California Water 2.0: Administration secretaries highlight accomplishments, look ahead

ACWA SecretariesSecretaries Laird, Rodriquez, and Ross share their vision for continued implementation of the California Water Action Plan

Earlier this month, the Brown Administration teamed up with the Association of California Water Agencies to present California Water 2.0: What’s next for the California Water Action Plan?  The event, timed with the release of the newly updated plan, highlighted the progress made and what needs to happen for its continued implementation.

(This is the first of two-part coverage of this event.)

The event kicked off with the three secretaries whose agencies set the policies and the implementation:  Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, Cal EPA Secretary Matt Rodriquez, and California Department of Food and Ag Secretary Karen Ross.

Here’s what they had to say.

JOHN LAIRD, Secretary of Natural Resources

Secretary Laird began by saying that it’s been an amazing two years. “Two years that really saw things in the climate that we never envisioned,” he said. “For the first time in recorded history, the average low temperature in the Sierra was above freezing, and that ties to the snowpack and that ties to the water of 25 million Californians.”

ACWA LairdDuring the drought, we as Californians answered the call,” he said. “We really stepped up and took a whole series of actions, but I think the significant thing is that when you look at things that we can do proactively to the future, we are moving $7.6 billion out the door, whether it’s the continuously appropriated money for storage, whether it’s the current proposed budget that includes $900 million, or whether it was what has been appropriated just in this administration to restore lands for different water projects – that really equals $4 billion. That is unprecedented, and it leverages much, much more in state and federal dollars.”

What has guided all of this is the Water Action Plan, Secretary Laird said. “When we were starting to put together the Water Action Plan, it was in the summer of 2013 and we did not know that the third year of the drought was coming,” he said. “If you historically look at water development in California, we have always done the one big thing, whether it’s been the Central Valley Project, certain levee projects, or the State Water Project, it has always been a singular thing that really moves us ahead. What is unprecedented is pulling together the entire plan for all of the above, for everything that we have to do to move to a sustainable water system for 39 million people and for the quite likely 50 million people who will be here in a generation.”

It is all those things and it involves things that people don’t usually associate,” he pointed out. “There is a federal-state partnership in the Sierra that really is dealing with the headwaters and uplands in a way that it helps water quality, helps storage, and it helps water as it moves, but people don’t usually look at that. All across the state, we’re doing different things like that.”

Secretary Laird noted the governor’s reference to climate change in his speech. “There was a study from Stanford last year that basically said the last ten or fifteen years have been unique in California, and pointedly unique in a different way,” he said. “Really our water infrastructure was designed for climate that really doesn’t exist in the same way, and we’re moving into a climate that exists in a different way, and how do we make sure that we have a water infrastructure that matches it?

Looking forward, you always do the things that might appear to be easier first, and then you move on,” he said. “But we have this unique time, not just in being focused on this, but in a way that people are working together. It was virtually unanimous – the bond in the legislature, and then two thirds of the public voted for it. And the conservation measures we’re done across the state with savings of 25%, it’s because people across the state did it. That doesn’t exist usually. That’s working together in a major way and we have to capitalize on that in moving forward.”

Secretary Laird pointed out that there are still hard decisions to be made. “Certain things in an all of the above strategy rely on working out the conflicts between the different pieces of it,” he said. “For example, you cannot have water conservation work unless you have a reliable underlying water supply. You can’t talk about conservation in the abstract, and if you talk about water reliability, you are creating the framework for conservation. If you’re along the coast and you want to do desalting and you want to dispose of the brine and sewer outfalls because you’re mixing it with the wastewater to have it go into the ocean in the same salinity in which it was pulled out, you have to almost choose between recycling and desal. If you want to reclaim stormwater, you have to have a clean aquifer in which to store it, and there are some aquifers that are right near some of the prime candidates for recapturing stormwater that aren’t necessarily of the water quality level now to make those things work, and you have to consider them both together.”

Secretary Laird then turned to conveyance. “Everybody talks about grabbing water that flows by, once you meet your environmental demands and your water supply demands,” he said. “If you have a wet year, you want to grab it for other uses, you can’t do that unless you have a system in place that allows you to do that, and no conveyance in the Delta would not allow us to grab the extra water in the wet years to go, so you have to make that choice. People can’t talk about storage without talking about having an acceptable, safe method at which to get it.”

Then there is the ‘mother’ of all issues: financing, said Secretary Laird. “The public generally believes that when you invest more, you’re getting a lot more, and right now you have to invest more to guarantee that over time, you’re going to get the same,” he said. “We have to work with the public so that they understand that in a clear way, because they could be in a place that certain parts of our infrastructure break or certain parts of our infrastructure really don’t serve it, and they might have to pay more to get less, and so we really have to bring the public along in what that is.”

We want to take advantage of the strong, bipartisan support that has existed, the conservation, and the water bond, and we want to meet these challenges and face them head on,” he said. “Going forward, we know that we have three years in which we have to really accomplish some of this, and the important thing about today is that you’re all here, you are our partners, we need to figure out how to march ahead and do this.”

