Fran Spivy-Weber on sustainability initiatives and the California Water Action Plan

Fran Spivy-Weber talks about the statewide sustainability initiatives included in the California Water Action Plan, and ends with the suggestion that agencies be creative and give regulators a chance

Frances Spivy-Weber, Vice-Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, was first appointed to the State Water Resources Control Board in 2007, reappointed and elected Vice-Chair of the Board in 2009, and reappointed by Governor Brown in 2013 to a four-year term. Prior to serving on the Board, she was the executive director of the Mono Lake Committee from 1997 to 2006.

Fran Spivy-Weber 1At the 2014 Clarke Prize Conference titled, “Research and Innovations in Urban Sustainability,” Ms. Spivy-Weber gave a speech on the statewide sustainability initiatives that are embodied in the California Water Action Plan.

Here’s what she had to say.

Perhaps the most innovative, least heard about, and the least participated in in terms of stakeholders but most influential document that has come out of the Brown administration in the last four years is the California Water Action Plan,” began Fran Spivy-Weber. “It is 19 pages which is rare for a public document written by multiple government agencies as well as the governor’s office. It was put together about this time last year as an attempt by the Brown administration to pull together the various aspects of water and to try to at least identify the key themes, and that’s the key focus of the document.”

CWAP Cover
Click here to read the California Water Action Plan

It’s not so much what it says in the text is so special, but it’s that they have identified the key themes for water, and there are ten of them,” she said. She then briefly went through the list:

  1. Make conservation a California way of life. Ms. Spivy Weber noted that although the document is focused on water, it integrates energy as well. “In my years working in water, I have never ever heard an administration embrace conservation in that way. It is unheard of,” she said. “Many of your agencies have said to me, ‘don’t imagine that you can conserve your way out of a drought or water use or planning for the future.’ True. Absolutely true, but making conservation a California way of life is not saying that this is the only thing that can be done, but it’s saying is that it’s what we’ll be needing to do and what we are going to do to deal with water in the future.”
  2. Increase regional self-reliance and integrated water management across all levels of government. Many of you are engaged in integrated water management; you’re also possibly engaged with some groups who are working on climate change and other kinds of integrative activities, and many of you may have experienced trying to work with some of your land use agencies who are looking to you to supply water for development that they have to build because the federal government has told them they do, so figuring out how we increase regional self reliance,” she said.
  3. Achieve the coequal goals for the Delta.For those of us who are experienced with importing both from the Delta as well as the Colorado River and from the eastern Sierra, creating a more efficient way of using that water and sharing that water with wildlife is a permanent challenge and is one that we have not done a very good job and we are suffering for it right now,” she said.
  4. Protect and restore important ecosystems. “There’s a lot of text in these 19 pages about the different ecosystems that are out there that need to be restored and they didn’t even scratch the surface,” she said. “Certainly we know about salmon and we know about fish in the Delta, but there are problems with ecosystems in all parts of our state.”
  5. Manage and prepare for dry periods.This was written in a context of climate change, and it was acknowledged that there would be dry periods, and sometimes extended dry periods,” she said. “We’ve got one right now, and we have the experience of Australia that had one for 13 years, so we know that you have to be prepared for that. “
  6. Expand water storage capacity and improve groundwater management.At the time this was written, no one in their right mind would have said that the next year, there would be groundwater legislation adopted by the legislature and signed by the Governor that had some real teeth and some real focus, but it happened,” she said.
  7. Provide safe water for all communities.One of the actions that was in this section was the merger of the drinking water program with the clean water program into one agency, and to try to start to get some efficiencies and improvements in the way these activities were carried out.”
  8. Increase flood protection, stormwater capture and use.
  9. Increase operational and regulatory efficiency.Basically a term encompassing mostly technology and making things more efficient through technology,” she said.
  10. Identify sustainable and integrated financing options.Because at the end of the day, where we may be choosing the least cost approach, it’s still has a cost, so getting the financing right has been very important,” she said.

Ms. Spivy-Weber noted that the ten items were in chapters and not integrated. “I can say from the inside of state government that they are operating as a touchstone,” she said. “As we pursue activities, we are looking at this document and we are seeing how many of these elements are we actually incorporating into the decisions that we’re making, into the funding decisions that we’re making, into the policy decisions that we’re making, and into the regulatory permitting decisions that we’re making. Now I can’t say that we have leapt into the future and started doing an unbelievable job, but I think we are getting better at it, and so that was one of the outcomes of this document.”

Fran Spivy-Weber 3The governor committed at the time that he would fund activities in these areas, she said. “I think you’ve seen that with his support for the bond which passed in November, certainly we saw it with emergency drought legislation for funding in February and we’ve seen it for many of his budget decisions in July,” she said. “It’s 19 pages, so for those of you live in California, you should read it. And you should think about it in terms of how it is something that you can use as you move forward, because if you’re looking for the government as a partner, it will be in these categories for at least the next four years that the state government is going to be most interested in pursuing activities, but also in innovation – innovation with universities, innovation with stakeholder groups, and innovation in many different areas.”

She then turned back to focus on three of the ten items.

Make conservation as a California way of life.

It sounds so easy,” she said. “For those of you who run water agencies, particularly if when you’re supplying water for drinking water purposes, you may be in need of looking at your pricing structure,” she said. “Because if you’re going to actually make conservation a California way of life and if you are dependent on selling wet water in order to pay the people who work for you, if people are really good, and we’ve seen that they can be fairly good at conserving without much more than exhortation, you may need to start looking at your pricing structures.”

