California Water Policy Seminar Series: ACWA’s Tim Quinn and the Nature Conservancy’s Jay Ziegler with management, economics and infrastructure perspectives on reconciliation ecology

Quinn ZieglerThis year’s 2014 California Water Policy Seminar Series, presented by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and the law school’s California Environmental Law & Policy Center, is focusing on the concept of ‘reconciliation ecology’, an emerging discipline based on the idea that the traditional idea of setting aside reserves of pristine habitat for nature will not protect species enough to avoid large-scale extinction, so human landscapes and ecosystems need to be re-engineered with this coexistence in mind.

In this third segment of the series, Tim Quinn, Executive Director of the Association of California Water Agencies, and Jay Ziegler, Director of External Affairs & Policy at the Nature Conservancy, discuss what will it take to restore California’s ecosystem while also protecting its economy.

Tim Quinn, Association of California Water Agencies

Tim Quinn began by saying he’s been here before.  “This is my fourth drought in California. There was ’76-’77 which really bit deep; it didn’t last very long,” he said, noting he was in graduate school at the time.  He was working for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California during the 1987-1992 drought.  “It was a drought that looked a lot like the design drought which was 1928-1934 –  a six or seven-year drought that the projects were designed to allow you to manage against them. That was the worst we had in recorded history.  And then ’87-’92 came along, and guess what, we didn’t manage very well against it.”

Even Metropolitan Water District had to resort to mandatory rationing in 1991, he said.  “It was not fun, it hurt the economy, it upset political relationships that are still screwed up all these many years later, and we vowed, never again,” said Mr. Quinn. “And by and large, the Metropolitan Water District is not going through it ever again. They spent $4 billion wisely, and they’re in pretty good shape. And there’s a big lesson there, I think, for how do we manage the system for competing purposes.”

The 2007-08 drought and Governor Schwarzenegger declaring a drought emergency in 2009 was hardly memorable.  “I was living it, I barely remember it. It’s like that drought didn’t really happen.”

Tim Quinn (California Water Agency)_Page_02This tells you how important water is these days to the state of California.  I was one of two people on Channel 10 asked to comment on the Governor’s State of the State address,” said Mr. Quinn.  “I actually liked the governor’s State of the State address a lot. The words at the top there, ‘we will build for the future, not steal from it.’ I think the governor’s thinking both ecosystem and economy, not a bad place to start thinking about the topic at hand.”

During his speech, he said two things that bear on today’s discussion.  “He said, one, we have to do what we can to deal with the crisis that we’re having this year, and two, we have to take this as a lesson to invest in comprehensive water strategies,” he said.  “The Governor is right on both counts.”

Tim Quinn (California Water Agency)_Page_03He then presented a slide with two photos and a list of some of the drought impacts.  “That’s me standing on Martin Luther King Day at what’s supposed to be 100 feet under water at Folsom Reservoir,” he said, pointing to the picture on top.  “If you intend to be serious about water policy, walk out on that lake bed, and think about what’s going on in this state right now because this is my fourth drought as a Californian and I have never seen anything close to this. It is scary, scary dry,” he said, pointing out that the picture on the bottom is the dam at Folsom Lake and there’s not a drop of water up against the dam.  “Folsom barely deserves to be called a puddle today.”

How you’re faring through the drought depends on two things, he said.  “One is how prepared you are and how much money have you spent over the last 20 years,” he said.  “We do things in decades in California water. Those that have spent a lot and are lucky enough to be able to draw on a diverse set of watersheds, they’ll manage their way through this drought like they’re supposed to. Droughts are supposed to come and go in California without biting into the fabric of your economy and in Southern California, that’s exactly what will happen.”

Tim Quinn (California Water Agency)_Page_04We’re going to struggle through 2014.  “When it’s this bad … struggle is what you wind up doing,” he said.  “The Governor is using his emergency powers; that’s important. We have got pockets of pain all throughout the state of California, and some of them are seriously, serious pockets of pain,”  he said, noting that Sacramento will be one of them.

A governor’s emergency powers are enormous,” Mr. Quinn said.  “Once the Governor does that, it’s amazing how people co-operate with each other, and I think we need to have the same sort of intense scrutiny by this administration to get us through this year. The Governor can order water molecules from this point to that point under pretty much any terms that he wants. This will have an effect to cause people to really want to work together in a spirit of camaraderie I hope, to manage through this crisis.”

More important, we have to do as a state what Southern California has done as a region, and that is spend a lot of money on a diversified portfolio,” he said, noting that some other areas in the state have done that, although not nearly as much.

