California Water Policy Seminar Series continues with Secretary John Laird: "Will We Actually Be Able to Decide Something?"

john laird photo_0On February 25th, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences featured Secretary of California Natural Resources Agency John Laird as the speaker in the continuing California Water Policy Seminar Series.  Secretary Laird has long been active in water politics, having served on both the local level and as a state Assemblyman.  He has been a champion of environmental protections and water conservation, and during his time in the Asembly, authoring legislation legislation for increasing water conservation and recycling as well as better water management.  During his speech, he spoke about many things, including the importance of water conservation and the need for beneficiary pays, as well as the challenge of implementing the Bay Delta Conservtaion Plan within the existing framework of laws and regulations as well as people’s unchanging views.

Mr. Laird said he would be talking today about ‘all the moving pieces’ having to do with water, Delta, and the political situation.  His assigned topic was can we actually decide something, “which is actually the heart of the question, and I know for a lot of you that work on technical things, you’re in deep about the technical work, but then trying to understand the politics or the policy or what actually causes a decision to be made is a totally different thing,” he said.

One of the interesting things to me is that everybody locked themselves into their narrative about water from some different experience, and for many people in California, it never changes,” he said, recalling how he wrote his undergraduate thesis at UC Santa Cruz, never quite believing that he, as an environmentalist from the Central Coast, would ever get to a point where he could impact water policy in California.  “Much to my amazement, I am now in a leading role.

Back in 1982, when the voters rejected the peripheral canal, “many Californians just locked themselves into what they think about the Delta or water policy out of that experience, but the whole world has changed since then in many, many different ways and they’re still sort of locked in what happened.”

In the drought of the mid 1970s, Mr. Laird was living in Santa Cruz.  “I bought my house and promptly lost everything in the yard within a year.  We had to sign under penalty of perjury how many people lived in the house, and then we were allowed 53 gallons a day.  That went for almost two years,” he said.  “It changed our life in any of a number of ways – how we use water and how valuable it was. … It’s not unlike how growing up during the depression would have formed your views about money.  For me, I always feel that water is a luxury if it’s there and that it go away at any time because I experienced a time when it significantly did.”

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“For me, I always feel that water is a luxury if it’s there and that it go away at any time because I experienced a time when it significantly did.”[/pullquote]

People look through their own prism,” he said.  Another example, “I spent 9 years as mayor and city council member in Santa Cruz.  It was the 1980s.  And I was the water wonk once again on the city council.  We served water to an area that was twice as many customers as residents of the city.  We had water from 9 different sources, but it predominantly surface water.  A few wells, but predominantly surface water.  So we were very volatile to weather and droughts,” said Mr. Laird.

We had one big reservoir, and if the reservoir spilled in the winter, then the message was that we were okay and there would be no water restrictions.  If it didn’t spill, we weren’t okay.  Two years ago, it spilled and we had the tightest water restrictions since the drought in the mid 70s, and it’s because climate change has already had its effect and it’s starting to change that water system.”  Santa Cruz would fill its reservoir from the local streams, which would usually run through April or May, sometimes even into June, he explained; after that, there were a few wells that would get the city through to the fall, until it rained again.  “Now the streams have been drying up months earlier.  And as a result, what was our backup has become a central part of our source, and it is because of the change in the climate.”

And yet there’s a huge debate going on about desalting in Santa Cruz, where people have not changed how they think about the existing water supply.  And the fact that in a surface water system, no significant new sources have been added in decades; it has just been conservation and being more efficient.  And when you are more efficient and you have no new sources, that means you better have reliability with what you have or you’re really screwed.  And yet people don’t think that way.

One of the biggest moving pieces is the State Water Project, said Mr. Laird.  When the water project was built in the 60s and 70s, water was taken from the Delta not far from Tracy, put in the Aqueduct; water goes down the Aqueduct and serves the Central Valley and Southern California, and was stored in San Luis Reservoir or Perris Dam, he explained.  “When that was built, none of the modern environmental laws were in place.  CEQA, not in place. Endangered species, not in place.  NEPA, not in place.  And so for 40 years we’ve been fighting in many ways to retroactively mitigate a project that was built when there were no laws requiring mitigation in place.  That has led to tremendous conflict and is part of why we’re in trouble.”

