Secretary John Laird delivers update on California Water Action Plan at ACWA convention

ACWA Laird 2Secretary Laird talks about how the administration is moving forward on Prop 1 funding, groundwater management, drought, the Delta, and more …

At the ACWA Fall Conference held last week in Indian Wells, the keynote speaker for the Wednesday luncheon was Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird.  During his speech, Secretary Laird discussed how the administration is moving forward to implement the the California Water Action Plan.

ACWA President Kathy Teigs introduced him, saying, “Secretary Laird has had his hands full since his appointment in 2011 by Governor Jerry Brown to manage, restore, and protect the state’s natural resources. With California enduring the fourth year of drought and with record high temperatures and fierce wildfires, the Resources Agency has been in overdrive dealing with these challenges. They are also planning for long-term solutions, such as the California Water Fix, which will address water supply reliability. Secretary Laird certainly has the experience to meet these challenges. He has been in public service for over 40 years, including 23 years as an elected official. He is here today to provide an overview and an update on the California Water Action Plan. This plan is the Brown Administration’s comprehensive California Water Action Plan that provides a roadmap for a more resilient water future. Please extend a warm welcome to Secretary John Laird.”

ACWA Laird 3Secretary John Laird then took the podium. He began by noting that some of the outreach materials for ACWA talk about the organization’s ‘long reach’. “Well, I have to say earlier this year, I was a speaker and helped keynote a drought summit that ACWA had in Sacramento, and in the course of it, I made the comment on the drought that ‘everyone is a soldier in this fight.’ So imagine my surprise last Wednesday night when my phone started to explode about 7:15 at night, and it turns out that a Jeopardy answer for a $1000 on quotes of 2015, was that the California Resources Secretary said ‘everyone is a soldier in this fight,’ and the correct answer would have been “what is the drought.” We apparently all failed because nobody got it right. But for those of you that just want confirmation that ACWA has a long reach …

He said there was a lot to talk about as there’s a lot going on. “It’s hard to believe that it’s almost 5 years ago, I was the luncheon keynote at the ACWA Sacramento event that was just a few weeks into the administration, and it was my job to really indicate that we were going to make water issues a priority in this administration,” he said. “I have to confess that it was very disorienting … with every single person looking at me with an intensity that is hard to measure, I tried a couple of attempts at humor but nobody went with it. I think it was a statement how everybody was trying to take the measure of where the administration was going to be on water issues and where we would really want to put them in the scheme of what we were going to do.”

In the summer of 2013, the Secretaries of EPA and agriculture and myself started work on the California Water Action Plan which was finalized in January of the next year,” he said. “We didn’t know when we started that we were three or four months from the record setting 50+ consecutive days of no rain in the rainy season.”

CWAP-CoverThe California Water Action Plan is just 20 pages and it’s readable, said Secretary Laird. “It takes existing statutory requirements, existing programs, and existing goals and it puts them in one place with a clear statement, ‘this is where we want to go in California to get to a sustainable water supply,” he said. “It is basically an ‘all of the above' strategy. For those of you who might not be familiar with it, it says the we have to make conservation a way of life, we need more storage, we need more recycling, we need wetlands restoration, we need to do different things like stormwater capture and desalination, we have to operate the system much better and more efficiently. It basically sets forth an agenda.”

There were a few years when it was very hard to answer questions on the water bond, which t getting postponed, he said. “The water bond was adopted by the legislature in 2009 for $11.1 billion,” he said. “It privately polled incredibly poorly as it was a big expenditure. The state had a $26 billion structural deficit in the budget; the people were suffering an economic decline and were not likely to vote for major expenditures on water. The Water Action Plan was the basis for the water bond that was put together last year and passed by the voters and basically, and I want to acknowledge the strong partnership of ACWA all the way through that process. It led to a bond that is tighter than many of the others, that can pass, that has merit based processes for application, and that we would get some money out the door for exactly what the priorities were … The result of the process led to only two no votes in the legislature and two-thirds vote publicly among Californians to approve and move ahead. In many ways it was a ratification of the water action plan that we put together.”

The appropriations process for Prop 1 funds is moving forward, with the appropriations to be made over roughly five years; most of the regulation processes are done of near completion and are at the grant application stage, he noted. “There was a little bit of a hoo-hah over the $2.7 billion pot for storage because some people in the legislature said they wanted those dates moved up – this is a crisis,” he said. “The exact same language from 2009 was taken for 2014, with just the dates moved ahead 5 years, and I think the reason the original authors wrote that in 2009 was because there was a lack of trust that somehow that money would slip away or it would not be used for the purposes for which it was intended.”