MATT RODRIQUEZ, Secretary for Environmental Protection

Secretary Matt Rodriquez began by recalling how when he got to Cal EPA in 2011, it was very impressive to see the work being done to reduce energy use and move away from fossil fuels. “There was a very comprehensive review of energy and energy programs in California,” he said. “I did think that shouldn’t we be doing the same thing with water – shouldn’t we have that comprehensive review of what our water resources are in California, how we’re using our water and how we move it around – everything that goes along with providing water and using water in California.”

ACWA RodriquezHe then recalled how there were discussions of water and water law in California in 1981-82 when he was working in Sacramento. “It dawned on me that I was here 30 years later and we were still having the same conversations about water law and what we were going to do about water,” he continued. “That’s why it was so exciting in 2013 when this proposal was brought up, to say look we really need to do something about water. We knew we were in a drought at that period in time, and we knew that we were dealing with climate change, and we put those two things together and said we need to get in front of this and we need to start working on a plan.”

It was an exciting opportunity to really work comprehensively on water and water policy that was represented in the Water Action Plan that came out in 2014, Secretary Rodriquez said. “It was something that required collaborative effort on all agencies and departments in the state. That was our goal; to make sure that we looked at water and water policies quite comprehensively. We knew that we needed an overall vision of how we were going to manage California’s water supply, identify what that water supply was, and be prepared because there was a great deal of uncertainty in the future, and the only way that we could deal with that uncertainty was to make sure that we were prepared.”

Secretary Rodriquez pointed out that the Water Action Plan lays out ten primary actions for shaping water policy, and while there are revisions to some of those actions, they aren’t adding any new actions. “I think that is a testament to the fact that I think we got it right that first time through,” he said. “What you’re seeing is implementation of those actions. I know that it’s easy to generate plans and there are many plans out there. It’s the implementation that is really the key, and I think that what you’ve seen over the last several years is not only the adoption of the Water Action Plan, but also implementation of that plan.”

He pointed out the accomplishment made in water conservation. “I’ll say that making conservation a way of life here is one of the primary actions and policies that we have to have here in California,” he said. “We need to continue to have that as a goal as we go ahead here, because even though the evidence suggests this is going to be a wet winter, and in fact we may have too much water in some areas, we need to continue to think about conservation. … We need to think about water and our water use at all times because regardless of how much rain we get this month and this year and regardless of the good news about the snowpack and the fact that we can see water in the rivers and the streams, we’re going to have to continue to conserve.

The good news is that we’ve achieved the Governor’s mandate to reduce water by 25% with remarkably little acrimony, Secretary Rodriquez said. “We had to deal with some of these water myths that are out there,” he said. “I had to go to explain to the people in Northern California that no, Southern California is not stealing all your water. If I talked to agriculture, I had to say no, it’s not fish versus agriculture, and in fact we need to flush water through the Delta in order to make sure the Delta is not ruined by too much salinity. This is very complex but I think it’s a tribute to the state, to the Governor, to everybody in this room that we were able achieve what we could through conservation, and do it as efficiently as we did.”

We’re going to continue to work on conservation, Mr. Rodriquez said. “The water board is making steps and revising its water conservation regulations that it approved in May and that’s a sign that we’re going to continue to work with our conservation measures to make sure that they are right. There are going to be proposed new regulations that will create some credits and recognize the fact that there are hotter and drier areas in California or regions that have different population growth issues, or areas that have dealt better with the drought that need slightly different rules. That’s a sign of the fact that we really want these regulations to be practical, we want them to work.”

We recognize one of the wonderful things about California is that it’s so diverse,” he said.  “You can’t have one set of regulations that works all across the board; you really do need to account for the differences that occur in California. We’re aware of that and we’re going to continue to work on that.”

Secretary Rodriquez said another challenge is addressing our water rights system. “I know that people are very sensitive about their rights, and so we know that we need to be careful as we move ahead on this,” he said. “On the other hand, we really need to identify what are our resources and how are they being used. The drought has required the State Board to really enforce water rights systems in a way that hasn’t been done in the past, but it’s something that we need to do. One of the lessons of the drought is that we simply need to know more about where the water is, how it’s being used, and how it’s being diverted so that we can better manage the state’s water system.”

That’s why the legislature adopted SB 88, the trailer bill to improve measuring and reporting, and that will give us some of the basic information that we need. Just as urban water agencies have to report their customers water use, what we’re looking at is some basic reporting requirements so that we know how much water is being taken out of the system,” he said.

The implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will help us to get a real handle on our groundwater resources, he said. “All those things in combination are setting us on a path to implement this Water Action Plan and it provides us with an opportunity for the next three years to keep California on the right path, to help us to identify where our water is, how it’s being used, so that we can make good decisions in the future and make sure that the water is available to everybody in the state so that our economy, which relies on water, can continue to grow and so that we can provide drinking water to all those communities in California that need drinking water so that we’re not taking in bottled water during the drought.”