Additionally, the project was somewhat flawed in its design from the beginning because by building it at the south of the Delta, and pulling water essentially only from there, it reversed the flows of many streams and sloughs and bodies of water in the south Delta, Mr. Laird explained.  “When you dealing with an estuary and salinity in the Bay, the pumps would actually draw salt toward it.  And it was really bad for fish because it just went straight into the pumps and there were no real screen.  Baby fish, real fish, tremendous loss.  It wasn’t designed to deal with fish,” said Mr. Laird, adding that the Department of Fish and Wildlife really argued against that as an operating system because it was not going to protect fish.

The statistic that always rings with me is that when Europeans arrived in California, there were over 500,000 of acres of wetlands in the Delta.  There are only 31,000 acres now,” he said, noting that a lot of the Delta was wetlands before being converted to agriculture and some homes.  Fish need marshy habitat to spawn and for other parts of their lifecycle, and armored levees that direct flow straight out through the Delta don’t necessarily help the fish.

Farming on the islands over many years has led to subsidence of the level of the soil.  “If you lose an inch of soil a year, you can imagine what that would be.  There are some islands in the Delta surrounded by levees that are 10, 15, 20 or more feet below sea level now, because of the farming and subsidence that has happened.  A lot of soil there is peat content so if it floods, it’s not necessarily the best,” said Mr. Laird.

In 1861 and 1962, it rained here in California for the proverbial 40 days, or something like that, said Mr. Laird.  The Sacramento Valley flooded and became a huge lake that was 25 to 35 miles across in some places, and if you were in the center of it, you couldn’t see the sides.  “Records tend to support that that happens every so often,” said Mr. Laird.  “If we have a storm like that, anything could happen.  The levees could be overwhelmed and there could be water interruptions of a lengthy time – even into the years for exports from the Delta.  If it happens in winter, it flows out at some point but the levees are down, there’s a potential for salt water draining in from the bay.  And if an earthquake happens, and levees fail in a major way, salt water comes in from the bay within 36 to 48 hours, that’s a fundamental issue.  Water supply, habitat, farming, all of those things are at risk and that’s what’s at risk at the Delta right now.”

Mr. Laird’s father liked to fish, so as a child growing up in Vallejo, striped bass were always around.  “I was shocked when I was in my mid 30s to discover that striped bass were nonnative to the Delta.  I had just assumed since they’d been there my whole life, but they are predators for some of these other fish that are native and are indicators of health in the Delta,” he said.

So striped bass have become part of the water politics of the Delta.  Some people believe if you could eliminate the striped bass as predator, some fish populations would come back without them having the change the amount of exports or flows in or out of the Delta,”  he said, adding”it just never occurred to me that the striped bass as a predator, would be a fundamental thing that people would fight about in the Delta.”

Sierra snowpack is the water bank of California, explained Mr. Laird, and most of it flows to the Delta and is part of this whole equation.  When he was in the legislature, Mr. Laird chaired a committee that focused on climate change and water supply.   Studies had determined that absent any changes in emissions, by 2100, “we would have maybe 48 to 50% of what we have now as a Sierra snowpack on an annual basis.”

He also chaired the Ocean Protection Council which commissioned a study on sea level rise that determined that by 2050, sea levels could rise by 14” and by 2100, sea levels could rise 5.5 feet.  “That’s the middle of the range.  If AB32 really works, other countries really work at it, maybe it could be below that.  But if we don’t curb greenhouse gas emissions or if it’s much worse than we think it will be or can be, that could just be the midrange and it could be higher.  With regard to the Delta, much of which is below sea level and relies on flows pushing salt water away, if there’s less water flowing and the sea level is higher, that changes the ecology of the Delta in a fundamental way.”

