Secretaries Laird, Rodriquez and Ross discuss the California Water Action Plan

Panel 1At the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) fall conference last week, the luncheon featured Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, Secretary of Environmental Protection Matt Rodriquez who heads Cal-EPA, and Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross who discussed the draft California Water Action Plan.  The session was moderated by Tim Quinn,ACWA’s Executive Director.

The California Water Action Plan, not to be confused with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, was released in draft form at the end of October; the public comment period closed at the end of November.  With the final plan expected sometime in December, the three Secretaries discussed the Plan and how it will move the state forward on dealing with long-standing water issues.

John Laird, Secretary of Natural Resources

There’s one of those unique windows right now that seems to happen once every 20 years or so where the window opens and there’s a possibility to make fundamental decisions,” began John Laird, “and I think the status quo of water in California is such that it has removed the interests for a lot of people to do nothing that have existed in the past, and we really want to take advantage of it.”

John Laird 1There are at least six or seven state agencies, state and regional water boards, at least three different Delta groups and a whole host of other groups which have strategic plans and outcomes and things to do, and we are trying to pull it into one place, said Mr. Laird.   “We are having a discussion about what should priorities be, having a discussion about who partners who should be in some of those priorities, and in the next five years, what can we do to take steps to actually move on these fundamental issues.”

There are also many pieces to the puzzle, like the Delta, water storage, and habitat restoration, and you have to march forward with them all together to be successful, and that is what we are trying to do, said Mr. Laird.

Storage is one piece of the puzzle, said Mr. Laird.  “The winter that seems long, long ago but was just three years ago, it was the last really intense season that it was wet, and after you set aside the water that was needed for the environment and keeping salt back in the Delta, and gave the water that was needed to the contracts and water supply, there was roughly 800,000 additional acre-feet that flowed to the sea,” he said.  “If there had been some ability to put that into storage, it would have fed to that notion that we’re working towards reliability and evening things out, so how do you do that?

Another piece is better efficiency and conservation, he said.  “South of the Tehachapis, there has been growth in the last generation by 4 or 5 million people in the greater region on the same amount or slightly less water, and that efficiency has become ingrained in a way that accommodated the growth.  But when you do that, you can’t conserve to nothing; you have to have reliability to be able to make the conservation or the recycling work.”

094The Plan integrates many different agencies, and even discusses funding mechanisms such as some revisions to Prop 218 to help local agencies fund the infrastructure that is needed, he said.

We hope to finalize the Water Action Plan at some point later this month,” he said.  “We’re doing our best to bring the state agencies together and to try and keep people focused on where there is some common ground and balancing of interests to get to good outcomes.  The balancing of the interests is the hardest thing.  Generally people believe you should balance interests, except for theirs which you should do 100%.”

And that is what we’re trying to do with the Plan, he said: “The Delta interests have legitimate concerns.  Environmental groups have legitimate concerns. Farmers wanting reliability in tough times have legitimate concerns.  People that want to protect their existing water rights, which we are not proposing to change in any way in the water action plan, have legitimate concerns, so how do we balance all of those to take advantage of this time to make decisions?  That’s what this is all about.”

Matt Rodriquez, Secretary of Environmental Protection

Let me just say that the fact that we’re all here represents recognition in the administration that we’re really at a critical juncture when it comes to water policy in California,” said Secretary Rodriquez.  “I’m just going to highlight about four what I think are critical elements underlying the water action plan.”

First, there’s just an urgent need to take action right now,” he said, noting that he’s been working for the state of California for awhile and these issues have been around for a long time.  “Through conservation and concentrated focused action, we’ve been able to avoid significant problems in the past, but those days are really behind us.  With drought, population growth, and climate change, we’re at a point right now where we really need to take some sort of action to develop an approach to how we’re going to deal with water in California.

The second point is that we really need to build more resilience into our water system,” he said.  “We’re facing a third potential dry year and although three dry years in a row is not unusual in California, there are signs that at this point that our system is really very stressed.  So we need to do more in order to prepare to withstand these dry periods because it’s not going to get any easier.”  He added that an earlier report this year determined that the effects of climate change were already being seen in California.

Matt Rodriguez 2Third, we need to balance all of the competing demands, he said.  “I like all these things that we support with water: I like to eat so I’m a big fan of agriculture, and I know that California agriculture needs a lot of water.  On the other hand, I like to drink water, I like to have a nice landscaped yard, so there are a lot of competing demands for California water.  We’ve got to find a way to balance them all.  One of the benefits of this plan is that it really identifies all the pressure points on the California water system – it identifies all the factors that we need to think about as we’re making policy choices in California.”

