elvis Costello’s approach to talking about water and asking you never again to quote Mark Twain; if I ever hear that water quote again, I’m not even going to say it so I hope you know what it is, I never want to hear it again. Let’s try a little peace, love and understanding,” said Mr. Cowin.
“We have a big growing population and a big, stable irrigated agricultural industry, and of course, the penultimate fact about water in California: about 2/3rds of it originates north of Sacramento, about 2/3rds of it is used south of Sacramento, and right in between you’ve got one of the most important estuaries on the West Coast, so it adds to the challenge of getting the water from its place of origin to its place of use,” he said. “But that hasn’t stopped California; over the last century or longer, we’ve developed an amazing plumbing system to help move water from place of origin to place of use and to redirect its timing so that it’s there when we need it and not there when we don’t need it.”
“What’s interesting is that a lot of this development has been sort of haphazard in a lot of ways, actually driven by whatever level of government happened to be empowered at the time and generally responsive to events of the day,” he said. Showing a timeline of investments in flood management from 1870 up until present day, he noted: “From 1890 to 1930, there were a lot of local entities taking on flood management for themselves and implementing their own projects. 1930 to 1960 was a big era of federal investment in flood facilities and water supply infrastructure in California, and from 1960 to 1990, it was an era of state and local investment in water projects. From 1990 to now, we’ve lived in this world of general obligation bond investment spurring investment in big projects across California. The question is what comes next?”
We face a lot of challenges in California water, Mr. Cowin said. There are some system deficiencies: “We need to make a lot of high dollar investment now just to correct problems we have with the system we’ve developed over the past century,” he said, noting that the projects such as the BDCP and the new fish screens being installed on intakes are to modernize the system. “And a lot of that infrastructure is old and aging and in need of repair and replacement so we’re spending a lot of money to keep the same water reliability that we enjoy today,” he said.
“We’re all very aware of the issues regarding the Bay Delta: the declining ecosystem and the concurrent loss and degradation of water supply reliability that goes along with that,” he said. “Drought: obviously it’s an expected part of our hydrologic cycle and we ought to be ready for drought when it occurs. … it tends to occur sort of like a pop-quiz for California water infrastructure to test the resiliency of our system from time to time. We need to do a better job of incorporating a response to drought into our normal way of managing water in California.”
Climate change is the real game changer for California water resources planning, presenting unprecedented challenges: “Dealing with sea level rise, dealing with loss of snowpack, and dealing with changes in runoff patterns where we can expect flash floods and longer periods of drought – these are new challenges that we can’t even really quantify very well at this point for our water management system in the future,” said Mr. Cowin.
“We need new and better tools for water management and planning because we now know that relying upon our historical hydrology as a guide for planning for future needs isn’t really a very good way of doing business. It really means just starting over again from the bottom up,” he said. “How do we plan for water resources? How do we implement them? How do we account for the uncertainty that lies ahead?”
At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a mentality of resource extraction and great economic development, he explained. However, starting about the 1960s, we began to have a new ethic regarding resources management in California. “New laws and policies were enacted that placed more emphasis on our natural environment, and that of course had a great effect on the way that we manage our water system, and resulted in a lot of conflict. I’m not sure exactly where we are between that box and our ultimate goal of sustainable resources management,” he said, looking at the slide. “I hope we’re leaning in that direction; I sometimes have glimpses of actually feeling like that’s where we’re at, but we’ve got a ways to go to get where we want to, and that really is sustainable resources management that implicitly includes consideration of the environmental values and the consequences of investment decisions for improving water supply reliability.”
One of the primary responsibilities of the Department of Water Resources is to update the California Water Plan every five years, and the water plan has evolved during much of his career, said Mr. Cowin. “Starting in the 80s, I was involved in some of these updates and what it really got to was defining the difference between supply and demand, and some preliminary work on what type of projects might go into filling the gap between supply and demand. More than anything else out of the water plan, that gap was used as a political driver to try and incentivize development of other projects, and so much of the rest of the water plan was really sort of unnecessary, or at least unused.”
