Capitol Weekly – A Conference on Water: Delta panel discusses drought in the Delta

Panel All

Capitol Weekly’s A Conference on Water, held on February 20, 2014, brought together legislators, officials, and stakeholders to discuss some of the most pressing water issues facing the state today.

In this panel discussion moderated by Capital Public Radio’s Amy Quinton, State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus, Restore the Delta’s Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, Contra Costa Water District Assistant General Manager Marguerite Patil, Senator Lois Wolk, and the Natural Heritage Institute’s Jerry Meral discuss the drought, conservation, agriculture and more in a rare discussion about the Delta that, surprisingly, includes very little discussion about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Amy Quinton, moderator: The Delta is the heart of California’s water system.  Snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada flows through the Delta, providing a water supply for 25 million Californians in the Bay Area, Central Valley, and Southern California.  The Delta is also home to half a million people, it’s the West Coast’s largest estuary with hundreds of species of fish and wildlife.  Our water delivery systems, our urban and agricultural development have had a hand in altering the Delta’s environment to the detriment of many fish species.  Balancing the diverse needs for the Delta is a consummate challenge in California and the debate that has obviously been continuing for decades.  The Bay Delta Conservation Plan which proposes building two tunnels to carry water from the Sacramento River south may be the answer, it may not.  This is the cliff notes version of the Delta; everyone here on the panel has a different opinion on how the needs of the Delta should be balanced, and each one of you has your own unique role in how your organization fits into that debate.

Amy then invited the panelists to start off with an opening statement about the Delta.

Felicia Marcus, Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board

Felicia 1The Delta means very different things to different people and sitting on the State Water Resources Control Board, we hear all those views regularly,” began Felicia Marcus.  “There are some who view it as a conveyance system; there are those who speak of it as a once-great estuary that’s been drained; there are others who feel is a wondrous tapestry of humanity, agriculture, and nature; and there are others who see it simply as an infrastructure hub.  I’m in the wondrous tapestry category, personally, but whatever you think, the policy of the state of California as as written in the 2009 Delta Reform Act is the coequal goals of water supply reliability, ecosystem restoration, and a very important third point which frequently gets dropped off, which is a respect for the unique cultural historical economic value of the Delta as an evolving place.  For those of you who have not been there, I recommend that you go.  It’s just a wonderful place on many levels and precious to the state as a whole.”

The State Water Board’s role is to be the balancers, said Ms. Marcus.  “Our job isn’t to pick winners and losers; our job is to maximize all the beneficial uses of various water bodies,” she said.  “Our regional boards tend to do this in local areas; the State Board does it for the Delta because it isn’t just a water quality issue, it is a water rights and water quality issue, and the state board is solely responsible for the water rights system in California.  It’s also so large that it spans multiple regions.”

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“We have got to stop fighting the way we normally have and stop playing the blame game between north, south, ag, urban, fish, farms, agency versus agency.  It’s not going to go away because it’s a scarce resource, but we actually have to get on with doing all of the above versus one because we’re not going to make it otherwise.”  –Felicia Marcus[/pullquote]

The State Water Board is in the process of updating the water quality control plan which is supposed to figure out how to balance all the beneficial uses of the Delta, she said.  “That includes fish and wildlife, agriculture – both in the Delta and south of the Delta, all kinds of recreation, – it includes a lot of things and it moves up the tributaries to the system,” she said.  “It’s a very complex piece of work but our job is not to pick winners and losers, but to maximize the beneficial uses, all of them.  I say that over and over again because frequently people come before us and they argue as if we get to pick one.  It’s all this, it’s all that, which always puzzles me because that’s not what the decision maker’s job is – the decision maker’s job is to figure out how to balance all of these things to get the maximum benefit possible.  We frequently do focus on things like flow most, and fish and wildlife, because those are the ones that have been hurt the most over the course of the last number of years, but we’re actually interested in all of that.”

Whatever water quality control plan the State Water Board comes up with, it will be implemented through water rights, said Ms. Marcus.  “There is a complex maze of water rights, from senior to junior, riparians to pre-1914 and post-1914 water rights, and so that is a big part of what we will be doing and that can take years.  It is an evidentiary adjudicatory process.”