Tim Quinn (California Water Agency)_Page_07My organization’s been advising the Governor and the administration to stop talking only about the Delta, he said.  “I have a constituency and they don’t all like those tunnels,” said Mr. Quinn. “I represent agencies above the Delta, below the Delta, in the Delta… They’re not all tunnel fans, believe it or not. … I work for a 36-member Board of Directors, and the solution to that is that we don’t just talk about the tunnels; we talk about a truly comprehensive approach because that’s what it’s going to take to solve this problem in California.”

Local resource investment is key, he said.  “Southern California has reduced their demands for Delta water by 25% over the last 20 years. They were selling 2.4 million acre-feet of imported water in 1990. Their demands now have stabilized at about 1.8 million. What do they do with that 600,000 every year? They put it into the storage. They invested roughly three billion dollars in a storage element alone, and probably four to five billion dollars in their total effort. They’ve now got 2.4 million acre feet of water in storage that did not exist in 1992 and that is why they will be able to weather this through,” he said, noting that when the fighting gets terrible this year, Southern California can take a pass.

Tim Quinn (California Water Agency)_Page_06It starts with demand reduction and you have to invest in storage,” he said.  “For those of you who storage skeptics, you are making it one of the biggest mistakes of your professional life. If you just invest in that unit of conventional recycling, when the dry time comes, you’ve got one unit. If you invest in storage, and so there’s four out of five years when you’re not dry, what do you do with that water that’s not getting consumed?  If you’re a water manager, you put it into storage. And then when the dry year comes, you have not one unit of storage but four or five units of storage, and that is why Metropolitan Water District is okay.”

We have to invest in habitat restoration and watersheds,” he said.  “In my region, three members, those are folks above the Rim Dam and the Sierra, and they’re huge on getting people to look at watersheds differently,” he said.  “But point here is there has to be a broad, comprehensive state-wide solution. We need to move the whole thing forward.”

Tim Quinn (California Water Agency)_Page_08ACWA members got together and presented the Governor with their own statewide water plan.  “We didn’t have a lot of new ideas – some of these ideas have been kicking around for awhile … I think we’ll get to 100 agencies around the state that will have endorsed this comprehensive state-wide approach and are prepared to put their political weight into making it happen. And that will give us the tools the next time around to handle this thing better.

Jeff Mount then asked Tim Quinn what his view was with the current state of crisis, when there is so little water, how does one balance ecosystem demands, Endangered Species Act requirements, Clean Water Act requirements, and the economy.

When it gets this bad, when the system is this dry, I don’t know that balance makes a lot of sense,” he said. “In Washington DC, they’re fighting over water that doesn’t exist.  … In a year this just bad, balancing is very hard,” Mr. Quinn said.  “You need to have been prepared in advance to help yourself balance during a year like this … As a state, we didn’t, and so as a state we will suffer this year … As a state, they need to do what Metropolitan did in 1992 and swear ‘never again’ and then invest to make it true.”

Jay Ziegler, Nature Conservancy

Jay Zeigler (The Nature Conservancy)_Page_01The totality of my job is really to think about reconciliation ecology,” he began.  “Part of this is how do you make it work? How do you get people to buy in to conservation? …  If you can’t really fix a system and bring it back to what it was and really restore all of those natural values, how can you get that system as close to functionality again?

In essence, I’m the Chief Political Scientist for the Nature Conservancy in California,” said Mr. Ziegler.  “And these are the enabling conditions that I need in order to think about making restoration ecology work.”

Jay Zeigler (The Nature Conservancy)_Page_02He presented a slide with a map of California, noting that the green values represent an index of multiple ecosystem values.  “California is a bio-diversity mosaic,” he said.  “Fifty years ago, the Nature Conservancy started its work in the far north-western corner of California.”

Jay Zeigler (The Nature Conservancy)_Page_03Today, 50 years and several hundred million dollars later, several million acres have been put in to conservation as a strategic fabric from the deserts to North Coast and the Central Valley,” he said, presenting a slide showing the lands that are now in conservation.

Jay Zeigler (The Nature Conservancy)_Page_04He next presented a slide with a map of California depicted in black and gray, noting that the gray area is the space that the Nature Conservancy is working in today.  “It’s about finding partnerships with ranchers, with agricultural operations, with water agencies, with urban planning agencies, you name it, but finding multiples values that we can put together in order to have a place in nature for people,” he said.