In the 2005 update, we attempted to return to the underlying meaning of the California Water Plan and get back to more of a strategic planning approach, he said. “We took some different directions; we came up with actual goals and objectives and a strategic plan for achieving those goals and objectives. We still included a lot of the basic information on supply, sources of projects that might go towards meeting those supplies, but we also included a broad variety of other water management objectives – water quality, protecting groundwater basins and a number of other things.”
Other state and federal agencies were brought in to collaborate, and their goals were incorporated, so for the first time, it was more of California’s water plan, as opposed to DWR’s water plan, he said. “The basic notion was that we had these foundational actions that we needed to take to secure sustainable water uses, use water efficiently, protect water quality, and support environmental stewardship,” he said.
Implementing integrated regional water management, and improving statewide water management systems are the key initiatives that lead towards this ultimate vision of a vital economy, healthy environment, and a high standard of living, he said. The 2005 update was “an attempt, really for the first time, to align the actions that local agencies and the actions that state and federal agencies do towards a common vision.”
There have been a lot of other improvements in the water plan over the last few years: “We’re working on having more of a finance plan in this edition. Sustainability indicators – we can talk about sustainability, but how do you translate that back into real water planning. There is increased emphasis on further integration of flood management and other types of actions into a total resources approach to water planning, and more outreach, particularly to tribes as well as consideration of how to advance environmental justice issues,” he said.
Integrated Resources Water Management is one of the great secrets in California water over the last decade. “We’ve actually made some very good progress in moving this theory forward, and it has resulted in a lot of benefit for California water management. The notion is pretty simple; we’ve got this really diverse intricate system of water governance in California – a lot of different agencies with very specific responsibilities and authorities. If we can provide some incentive for them to work together towards common objectives, there has to be some efficiency that we can squeeze out of those agency’s actions and investments and that’s really what it’s all about,” said Mr. Cowin.
The portfolio approach emphasizes multiple sources, a ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ philosophy, and to think about water planning in terms of risk management, he said. “We’re lucky to have the tool of state general obligation bonds to provide money for incentives for local agencies. If they can meet certain planning objectives that the state requires, they’ve got their priority list of projects and their goals and objectives, we’ll cost share with them to further leverage their own local investment to promote water management. It’s worked extremely well,” he said, noting that IRWM planning efforts are nearly blanketing the state. “Not all of them are at the same level of sophistication or evolution, but at least we’ve got conversations going.”
“We’re trying to align land use planning with water planning, which is one of the key benefits of the IRWM approach. We have historically avoided any discussion about land use planning in the water world, and at least this gives us a touch back to those cities and counties that actually do have some authority over land use. We’re really trying to push it in that direction,” he said.
Thanks to Prop 50 & Prop 84, DWR has awarded over $600 million in grants to leverage about a $3.5 billion investment from local agencies since 2002. “We estimate that those investments alone have secured about 2 million acre-feet of water per year on average, either in new supply development or in demand reduction. So that’s a pretty considerable point of progress and one that is often not reported,” he said.
Statewide actions are the other key initiative, he said. “We’re trying to better align the actions of state and federal agencies and those of local and regional agencies towards these common objectives, so when I speak of the BDCP as part of integrated water management, I mean that is has to be multi-objective, multi-purpose, and it has to fit within and be integrated with the actions of local agencies,” he said. “For instance, we’re not going to achieve our water management objectives for California by improving Delta conveyance alone. We know that we have to continue improve water conservation, improve water recycling, and improve groundwater management – all of those other actions that local agencies really have their hand on the wheel to implement. We’re not looking for a silver bullet; we’re trying to take all these actions in package and in total to meet our overall planning needs.”