The real reason they set a time for the regulations to be done was because the state piece is a part of it,” he said. “Everyone is going to have to have an application ready that says who else is committing money, what is the part for public benefit that is the state, how do you get to justifying the state’s public benefit, and who is on the line for the rest of it, so we know when applications come in, people are ready to move. When it was said this was taking too long and the the deadline should be moved up, my response was always, what major water project is ready to go that is being held back by the fact that it’s not ready? The answer was generally none, so the important thing is that everybody do their due diligence to get those projects ready … try to get their plan together, whatever it is that needs to be done in the prep; that is important to do so we can get that money out the door.”

Central Valley irrigation Nov 2013 #1Another major event has been the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which was enacted last year by the legislature and signed by the Governor. “It was the first time in California history there is any kind of regulatory scheme for trying to get to sustainable groundwater basins,” Secretary Laird said. “I think the polite way to say it is that the time the bill was signed, there was still a number of people that were grumpy. They just were not totally happy with the fact that it had been enacted or that it just was enacted in a way that tended to not please them. I just want to give a shout out to the people in the room and to ACWA because I think a year later, it is very different. I think what’s happened is that people have just buckled down and are working on the implementation. There wasn’t even a major effort in the legislature to repeal or change this year, and I think people are trying to get on with it in a very good way. I just think that’s a tribute to a lot of people in the room.”

Last year, for the first time in history, the federal and state projects had a 0% water allocation, and that had never happened before in the history of water deliveries in California,” he said. “Yesterday, the Department of Water Resources announced the first preliminary allocation for the year. The first one is based on storage and other factors and then as a hoped for rainy season becomes apparent, they adjust as the storms come through and we know what we have. Yesterday, the Department of Water Resources announced a 10% allocation, which is, given the fact that a year ago, it was 0% for the whole year is not bad place to start. So now if we have the hoped for storms, it will only move up as that passes.”

Gov Brown no snowTwenty-five million Californians depend on the snowpack for their water and this year, the last measurement in April was 5% of normal, just one-quarter of the previous historic low measurement on that day. “There was a time during the summer that we were at 0% of normal with the snowpack,” he said. “We have very high tree mortality, particularly in the southern Sierra, which the Governor has issued an emergency about and is working on trying to deal with how we deal with that.”

Secretary Laird said he also has the responsibility for fire management and Cal Fire. He noted that this year, firefighters trained especially on how to fight fires with less water or no water so they would know what to do in those circumstances. He said he visited the Rocky Fire and the Butte Fire, and there was an interesting takeaway form both. “The fires created their own weather by being so dry,” he said. “Normally they are wind driven, but the fuels were so dry that it just raced. One resident – I think he was from Middletown, gave the description of the fire coming down the hill like lava flowing down a volcano; it was just moving at that high rate of speed and that’s when they realized they had to move.”

King Fire USFSIn the Butte Fire, some people didn’t realize they had to move and the reason is that historically and traditionally, when they had fires in that area before, people generally know that ridge or that place would be where the break is done and the line of containment is done where they try to stop the fire, and they know that when it reaches there, that’s when we think about evacuating,” he said. “The fire moved so fast that nothing in that history was repeated, and in the first day in the fire, one of the things I learned is that the first fire drops were not set in lines of containment but were about protecting a few transportation corridors to get people out safely that had not made the decision to get out when the evacuation order happened. It is changing completely the expectations and what we do in fighting fires.”

Secretary Laird said that the governor is on his way to Paris and the climate change conference.  “California is really moving with goals to have most of the other states to try to address this, but we are living the impacts every day, even if we can’t specifically tie one water year with one fire or whatever to it,” he said. “If you look at the Stanford study earlier this year, the last fifteen years, the data points for the heat and the weather in California are remarkably different than anything in history. They actually said our entire infrastructure was designed for a climate that we are moving out of and we are not adapted to the climate we are moving in to. That presents big challenges to all of us about what to do, whether you’re in water or fire or making decisions about urban development, because we could be moving into different new normals that affect the very things that we do, based on historic patterns that we rely on. So that presents some issues.”