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan will need to ask the State Water Board for a permit to modify their existing water rights permits for the projects, said Ms. Marcus, noting that the water board’s role is not to review whether they did a good job or not – that’s what the Delta Council will get to do.  “The water rights permit has a number of features – it has flow, the amount of water, it has a season and it has a place and method of diversion,” she said.  “In this case, they would be asking for an additional place of diversion.  That will be an evidentiary adjudicatory process and hearing in front of us and could take quite awhile.  We’ll have to do two things.  One is that we have to make a finding that it won’t adversely affect fish and wildlife, the public trust resources, and we’ll have to make a finding that it won’t adversely affect any other legal users of water and water rights.” She added that it will be a very complex and length process.

The 2009 legislation included reporting requirements that, for the first time for some people, required reporting of how much water they were diverting.  “For the seniors, it’s every three years and for the people who are the post-1914 appropriative water right permit and license holders, it’s every year,” she said.  “We didn’t have that data necessarily before,” she said, noting that the legislation also appointed a Delta Watermaster to oversee it all and people have been doing a pretty good job.

There are also allegations of illegal diversions in the Delta,” she said.  “If you are an exporter, you think the Delta is taking more water than their share; if you’re in the Delta, you feel exporters are taking more than their share. … We have been looking into that and we have not found massive amounts of illegal diversions, I will tell you that.”

The California Water Action Plan is the administration’s set of priorities for the next five years to lay the foundation for sustainable water management, she said.  “There’s a focus on the Delta, certainly BDCP is in there, but also IRWM, conservation as a way of life, groundwater management – I think it’s the first time an administration has put all of those things on the same piece of paper.  My point of view is that if we’re going to meet the challenges not just of droughts like this in the future but with climate change over the next couple of decades and the loss of snowpack, this is just a harbinger of more regular things to come.”

We have got to stop fighting the way we normally have and stop playing the blame game between north, south, ag, urban, fish, farms, agency versus agency,” said Ms. Marcus.  “It’s not going to go away because it’s a scarce resource, but we actually have to get on with doing all of the above versus one because we’re not going to make it otherwise.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, Restore the Delta

Barbara 1I’d like to start my comments with a bit of a story because there is a role for the person who is the judge and there is also a role for the people who are at ground zero and have no choice but to fight,” began Barbara Barrigan-Parilla.  “Seven years ago when Restore the Delta was formed, I was told that I was going to be something akin to the Welcome Wagon Mom for the Delta.  I was the person who was supposed to be taking people out to see that wondrous tapestry, taking tours of students out to learn about our region. And within three months, the BDCP process began and the Blue Ribbon Task Force was formed for the Delta Vision process.  We quickly realized that our organization would be taking on a different role.”

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“We go through several years and thousands of hours with Delta community leaders and water agency leaders, and participated in the various processes and what happened?  We weren’t heard.  Our recommendations for the how the Delta should be restored were left off the table and plans to build the twin tunnels through the Delta continue to move forward.” –Barbara Barrigan-Parilla[/pullquote]

We also had faith that if we engaged in processes that we could actually inform a good outcome for the Delta,” she continued.  “So we go through several years and thousands of hours with Delta community leaders and water agency leaders, and participated in the various processes and what happened?  We weren’t heard.  Our recommendations for the how the Delta should be restored were left off the table and plans to build the twin tunnels through the Delta continue to move forward.”

Governor Brown has yet to meet with water agency leaders and leaders from the Delta community to discuss the impacts of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan on the Delta, and last week, President Obama was out touring with representatives, while Delta residents were reduced to driving down roads in Firebaugh trying to get as legally close to the President as permissible, she pointed out.

Cathy and Doug Hemley are two of the finest people that I know in the Delta,” continued Ms. Barrigan-Parilla.  “They have a beautiful farm at the north end of the Delta.  It’s been there for over 150 years.  They raise sustainable organic pears – kind of faming model we can all be proud of in California.  They are at ground zero for the project, and they stand to lose absolutely everything.  About a year ago, I was out at their property with some reporters and they said something really interesting and that was if they thought the Bay Delta Conservation Plan were to really solve the water problems of the state, they would pack it all up.  They’d give up the farm, and they’d get out of the way.”