“Another statewide action is the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan; this is another big achievement for the Department of Water Resources,” he said. The Central Valley Flood Protection Plan is the biggest master planning effort for flood management in the Central Valley that has occurred in decades, and it was adopted last year. “We’re now breaking that down into a regional planning effort where we’ve divided the Central Valley into 5 or 6 different regions and we’re asking local agencies to get engaged to flesh out some of the details of what actions they would take in concert with the system-wide improvements that the state or federal government would be responsible for. I think it’s pretty good.”
“There are some challenges moving forward with improving water planning and water resources management towards this integrated water management goal,” he said. “I have three general recommendations.”
First of all, we need improved planning tools: “It’s critically important that we get a better handle on updating our planning processes, moving away from the old gap analysis and counting on historical hydrology to guide what we expect in the future, and instead develop a more robust system of analyzing risk management. It’s a sort of approach that is common in other sorts of planning, we’re just slow to get there in water resources planning, and we just need some new tools, new approach, new thinking, to help us reinvent water management planning,” he said. For example, “How do you measure resiliency in a system? It’s easy for me to stand here and say we need to plan for climate change, well, what the heck does that mean? If we add half million acre-feet of water conservation or add a 9000 cfs conveyance facility in the Delta, what does that do to help us out in measurable ways towards improving California water management? We need tools to help us define and measure resiliency, and sustainability, for that matter.”
“Another example, how do you value ecosystem function and health? This is one of the key issues that we are dealing with in the BDCP, and it really is one of the key issues we deal with water management. How do you do manage water in light of total natural resources management? Understanding that connection, understanding how to value … there’s risk involved in taking actions to improve the ecosystem,” he said. “The BDCP is a great example. We’re talking about an investment of over 100,000 acres of restored habitat: tidal wetlands and floodplain habitat, in the Delta, and on top of that, we’re talking about the need for maybe an another million acre-feet of additional outflow in the Delta. Those things cost money; they come out of California’s economy; how much risk management do we need to ensure that we’re going to have a sustainable ecosystem? It’s easy to take the most conservative approach but we don’t have unlimited resources in terms of funding to implement planning so we need a more intelligent way of making those decisions.”
Secondly, we need improved investment in science. “The biggest conflicts are still in resources management. We don’t understand what we’re doing enough to really judge adequately what our actions will result in. We need better connection between scientists and policymakers in the future. We need more data collection, more synthesis of that data, and just better communication,” he said, noting that there is frustration on both the part of scientists and policymakers over the communication gap. “It’s going to take more money. We need more money devoted to science, but that’s got to pay off. The folks we’re going to ask to invest in that science probably are going to be concerned that it not be used against them to over-regulate or take that conservative approach more often than not, so it’s one of these chicken and egg things. To get the money for the investment, we’ve got to show signs that we’re actually able to communicate and move forward effectively.”
Finally, we need to improve the governance of water. “We have inherited a system that is a legacy system. I’m not sure how we got to where we are but here we are. Multi-levels of governments, diverse authority, sometimes conflicting authorities, and we’re all supposed to make that work for the public’s benefit,” he said. “I think it’s critically important that we reexamine and clarify the rules that we all play. We need to start with a common vision and common goals and then align our actions to try to reach those goals, and that’s at the federal, state, regional, and local level. There are tools that we can implement to help us get there, like IRWMP, but it’s going to be critical that we find a better way to do that so we’re all moving towards the same objectives.”
“We need a stable system for financing water projects and programs. … We generally get big state or federal investments after we’ve had some sort of crisis but that’s not a real great way to plan for the future,” he said. “We need to be able to reward local investment, and that’s one of the great things about the IRWM approach; it’s amazing what we’ve been able to do. What we’re essentially offering local agencies is a 10% off coupon to go make a big investment in their water future, and that really drives activity; it’s amazing. They don’t want to lose out on that so they lurch forward in their planning processes and come up with new approaches and learn how to work together to make them happen; that’s the really exciting thing. When you see two local agencies that have historically drawn up a big fence between them and not cooperate then find a way to cooperate in order get out little bit of money we want to offer them, it’s a real success,” he said.
