DWR’s Mark Cowin updates the California Water Commission on the drought, the water action plan, the BDCP, and groundwater management

At the February 19th meeting of the California Water Commission, Director of the Department of Water Resources Mark Cowin updated the Commission on the Department's drought response, the California Water Action Plan, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, and groundwater management.

Drought response

“These are pretty extraordinary times and I think the old adage is true, the greater the challenge, the greater the opportunity, so we are in the opportunity time; let’s see what we can do to take advantage of it,” began Director Mark Cowin, noting that the severity of this drought caught him by surprise, even though they had been preparing for a dry year since the storms cut off in late 2012.   “We entered the winter with expectations that we’d have a few good storm systems that would replenish our reservoirs and at least move us along like we usually do towards project operations and water supply for all Californians,” said Mr. Cowin, “but if anything, I think that the experience of the last few months has just underscored for me how dependent we are on those two to four big storm systems that move through California to replenish our reservoirs and our groundwater basins.  We really depend on those for the majority of our water supplies, so it’s a shock when those storms don’t appear.”

CWC CowinIn December, the Interagency Drought Task Force was established, and we began to consider the need for a drought proclamation, he said.    “Early January it became very clear that we were going to need a drought proclamation, we’re going to have to step up and provide some extraordinary services, and we’ve been responding ever since then,” said Mr. Cowin.  “The governor did issue his drought proclamation on January 17.  “The drought proclamation has a dozen or more very specific actions for state agencies to undertake to help respond to drought and I have to say, it’s a wonderful thing when you see government work the way it’s supposed to.  So far, I couldn’t be happier with the way the state government has responded.”

Two weeks later, the drought proclamation was followed with the announcement that the State Water Project allocation would be reduced from a minimal 5% down to 0, and we also petitioned the SWB for a temporary urgency change on the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan requirements to allow us to reduce outflow requirements as of February 1 and also have more flexibility for opening the Delta cross channel gates, he said.  “Our goal here has really been to preserve enough water upstream and to capture as much water as we can through any storms that we do get in those upstream reservoirs to provide for basic salinity control in the Delta throughout the summer.”

If there are more storms this season, the allocation may be able to be increased, but with every passing day without a significant storm, it seems less and less likely, he said.  “We really are in a mode of considering what’s going to be necessary to provide for basic public health and safety through the course of the summer and fall, and very much focused on achieving that.”

“I think the cooperation between state agencies, DWR, Reclamation, and the three state and federal fish agencies has been extraordinary to match these extraordinary times,” he said.  “We’ve been able to continue compliance with the Endangered Species Act to provide for basic protection for fish as we respond, and we will continue to work very closely with all of those agencies as well as the State Board as we manage project operations through this continuing dry year.

The Interagency Drought Task Force is keeping abreast of emergency situations on local levels as they exist, and the Department of Public Health is tracking small communities that are facing water shortages and extending what services we can at the state level to help ameliorate those circumstances, he said.  “We will continue to do so, and hopefully we’ll see that list of communities that face potential water outages in 60 or 90 days decrease over time.  I think we’ll see communities rotate through as we understand their circumstances and then try to respond, but naturally if dry conditions continue, we expect that additional communities will pop up on that list and we’ll have to respond accordingly.”

California Water Action Plan

In the fall and winter of last year, the administration was focused on the preparation of the California Water Action Plan, he said.  “I personally don’t think there are any big surprises in terms of new policy or proposed actions in the plan.  What I do think is extraordinary is that it is articulated as boldly as it is,” he said, noting that it’s a product of the collaboration of the California Natural Resources Agency, Cal EPA, and the Department of Food and Agriculture.  “It’s an extraordinary moment to have all these agencies within the administration aligned and focused on these actions to be implemented over the next five years.”