Jay Zeigler (The Nature Conservancy)_Page_05He then presented a slide showing the change in the amount of wetlands in the San Francisco Bay and the Delta from the 1850s to present day.  “The Nature Conservancy today is active in trying to restore a mosaic of habitats, inner tidal wetland habitat, fresh water tidal conditions and trying to bring … To begin to restore or to get to that point – the reconciliation ecology – by bringing those habitat types back that can restore conditions for 11 threatened and endangered fisheries throughout the Delta.”

Are we going to save all of them? Probably not, but we can, working together, get to the dual goals,” he said.

Jay Zeigler (The Nature Conservancy)_Page_06He then presented a slide titled “Delta Outflow Trends” and said “Tim’s constituencies, especially those south of the Delta, see the world in this lens – Actually, they look at this with some degree of panic – where do the environmentalists want to take us? Do they want to take us back here? Or we’re seeing these tapering exports, is there’s something that could get us back here?  And BDCP is supposed to find a balance.”

The Nature Conservatory has been involved with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan for seven years. “It’s an elusive balance,” said Mr. Ziegler.  “Jeff worked closely with us and with a group, principally of UC Davis scientists, trying to answer some of the hardest questions about how we get back to a point of balance in the Delta,” he noted.

Jay Zeigler (The Nature Conservancy)_Page_07From especially 1990, the water community would look at this and say, ‘Our exports are on a trend line going forward especially from 2000, that is increasingly unreliable with respect to water supply,’” said Mr. Ziegler.  “We understand that, but what’s reliable?

It’s another entirely different model on reconciliation ecology, as I think about reconciliation ecology,” he said.  “How much are you willing to invest in the flyway? How important is the flyway? Well, from my organization’s point of view, it’s absolutely essential to bio-diversity on the West Coast, and if we lose it, we are losing a great part of who we are as people. And we’re losing, in all respects, probably an attachment to grow the conservation community to actually enable the kinds of conditions we need to work together on broader environmental issues.”

Jay Zeigler (The Nature Conservancy)_Page_08Is this system worth $10 million a year? Is it worth $20 million a year? How much are you willing to invest in sustaining this balance?” said Mr. Zeigler.  “We are not asking for new investment, per se, in the system. But we absolutely need water in order for those refuges to function.  So we are looking at these values, economic values, political values, social values and moral values about who we are and are we willing to make these investments over time. … We’re going to have to give a little in order to keep these resources alive. And we’re going to have to give in the Delta in order to keep the Delta alive.”

Jay Zeigler (The Nature Conservancy)_Page_09The Klamath River system is another example, he said.  “I think it’s one of the most fascinating ecological challenges, along with the Delta, along with, ‘Can we sustain the Flyaway resources necessary in California to do our part for the Pacific flyway,’” he said.  “Every year that Klamath has this tradeoff: Do we provide refuges? Do we provide refuge water at the mouth of the Klamath? How do we provide adequate water for the salmon runs? And there is the Klamath Basin Settlement Agreement and the Klamath Basin Reclamation Act, which is just sitting there in Congress. Nobody thinks it’s a possibility this year. Perhaps the Oregon delegation is ready to assert some leadership and really spend political capital to make it happen.”

That would be more than a billion dollar investment,” he said.  “It’s worth a try. But are we going to be willing to make that investment in order to give reconciliation ecology a chance in the Klamath Basin? There are a lot of tough decisions along the way here.”

Jay Zeigler (The Nature Conservancy)_Page_11We can’t make progress without compromise,” said Mr. Ziegler.  “Everybody has to give up something here. And I think we can do it. Our organization is certainly committed to this. Seven years investment in the BDCP process is a part of that. And we look forward to an open dialog with all the stakeholders, especially Tim and his community.”

I do think that out of 2009 comes a foundation from which we have to keep making progress,” he continued.  “Formally embracing the dual goals in the Delta is really a foundational public policy point, from which we should be able to turn the corner, and get reconciliation ecology a chance.”

Discussion session

Jeff Mount then set up two reconciliation conundrums for Tim Quinn and Jay Ziegler to respond to.  “The first is in Klamath Basin, where you want to hold water back to support the suckers and have a higher lake level,” he said.  “And of course, you have farmers who are using that water back there, but you also want to release more water downstream to support Coho salmon and Chinook salmon, in particular, downstream. So this is one of those classic species tradeoffs that we know reconciliation ecology sets us up to at least think about.”

We have to make it work for both the economic sector and the environmental sector … There’s no doubt in my mind that the answers are there, but we’ve got to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we have to work together, and both sides of the equation have to truly care about what happens to the other side.” –Tim Quinn

The second one, which is much more familiar to both of you, is we have two listed species of salmon in the Sacramento system,” continued Mr. Mount.  “The winter run and spring run Chinook salmon, in particular, entirely dependent upon cold water releases from reservoirs, but at the same time, starting in a couple days, we need to bump up releases out of those reservoirs for Delta smelt.

