Yesterday,the Hamilton Project and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment held a conference at Stanford titled, New Directions for U.S. Water Policy which brought together officials and experts from California and across the west to discuss water markets, technological innovations, climate change and other water policy issues. Governor Jerry Brown was the keynote speaker. In his speech, he talked about the history and the challenges facing California water, and outlined his administration’s plan for the next four years.
Here’s what he had to say:
Water. Big topic. Hard to talk about. Complicated. It covers a wide range of activities and problems and geographic areas. I’ve been hearing about water a long time, probably sixty or seventy years long. My father was an attorney general and I remember over the dinner table, him talking about the Arizona-California lawsuit. He was the chief lawyer for California, and that went on for decades. It was all about the allocation of Colorado River water – crucial to California and Southern California particularly, and also Arizona. So water is always a big story. And even today, lots of the challenges that were brought about and talked about fifty years ago are still very alive.
I guess it was probably Earl Warren that started talking about fixing the Delta – this is the body of water that captures the Sacramento River water and the moves it along into the aqueduct for distribution to farms, Santa Clara County, and to Southern California. The Delta is full of a lot of issues and problems, and people have been trying to fix it for a long time.
In fact, the California Water Project, which was Prop 1 on the 1960 ballot, won by a very tiny margin. That was the year that Kennedy beat Nixon, but Nixon beat Kennedy in California. Nevertheless, Proposition 1 passed then, and I’m confident that Proposition 1 will pass again this November – the second Proposition 1. It’s doing a little better than the first Proposition 1. It’s a $7.5 billion bond that covers a number of topics, but the point I want to make here is that water is not only complicated, it’s long debated, we’re talking decades.
A water project that was finally enacted when my father was Governor and built in subsequent years has some missing ingredients, and one of them is how do you deal with the Delta, which is a body of water protected by earthen levees that are more than a hundred years old and vulnerable to earthquake and to extreme weather events or to rising sea level.
That’s a real problem. For example, Santa Clara County gets half of its water through the aqueduct coming through the Delta, and if salt water intrudes, that would be a very bad day. [ .?.] That’s not a trivial event; to put it into economic terms, hundreds of billions of dollars, virtually overnight, so this is serious stuff. There is by no means a consensus at this point. A lot of fighting over this.
As a matter of fact, I proposed a solution to the Delta in 1978 that passed the legislature with Democratic as well as Republican votes, but it was put to a referendum by an alliance of some Central Valley farm interests and environmentalists in the north. They combined their efforts and it was defeated and because of that defeat, the next three Governors avoided water issues like the plague. It wasn’t until Governor Schwarzenegger that we began to address the issue and developed the Stewardship Council to deal with the Delta problems. I also helped put a water bond on the ballot, an $11 billion dollar water bond that was promptly labeled pork filled and stigmatized on all sides. So it’s not very easy.
Also in 1978, I established a water commission under the former chief justice [name – Ray?] appointed by Ronald Reagan, and he convened a bipartisan group of experts and public servants and they came up with a plan. One of the key ingredients of that plan was to regulate the groundwater. Well I can tell you it took from then, 1978, to a few months ago to get a groundwater plan. So this is not something for a flash in the pan; this is not for a one term Governor; this is really the work of a four-term governor. The first couple of terms to set the table and make the proposals, and then the last two terms 30 years later to finally carry the ball across the finish line. [laughter] [pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]I can promise you the next four years water is a key issue … It will be controversial; the issues have not been fully resolved, but like energy and climate change that have been contentious but also led to very productive initiatives, the same will be true of water.[/pullquote]
Which is what we’re going to do. I can promise you the next four years water is a key issue and we’re going to build on the great work of Earl Warren and Pat Brown and Governor Schwarzenegger and I might even say, my first couple of terms. It will be controversial; the issues have not been fully resolved, but like energy and climate change that have been contentious but also led to very productive initiatives, the same will be true of water. It will be something that I’m going to put front and center.