We’re not just fighting for our homes in the Delta region,” she said.  “We believe the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is the absolute antithesis of proper drought preparation for the state,” noting that a year ago, people working with their campaign did some statistical analysis that predicted there was a six time chance of experiencing the serious consequences of a severe drought then water disruption from an earthquake within the Delta.  “So that’s where we are today.  We are at the precipice of true environmental and economic ruin because we did not plan for droughts properly, droughts that occur over the last 100 years 40% of the time, and the Delta, up to this point, particularly in the last ten years, has been overpumped so in essence, the estuary itself has been in drought for the last ten years.”

Marguerite Patil, Contra Costa Water District

Patil 1Marguerite Patil began by giving some background on the Contra Costa Water District, noting that the District is a public water agency serving 500,000 people as well as some major industry along Highway 4.  A portion of the District’s service area and all four of their drinking water intakes are within the legal Delta.  “We care a lot about what happens there because it’s 100% of our water supply,” she said.  “That is why we participated in the CalFed effort in trying to find solutions to improve the Delta, and we supported the 2009 legislation and the coequal goals.  Our only comment on the coequal goals, our third point is that the other part that is missing is the need to protect Delta water quality, so we’ve been champions of that over many years now.”

Really it’s a simple point,” she said.  “If the quality in the Delta isn’t good enough to drink, isn’t good enough to support fish, isn’t good enough to support agriculture then I think we’ve kind of missed the point of it all.”

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“Really it’s a simple pointIf the quality in the Delta isn’t good enough to drink, isn’t good enough to support fish, isn’t good enough to support agriculture then I think we’ve kind of missed the point of it all.” –Marguerite Patil[/pullquote]

The Contra Costa Water District has invested $1 billion-plus over the past 20 years on infrastructure such as state of the art treatment plants, screened intakes in the Delta to protect fish, and the Los Vaqueros Reservoir.   “That reservoir is a little bit different because it’s not about yield or increasing our diversions from the Delta,” she said.  “What it’s about is using our water in a smart way, taking the water from the Delta when the quality’s the best, storing it in the reservoir, and then blending it with our Delta supplies so we can provide a consistent quality of water.  It will also get us through droughts, protect the ecosystem and help plan ahead for climate change, which is possibly already upon us.”

We’ve been tracking the proposed water bond legislation rather closely,” she said.  “I think it’s kind of obvious it needs to move forward.  I think sooner is better than later.  We see a lot of good things in there in the drafts that are being put together.  We think storage is really important but given where we are as a state, given our financial limitations, we’d really like to see the bond focus on projects that can be implemented in the near term.  It’s not the last water bond we’re going to need, it may not even get us through another 10 years, but it would be good to see progress actually being made on storage and other important projects.”

Senator Lois Wolk

Lois 1Senator Wolk began by noting that she represent four of the five Delta Counties: Yolo, Solano, Contra Costa and Sacramento, and that she will always represent San Joaquin, even though she doesn’t officially any longer.

I love the idea of a tapestry,” said Ms. Wolk.  “I thought that was a fine metaphor; however, my energy has been devoted to reminding people that the Delta is not a blank slate on which people can write whatever they want; that they can make all kinds of plans for the Delta thinking there aren’t people there, there is not industry there, there is not an agricultural economy there of serious worth, there aren’t roads there, there isn’t oil and gas exploration there, there aren’t tremendous species there, there aren’t incredible water fowl and wildlife.  It is not a blank slate, and it has been treated like that, I believe, sadly.”