We need a stable source of funding for IRWM if we’re going to continue it, he said. “We’ve been lucky to have general obligation bond financing to provide that incentive for the past decade or so, but that funding is about to run out. We’ll have to pass another GO bond, maybe we will, maybe we won’t, but I don’t think the GO bond lottery is the most stable approach to this sort of system,” he said. The issue of water use fees is one of the real existing third rails in water management. “If I even talk about a fee on water use that might support this type of program I’d be run out of the room in most meetings of water agencies in California. I don’t know what the right answer is but I do know we need a more stable source of funding,” he said. IRWM incentives have pushed local agencies to consider climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. “I don’t think they would have taken that stuff on if not for our planning requirements, so there’s a lot of possibilities, but it’s going to take a lot of guts to come up with a source of stable funding to make that a reality moving forward.”
“If I had to tell you what I think one of my primary accomplishments as director of DWR over the last three years, it has been to get us out of court. We are in a situation where we have disagreements on science, we have disagreements on the way that endangered species act requirements are placed upon project operations, and when we don’t like it, we sue somebody. You cannot have collaborative science program and you cannot have a productive science program when your scientists are defending a litigation position. That’s just the bottom line, and that works both from the point of view of both the defendants and the plaintiffs,” he said. “So what we’ve been attempting to do … is to get out of the courtroom, show that we can work together collaboratively, make an investment in science so we have a common, basic understanding of cause and effect in the Delta, and hopefully that will lead to a place where there is basic agreement on what regulations are required in order to protect the ecosystem and provide for water supply reliability in California. It’s a work in progress and there’s been some great dialog between agencies that have spent the last decade primarily seeing each other in court; but again, the theory has to be proven, we have to make some progress, and it seems like every day there is a test to our tentative collaborative approach.”
Permitting processes are just basically unwieldy at this point, said Mr. Cowin. “The fact that the BDCP is going to be 17,000 pages long speaks volumes in itself. There’s just basic misalignment of some of the planning requirements, simple things like different baseline requirements for doing analysis of your project from endangered species act to NEPA to CEQA and that’s why you have to have 17,000 pages – because you have to do the same problem evaluation three different ways. It doesn’t make any sense, it doesn’t add to the planning process, so just some basic alignment of those types of things to streamline permitting processes and planning processes associated with permitting is just essential.”
“And finally, I’ve spent a lot of time with the wildlife agencies, the California Department of Fish and Game, National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and they are really struggling, at least that’s my perspective,” he said. “They need more capacity if they are going to do what we’re asking them to do. There is simply not enough bodies, not enough expertise to move their processes ahead in a timely way, and beyond that, we’ve got to find a way to provide incentive for wildlife agencies to work towards solutions. When you’re overwhelmed, it’s easy to take the most conservative approach and basically cover your own interests, but that generally doesn’t solve the problem, so we’ve got to find a way to provide some incentives for wildlife agencies to think creatively, maybe take a little risk now and then, in order to move us towards collaborative solutions.”
So in conclusion, “I think that we have a much clearer idea of what we need to do these days, compared to when I started in California water three decades ago. There’s a lot of agreement about the need for sustainable water management, for planning for climate change, for taking this risk management approach, for investing in water conservation and improving water recycling and doing all of those things in the portfolio that we know are going to be essential. What we’re struggling with is how to do it and how to pay for it, so that’s the next big challenge: reforming and aligning government regulation, financing all towards this broader integrated water management ethic. That’s the future.”
“And now, I’m going to answer my own question. There’s nothing funny about peace, love and understanding. Let’s give it a chance. Thank you.”
And at this point, Mr. Cowin took questions.
Question: I am supportive of the IRWM theory, but skeptical of its use in IRWM in CA. How can program be changed so that more agencies can participate, and are there any measurements of success?