People finally realized that conservation and recycling are part of the water future and portfolio in California, but that wasn’t always the case.  “When I went into the legislature over 10 years ago, the general view was that if you supported water conservation, you were a strong environmentalist who didn’t want a dam, didn’t have enough courage to say it and was looking for some proactive alternative.  And I think that has morphed now to people accepting the fact that it has to be part of the solution,” he said, pointing out that the greater Los Angeles basin has grown by more than 3 million people on exactly the same amount of water.  “They have gotten more efficient and they have thus far used it to accommodate their growth, but the question is through recycling and further conservation, can they do more?  Can we do more everywhere?

On the Monterey Peninsula, the State Water Board has issued an order cutting the amount of water they can use from the Carmel River by two-thirds with a deadline of 2016.  There has been a long-standing moratorium on water hookups on the Peninsula, and by some measurements over the last decade, they have reduced their water use by 38% in that area.  “That is really significant.  It tells you about the elasticity of water use if there are incentives or things you can do,” he said.  “But thing about water conservation is that it increases the need for reliability for what you conserve to,” and on the Monterey Peninsula, they’ve already cut their usage 38% and they have a big visitor serving industry.  “They cannot cut much more so that means whatever amount they cut to has to be reliable.  They can’t absorb a 20 to 25% cut in a bad time, and that presents a big challenge in water planning and water delivery.”

Financing is always a challenge, said Mr. Laird.  “The obvious thing is the user or beneficiary should pay for the charges,” he said, noting that the State Water Project has been fundamentally a beneficiary pays operation, with only 4% of the cost coming from the state general fund with 96% of the costs coming from the users when they buy water and pay for the bills.  He also noted that the State built Oroville Dam with only 3% coming from the general fund and 97% beneficiary pays.

During the Schwarzenegger years, he argued against the dams because the administration was proposing to pay 50% of the costs from the general fund.  “At that point, you’re dealing with building a dam that would not pencil out otherwise.  That’s the reason nobody had built it; they weren’t subsidized heavily.”

Mr. Laird was a legislator that primarily represented two counties that never imported water, Santa Cruz and Monterey.  “We paid 100% for our own water, and I was resentful about paying 100% for our own water, and then kicking kids off health care and closing schools and raising tuition to pay for somebody else’s water as well.  That wasn’t right.”  So beneficiaries ought to be the ones who pay, he said.

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“We’re almost 38 million people in California now, and it’s not like there’s a lot of new water out there.  It’s a finite source and we have to be efficient.”[/pullquote]

Economics is really important.  “We’re almost 38 million people in California now, and it’s not like there’s a lot of new water out there.  It’s a finite source and we have to be efficient,” he said, but the public also needs to understand that they will be paying extra for reliability rather than extra water.  “The public doesn’t always get that.  They figure they should get more if they pay more, but the fact that they’ll be paying so that there’s not a major interruption or their water goes away, doesn’t compute right.

During the drought, there were many water districts where there was an open revolt from the customers because they were asked to conserve, and whenever they conserved, they had to pay more and they didn’t get it.  They were using less but having to pay more, but water delivery is a fixed cost.  And so the whole issue of paying for reliability and not necessarily massive growth in the amount of water delivery is something the consumers aren’t totally there with yet.”

There are many opportunities to store water underground. There was a time when Metropolitan Water District did not believe in underground storage, but then about 6 or 7 years ago, there was this incredible drought year, and it was the 1.5 million acre-feet in underground storage that got them through, he said.  “I had colleagues in the legislature who thought storage wasn’t real unless it’s above ground and they can see it and it involves construction … They thought underground was phony because they couldn’t feel it and touch it and that’s something that has to change.”

When the State Water Project was built, I mentioned that everybody thought it was Central Valley and Southern California.  Well this has changed.  Parts of the Central Coast – San Luis Obispo County, Morro Bay,  now have a contract for state water,” he said, noting that also the Silicon Valley, eastern Alameda County and some of Contra Costa County as well:  “It is not just a Southern California and agricultural thing.”