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“My energy has been devoted to reminding people that the Delta is not a blank slate on which people can write whatever they want; that they can make all kinds of plans for the Delta thinking there aren’t people there, there is not industry there, there is not an agricultural economy there of serious worth, there aren’t roads there, there isn’t oil and gas exploration there, there aren’t tremendous species there, there aren’t incredible water fowl and wildlife.  It is not a blank slate, and it has been treated like that, I believe, sadly.” –Senator Lois Wolk[/pullquote]

The drought gives us the opportunity drought to focus the public’s attention on water issues and that doesn’t come around all the time, she said.  “Water is something that you turn on the tap and for most people, if it comes out, they are happy.  But the drought really has given us an opportunity with the Governor’s engagement and the legislature’s engagement to really focus attention on water policy and we ought to take advantage of that. Now I hope we don’t take advantage of it and do the wrong thing, which is often possible, but this is what I think is very positive about the reaction so far.”

I believe the drought water package that was introduced by the leadership yesterday contains the appropriate approach and principles not only for this year but also for the near term and frankly takes us off this BDCP train, this enormous controversy, which doesn’t really move us forward in my view,” said Ms. Wolk.  “What I think is important about the drought package is that it talks about immediate investments.  No matter what happens with the BDCP, there are critical water needs in the state of California that have nothing to do with the BDCP, and in fact the BDCP drains energy away from dealing with major water policy issues and concerns of the local community.”

Ms. Wolk says she supports strongly the immediate investments that the Governor and the leadership are talking about that will lessen the impacts of drought but also do near term investments.  “The best way to make our communities more resilient to drought not only now but in the future is to invest in projects that help us to get the most out of every drop of water,” she said.  “Regional and local projects that are ready to capture more stormwater which we don’t do enough of, to clean and recycle water, to clean up our dirty groundwater, to improve conservation and water use efficiency.  Unencumbered unspent bond monies are in the millions, so this package is going to move very quickly and hopefully get out the door and actually have some impact in the near term.”

In addition, the Governor is focusing on monitoring and protecting our groundwater, she said.  “We need to move forward on the issue of subsidence and monitoring and protecting our groundwater, and so monitoring and all of this is really critical to developing the basis of a strong water policy.”

“I would be glad to talk about the BDCP but then I would be violating my own rule that I started with today which is I don’t want it to suck the air out of the room,” said Ms. Wolk. “I’d like to talk about my bond proposal, SB 848, which incorporates I believe the same kinds of principles.  Regional water critical needs – drinking water needs, there are a million people in this state who do not have access to clean primary sources of drinking water.  That’s appalling in a state like this, any place actually.  That’s what we need to do and that’s where are monies should go in a bond.”

If we ask the voters to approve a bond, it has to be reasonable, and realistic, it has to be a whole lot smaller than the one that is currently on the ballot, and it has to give the local communities the tools they need and want in order to improve the use of their existing water supplies to diversify where they can and that includes all kinds of storage,” she said.  “One of the most interesting studies that I read recently … talked about the amount of sediment that exists behind our existing reservoirs and our existing dams.  They estimated that close to 2MAF of increased storage could be achieved if we just cleared out the sediment behind the dams.  Even if that’s an exaggeration, we ought to do that. That’s cost effective.  Let’s do that. If there are some dams and reservoirs that need seismic improvements, we ought to do that if they lead to increased storage.”

There are lots of things that can be done and I think we have to be practical and frankly stop talking about the BDCP,” concluded Ms. Wolk.

Jerry Meral, Natural Heritage Institute

Jerry 2Jerry Meral began by saying that the Natural Heritage Institute is a nonprofit environmental organization that does water resources planning and projects worldwide, and also right here in California.  “I think that the Delta is something that people should go and see,” he said.  “They should drive through it, take a boat tour of it, it’s a fabulous place.”

But what you can’t see in the Delta because it’s underwater is the ecological situation in the Delta which is very dire,” said Mr. Meral.  “UC Davis fish guru Professor Peter Moyle has said that well over 90% of the biomass in the Delta waters is of invasive species, and so this has resulted in huge pressure on everybody in the Delta, not just the exporters, but many others, to try to preserve the few remaining individuals left of our native species.  After all, the legislature and Congress has said we ought to preserve and protect these species and restore them, which I think everybody on the panel would agree with, but we can’t’ do it under the current situation.”