These are classic gut wrenching tradeoffs. I just want to hear what your views are,” said Jeff Mount.

There are no good answers to this question, so I’m for both,” replied Mr. Ziegler.  “I had the great fortune to work with Bruce Babbitt at the Interior Department, and his approach to these problems was to lock everybody in a room until you come out with a solution. … I’m not in the business of picking winners and losers on which fish is more important. In the Klamath, is the water for salmon more important than the water for birds? I don’t know of a way that we can really deal with these issues short of putting everybody in a room and trying to develop the kinds of incentives.”

I think from a practical standpoint, I prefer working further upstream first, and trying to get people to enter forbearance agreements to give up some of those water rights in exchange for some form of payment, some conservation easement on that water right, and to see who you can incentivize to actually participate in a program where you prioritize and bring more flexibility by starting upstream first and working your way down,” said Mr. Ziegler.

I am particularly challenged in the Delta right now,” continued Mr. Ziegler.  “This is Delta water quality versus what’s going to happen in the cold water pool. We can all hope this is a one-year drought, and the only thing I would take issue with on anything you said is we don’t know if we’re in the third year of a five-year drought or a six-year drought or a 10-year drought. And so this is one of those cases where I probably am on the other side of most in the conservation community. I’m going to say ‘I don’t want to stress the Delta, but I just don’t have enough faith until we have that resource with some flexibility upstream that we can spend it now.’ So as a conservation practitioner that’s how I would approach it.”

I was in those rooms with Bruce Babbitt; I miss Bruce, almost daily,” responded Tim Quinn.  “Babbitt believed in investing in a co-equal future. We didn’t invent the term until 2009 but that’s where Bruce was about. He was scared to death that if ESA was accused of taking down the California economy, that it would be very bad for the Endangered Species Act in the politics in Washington DC, and he wanted to be behind it. Bruce strongly felt Endangered Species Act was a very powerful tool for the topic we’re talking about today, and he wanted to protect it by making it work.”

It had to work for the economic interests as well as for the environmentalists which is something that Secretary Babbitt in my experience believed deeply in his soul,” said Mr. Quinn.  “I have to tell you I don’t run into people like that all that often. I think the Nature Conservancy comes from that … Bruce has gone now, and you don’t exactly get the feeling that that’s where the federal government is coming from these days.”

“California really is an anomaly in the West in aggressively accounting for surface water management that is going down our rivers and absolutely, mindlessly de-linking groundwater basins from the impacts that are occurring virtually every year through poor overall water accounting and poor water monitoring and an inadequate focus on truly integrated water management in California.” –Jay Ziegler

To answer your question about this species versus that species, under the circumstances we’ve got today, we are pretty much facing the problem that Abraham faced,” said Mr. Quinn.  “You want to slice the baby in two and hope that a miracle happens, but we’re in a situation where there are no easy choices.  But that doesn’t mean that it’s where we have to be in the future. I’m more an infrastructure person than lot of you probably are, but I see infrastructure is being melded to demand management strategies that would create a lot more resources under these circumstances. … The path to get there is a truly comprehensive path.”

I think the most important thing we need is leadership, the kind of leadership that we had from Bruce Babbitt, who was somebody who really gets it – that we have to make it work for both the economic sector and the environmental sector,” Mr. Quinn said.  “You have to get these people to figure out the investment strategy, how to raise the money, and how to spend the money. There’s no doubt in my mind that the answers are there, but we’ve got to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we have to work together, and both sides of the equation have to truly care about what happens to the other side.”

Right now, we’re playing this big game of ‘gotcha,’” he said.  “Every time something changes, one side or the other tries to figure out how to turn it into ‘gotcha’. “I got your water – no, I got your water”, and we need to be investing in our water, if we’re going to be in better shape in the future. We’re not quite there I think. I do think it will take enormous leadership. Maybe Jerry Brown has got what it takes. I don’t know, he’s an interesting guy to deal with. [chuckle]”

An audience member questioned Tim Quinn about water storage – does that mean more dams and how is a heavily engineered system good for the ecosystem?