Ms. Spivy-Weber asked how many of those who run wastewater, potable water, or stormwater agencies if they had done an audit on the various elements of their system to see which ones are truly efficient. She pointed out that the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, a highly efficient Southern California water agency, did an audit of their various systems, and when they broke out their various activities and looked at each one, they found that in fact there were a lot of energy inefficiencies that could be changed.

Part of the reason for that is that energy costs get passed on to the ratepayer without much explanation, she said. “It’s an energy cost; it’s not a water cost, so they don’t have to explain it quite so significantly, so these are two examples in terms of your own pricing structures and your efficiency, knowing where you can make changes that are going to be very, very important to making conservation a California way of life.”

Changing lifestyles is another area open for innovation is in changing lifestyles, she said, noting that smaller yards and more drought plantings are some of the changes already occurring. “That is going to have to become more deliberate and not so opportunistic as it is now,” she said. “In fact in the future, it may be that you will want there to be more guidance as to what could or should be done in terms of the use of water. Maybe you want the standards that are out there to better reflect this idea that conservation is a California way of life.”

Increasing regional self-reliance

Increasing regional self reliance is something that many of the water agencies now are quite familiar with, Ms. Spivy-Weber said. “You’ve all kind of met and started to know your stormwater friends, you certainly are working more closely with your wastewater friends, but we are still very siloed in our systems, in our billing systems, and in our technology sharing systems, not to mention in working with energy companies, and so getting more integrated into working with colleagues who are similar but not the same as you are is going to be important.”

Ms. Spivy-Weber then shared a story. “I asked the current head of EBMUD who at the time was not the head of EBMUD, I asked him about some very innovative water management that he was able to do on the Mokelumne River,” she said. “I asked him if there’s just one thing you can possibly do that has made this successful, what is it that you would do again, and he said, ‘have meetings.’ Now that was the last thing I expected to hear from anyone in the water world who spends their entire lives in meetings, but what he meant was meetings with the farmers, with the recreationalists, and with folks that were on the river. I think that’s true here in our urban areas and in our regional areas as we start to put together regional planning, we are going to need to have more meetings, but more intentional meetings that actually lead to outcomes that are important.”


You will be hearing more about technology in the future, but I do think that the gap between the academic community and the water agencies is a real one,” she said. “As an industry, you need to begin to look at ways that you can begin to use the technology in a pilot way, but with an eye toward actually putting it into practice.”

In conclusion …

I’ll close with one story along those lines,” she said. “There was a very innovative recycled water facility in north San Diego County, and they received a million dollars from the energy commission to do an efficiency study on their production of recycled water, and they were successful. They went from using 5 engines to produce recycled water to using just one, and so it was quite a big reduction. The head of the agency was very proud, and he went back into his office, and several months later he came out and lo and behold, everything had been reassembled the way it used to be, not the new way. And he said, well why is that? And his staff said, well, we’re worried that if the regulators come and look at our system under this new way, that it won’t pass the test and then we will get dinged on our performance reviews and we won’t make our increase in salary. So he said, no, we’ve got to go put in the new system, and what he ended up doing was changing the rewards system for staff so that they got rewarded for keeping the energy efficiency in the system. I think he just figured, he’d deal with the regulators somewhere else. So I think that in response to the earlier question, what do we do about regulators and decentralized systems, don’t worry about it. We will figure it out together.”

Thank you.

Questions and Answers

Bill Cooper, (from UC Irvine & NSF) said, “I think one of the things that was missing in the ten point story is communication. We do not communicate with the public how important water is and how cheap it is. They are perfectly willing to go out and spend $200 a month on their cell phone, and you get a rate increase of a dollar a month and they go crazy. We’ve got to do something about … communication in general, and that should be one of the things at the top. Not that I am against conservation, because I think we do a great job at conservation here in Southern California.”

The other thing here is this whole issue of regulation,” Mr. Cooper continued. “I’ve been starting to preach in Washington to no avail the fact that we have adopted a regulatory environment which is command and control. Command and control regulations really are totally opposite to innovation, and if we don’t start to think about redoing our regulatory environment so it’s more of a participatory environment, we’re never going to see innovation to the extent that it needs to be involved because the only way we’re going to manage in the future is to really get serious about regulating in the right way … I think we’d see a lot more innovation because the community is so risk averse for exactly the reason you pointed out with the guy in San Diego, they don’t want to change because the regulators are going to ding them, so we need to figure out how to get around that.”

Ms. Spivy Weber responded, “Communication I think is important, and in the technology area, there’s a lot of work going on in communication, giving individuals information about what they are doing and often they will make changes. On the notion of the fact that if the regulators just got out of the way, innovation would happen and everybody would do better, I actually don’t agree with that, particularly in the area of conservation. For years, basically, nobody has cared about conservation. … Individual agencies have and a few have done a good job, but most have not. Starting in February, the water board started asking people to report how much water they were actually using. You can’t imagine how much angst and concern this created in the entire state, but nobody knew. Nobody knew, and only a regulator was able to make that happen, and so I would say, get creative about how you work with your regulators. Don’t tell them to get out of the way because they aren’t going anywhere, but figure out how, because they want to be as creative as you, and so figure out how you can meet with them, and do some pilots, do some testing, to do something creative, rather than trying to eliminate them because I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

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