I will wrap up with saying it’s an exciting time and I am pleased by the implementation measures for the Water Action Plan and I’m pleased to see that we’re continuing to work on it. We look forward to continuing to work with all of you,” Secretary Rodriquez concluded.

KAREN ROSS, Secretary of Agriculture

I’m going to say something very controversial,” began Secretary Karen Ross. “If it had not been for the drought, would we be paying this much attention to the California Water Action Plan? We should have been, but would we have been? I think one of the best things that’s happened in California is that we are all acutely aware of the role of water in our lives in every way, from our quality of life, from the beauty we enjoy here, and from the food we eat, and because of the drought and the water action plan and the discussion about water in so many ways.”

ACWA RossThe first step to recovery, reconciliation, and solving problems is awareness, and whatever we do, we cannot lose this opportunity of the people of this state understanding and valuing and appreciating water in their lives,” she continued. “That is a huge tribute to all of the local agencies, county government and our cities for helping to make it real, and helping us do what the Governor charged us to do. We are all in this together, and the only way we will get through this is by working together, collaborating, understanding each other’s points of views, and moving forward together.”

The water action plan was the collaborative effort of all the agencies across government, Secretary Ross said. “It’s pretty remarkable when you think about the size and scale of government, how we take out of those silos, flatten them to solve problems, and did just that, but what was more important about this plan is that it was vetted; we took hundreds of sets of comments before we finalized it 2years ago, so it is truly our Water Action Plan.”

Secretary Ross pointed out that the drought was timely because it helped accomplish two very important pieces: One is funding through the bond; the second is passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and both are fundamental to helping to position us on this road map to water resiliency and reliability.

Secretary Ross then turned to the agricultural sector. “I’m the one agency up here that has no statutory authority for water; we just use it to feed everybody really, really well,” she said. “But there are a couple of areas I want to focus on because of the vision going forward. One is improving water use efficiency, and through the drought emergency funding legislation, the Governor and the legislature provided 10 million dollars 2 years ago and $10 million last year to the Department of Food and Agriculture through cap and trade funds to help implement and accelerate the adoption rate of water use efficiency practices on farms. But we are doing this in a very smart, forward leaning kind of way. It’s not just about saving water, it’s about saving water, saving energy, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

That’s the beauty of having an integrated plan like this that fits like a glove with our climate action plan,” she continued. “$20 million has been granted to on-farm projects that will save hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by multiple millions of metric tons. That’s a smart investment. That’s something that will pay beyond just putting this plan together. We have another $40 million to expend over the next two years, and we’re looking at beyond cap and trade funding, how do we make sure that we have incentive programs to improve that kind of thing.”

As a result of putting everything together into one document, we’re much more in tune with the opportunities for manufactured watering and better aligning the origin of our water to the proper use,” she said. “There are so many opportunities and our friends and colleagues in Israel have shown us that there is so much more we can accomplish with recycled water, stormwater capture, and engaging all of our stakeholders.”

Secretary Ross then made a plea to landowners. “When you look at the land in the state that’s in private hands, the opportunities to be a part of on-farm, groundwater recharge with stormwater capture, and to be a part of the discussions of how do we solve the drinking water problems of our rural neighbors, the important part that we’ve seen over and over again is landowners and farmers being a part of addressing our environmental challenges,” she said. “When you look at the results in the Sacramento River valley for both birds and for fish, when you look at what happened this summer with Chuck’s leadership and the Russian River valley, there are multiple opportunities to think about engaging people instead of demonizing people for how we perceive they are using water. If there’s a vision out of the California Water Action Plan, it is what all of us can do by working together and by cooperating and understanding our connectivity.”

Secretary Ross said she participated in almost every drought task force meeting this year, and over and over again, she heard people say that we’ve never cooperated the way we have now. “Quite frankly, drought forced that to happen, and at the same time, people said, ‘do not let us go back to pre-drought attitudes and actions,’” she said. “What we do here with this Water Action Plan and with your leadership will ensure that we truly are on the pathway of resiliency and reliability, and that in this state, every Californian, regardless of their age or their role in California, will truly understand value and appreciate the role of water in their life and how it grows food.”

Secretary Ross closed by saying she looks forward to working with everyone as they move forward. “I’m just very grateful to have an opportunity to serve in an administration where our leader, the Governor, has said we’re all in this together, let’s roll up our sleeves, let’s solve problems, let’s chart a future that’s brighter than the great past that California has enjoyed,” she concluded.

Coming tomorrow …

Coverage concludes with State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus, Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin, Cal-EPA Undersecretary Gordon Burns, and Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham getting down to the specifics of what has been accomplished in the last year, and how they intend to move forward with implementation of the California Water Action Plan.

Watch the webcast …

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