Since I haven’t been doing a lot of campaigning, there has been some question in the press – ‘Will there by anything done in the next four years? We don’t know, We haven’t heard.’ Well, you’re hearing today. Water is going to be a major issue that will be addressed in the California legislature, in Congress, and throughout communities everywhere because water doesn’t get solved in one office or in one place. Water issues are handled by a multitude of local agencies, they are handled by state rules and institutions, and also by the federal government, so it’s a complicated interplay of governmental jurisdictions at every level.
It engages partisan and intellectual fervor. You have people who are focusing on biological diversity, you have other people who are focusing on production of agriculture and the export of crops, you have people focusing on urban areas, you have people focusing on drinking water that in some parts of our state just doesn’t exist. People are literally having to use awful water for their showers and then [reference to bad water out of the tap] in various parts of the Central Valley. We’re not just talking a handful; we’re talking thousands of people that are dependent on water deliveries, so there’s a lot to do.
We have a lot of ideas. It goes back into our history, post World War II, and it will continue. We’re not going to get it all done overnight, and that is a challenge in democratic governance. We have these elections every four or two years, but the problems don’t get solved with a TV ad or some religious du jour controversy debates. This is long-standing. It takes perseverance, and it takes a lot of collaboration across the political spectrum.
Water is not one of these things that you can take it or not or it’s a political beam of some kind. The hydrologic cycle is part of nature, and we have to get aligned with it; we’re not going to align it with us except with certain limitations. In that sense, California has manipulated and interfered with and managed a hydrologic cycle in ways that probably have no comparison anywhere in the world. California is a highly engineered and managed water state and if you fly over it, you see all the different causeways and dams and reservoirs and various other transfer facilities and pumping stations; it’s quite complex.
It’s incredible, and the answer is not to go back to some presumed utopia before the Gold Rush; there’s no going back. We have to manage what we have, and the state that for 10,000 years never had more than a few hundred thousand people now has 38 million. The amount of water that falls is no more today and in fact may be less than it was over the last thousands of years, so we have a management challenge that’s going to take money, it’s going to take brains, it’s going to take innovation, and it’s going to take all the magic of the marketplace to being out the best of our creativity.
So looking specifically where we are, we do have groundwater management and that was quite heroic to get that. We got it first of all because we’ve been working on it, somebody, for over thirty years. Secondly the drought has people’s attention, and as farmers particularly put their straw in the ground, and suck out more and more water, the Central Valley subsides, and people start to get worried – where will we be in a few years? So based on that there has been, well, it’s the greatest support that groundwater has ever enjoyed and that’s why we got a bill on my desk that I signed.[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]We have a management challenge that’s going to take money, it’s going to take brains, it’s going to take innovation, and it’s going to take all the magic of the marketplace to being out the best of our creativity.[/pullquote]
That’s key, because you can’t ask people to store or bank water, and you need to bank water if you transfer water. Water pricing is fine, but you have to the water, you have to have the [.?.] and you have to be able to move it. People will be confident that water underground is being stored if there are rules, and they are clear and they are fair and they are effective, so that’s how important groundwater management is.
Second big thing was the Stewardship Council working on the Delta. And that is very controversial on how we’re going to fix that, but you can be sure we are going to be working on that best we can.
Now we have a water action plan in California. We have a number of steps; I’ll just go over some of them. The number one priority for the California Water Action Plan is conservation. We’re pretty good in energy; California uses half the energy per capita than the rest of the country. But when it comes to water, the reverse is true. We’re using more water, so in both urban areas and in agriculture, we have to find ways to conserve. We can conserve in both sectors and that’s going to take different techniques, different technologies. We already have a goal of 20% reduction in urban water use by 2020. There’s a lot of technology being adopted by farms, but there’s a lot more we can go. There are millions of acre-feet to be derived from water conservation as well as water recycling. We can take water and use it again and again and again and that’s called water recycling. And that’s also part of the program.
Capturing stormwater. There is over a million acre-feet of stormwater that just goes out to the ocean; that can be captured, too. But it costs money, it takes technology, and it takes local authorities to take action and we’re going to do that. Local water plans, integrated water plans that the state encourages, monitors, and in part finances, that’s the second part.