Answer: “The chief thing that I’ve learned from my experience with IRWM is the need for stability and slow evolution of any sort of requirements that we’re going to place on folks. Again, this gets to my frustration about the stop and start nature of the funding we’ve been able to provide. While we’ve had a bankroll basically, thanks to prop 50 & prop 84, those funds are subject to appropriation.
Of course we are just emerging from a pretty dark time in California finances, and so those appropriations weren’t coming for awhile. When you set local groups off to collaborate and invest in these expensive planning processes and give them your rules and your expectations, and they go off and do all of that, and when they return, you don’t have the grants to provide them as a reward, that is not good. That doesn’t provide the kind of motivation we’re looking for; in fact, it sets us back.
So having consistent funding and a regular schedule, and if we’re planning to make a change in what we’re going to require in IRWM plans, signal that well ahead of time. Maybe grant cycle or two ahead of time before we actually require people to do it. That’s the main thing that I’ve learned from dealing with folks engaged with this process.
Measures of success, extremely important. We’ve done our best to ask people to self report basically on success and done as much as we can to verify that the projects that people said they would do actually were implemented and that they achieved the benefits they thought they would. We’ve been working with ACWA towards doing a look back on that to verify what we were able to achieve and what we weren’t. It’s been very useful.
What we struggle with is that we have a limited amount of funds that are provided to us to implement these grant programs and it really doesn’t provide a whole lot of money for back-checking at the end of the process to be certain for verification purposes. We struggle, and we try to use the money as efficiently as we can, but we’re always going to rely on self-reporting to some extent. It would be nice to be able to do some spot-checking anyway, more than we do today, but that’s kind of where we at.
Question: What is the role of the BDCP and the water bond? How do they work together? What is DWR’s role in using water bond funds?
Answer: “We had our first big rollout of the first four chapters of the BDCP last week. Over the next six weeks, we’ll roll out the rest of the BDCP. The last group of documents to be released includes our finance plan so frankly we have a lot of work to do between now and then to tighten it up. The basic numbers put the present worth cost of the Delta conveyance facility at approximately $14 billion. All of the other conservation measures – there are 21 other conservation measures from wetlands improvements to Yolo Bypass floodplain improvements to addressing water quality issues to addressing invasive species and so on – all of those other capital improvements or capital requirements add up to just under $4 billion. Beyond that, if you capitalize all the 50 year life of the permit, I believe you end up at $23 billion, so there is an annual commitment above and beyond those capital requirements. It’s a lot of money.
The basic premise of the financing plan is that the water users, the SWP and CVP customers that receive the benefit of the water supply reliability, would pay for CM 1, the $14 billion capital requirement plus whatever operations and maintenance is required, plus the basic mitigation requirements for that facility.
The BDCP is an HCP and a NCCP under state law which means that we are going beyond the ‘avoid jeopardy’ standard for ecosystem mitigation and towards a ‘recovery’ standard. That means traditionally in HCPs, there’s a public investment towards that difference, because we’re all going to benefit from a restored ecosystem as opposed to a mitigated ecosystem. That public investment portion that we would expect is something on the order of $3 billion. Maybe less, maybe more, plus some annual costs.
It would be nice to have that and bankroll it right now. We don’t, of course. The water bond that was negotiated back in 2009, the $11.2 billion bond, included a chapter for Delta projects, of that about 1.5 billion would be directly applicable to these purposes. So if the water bond were to go on the ballot this November as is currently the plan, and the voters approve that, then that would be $1.5 billion towards that needed investment.
For the purposes of an HCP and an NCCP, we have to show a viable financing plan over the 50 year life of the program. We don’t have to have all that money in the bank at this time, but we have to show a viable plan that shows a history of investment that makes it likely that we’ll be able to raise the monies necessary to implement the plan over time. We believe we can do that, between the potential for this GO bond passing, our history of other GO bonds passing that have provided for natural resources over the past decade or two, plus the financial assistance from the federal government. The money they are investing right now in their CalFED programs amounts to as much as $50 million per year, so that’s a nice investment towards the needs. We’ll just have to piece all of those sources of funding together to illustrate that we have a viable financing plan.