If we were talking 1960 style infrastructure, you’d be absolutely right,” responded Tim Quinn.  “In the 1960s, the ground rule for building infrastructure was to build a low cost water supply for a growing economy. That was the policy that we were developing. When we sent the engineers out in 1960 to build the State Water Project, we said, ‘we want cheap water for our economy, can you do that?’ Harvey Banks said, “sure can”, and that’s what he did. And today, we deliver water out of the three-quarter inch tap, and the average cost is about two-tenths of a penny per gallon. The stuff that you buy at 7-Eleven costs 6000 times as much. We really succeeded in cheap water.”

The challenge today is infrastructure for coequal goals,” continued Mr. Quinn.  “As an expert in this field who really believes in coequal goals, I can’t conceive of getting there without investing in modern technology,” pointing out that if we invested billions of dollars only in recycled water, how would we manage through deep droughts such as we’re experiencing now.  “But if you marry that to storage and then operate the storage for both fishery purposes.  …  If we hadn’t built the dams, there wouldn’t be a drop of water in the Sacramento River, well, maybe the Sacramento, but the American River would be just bone dry.  The only water there is water that has been developed by human beings, so we have to completely reinvent how we think about infrastructure and how we work together. … We need to build 21st century infrastructure, and I don’t think we can solve the problem without it.”

What we have to move from is it can’t just be about more dams, it’s got to be about smarter overall water management,” said Jay Ziegler.  “This year, we are going to hammer our groundwater basins throughout California. And the Nature Conservancy and others are doing very comprehensive analysis now on what that is going to mean.  … you have to look holistically around the state and say, ‘where are the opportunities for recharge? Where are the opportunities for conjunctive water management?’  where we’re using some of that stored water more creatively to re-water groundwater basins and strike a better balance over time. And so I think it is not just a storage issue, and if we think about it in the way – how do I say this nicely? – most of the water agency community thinks about it, we’ll go down the wrong path.”

“I know that many people have this vision that we’ll get regional management and then we can all work away from our import systems. Well, I don’t think I’m ever going to live in that world. I’m not sure I’d want to live in that world for what it’s worth. We’ve gotten to a point in California now where we need the statewide system to take a step up and match itself to what we can do at the regional system.” — Tim Quinn

But if we go down Tim’s path, we’ll have a lot of common ground to work on,” said Mr. Ziegler.  “But I just want to be cautionary that Tim’s more in the middle on this than most of the water community in California. And we need a much smarter water management strategy with a lot more emphasis on groundwater storage than surface water storage, and we really need to look at much more truly integrated groundwater and surface water management. California really is an anomaly in the West in aggressively accounting for surface water management that is going down our rivers and absolutely, mindlessly de-linking groundwater basins from the impacts that are occurring virtually every year through poor overall water accounting and poor water monitoring and an inadequate focus on truly integrated water management in California.”

When we come out of this drought, if we are serious about protecting the ecological resources of California, as well as providing for a more durable water supply for people’s needs, then we have to start thinking about it really as a water management challenge, not simply a water storage challenge because we can’t really store our way out of this,” said Mr. Ziegler.  “We have 42 plus million acre feet of water storage, and we have about 10 million acre feet of water behind all that storage right now. And I am with you. I’m not saying surface storage is not a part of it because that’s not our position. We have to manage this system with greater flexibility, but it’s bigger than just surface storage. It’s much bigger than that.”

We certainly agree on that,” replied Mr. Quinn.  “And by the way, my fellow managers are more progressive than Jay is giving them credit for.”  He noted that he’s participated in about 10 or 12 dams that have been taken down in California, mostly up in the Sacramento Valley.  “Some dams need to come down, some dams need to go up in an air of coequal goals,” he said.  “The first storage project I would start on if I was the king of the world in California would be what I’d like to call a “parking lot” in the San Joaquin Valley. … This would be designed to hold the water for six months. In March of 2011, Delta outflow was 200,000 cubic feet per second. That’s a lot of water, and guess how much they were pumping at the Banks Pumping Plant? Zero. The pumping plant got shut down for days on end when you had 200,000 CFS of Delta outflow. Why? Because there was no place to put that water. All the groundwater basins which have very large amounts of storage capacity in them, they were inundated with local stormwater. They couldn’t take a drop of water, and they wouldn’t want to pay imported water fees. We don’t have much surface storage south of the Delta at all.”

What I would like to have had at that point in time was a surface storage facility that could take water at 10,000 CFS when the Delta could afford it,” continued Tim Quinn.  “Park it there for six months because in the summer time, that water basin can take plenty of water. They’re starving for water in the summer time…. And this is very different by the way. The 1960 vision of storage was build storage on live streams on the North Coast Rivers primarily, hold that water until it is dry and then move it. We have completely changed our storage strategy in California where we don’t park any water on a live stream up here. That’s a no-no. Instead you want to park the water off stream or in the groundwater basins and move the storage like closer to the population that’s going to use it. But right now, we’ve got a system that doesn’t allow us to do that because it wasn’t plumbed with an eye towards a coequal goal.”