Water rights confuse everything,” he said, explaining that during a drought, those who have senior rights get their water while those with junior water rights don’t.  “People with senior water rights sometimes think we don’t have to vote to fix anything because even if everything crashes, we’ll still get our water, so who has water rights factors into the whole situation.”

So the question is, where are we now and where can we go, given all these moving pieces and how people think and talk about them.”

In 2009, the legislature passed  major package of water legislation that did a number of things, including establishing the coequal goals.  “One goal is ecosystem restoration and another goal is determining and fixing water reliability.  And as I am fond of saying around the state, most Californians are firmly committed to one of these goals.  And yet there’s a certain elegance to it because they can’t get the goal they are committed to unless the other goal is met, and this has allowed us to move forward on planning.”

The legislation also included a water bond that has now been moved to 2014, and a water conservation package that says we will try to reduce per capita water consumption 20% by 2020.  “And now, the Brown Administration is trying to do some kind of long term fix involving the Delta and these issues, given all those realities.”

The peripheral canal proposed in 1982 had a capacity of 21,000 cfs.  A year ago, the initial proposal was two tunnels with a capacity of 15,000 cfs.  In July, that was downsized to 9,000 cfs. The BDCP is significantly different than what was proposed before:   “For the first time, there would be scientific objectives that would drive the process.  We would set in a permit the whole decision tree based on the scientific and biological restoration of the habitat in the Delta.  Over the next 15 years of acquiring 2000 acres of marshland a year to help restore fish, and at the end of those 15 years when those tunnels came online, the amount of water that would go through those tunnels would be set on expressed scientific success or failure of restoring fish.  If it was successful it would be at a higher end of a range; if it wasn’t successful, it would be at a lower end of the range.  And that’s what the BDCP does.  Fish first, biological goals, in conjunction with the facility,” he said.

As Secretary, “I have 25 departments, boards, commissions, and conservancies.  I deal with water, fire, forests, oceans, parks, fish and wildlife, sites for energy facilities, conservation, conservation corps, among other things,” he said, noting that he has worked on many things, including negotiations to try and save the Tahoe Compact, developing a desert renewable energy plan with the federal government, and establishing marine reserves up and down the coast.

In every one of these things, including the BDCP, we’re trying to make the existing laws work or the existing processes work,” he said.  There are those who want to change or repeal parts of the endangered species act to get more water, but “the BDCP says we will, within the context of the endangered species act, figure out how to provide water and restore the habitat. We are trying to make that work, because if we can’t, it probably opens up further attacks on the endangered species act.

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“The BDCP says we will, within the context of the endangered species act, figure out how to provide water and restore the habitat. We are trying to make that work, because if we can’t, it probably opens up further attacks on the endangered species act.”[/pullquote]

Right now we have agreement on a couple of major thing, said Mr. Laird.  “We have agreement on habitat restoration although interestingly, people say we are restoring too much habitat. which was a criticism I did not expect,” noting that most of the loss of wetlands was due to conversion of the land to agriculture, “and agriculture feels attacked if you are doing wetlands restoration.”

I think there is universal agreement on conservation and recycling that the fact that that has to be part of the solution.  We have to do more than we’re doing now.  We have to implement the laws and the plans that we have,” he said.

The issue just gets down to size, he said.  “You’re dealing with the possibility of a water interruption for three years, and the fact that a facility might actually help restore fish in the context of things.  The fact that it is sized 40% less than what the voters rejected in 1982, that is a realistic debate.”  Mr. Laird said he sometimes feels like Nixon going to China:  “As somebody who had a 100% environmental record through my entire career, and worked in the 1970s for a member of Congress who represented the Delta, it is a unique place for me.  I think we are doing in essence the right thing.  The fact that we have moved this project to fish first biology, and it is sized much less than it was in past, and to do a 50 year or 75 year fix in the Delta that involves restoring the fish and the ecosystem, that is a reasonable goal and it is something that is achievable.”