The key question of course is whether or not we need the water bond to pass in order for BDCP to be successful, and our answer is ‘no.’ Obviously it would be a great help and great momentum if it does pass, but we do have a nice history of providing for these needs in California and we think we can rely upon that.
Where’s the water bond going? I don’t’ know. I spent a lot of my time negotiating the terms of that water bond back in 2008-2009, and I would have told you at the time you were crazy if you even try to touch it and renegotiate it because it was such a careful balance of parts that got to that political solution.
But unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve read a story about the water bond that didn’t include the term ‘pork-laden’ in the past couple of years. I think that’s a very unfortunate moniker for it. Obviously there were a few last minute specific callouts that weren’t necessary or important and not really in the spirit of the broader investment, but there they are and the public doesn’t like them very much. Certainly the media doesn’t like them very much. The problem is if we open the water bond, then you test the careful balance that the legislature was able to get to in 2009; I’m not sure they can do that again under any sort of formula.”
Question: Recently, Lockheed Martin announced they were having great success with a new desalination technology. How is DWR moving towards using new technologies to break out of the Delta-levee paradigm?
Answer: “As I tried to portray in my presentation, we’re not looking for a silver bullet here. We think that reliable Delta water supplies go hand in hand with continued investment in anportfolio approach on an IRWM basis for local and regional agencies that includes desalination. It would be great if there were continuing breakthroughs in technology that drive down costs, drive down greenhouse gases, and drive down the ill effects of desal or any other water management tool that might be out there.
Let me take this opportunity to note this: what we’re talking about here is a foundational amount of water supply reliability from the Delta. I can’t tell you exactly what that number is, but let’s just say that if we’re exporting 5 million acre-feet per year now on average and we ended up moving to a system that only allowed us to export 3 million acre-feet of water from the Delta, that means we need to make up that 2 million acre-feet through other local actions Now that can be desalination, it can be water conservation, it can be better groundwater management – all of those local tools that go into that portfolio approach.
However, what if we were able to get by with 4 million acre-feet of water from the Delta and still maintain a trajectory towards recovery of the Delta ecosystem, then that frees up that million acre-feet that we would have invested just to get back to where we started from, towards preparing for these challenges like climate change and growing population in the future. It really gets down to the economic ability to support those types of investments on top of whatever we can get out of the Delta in a sustainable way.
So to answer your question, what we’re doing, we’ll continue to provide IRWM funds for planning, for implementation. We’ll continue to provide guidelines for what we want agencies to do to move towards sustainable water management and encourage them to be taking advantage of new technological breakthroughs and incorporate them into their planning processes.”
Question (asked by Jay Lund): The role of DWR is likely to change in the future. The room is full of people at beginnings of careers. What is your prognosis for employment opportunities at DWR … ?
Answer: “I came to DWR 32 years ago. I intended to stay a few years until I got my PE license and then get the heck out. And here I am. Maybe I’m just slow, I don’t know but I never found anything else that interested me more. The challenges are just unbelievable. If you like solving puzzles, these are the best puzzles around.
Water management in California – you can describe it in a lot of different ways, but I truly do believe we are on the cusp of moving into a new era, and I kind of wish I was just getting started right now. Hopefully we’ll continue on and find ways to be more collaborative, to be more thoughtful, and take a long view typically more than we have in California water resources planning in the past.
DWR is a great place to be, not necessarily for the pension anymore, but beyond that, we have one of the most unique missions and portfolio of programs compared to any other state agency. If you have a short attention span, sort of like me, you can work on one thing one day and do something completely different the next day. A lot of interesting topics, a lot of relevant topics, and they’re important. I think that’s probably the reason I never left. If I was figuring out how produce license plates, I would have probably lost interest awhile ago, but these are problems that are meaningful to all of us and to our children and it’s real driver and motivation. So come on down, we’ll find you a place to work.”