Fourth, we need more collaboration and cooperation, and I can speak to you about this personally,” he said.  “For 24 years, I was in the state Attorney General’s office, and to be candid, nothing caused me more concern than when I had various state agencies that were quarrelling with one another and couldn’t come up with a position on a particular issue.  It’s seemed like a misuse of state resources and time and it wasn’t productive; it wasn’t getting us a solution.  So one of my goals by coming to Cal EPA was to make sure that we were working collaboratively.”

If there’s a problem, it seems to me that all the agency secretaries should be able to get together and decide what’s best for the state of California,” he said.  “It requires that we look outside our own agencies and our own departments and work towards a solution that will work for the public of California as a whole, and the fact that we’re all sitting here is reflective of the fact that we take that obligation to work collaboratively and cooperatively very, very seriously.”

Mr. Rodriquez noted the contribution of ACWA to the development of the Plan.  “I think it’s very encouraging that you came together and unanimously adopted your own plan on water, which is not too far different from ours in many ways, so I think its reflective of the fact that all of us see a need to cooperate and work collaboratively with one another.

Mr. Rodriquez then discussed three things that Cal EPA is focusing on.  The State Water Resources Control Board is working on the update to the water quality control plan for the Delta.  Phase 1, salinity standards for the south Delta and flow standards for the San Joaquin tributaries, will hopefully be concluded in 2014; Phase 2, the remaining Delta standards, is anticipated to be completed by 2016, he said.

Cal EPA is also working to move the drinking water program to the State Water Resources Control Board.  “I want to assure everybody that the programs that are in the Department of Public Health that will come to the board will be as effective as they were before,” he said.  He acknowledged that there were concerns, but there are long term advantages to moving the program:  “It will align the state’s water quality programs in one agency, it will consolidate the state’s revolving fund work, it will consolidate and accelerate recycling programs, and generally, we think it will put us in a better position to help local agencies plan and finance drinking water infrastructure in the state.  Additionally, a big part of our focus will be working to help disadvantaged communities in California making sure they have access to drinking water.”

We need to do a better job managing groundwater,” said Mr. Rodriquez.  “A lot of local agencies do a great job of managing groundwater, but some of them don’t, and we’re looking now at permanent damage to our aquifers.  We’ve been borrowing from those aquifers and we have to look at what that means for California’s future.”

When we were talking a press event about this water action plan, one of the questions that came from the press was, well, hold it, there’s nothing new here – these are all issues that have been out there for a long time and the response was yes, and they haven’t been dealt with and so that’s why we’re here together – that’s why we’ve developed this plan, because we know that water is the lifeblood of the state; it’s important to our economy, it’s important to making this state what it is, and we’re all dedicated to working together to deal with the state’s water issues.”

Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture

“I feel very honored to be on this stage with these two gentlemen because I have no statutory authority to do hardly anything that’s in here,” began Secretary Karen Ross.   “But water is extremely important to the future of agriculture, and I believe truly we are at a crossroads.  We have seen dramatic change in agriculture; since 1976, we’ve had only an additional ten percent of our acreage go into irrigation, but agricultural productivity has increased 90%.  I think there are many other industries that would like to have the kinds of efficiencies and productivity gains that agriculture has done.”

What I love about agriculture is the sheer diversity of what we’re able to do in a very abundant way here in California that matters to people in our state, across this country, and increasingly around the globe,” she said.  “It is amazing to me that we can grow 400 crops in California, but we’ve had at tremendous change in our landscape with the increase in acres and permanent crops.  We have 10 million acres of irrigated agriculture; about 2.5 million acres of that is in permanent crops, about a 500,000 acre increase in the last decade, and that’s hardened our water demand.”

Karen Ross 1It’s critical to accelerate short-term water transfers if conditions remain dry, she said.  “When you have a permanent crop, you do not have a choice.  It’s at a minimum a 25 year huge capital investment.  It requires a precise amount of water at exactly the right time, and going into the second year of a drought has huge impacts to productivity, the quality, and reliability.”