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“We have to pay attention to the ecological problems and the water supply problems and the community problems which have been well described in the Delta and try to deal with them all in a coherent mannerThat is what the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is trying to do and that’s why most of the major conservation groups including ours still believe that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is the best way to go to solve the problems in the Delta.” –Jerry Meral[/pullquote]

The Delta has many stressors, including pollution, water exports, farming, land conversion, so the Delta needs help in terms of restoring native species, he said.  “For our organization, that’s a top priority.”

The other side of the Delta is its impact on water supply, and while there are many things we can and should do to improve our state’s water supply, we simply cannot ignore the fact that almost 20% of the water used by the state of California in every region comes from the Delta, he said.  “Most people think that the water is all going to swimming pools in Beverly Hills and ignores the fact that many parts of the Bay Area are absolutely dependent on the Delta, not only Marguerite Patil’s district, but 40% of the water supply to Silicon Valley, 80% of the water supply to the Livermore Valley, … and of course Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley are vitally dependent on the Delta.  Should the Delta be unavailable for any reason at all, for any extended period of time, the economic losses would run about $10 billion a year and the job losses would be about 40,000 jobs a year, so it’s unimaginable that the state can ignore any threat to the Delta water supply from an economic point of view, and I would argue from an environmental point of view.”

The interesting thing about that Delta, and Barbara’s probably not far from the truth, it is probably six times more likely that you’re going to have a problem with a drought in the Delta or anywhere else in California than you are going to have a problem with an earthquake that could conceivably inundate up to 20 or more islands in the Delta, cause seawater to intrude into the Delta, and have a loss of the entire or most of the Delta water supply,” said Mr. Meral.  “So we’re very focused on the drought this year.”

Those of you who were around for the World Series in 1989 or the Northridge Earthquake will remember that our energies and attentions can be very quickly refocused by an earthquake, which we know with certainty will happen,” he continued.  “There’s a dispute undoubtedly about the severity of such an earthquake, what the impact would be in the Delta, but we know one thing.  It’s going to happen and we’ve got to be prepared for it, so the idea that we can just ignore the problems in the Delta from a water supply point of view and deal with other things that do need to be dealt with, that’s just not going to work unfortunately.”

We have to pay attention to the ecological problems and the water supply problems and the community problems which have been well described in the Delta and try to deal with them all in a coherent manner,” said Mr. Meral.  “That is what the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is trying to do and that’s why most of the major conservation groups including ours still believe that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is the best way to go to solve the problems in the Delta.”


Amy Quinton (moderator): Because we are in a drought and it seems to be the topic on everyone’s mind, how is the drought going to affect the Delta?  I recall reading that the last time we had such a serious drought in 76-77, there was a big problem with salt water intrusion.  What’s everyone’s biggest concern, this time around?

From what I understand presently, the long term forecasts are showing that we’re really not going to have that much more rain,” responded Barbara Barrigan-Parilla.  “So there’s a very strong potential for zero outflow from the Delta by this summer, which means that our $5.2 billion agricultural economy will be greatly impacted because people will be irrigating with saltwater potentially in the south end of the Delta, and of course, fisheries which have been in steady decline over the last 30 years by about 90-95% as exports have increased from the Delta will also be just absolutely hammered by degraded water quality and quantity.”

Felicia, how do you deal with salt water intrusion?

We’re actually in a frightening state of affairs,” replied Ms. Marcus.  “Sometimes people conflate the projects with the natural watercourses and they forget that the projects were created as an additional federal and state attempt to be able to store water to do a couple of things.  One was to certainly be able to move water from where it is up in the mountains to where the greater volume of population is down south and to irrigate agriculture in the Central Valley.  It was also to help with groundwater subsidence, which people talked earlier, and it’s also to help fish these days in terms of maintaining cold water pool for different times in the fish’s lifecycle.”