DWR Delta patterns #10The administration is moving ahead on key issues in the Delta, he said. “The Secretary of Interior asked for a science study that was released a couple of months ago because we think everybody is spending so much time fighting about what they think about certain proposals that they’ve lost track of the fact that the status quo in the Delta is worse than any alternative that’s on the table,” he said. “Somehow whether it’s what you support or what you oppose, reversing the flows in the Delta and dealing with just some of the issues there, they have to be addressed in one way or another. We’re moving ahead with a point person that reports through the channels to me that’s a former local official to take charge of habitat restoration. Some people say they have stepped away from the goal on habitat restoration in the Delta but not at all; it’s just that we think we can achieve the first 30,000 in short order, so let’s get those programs and those projects on the ground. That’s 30,000 restored acres is more that will have been done than any other time in history, and it’s planned, so we are moving ahead with that and intend to do it.”

Salton Sea at Salton City Jan 2011 #8 25pctThe administration has appointed a deputy secretary for Salton Sea issues, and the governor set goals for habitat projects, with groundbreaking on the first one. “As the sea recedes and in conjunction with the QSA, we have to have the priority of projects around the lake that deal with the issues of dust, habitat, water quality. There are things that we absolutely can do, and includes getting the stakeholders together in the region. There were some places where there were varying plans and people were going to focus on the conflict of the plans, and I personally asked them to hold so that we could concentrate on what everybody agrees on in the Salton Sea and move ahead with it. We’re taking steps there.”

Secretary Laird acknowledged that El Nino is on everybody’s mind right now, noting that the local jurisdictions that are the first responders on El Nino; if they can’t respond then the state steps in; and if the state is overwhelmed, the federal government steps in. “At the state level, we have already had a major workshop with all the cabinet members and we’re doing different things to try to have the state ready but a lot of it rests with the local governments.”

WRD Recycled Water June 2012 #15Another thing we have to do is educate the legislature, he said. “This last year we had a bill that would have CEQA streamlining for water recycling,” he said. “It wasn’t the usual fault lines in how that bill didn’t move but it was because people didn’t totally understand it. So I think a lot of you have to go to the legislators and help us so that we get what that means in terms of the projects on the ground, going out the door, and getting things done.

But what it really gets down to is leadership, Secretary Laird said. “If you look at the drought, the year before last, we made cuts voluntary, and there was not a great response across the state, and privately a lot of people in this room said make us do it,” he said. “This year it was mandatory. There was a lot of grumbling in that first period of time and yet the Governor set the target and the public responded in an amazing way. If you look at that leadership and how the public responded, it is really about some precedent on a statewide basis. I know everyone that’s on the ground has to make the systems work … Sometimes it takes the leadership to point everybody and to force those questions so we can get to the end result.”

If you look at where we have to go in California on some of the remaining water issues, there are conflicts,” he said. “In 2010, we had 700,000-800,000 acre-feet of water go by the Delta into the bay, after we protected what we needed for the environment and we had made good on the deliveries for water supply, and yet because there was no conveyance, we couldn’t touch it for storage south of Delta. We have to figure that out.”

If you want to do recycling and you’re a coastal government looking at desal, and sewer outfall is where you put the brine, so you have to decide what works for you between brine disposal and recycling,” he said. “If you look at conservation, which everybody needs to do and always do, you have to have a reliable underlying water source to make conservation work, so how do you make sure you have those together? If you’re trying to do stormwater capture in the LA basin where it’s a priority for the mayor of Los Angeles, it’s something we should be doing. The place you store it is in underground aquifers and until we remediate some of those underground aquifers, the storage isn’t available, so you can’t consider the costs only being to capture it and treatment of the stormwater. It’s like storage; you have to do one together with the other, and just the leadership on bond projects. Be ready to try and get going.”

ACWA Laird 1Then there’s the mother of them all – the financing,” he said. “Generally the public believes if you pay for more, you should get more, and yet we’re in a period of time with aging infrastructure where you probably have to pay more to get the same and the alternative is to pay more to get less. So how you educate the public as to how that all fits together so that we can try to bring that all in making sure that we have a sustainable system in the state and water for the future.”

We’ve done an incredible amount and we’ve done it together, and I think it’s like a relationship – the key is for all of us not to go to bed angry,” Secretary Laird said. “But we work it out, we make great progress because we’ve done it, so we consider ourselves a partner. We really look forward to the next three years in trying to push many of these things across the finish line, so we should be happy about what we’ve done, but we know we have a lot more to do.”

So thanks for working together and thanks for having me here today.”

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