The third part of the plan is fixing the Delta and that requires a more efficient conveyance because we’re not getting the full use of the water that comes. Today we’re in drought; we don’t have the water. But there are times of high quantities of rain; climate change is going to come in ever more sudden torrential forms, and we have to find a way to capture that, but when we capture it, we have to also be able to move it, and currently the Delta is not equipped to do that in the most efficient way.
We also have to restore ecosystems. California is part of the flyway for birds who fly from the north down to South America. 80% of the environment and the free flowing rivers of California are gone, but there are ways to restore and we’ll try and do that. That’s one of the big conflicts between salmon, smelt, and other species and water to be used, and that is contentious; the federal government now has authority under the Endangered Species Act. As I look at where I was when we concluded the Delta solution in 1978 to where it is now – it’s much more complicated.
And we know more. I had never heard of Delta smelt in 1978. They probably existed; I know they existed, but they didn’t exist in my mind, and we didn’t have any biological opinions. So Congress will attempt to change those and there will be those of us fighting about it but at the end of the day, you need a balanced plan that protects the riskiest species, that restores habitat, because in restoration habitat, water can be absorbed in the ground instead of just running off and that’s another reason why restoring ecosystems actually captures more water and makes it available.
We have to prepare for dry periods. We’re in a dry period. When water comes, people will want to plant, grow, and use again. But we need a longer term understanding and plan to be able to use water and at the same time, save water for the eventuality of drought. And so we live in a world of captivation and science, but nature follows its own trend […] but one thing we do know is it’s uncertain. Stuff happens, and you have to be prepared for it, and it’s not so easy to do that. We’ve increased water transfers and we could do more; and we’ll hear more today about water pricing, and that’s important, too.
The water bond, Proposition 1, has both storage both above ground and underground, and now with the management of underground water, we’re going to be able to make much better use of storage. And as more of the ground is restored in habitat, than more water will be captured, and be in the aquifers and be available for later use.
We also to have make sure we get safe water for these communities that don’t have it, and then the eighth part of the ten point water plan is flood control. This is serious. There was a flood in the 1850s that pushed water from above Yuba City to south of Modesto, and everything was inundated in between, including Sacramento. There’s a lot more infrastructure there today. There’s a lot at risk. We’re talking literally a half a trillion of assets and 7 million people are affected, so we’ve got to make sure we are investing in appropriate flood control.[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and I can tell you the more you look into it, the more there is, but I’m confident that just as California has led the way in renewable energy and initiatives for addressing climate change, we can do the same thing with water.[/pullquote]
We have to worry about managing between the state and federal government. Lots of different conflicting regulations, conflicting powers and jurisdictions, and that has to be worked through.
And finally, we need financing. Really. You have to spend money on things. Proposition 1, $7.5 billion that will be allocated in various ways to fit the different programs that I’ve mentioned, but that’s not the end of it. There’s a lot of infrastructure that has to be built and so local water districts have to have the capacity to raise the funds. It’s going to take investment. You’re not going to have 38 million people, much less 50 million people, in 20 years using water unless we build and invest billions, probably tens of billions of dollars, certainly, over the next ten to twenty years.
It’s a big task, and it’s hard to talk about it because it’s covering so much, so I really appreciate that so many people are here to sit, listen, and think about it. I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and I can tell you the more you look into it, the more there is, but I’m confident that just as California has led the way in renewable energy and initiatives for addressing climate change, we can do the same thing with water.
We’re in the arid west; we’re facing more drought, we’re facing more extreme weather events, and we’re facing sea level rise, but we can respond to it. We can respond, but only by bringing both parties together, both regions north and south, different aspects of the state’s economy – agriculture, environment, urban businesses and users – all this has to come together so it’s a real challenge that will test our governing system. So far, our governing system is holding, but the next few years, we’re going to have to meet even more difficult tests, so with that, I’ll just say vote yes on Proposition 1, fasten your seat belts, we have a very exciting ride over the next four years.
NOTE: Look for more coverage from the conference in the upcoming weeks.
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