An audience member asked Tim what he thinks about the balance of regional management solutions versus a statewide solution.

Even if you took away any interest in providing water for ecology, you’re still going to reach the same conclusion that we can’t stay on the same path that we’re on in the San Joaquin Valley …  we have to have a bigger, deeper conversation about where and how we’re using water, and to be much more honest about where we’re using that water, and what are the long term effects of that water use, and be more transparent about where the water is and where it isn’t.” –Jay Ziegler

The answer to your question is to check the box next to all of the above,” responded Tim Quinn.  “We need both. I would argue very strongly that over the last 25 years, we’ve had a lot of regional management going on in California. The regional water managers have not been sitting on their hands. They have been very active… Again, I know a lot about what’s happened south of the Tehachapi Mountain because I was part of it. But regional managers really moved the ball a great deal, and it bothers me when people act like we haven’t done anything for 25 years. We have done a lot at the region level. We haven’t had that statewide interface … I know that many people have this vision that we’ll get regional management and then we can all work away from our import systems. Well, I don’t think I’m ever going to live in that world. I’m not sure I’d want to live in that world for what it’s worth. We’ve gotten to a point in California now where we need the statewide system to take a step up and match itself to what we can do at the regional system.”

The water of the future is going to be developed locally, it’s going to be developed in people’s backyards,” continued Mr. Quinn.  “But we will continue to operate the system that we inherited from our grandparents – millions of acre feet that will need to come out of that system. And that system has to be retrofitted because it was designed back when engineers thought only about cheap water and not about the ecosystem at the same time.”

Often times when I worked at Metropolitan Water District, I would ask myself, “What would Harvey Banks do?” said Mr. Quinn.  “He was a brilliant civil engineer, and he was ordered to produce a cheap water supply system, and he did an outstanding job. What if Harvey had been asked to design a system for the coequal goals, and then figured out a way that we actually make the coequal goals? He would have developed a very, very different system. He wouldn’t have built any on-stream reservoirs – that would never been a part of the State Water Project. He would have planned reservoir storage off-stream or underground, wherever you could. He wouldn’t have made the Peripheral Canal the last thing in the system – he would have made it one of the first things in the system, because that’s truly a system. If you really want a system with coequal goals, for God’s sakes don’t put those great big pumps at the wrong end of the Delta. It would be a huge, huge mistake if you’re a coequal planner, but it’s fine if you’re a cheap water planner. … I would argue a generation that needs to be asking ourselves, “What would Harvey Banks have built?” And now let’s figure that out and go about building it and operating it, and investing in conservation at the same time.”

How does a restored salmon habitat and a restored flyway contribute to an agricultural economy? asked an audience member.

How would that help support agricultural economy? That’s the essence of the question,” responded Jay Ziegler.  “So, you’re asking me if I’m dedicating water for refuges and I’m dedicating water for flows for salmon, I’m leaving the implication is that the water supply for agriculture is going to be threatened. Right, fair enough?

Yes.”

I didn’t start out in my career to be an infrastructure person, I swear I didn’t. And I’m not an infrastructure person today. I believe in truly integrated solutions, but I also have come to do some visioning out there that if we really invest in that true integrated, truly smart 21st century infrastructure with smart demand reduction, that we can probably sustain more in California than we realize.” –Tim Quinn

My response is that we have to think more holistically about all this,” said Mr. Ziegler.  “I think we have taken salmon to the brink and we have certainly seriously impaired the values of the Pacific Flyway as a migratory bird corridor because we’re drying it up.  So in a sense what you’re asking is a social choice. … I think there is win-win there, frankly. If we look at agriculture in the Sacramento River basin for example, I think that we can achieve partnerships with growers to actually leave water and fields longer in the winter time for the benefit of Migratory Birds and provide the right kind of incentives to do that, and actually support groundwater recharge at the same time.”

One of the things I talked about was the importance of monitoring outcomes and for monitoring groundwater resources, and really with integrity, saying that’s a sustainable basin,” said Mr. Ziegler.  “Where everybody that operates there, everyone in agriculture is going to have a much better sense of that.”