San Joaquin River, south Delta, Oct 2013 #2
San Joaquin River, south Delta

The Executive Director of the State Water Board used his temporary urgency authority to approve temporary changes to the permits because the projects were concerned about enough water for basic human needs, she said.  “The projects were concerned they’d be emptying storage early to meet these standards that weren’t set for this extraordinary circumstance and in an extraordinary circumstance, everybody will be hurt,” said Ms. Marcus, noting that a limit was put on exports to just public health and safety.  “He was saying everybody has got to conserve and the hope is that it can be used to maintain salinity standards as much as possible for ag in the Delta and the what little dribbles of export that go out, but mostly importantly to try and maintain that salinity control throughout the course of this season. … This saline intrusion is something of tremendous concern, both from municipal and agricultural use in the Delta itself and for exports off into the future because once that intrusion happens it will take a seriously rainy day and rainy season to get it out.”

You can always prepare for drought; it’s always hard to judge whether it’s going to happen next year so it’s a reminder to us that we really have to plan ahead and figure out how to diversify our local water sources so that we’re not as dependent on this system we have now,” concluded Ms. Marcus.

Marguerite, what’s your biggest concern with the drought?  A lot has changed since the 70s, now you have a reservoir helping with salinity issues.  Is that going to help this time around?

It was the impacts of the 1976-77 that motivated Contra Costa Water District to build Los Vaqueros, responded Marguerite Patil.  “The state and feds had looked at that project since the 50s and just didn’t get it off the ground, so we spent $450 million building Los Vaqueros, over $100 million adding a new intake with better quality water on Victoria Canal and another $100 million expanding it, so we’re $600 almost $700 million in at this point, but in a year like this, we’re really grateful we did it.  We’re just fortunate that we moved forward on the construction of the expansion at the right time when it was already dry, but I personally did everything I could to get as much water in there as possible last year,” noting that she was able to get to 133,000 AF out of the 160,000 they could have put in.  “That water we’re putting to very good use this year, not only for our district but to the Bay Area region,” she said, noting that they were going to try and transfer water to other water agencies who are in bad shape.

A lot of the Bay Area agencies invested in groundwater storage, not only locally, but actually out of basin in Semitropic groundwater bank,” she said.  “Great idea, but it relies on State Water Project exports to deliver the water through exchange, so in a year like this where the allocation is zero, they can’t get at that water.

She noted they were also working with others to figure out how to provide more water, and the temporary barriers are being considered to help protect the water quality, and they are also looking at delivering recycled water to meet their industrial needs.  “We can’t really cut our oil refineries back very much without it influencing production, it’s sort of a 1:1 correlation there, so we want to see if we can fast-track some recycled water projects that are on the table and help that situation,” Ms. Patil said.

Senator, what is your biggest concern with the drought?

My biggest concern about the drought is that we’ll do a very good job which historically I believe we have with respect to emergencies,” replied Senator Wolk.  “Our water agencies, the state board – we as a society are fairly good at reacting to and handling emergencies, whether earthquake or drought.  I believe we do that well.  For me, I’m concerned that once it rains, once we’re finished, and everybody goes back to the patterns that we had before and we never quite get around to the preparedness and the planning that we need to do to reduce our reliance not only on the Delta, but increase the reliability of our local water supplies.”

We don’t do a whole lot of recycling and we need to do more of that,” continued Ms. Wolk.  “We don’t clean up our groundwater and we ought to do more of that.  We ought to look at reuse.  We ought to look at desalination.  These are things that can’t be accomplished this year, but you can begin the planning and the investment so you can, when the next drought or the longer drought goes on, you can maximize the use of your present water.  We don’t do enough of that … but the investment near-term, short-term and mid-term, in actual things that will prepare us for living with less water is something that we won’t do.  I fear we won’t do it.  We need to do it.

It’s interesting to hear all the debate about water quality.  You’re talking with a severe drought, basic health and safety issues for humans, but what gets left behind are the species, the ecology.  Jerry, talk to me a little bit about that.  Is that being neglected?

It’s hard to do much,” said Jerry Meral.  “We’ve had the Department of Fish and Wildlife has said we’re going to reduce fishing because it’s too easy to fish.  When there’s very little water in the stream, you don’t want to really impact those species, and that’s a good thing for sport species especially.  Many of our species are right on the edge, like Coho salmon, and a few years of drought in a row could wipe them out in terms of much of their range, and there’s not much we can do about that other than trying to reoperate reservoirs and thing like that to provide some water.  Some of these species, we don’t know if they can survive a prolonged drought.  They won’t get the outflow they need like Delta smelt and longfin smelt, and frankly they evolved on very high outflows at certain times of the year, so there’s not too much we can do, unfortunately.”