“I think the plan is ‘aspirational,’” he said.  “We will need a lot of resources and a lot of luck to complete all of the actions within the plan, but I do think it serves as a great guidepost for us as we prioritize and move forward, and I think it’s a good backdrop as we respond to drought.  We understand that we’re not going to drought-proof California.  There will always be hardship in times of a historic drought of this nature, but the idea is that we have to prepare during normal and wet years so that we’re better able to face these dry years.

The California Water Action Plan is an important action by the administration to align agencies and prioritize actions, some of which was reflected in the Governor’s budget, he said, noting that the water funding is organized around the actions within the Water Action Plan.

The plan reflects a lot of the evolution that I see among California water managers in terms of policy and in moving towards sustainable reliable management of our water resources,” he said.  “However, the plan reflects the lack of evolution in terms of how we’re going to pay for it.  The financing plan is vague and we know that we need to amplify our efforts to get at how we’re going to finance water infrastructure, water programs, if we’re going to make any of the water action plan work.”

Mr. Cowin noted that according to the California Water Commission’s statutory responsibilities is to advise DWR, so I’m here looking for your advice, he said.  “Obviously these are tough issues. … How we allocate and finance projects across local, state and federal government, ratepayers, taxpayers, and coming up with an approach that is sustainable and works I think is the number one challenge we have before us. … We understand what it is we need to do; we just have to figure out how to get it done and paying for it of course is one of the primary things when it comes to getting it done.”

Bay Delta Conservation Plan update

The public review draft has been out for review for a couple of months with at least a couple of months to go, he said.  “We’ve held our 12 public meetings; I just heard that we think we had 1000 people total who participated in those workshops held around California, so that leaves 35 or 36 million to go,” he said.  “We’ll get out there and hopefully continue to educate people on the plan. At this point, we continue to focus on better defining the obligations of the various parties that would participate in the plan, how we will allocate costs and risk among those participants, and the form of water assurances that emerge from the plan.  All three of those issues are big and they are intermingled, but that really is the primary effort at this point, to better define the specifics of just how all of that will work together.”

Groundwater management

Groundwater management is another action highlighted in the California Water Action Plan, he said, noting that there seems to be a lot of momentum for making improvement in groundwater management.  “Obviously drought and continued pumping reliance on groundwater this year amplifies concerns in some communities about declining groundwater levels and declining groundwater quality, and perhaps helps provide a call for action,” he said.  “The Brown Administration is organizing itself between the State Water Resources Control Board, Department of Water Resources, and California Department of Food & Agriculture to lead a stakeholder process to really try and gain more input on the potential content and policy for a groundwater management bill this year,” he said, noting that it’s on a short track to receive public input.

This is an extraordinary opportunity, but we shouldn’t approach changes in groundwater management as a response to drought, he said.  “We are obviously are going to continue to rely upon our groundwater resources in times like this, but again, sustainable groundwater management policy that provides for recharge such as the water supplies are there when we need them during periods of drought, and that is extremely important.”

The basic framework for improvements in groundwater policy that are laid out in the CWAP is the starting point for what is essentially a two step process, he said.  “We continue to endorse what has been California’s policy now for at least a couple of decades that groundwater management is best carried out at the local and regional level,” he said.  “As a first step, we want to be sure that we’ve provided local agencies the tools they need to be successful at sustainably managing groundwater basins, so tools, mechanisms for financing – whatever we need to do at the state level to align our services to help provide for local water management is our preferred outcome in advancing improved groundwater management.  As a second step, a state backstop for communities that cannot or will not make advancements in groundwater management should be a part of the policy and that’s where we start. …  The devil’s in the details, but I think a really extraordinary opportunity for us to make an important step forward in what has been severely lacking portion of CA water policy this year.

Discussion highlights

Commissioner Kim Delfino asks Mr. Cowin if he knows when the draft implementation agreement will be released, and if he has an update on progress on participating parties of the BDCP providing additional financial assistance for the analysis and the work to continue?