Not every region is equal, “ he continued.  “I think that if there were some San Joaquin Valley growers here, they’d say, ‘What’s the most painful lesson that we’re learning out of this drought? We’re going to have to fallow some land in the San Joaquin Valley. There is no way that we can continue to support the kinds of water use in the San Joaquin Valley that we have historically experienced.’ And you’re seeing that in subsidence, you’re seeing that in the loss of viable farm land over time and drainage issues throughout the valley. There are certain issues that we’re going to have to come to terms with.”

So what I’m saying is let’s look at the Sacramento Valley and say, ‘I think that we can actually achieve multiple goals a whole lot better with the water that we have’ and be more honest about where it’s going and account for it better,” said Mr. Ziegler.  “Then we do have some hard choices to make because what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years in increasing and hardening watering demand by growing more and more pistachios and more and more almonds and more and more grapes has created an unsustainable situation.”

Even if you took away any interest in providing water for ecology, you’re still going to reach the same conclusion that we can’t stay on the same path that we’re on in the San Joaquin Valley,” said Mr. Ziegler.  “So I think we have to have a bigger, deeper conversation about where and how we’re using water, and to be much more honest about where we’re using that water, and what are the long term effects of that water use, and be more transparent about where the water is and where it isn’t.

Part of this approach is that we’ve got to be more direct and honest with each other and really put a foundation of open and transparent hydrology, biological science and water management decisions in a public debate,” said Mr. Ziegler.  “I do think that’s one of the benefits that we get out of a drought is that we are going to have a much more open conversation about these issues because it’s going to affect everybody’s life in this room and everything that you care about being a Californian.  That’s the only thing I’m looking forward to about this drought is that there need to be more questions like that.”

Jeff Mount then turned to Tim Quinn and said, “You speak with very positive tones about how we’re going to solve this problem by working hard, restoring and everything else, but how do you deal with this concept of coequal goals when we’re in a net annual deficit of around two million acre feet in Tulare Basin? What miracle occurs?

This is one of the ghosts of Christmas past that’s coming to visit us is this groundwater situation in the valley,” he said.  “I wish it wasn’t the driest year on record going in with record low storage. That’s not a time when I want to go to my members and say ‘use less groundwater.’ I’m not sure anybody can survive that this year. But I will tell you that there is a growing recognition in the San Joaquin Valley, certainly amongst water managers and I think even amongst the growers that this situation’s not sustainable and they have to get real about it.

“I was recently a speaker down in San Luis Obispo for a groundwater program there,” continued Mr. Quinn. “Mostly it was growers, grape growers, and they were saying words like meters and measure, and tax and restrict and cut back on demands. And no spears were passing from one side of the room or the other. Everyone seemed to survive. I’d never heard that kind of dialog before.”

There’s a day not too far in the future where we as responsible conservationists need to reopen The Endangered Species Act to look at habitat values in a more holistic way rather than the sort of species by species conservation actions that we are driving today. And I’m uncomfortable saying that because I am very uncomfortable getting into that conversation into Washington today.” –-Jay Ziegler

Is this realistically what can we sustain over the long term?” said Mr. Quinn.  “I’m a bit more optimistic than you might think. Because again, I didn’t start out in my career to be an infrastructure person, I swear I didn’t. And I’m not an infrastructure person today. I believe in truly integrated solutions, but I also have come to do some visioning out there that if we really invest in that true integrated, truly smart 21st century infrastructure with smart demand reduction, that we can probably sustain more in California than we realize.”

Jay Ziegler agreed, noting that he’s spent time in the San Joaquin Valley and farmers have been saying the same conversations with him.  “So I do think that that dialog is kind of setting in, and it’s that sense of, “Wow, we got hard choices, and there’s no way we’ve got enough water to stretch across this much land and to try to do it every year with crops that are dependent upon having water every year.” There’s just no way to do it.”

An audience member notes that there are several uncomfortable conversations that need to be had, but don’t we, as reconciliation ecologists and conservationists, have to come to the uncomfortable conversation of, “We can’t save these species. These species are done”… ?”

Here’s the thought where I’m perhaps not as optimistic about the political dialog,” responded Jay Ziegler.  “Actually being able to kind of get to a point where you say, “We’re not going to be able to save the Delta smelt,” as a potential example, and what do you do? And what do we do to improve the ecology of the system in a way that might give the smelt a chance, but doesn’t put 100% of our resources into smelt at the expense of salmon as we start managing these systems back from jeopardy, which is the way The Endangered Species Act tends to work.”