Folsom Marina Dry
Marina at Folsom Lake, Feb 2014

In places like Texas that had a very prolonged drought, it was devastating to wildlife,” Mr. Meral continued.  “They lost half a billion trees in Texas during their drought. Many wildfires and depleted wildlife and changed the ecology of the region.  Australia went through a 10-year drought and the areas where that happened look really different now, even though the rains have come back somewhat, so unfortunately from an ecological point of view, there’s really  relatively little we can do.  The pressure to maintain health and human safety and to deal with the fire danger which is probably going to be the leading news story later on this summer, tends to trump concerns about wildlife and fisheries, and that’s unfortunate but it’s sort of an inevitable reality. … The barriers that Marguerite described are probably going to have to go in, they are vital to the water supply but they are not going to benefit the fish species.  They may even harm them, but that’s what you have to do during the drought.  To maintain our fish and wildlife populations, and we have to have longer term planning and try to rely more on local water sources so that these water sources from the Sierra Nevada can be given a little more to the fish and wildlife and help them survive.”

One of the things we talk about during drought is conservation and you also here that Northern California doesn’t do a very good job with conservation compared to Southern California.  So this is directed to you Marguerite.  What is the attitude about conservation? You obviously have enough water right now.  Is there sort of focus on conservation?

Marguerite Patil said her customers have been focused on conservation for decades now, noting that after the last dry period, demand didn’t creep up as much as they normally see.  “It’s a little bit hard to tease out how much of that is because of the economy, how much of that is because people like conserving water, but they like saving money on their bills, absolutely, so we’ve tried to make sure that they see that financial benefit to themselves.”  They’ve had huge success with toilet rebates, low flow showerheads, and internal plumbing improvements, but where they see the greatest potential for improvement is in the outdoor landscapes.

The District has a tiered rate structure that targets the highest users of water to give them a penalty, she said.  “They have to pay double the rate when they exceed a certain amount, so we’ve been happy we’ve kept those rate structures in place since the last drought and we’re going to take a look and see if we need to increase that penalty,” she said.  “Mostly though, we just want to see that people understand in our region that every drop of water that they save this year is hopefully a drop of water we can keep in Los Vaqueros in case we have another dry year and another dry year after that, so I think overall they are doing a real good job but we still see a lot of potential for further improvement primarily in the landscape.”

I know that there’s been some districts who have put into place mandatory conservation.  It seems hard for me to believe that’s not going on everywhere given the severity of the drought.  Why is there seemingly this hesitancy?

Marguerite Patil answered that the water contractors don’t yet know what their allocation is.  “We’d rather go to our customers once, tell them what we need them to do, tell them what it’s going to mean to them financially, and then ask them to proceed.”

When you’re preparing for a drought, you don’t want to react too soon,” added Jerry Meral.  “If you’re panicking a bit in January or February and start mandatory conservation, you don’t want a rain event or a weather event to relieve the pressure and the public thinks why did we have to go through all of that when in fact it rained and so on.  … I think that’s why water managers want to be very cautious, that’s probably why the Governor wants to be cautious, in terms of imposing mandatory conservation until you really know what the supply is going to be.”

Another aspect that needs to be looked at is where has the water gone, said Barbara Barrigan-Parilla.  “Close to70% of the water that is taken from the Delta isn’t going to urban users,” she said.  “We just completed an analysis from 2000-09 that shows the four proponents of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan: Metropolitan Water District, Kern County Water Agency, Santa Clara Valley Water District, and Westlands, and if you put Westlands and Kern together, out of those four agencies, they have used 55% of the water on average.  … Santa Clara and Met, you have tens of millions of people of live there and support a tremendous economy.  In contrast, Kern and Westlands contribute about 3/10ths of a percent to the state’s GDP.  They have doubled the amount of almonds they have planted in the last 10 years – almonds per acre take about 3.8 acre-feet of water, so we have 800,000 acres of almonds planted now.  We’re looking at 3 million AF per year so that we can export almonds to China, and I think we have to go back and look at if this is really sustainable?  …  Can we really afford to support those kinds of agricultural practices?