There are third-party impacts when farmer’s don’t have water, she said.  “When I sat on the State Board of Food and Agriculture in 2009, our last extremely dry spell, we did hearing after hearing in the Central Valley where the demand for food from food banks was at an all time highs because there weren’t jobs.  For people who had row crops, they simply fallowed that land that year, and that meant there were many people without jobs.  There were small town grocers that were going out of business because the farmworkers didn’t have jobs.  There was an increase in rural crime because people were desperate to supply food and income for their family and they were stealing things.  There was an increase in kids who were not attending high school because they were able to go find some part-time job to generate some income.”

California provides over half of the fresh produce for the country, and increasingly the world, she said.  “As the world’s population expands rapidly and their middle incomes grow, the first thing the families want to do is improve the nutrition offered to their families,” she said.  “Almond demand on a worldwide basis a year ago grew 41%.  Pistachios was 10%, walnuts was 17%, dairy products was 54%.  We are increasingly feeding a hungry world and the need for food production has to grow 70% by the year 2050 to feed 9 billion people.  California can help solve the problems of how to produce that food in an environmentally sustainable way with nutritious offerings to those people if we stay in farming.  But if we don’t have water, it’s going to be very challenging for us to have a viable agricultural future, so the need for drought response is critical.

Groundwater is important, she said, and our groundwater resources are strained right now.  “We’ve had significant reductions in surface water deliveries and farmers have no choice, just like cities who use domestic wells for drinking water for their population, other than to pump groundwater.

Local regional management of groundwater is absolutely the way to go; this administration is very committed to making sure the tools and the resources are available there,” he said.  “My department wants to be of assistance; the water quality issues with groundwater is something we have expertise in because of our fertilizer program, our education program, and our technical assistance.  We recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the State Water Resources Control Board which I think is an indication of our commitment in this administration to taking an integrated approach to resource management.”

Questions and discussion

Tim Quinn 1Tim Quinn noted that the comment period had just ended and asked what kind of comments they had received and will there will be changes reflected in the final plan?

Secretary Laird said that they had received at least 100 comments from diverse organizations and groups of people, and that overall, people thought it was a good direction.  He noted that some had expressed concern that they didn’t see agriculture in this, but they were determined to produce a readable, understandable document that could be read in one sitting.  “And rather than regularly list groups that we were committed to, or list things that we were not changing, we decided that we would hope that when we focused on the fact that we want a reliable water supply, and that some of these things we can do for stability and evening out the water supply, we would hope that agriculture would see themselves in that.”

Another concern is water rights – some people want us to make a firm statement that we’re committed to water rights, but we’re not proposing changing them and so we have to decide if that’s enough,” Mr. Laird continued.  “Those are the issues that we’re grappling with in bringing it to a close.”

Tim Quinn then asked Secretary Ross if the plan works for agriculture.

I think it does,” responded Secretary Ross.  “It’s a comprehensive approach and there’s no one answer, and that’s the most important thing is the combination of all of the above.  …  there are still a lot of specifics to be ironed out.  This is the beginning of the dialog, it’s not the end, and agriculture wants to make sure they are at the table … There are many elements of this that work for agriculture and the communities that depend upon what agriculture does for the economy and for their livelihood.”

Tim Quinn asked Secretary Rodriquez how the Plan incorporates climate change into the bigger picture.

Just as we’re collaborating on water policy, we’re collaborating on climate change and how we should be responding to climate change,” answered Secretary Rodriquez.  “We’re already seeing the impacts of climate change here in California, so what we’re going to do to prepare for climate change is look at resiliency – can we do more, so at the local level, can we work with local governments, can we work with groups to make sure there’s more resilience.  We just need to prepare for that.  We’re not going to have the reliability that we once had in terms of precipitation perhaps; we’re going to see more extreme events because of climate change.  How are we going to deal with that? How do we build reliability into our systems … At the administrative level, we are looking at a range of options of how we deal with climate change, how do we prepare and make sure that California wisely uses its water and has a resilient, reliable system.”

“Water policy is the Rubik’s Cube in California,” added Secretary Laird, “because if you have everybody agree, how do the things that make them agree fare as you adapt over time?  … We’re facing with resiliency the fact that people might have to make pay a little more to have their current supply be reliable, and the alternative is not pay a little more and have the supply crash.  But the public can’t easily understand why if they don’t pay a little more, they don’t get more water.  And it is how in that sort of public policy resilience you try to figure out how to explain it to people so they get it.  And it’s also when you have a long term project and it’s something that if they don’t make the decision now, they won’t feel it for 5 years or 8 years or 10 years, and then they wonder who decided this …

Tim Quinn asked them how they saw ACWA working with them in moving elements of the plan forward.