The implementing agreement is the accompanying agreement to the BDCP that lays out the specifics of how the plan will actually be implemented, Mr. Cowin replied.  He noted that the limits and obligations of the parties as well as the funding assurances are really the major elements of the agreement.  “Resolving those three fundamental issues more definitively is going to be necessary to really have the complete implementing agreement.  That’s our focus; we’ve got federal agencies coming next week for a 2-day workshop to continue that process.  We know we have a 60 day public comment requirement for providing a draft of the implementing agreement prior to completion of our broader BDCP public review period.  At the same time, we are considering the many requests for extension for the public comment that we’re receiving now.  … We will comply with the public comment period on both fronts.

Continued funding for the planning of the BDCP is obviously a tough issue, he said.  “We’ve invested tens of millions of dollars in the program in the date.  The water agencies that have supported this to date have to know that there’s an end point out there – we’re going to have a yes or no answer one day as to moving forward with this plan, so it’s incumbent upon us as we resolve those issues that will define the implementing agreement, to also consider what other issues stand between us and a yes or no decision on the permit, and we’re very focused on doing that,” he said.  “We have funding now that will last us essentially into the summer to continue the planning process for the BDCP, but we will need additional funding to move beyond that.  Some of the bigger water agencies have this issue before their boards right now.  It’s an extraordinary time to ask, particularly ag water districts, to pony up or commit to millions more expenditures while they are receiving no water supplies and suffering economic hardship, but we have to keep our eye on the long view here.  We have come so far and we are so close that I believe at the end of the day, we will secure the funding to complete the planning process and to move the project forward.”

Commissioner Ball asks about the possibility of desalination.  As we start to look at the increases in the price we pay for water, what about desalination?

I don’t think there is a single silver bullet for California water management,” responded Mr. Cowin.  “Desal will have its role.  There are obviously very difficult implementation issues associated with desal or else we would see more desal plants going in California.  Rather than the silver bullet, we’re advocating for the silver buckshot,” attributing the line to Sunne McPeak’s line. “We’ve got to take advantage of all the opportunities that are in front of us that are specific to each region.  In my mind, there are so many opportunities for water reclamation and storm water management that will essentially provide reliable water supplies at a cheaper cost than desal will right now with less potential environmental harm, so easier permitting.  We’ve got a long ways to go to exhaust those opportunities before desal becomes a mainline, next step option for California’s future, but I’m not diminishing its potential role.  Obviously there are advances seemingly every year on the technology, the cost, the energy associated with it, so we’ll continue to nurture those opportunities as well.”

I think that the bigger more interesting question is where is the inevitable increase in water costs go in relative to agriculture in California,” continued Mr. Cowin.  “It’s very clear that city users can pay for desal and recycling, so cost really isn’t an issue when it comes down to those types of technologies.  But as the market cost of water goes from $10-$20 to $50 an acre-foot to $400 – $500 per acre-foot, what does that mean for California agriculture?  I think it’s the question of the next few years and part of the equation when it comes to how are we going to finance water projects in the future and it’s something we need confront. Should water be more marketable as one of the solutions?  Will we see more high-value crops and perhaps less acreage as a result of higher water costs?  All interesting questions, and I wish I did have the answers.”

Commissioner Del Bosque said that during President Obama said he would be devoting $1 billion for climate change, but much, much less for the drought, and he asked Mr. Cowin what his take was on that.  How is that going to help us in this drought?, he asked.

I read the stories in the paper and I was surprised that seemed to be the lead line as well,” said Mr. Cowin.  “However, for me whether or not this particular moment is a result of longer term climate change or an anomaly in the record that we’ve seen over the last 500 years – I don’t care.  We’ve got to respond to this situation.  We know we have a variable Mediterranean water climate.  We’re not sure how exactly that translates in the future, but if we could solve the equation such that we have a reliable water supply based upon the known uncertainty and record over the past 100 years, that would be a great advancement in California in water policy, and it would position us well for whatever happens in terms of longer term climate change.”

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