If you export less water out of the Delta for Central Valley farmers, they are going to rely more and more on groundwater, and we know that that causes problems as well, problems with subsidence …

If you look at their allotments that they can have from the delta, they have been supplementing it with groundwater all along, so they’ve really chosen to plant crops that aren’t sustainable,” replied Ms. Barrigan-Parilla.  “They are taking it from the Delta and the groundwater supply now, so I guess I agree with you, I think we really have to question that.  Is that the best way to manage a finite resource?

So what would you do?

I think we have to retire land as part of the solution, especially the drainage impaired lands in Westlands and I think we have hard decisions to be made by policymakers on what kind of agriculture we can really support where and for how long in California,” said Ms. Barrigan-Parilla.

Chair in the Central Valley Feb 2013 #3
Sit in the chair and ponder … what next for California agriculture?

It’s sort of remarkable to have an agricultural region like the Delta pointing the finger at another agricultural region saying their use is worse than our use because it causes problem for us or other reasons,” responded Mr. Meral.  “I think it’s a little bit of a slippery slope for agriculture in general to say one use is better than the other, because another alternative is to simply say let’s just have a free market in water and let those who can pay the most use that water and chances are crops like vegetables, tree crops and so on will out compete some of the other crops in other regions of the state, so I think a more reasonable approach probably and one that would be better for the environment too would be to recognize the needs that people have for all kinds different crops, including those grown in the Delta, and realize you can’t do everything, and there may have to be cutbacks in all regions, but to say one region should win because the other region should lose is just not going to produce, I think, a productive solution to our water problems.”

“I listened to the exchange between my two colleagues on agriculture in different parts of California with interest, and I’m going to channel Tom Graff for those of you who remember that wonderful water expert,” said Senator Wolk.  “It would be important and would make a serious difference in California if the price of water truly reflected what the societal costs are, because then what it costs truly to produce and maintain an orchard in Hanford versus the Delta would be very clear, as would the urban use of water.  The urbans are a little bit better at this.  The water rates in Southern California reflect, to a certain degree, what it costs to bring in that water, by surface or ground or transport, so people are much more conscious.  They are conscious of the cost and that’s a natural conserving effect.”

It seems to me we have divorced the price from what the actual societal cost is and as long as that water is heavily subsidized, you don’t save it, you use it for any kind of crop that will make you some money that you can send and export, so it doesn’t make any sense,” Ms. Wolk continued.  “We ought to use the economy and economic market that we believe in and do something about the price, and that could be done, but these are very difficult political challenges, but I think we need to do more of that.”

Rogene Reynolds from the South Delta asks the panelists to comment on the CVP and SWP contract allocations which exceed Delta inflow or the availability of Delta water.  How can those be renegotiated, reworked to truly reflect the water that’s available?

It’s true that there have rarely been periods when a full allocation can be delivered from the Delta to the state and federal water contractors,” replied Jerry Meral.  “It takes an extraordinary water year like we had a few years ago actually before we could get even close.  … I think many of them have found ways to live with less than their full allocation.  But if the goal is to permanently reduce their allocation, it’s simply going to increase their unit costs.  They still have to cover the costs of paying for the facilities that are in the ground and the staff and all of that, so it’s going to increase their unit costs somewhat.  I think as part of the larger solution to California water problems, they might consider a change to their allocation, but simply to reduce their allocation … I think it has to be in the context of the larger solution to California water problems.”

I commend Lois and Barbara for their comments and bringing some reason into this discussion,” said an audience member.  “We have to think about the long range effects of what we do.  This drought is nothing compared to what we’ve had historically where it’s just like this for 200 years, so we need to start getting real.  Any human built system that does not operate along the same trajectories as natural systems will eventually collapse.  The problem is that natural systems are self-regulating; human systems are not.  So we have the consciousness to make the changes necessary.”

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