DWR Director Cowin gives a BDCP update and discusses SWP maintenance issues at Metropolitan board meeting

At the September 11, 2012 board meeting of the Metropolitan Water District, Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin gave an update on the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan and discussed ongoing operations and maintenance issues regarding the State Water Project.

BAY-DELTA CONSERVATION PLAN UPDATE

Calling the BDCP process long, complicated, and expensive, Mr. Cowin said they are making real progress.  He felt the announcement in July was important because “it was the first time that leaders of the state and federal governments at this level have shown such enthusiastic support for the BDCP, and in fact, their enthusiasm caused concern to some interests who feel that we are moving too fast and we ought to conduct more studies before we make real decisions.

However, Governor Brown and Secretary Salazar understand that the status quo in the Delta is simply not acceptable, he said.  Climate change will stress the system further with more intense droughts and increased flooding.  There is also the existing seismic risk in the Delta.  “Every day that we don’t take action, we’re gambling with the state’s economy,” Mr. Cowin said.  The state must also reduce its reliance upon the Delta, and continue to make progress in water efficiency, developing alternative water supplies and adding more surface and groundwater storage to our system.

Achieving acceptable water supply reliability for California depends on achieving the coequal goals, and “BDCP is the best, and maybe the last, opportunity to address all of the stressors in the Delta,” Mr. Cowin said.

Mr. Cowin explained that the adaptive management program will deal with scientific uncertainty in the Delta in a logical and collaborative way.  Operations will be determined by a decision tree; the amount available for export or for outflow could go up or down, but “this approach gives regulators and opportunity to approve a plan now based upon the science as we know it now and yet still commit to  reevaluate and modify operations as we learn more through the applied science program,” he said.

Calling the adaptive management program the most fundamental change the BDCP provides, Mr. Cowin said “It gives us a pathway for realigning the way that regulatory agencies and water agencies have historically interacted on Delta issues. Our existing paradigm just doesn’t work.  We’ve got a system where regulators develop increasingly tight regulations for water project operations, they are developed in semi-isolation with little input from outsiders, and they are designed to address one species at a time. Generally that follows with an effort by water agencies and fish agencies to develop competing science to support their positions to either prove out or provide relief from those regulations, and ultimately ends up in seemingly endless litigation that generally results in starting the process all over again.“

Mr. Cowin believes that new governance proposed in the BDCP can put regulators and water agencies in a more productive position.  Developing a collective science will have a real buy-in from the ground up, and while the fish agencies will retain authority through the endangered species act, unlike before, the water agencies will be involved with developing the science and in adaptive management decisions. “I truly do believe that is one of the big benefits that we can apply now in forging new relationships with regulatory agencies to develop the most efficient operations that do achieve the restoration objectives and still provide for water supply and achievement of the coequal goals,” he said.

 COWIN DISCUSSES STATE WATER PROJECT OPERATIONS AND MAINTENANCE ISSUES

Mr. Cowin said they were working with State Water Project contractors developing a new approach for operations & maintenance of the existing SWP facilities.  With the aging SWP infrastructure, more time and investment in maintenance is needed, not less time as the continuing state budget climate has dictated.  “We are working closely to develop a real alternative that would give State Water Project contractors a more direct role in operation and maintenance at some or all of the facilities, and we’ll be evaluating that over the next few months.”

Metropolitan Director Glen Peterson praised Cowin for his pursuit of solving maintenance issues, calling him a problem solver, and noting that these issues also interfere with water deliveries.  Director Peterson asked, “Do you see at any time in the future that the SWP would roll off of DWR and become a joint venture agency with CVP, and DWR being more of a resource agency?

Mr. Cowin answered: “Well that’s exactly what we’re looking at, and I’ll try to be as honest as I have been on this issue over the past few years.  My great desire would be for the state of California to be able to put the appropriate resources into operation and maintenance of facilities, and to provide the appropriate salaries and benefits necessary to recruit and retain the folks that we need to operate and maintain the facilities.  I think it’s worked well for decades and it’s only recently that financial hardship of the state has caused us to falter.  That said, I have pledged that we need to make progress now, so all the alternatives for improving the situation need to be on the table.  So we have committed to spend the next six months developing a plan that would turn over some or all of the maintenance of the project to some organization driven by the SWP contractors.” However, Mr. Cowin made clear that right now, they are only developing a proposal and this should not be construed as a commitment as the pros and cons will need to be carefully considered.

Mr. Cowin did have one further point:   “The one thing I need to emphasize is that what we’re talking about is strictly the operation and maintenance of the facility.  I can not see a circumstance that the state of California would turn over the actual management and operational decisions for the [State Water Project].”

COWIN, BRIEFLY, ON INTEGRATED REGIONAL WATER MANAGEMENT

Metropolitan Director Tim Brick asked Mr. Cowin about the Integrated Regional Management Program and his evaluation of the success and the future of the program.  Mr. Cowin said he considers IRWM “one of the great secret successes in CA water management over the past decade.” The voter-approved funds in Prop 50 and Prop 84 have returned those investments in ‘considerable multiples’.  Some of the benefits have included incentives for local agencies to improve regional collaboration as well as competition to develop the best plans and projects.  Although he is unable to quantify amount of water produced through the program, he nonetheless believes it is a strong program and a great success.

To view the webcast of this meeting, click here.  DWR Director Cowin’s speech is item 4a.

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