The thing about Washington today is that even my organization, which tries to work in a pretty centrist fashion with all stakeholders, we’re very nervous about opening up a conversation about The Endangered Species Act right now because it is either take the act apart and effectively make an economic decision on any conservation action or the status quo, and we think we can work with the status quo and work to get habitat conservation plans done and that’s one of the reasons we’ve been spending as much time and energy as we have on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan,” he said.

But I’ll say it,” said Jay Ziegler.  “There’s a day not too far in the future where we as responsible conservationists need to reopen The Endangered Species Act to look at habitat values in a more holistic way rather than the sort of species by species conservation actions that we are driving today. And I’m uncomfortable saying that because I am very uncomfortable getting into that conversation into Washington today.”

“Before we move on, I want to make a point for UC Davis,” said Tim Quinn.  “You guys here with this reconciliation ideas… This is a center of some of most progressive thinking about how to think differently about the future that I am aware of. Keep it up. Because the regulators won’t listen to me, but they will listen to you.  I represent an industry that thinks – you might not believe this – but from my perspective, completely differently than they did 25 years ago when I first joined it. We manage water very differently – much better. I perceive very little change in the mindset of the regulators that we deal with … we need a lot of mindset change from the people who have such power over the system which is, again, that’s where Bruce Babbitt was coming from. … So, keep it up here at UC Davis, keep pushing them in the right direction.

An audience member asked in a tough drought year like this, supplying water for basic health and safety needs for the small communities on the east side could be difficult. What opportunities are there for re-aligning water rights so the people who actually need the water will have it?

“I know this sounds terrible, but it’s not unusual to compensate people who are vested in an old system. When you want to change that system, it’s not unusual to compensate them so they get out of the way and allow the change to happen. That’s how we cleaned up our rivers; that’s how we cleaned up our air. For some reason in California water, we don’t do that nearly to the degree that I think that we should.” —Tim Quinn


I’m not a big fan of going in and trying to redo water rights,” replied Tim Quinn.  “I’m a big market guy. Make their rights as firm as you can and then get out get out society’s checkbook … It’s not unusual, I know this sounds terrible, but it’s not unusual to compensate people who are vested in an old system. When you want to change that system, it’s not unusual to compensate them so they get out of the way and allow the change to happen. That’s how we cleaned up our rivers; that’s how we cleaned up our air. For some reason in California water, we don’t do that nearly to the degree that I think that we should. So, I’d leave the rights in place, I would get out my checkbook, and I would start creating economic incentives for people to do the right thing.”

“I think this Klamath Basin water settlement in the last half of last year is pretty instructive for all of us,” said Jay Ziegler.  “I used to really attack with zeal this idea of reallocating water rights. And I just think that is now at that… it’s been a 20 year proposition … Whenever you open that up, that’s what you get. I just can’t see us getting around the corner of that. I really feel like we have to figure out a better incentive structure to manage water differently.

Jeff Mount then had one final set of questions for the speakers, telling them they had to keep it to just one sentence.  “Each of you now gets the chance to introduce state legislation and federal legislation today.  What State Legislation and what Federal Legislation would you put in today?“

My one sentence is, I want to integrate overall water supply use in California water – groundwater, and surface water – so that we are actually being honest about California’s water resources dynamics and how we manage water resources. So, that’s my state solution,” answered Jay Ziegler.

I think we did the Legislative job in the State in 2009. We did it right, we should let it work,” said Tim Quinn.  “My organization, like Jay’s, strongly believes that we should pass the Water Bond that we agreed to back in 2009, which would be a stimulus for coequal goals, the way that I look at it.”

In Washington DC, I don’t know if there’s any legislation that you’d want to pass but what I would like to accomplish is the Federal Government is joining us in this concept of coequal goals, of genuinely managing a system both for ecosystem restoration and for water supply reliability for the economy that’s left,” said Mr. Quinn.

“I think that’s very good,” said Mr. Ziegler.  “I think that’s the most we could hope for. If we really brought integrity to California’s overall water management in a way that was where the Federal Policy came into support it …  I guess to Tim’s point. The Water Bond alone, I think, needs to be tweaked a bit to incentivize better long-term stewardship for water resources, but I feel like there also has to be a Federal catalyst to recognize that that applies with it.”

For what it’s worth, the Federal catalyst is probably in the executive branch, not in the Congress,” said Tim Quinn.  “I don’t see the Congress being able to do anything. But we truly need a Bruce Babbitt in the Obama administration that has that vision of making the system work for both the ecosystem and the economy of the state of California, and then pushes that huge bureaucracy in a different direction than it would otherwise go.”

So, draft Bruce Babbitt. He’s available,” said Jeff Mount.

For more information …

More from the California Water Policy Seminar Series …

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