100ACWA will be a very important partner when it comes to the legislative arena,” responded Secretary Ross.  “You are very well respected organization, known for being pragmatic and problem-solving. … There are many other stakeholders that have to be engaged in this process and whatever ACWA can do, as far as reaching out and engaging with the environmental community and the environmental justice community, as there are many players in this that we have to bring in. …  I think ACWA could play a critical role because you are made up of entities that are local in nature and do local outreach, and then you have the opportunity to build on that at the state level … Your ability to message and to bring in a different audiences may be slightly different, but in the end it creates the mosaic of everyone needs to be involved in this.  So I would encourage you to use what your strength is which is your legislative advocacy and your ability to do engage locally as well as statewide.”

Secretary Laird said that there are a number of legislators that just do not understand water issues, as well as members of the public.  “The last few months I have been traveling around the state rather extensively.  And I was in Yuba City doing a town hall meeting, and one of the guys stands up and turns to the crowd and says do you trust government? And there was this resounding, NO! Then he turned to me, so how do you prove to us that if you have certain conditions, you’re going to mean what you say?  Well, let me just present some facts to you, I said.  The Delta pumps were constructed four decades ago with a capacity of a certain level at which they have never operated because conditions are such that in reverse flows and streams in the Delta, salt, that it was not viable to operate at a full thing and whether it was legal action, whether it was regulatory action, it held for 40 years essentially … There are very few people that can explain those kinds of things, who can explain why if you’re really successful at conserving, you have fixed costs and that doesn’t mean the district’s budget will go down by the same amount of money as they water they conserve …  it is really letting people understand how the balance is that actually if you do ecosystem restoration, it might give stability or reliability to the water that comes.  That if you do have storage, that’s actually an environmental thing because it actually removes some of the pressure on fish because you have water for fish and supply.  … you could really help us with that because it is going to take a big lift for the public to understand how conservation fits with storage fits with water supply fits with some of the environmental laws in a way that you get reliability over time out of it.”

Tim Quinn then asked about groundwater.  “It’s clear to me that there’s an awareness of the problem that didn’t exist before so that there’s an old saying, don’t let a good crisis go unused … how are we going to take advantage of this crisis?

Secretary Ross said she commended ACWA for developing a framework for groundwater management a couple of years ago, and noted that she had just heard there ACWA was going to have a task force.  “I think that’s really important because we need people with expertise in water management helping us identify what additional authorities are needed for local and regional water managers to take this integrated approach and to really focus on the groundwater issues specifically … it’s always difficult to get down to the precise what exactly do you need, what incentives do you need, and what’s the criteria for state involvement in that particular way, so I think it’s going to be very important that we’re all working together on that. … I think your willingness to step into this space and help us with precise details of what other tools are needed to maintain strong local regional exercise of management is really important right now.

We realize that groundwater is a significant problem right now,” said Secretary Rodriquez.  “Groundwater has been discussed for many years, but what I see now is a everybody has come to the realization that we need to do something and we need to do it very quickly, so now is the time.  What we need to hear from you and what we need to hear from local governments and regional governments is  what’s the best way to deal with this, what programs should we be designing … California has a long history of relying on local governments and regional governments to make the decisions on the scene because California is a very diverse place.  One approach to an issue doesn’t fit the entire state.”

San Luis Obispo is having an issue that is worth people following just for how they are grappling with an overdrafting situation,” said Secretary Laird.  “There is a similar one in my home territory, largely agricultural, where it used to be dry farming apples and other things that might have been less water intensive, and now it’s moving to specialty crops.  The aquifer is overdrafted and there’s seawater intrusion.  There was a regulatory solution that was attempted with a new district, but it’s only when the farmers among themselves started to work on how to take the action to put this aquifer in balance that the progress started to be made.  I think that in this plan, we’re talking about having some state guidance or direction in whatever form that takes, but then trying to have the locals be the ones that do the implementation in the hopes that you can capture that kind of spirit while setting some kind of policy or direction from the state … It’s becoming so untenable that people accept that something needs to be done, so the question is how do you structure it and that’s what we’re trying to deal with in a way that if we do move in that direction, people are accepting and feeling like they want to contribute to the solution.”

I think we as an industry are prepared to roll up our sleeves and deal with those detailed questions and how do we get it done,” concluded Tim Quinn.

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