The plan will be rolled out in draft form in the next few months, he said, with the environmental documents coming out probably in July.  Then there will be a formal public process and the determination of whether a permit will be issued.  “It’s based on all these things that are the moving pieces, I call it the Rubik’s cube of public policy, and it probably really is, because the minute you push in somewhere, something else comes out,” said Mr. Laird.  “We’ve been really working hard because it’s gotten  to  the  point that the status quo is unacceptable, fish populations could crash forever, and water could be interrupted to people for years,” noting that these things will happen if the state doesn’t take proactive steps to address the issues.

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“We have to do more than we’re doing now.  We have to implement the laws and the plans that we have.”[/pullquote]

Questions … ?

Question: So you said you are trying to work within the existing framework to try and get things to change.  So what do you think is going to cause a shift in that paradigm from “I want mine” to cooperation between these various disparate groups and coequal goals?

Mr. Laird replies: “I think that when the status quo is bad, you sit here you try to accommodate as many interests as you can to  get to a solution, which is what you try to do in any public policy thing within a scientific or public policy based framework as it is.  We are attempting to do that. …  We’re just trying to work with everybody, and it will require everybody to go to the edge of their comfort zone.  Some of the environmentalists will freak at a 9000 cfs tunnel, even though it is 40% less than what lost by a substantial margin 30 years ago.  Some of the farmers will want less habitat restoration.  There will all be these things and we will try to move as close as we can to as many of the interests in getting a solution that works and fits together.”

Question: You said you were trying to work within the existing framework.  As one who has been in the field for a long time as well as in the legislature, it you could change a couple of key aspects of the current laws and legislation, what would it be?

Mr. Laird answers: “I’m not entirely sure I would change much, as long as we can do it.  The irony is that the Governor is really into environmental law reform right now and I think there is this fundamental dividing line.  And the dividing line is do you do anything that weakens environmental standards? And I believe the answer is no.  You do anything that affects redundant lawsuits a third time over years into the process and it seems to me that’s where the reform should go,” he said, citing the example of how the Oakland As proposed move to San Jose has sparked a CEQA lawsuit brought forward by the San Francisco Giants.  “It isn’t about the environment; sometimes it’s about keeping the competition out. … So the challenge is how do you really get at what the processes issues that will make a difference but doesn’t weaken the standards.”

Question: Will we actually be able to decide something? What will be the conditions necessary for a decision to be made on the Delta?

Mr. Laird answers: “If we have enough stakeholder support from a broad range that believe that it’s something that has to be fixed, it’s a reasonable thing and it doesn’t damage their interests too much, we can get there.  And we have a chance.”

When I was young, I was very idealistic, I thought there were these things you could do in your career.  And I didn’t understand that there are certain windows, and if the window closes, you might not get it.  Health care was one; the window opened in 1993 and it didn’t open again until 2009.  If it was missed then, we wouldn’t have another window open until I was safely into Medicare.  And so that is true on water.  It seems the window opens every 10 of 15 years.”

Another thing that’s unique is that it never occurred to me there would be such a major impact about whether the state government was in political alignment with the federal government. I had the misfortune to be a mayor and city councilmember eight of the nine years Ronald Reagan was president.  When I was in the legislature, George Bush was president the whole time.  And now finally, I’m working for a democratic governor aligned with a democratic president, where on energy, renewables and all these things, we are aligned, we are doing things together.  They really want restoration of the Delta and really want a solution for the Delta, and that is another opportunity that might not be there forever and so it would be nice to take advantage of that while we can.”

Question: Does the BDCP become part of the Delta Plan?

Mr. Laird answers: “It is a habitat conservation plan that is in essence consistent with the Delta Plan, but it doesn’t do everything that is in the Delta Plan which is why there is a broader mission at the Stewardship Council.”


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