California Water 2.0: Department officials chart their progress on the California Water Action Plan

ACWA Panel 1 sliderboxFelicia Marcus, Mark Cowin, Gordon Burns, and Chuck Bonham discuss their department’s roles and progress on implementation of the California Water Action Plan
CWAP-Cover
Click to read 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? which highlighted the progress made since the release of the first water action plan two years ago as well as the actions needed for continued implementation.

In a panel discussion, 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 get 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.

Here’s what they had to say.

Felicia Marcus, Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board

Felicia Marcus began by explaining that the California Water Fix is in a water rights proceeding, and in their roles as members of the State Water Resources Control Board, they sit as water rights judges, so when the portion of today’s program turns to the California Water Fix, she will have to leave the room, because she can’t be present when folks are talking about the merits of the project. “We can talk about the process that we’re in, but it’s a very formal process of evidentiary adjudicatory hearings and we take that responsibility very, very seriously, so I’m sorry, I know there have been people who have been dying to get me out of rooms for years … “ (laughter)

ACWA MarcusMs. Marcus then discussed the actions the State Water Board has been taking since the first California Water Action Plan was released. “I want to start by thanking so many of you for engaging with us on figuring out how to really implement the all of the above strategy that we need in order to deal realistically and successfully with the water challenges we have today, let alone the water challenges that we see coming at us as climate change and growth put additional strain on the water system in California,” she said.

There has been an incredible amount of leadership happening, particularly at the local level, and we’ve tried to leverage that leadership and learn to be a partner even as we’re implementing the regulatory tools that we have,” she said. “Part of the genius and the beauty of the Water Action Plan and putting it all out there together so everyone can see themselves versus the time we waste arguing past each other about what the one thing is. It’s not one thing, it’s everything, and we can do it.”

The State Water Board has been focused on conservation, in part working on the emergency conservation regulation. “We’ve also tried to implement conservation thinking into everything we’ve done, whether it’s a temporary urgency change order provisions or our drinking water orders in other cases, looking for opportunities to do that cheapest, fastest, most efficient and in concert with our partners.”

The State Water Board has a big role to play in water recycling, Ms. Marcus said. “This has been the year of recycling, and next year will be an even bigger one as we see a sea change out in the public and incredibly good work on the part of many folks to really jump into the paradigm shift that is happening. It’s also at a demographic level as younger people don’t have the same reactions as older people do.”

The State Water Board has done 1% financing for recycled water. The Board has put out $800 million already, and they have applications for $1.6 billion more. “The Board just passed a resolution authorizing the staff to go out on the bond market for another $1.5 billion of capacity because this is the moment when we have the willing audience and they want us to get as much done as we can.”

Other things the State Water Board has been working on include permit streamlining, groundwater recharge regulations, and indirect potable reuse regulations, as well as a feasibility study on direct potable reuse, she said.

On stormwater, we’ve done some regulatory measures and permits, and we encouraged multiple benefit thinking and use in the enhanced watershed management,” she said. “If local agencies are willing to step up and do the really hard work of working across geographic boundaries and the flood control, water supply, water quality silos, and even with the parks departments to try to do something better and make those scarce local dollars do multiple duty, we want to be a part of that movement. We just approved a stormwater strategy on how to continue to use our regulatory authorities in a way that’s aware of this larger context, but also how to be a partner with local agencies all across the state, and we have some of the national leaders in that in this state in the One Water movement and we’re happy to be a part of that.”

With recycling and stormwater projects, there are Prop 1 dollars which be used to match with the revolving fund dollars when available. “We’re pretty good at getting money out the door and … there’s a lot we had to do for stormwater that’s in process and I will just pledge to you that this next year we’ll continue to get those out so that the money goes out the door but it goes out wisely and fairly,” said Ms. Marcus.

Safe drinking water is a priority, particularly now that the programs are consolidated at the State Water Board; Ms. Marcus said the consolidation has gone remarkably well. “It certainly helps with recycling conversations,” she said. “It really has been good for one stop shopping, particularly for disadvantaged communities, but not exclusively. We now have the Office of Sustainable Solutions so we actually have a targeted group who is there to actually help small communities who need the help to access our funding and get it. It’s hard to have a higher priority.”

While the bond money is great, the real issue we have to figure out how to deal with are operations and maintenance costs for drinking water systems over the long time. “There are small communities who will never be able to afford to treat for chrom-6, arsenic, and all of the rest. I know people have different views but we can’t put our heads in the sand, and we really look forward to working with you on ways to be able to deal with what I think is the issue of our time.”

Ms. Marcus noted that there is also $800 million in the bond for contaminated groundwater cleanup, although she acknowledged the amount is small compared to the potential clean up costs. “But that money will provide a lot of leverage for communities who are trying to figure out how to exercise their groundwater basins either to use for storage for recycled water and stormwater as in a lot of urban areas, but also to help in those rural areas where nitrate and other contamination are also problems.”

The State Water Board will be working on updating the Bay Delta standards, using the extra staffing to get back on track, Ms. Marcus said. “I’m happy to hear there are folks on the tributaries on both sides who are trying to figure out how to come up with voluntary solutions, and I appreciate the help from the resources agencies on that,” she said. “We have a track record of accepting those things if they are good enough, and they honor the things they need to be doing. … You can always do more by working together than by what we can impose alone, and we really invite that spirit of engagement as opposed to the is so, is not, you’re a jerk, no I’m not, which can pervade the water world. … This is sort of a time for managing ourselves and how we interact and focusing on solutions rather than falling back on old narratives.”

Ms. Marcus said they’ve done a lot on water rights, and they have a lot of support for information and data. “We’re working on the measurement regs so that we can all know what we’re talking about as we’re trying to figure out how to manage the system better, particularly in the Delta,” she said.

When it comes to flexibility and regulatory options and looking at voluntary solutions, Ms. Marcus reiterated that it is something they have a track record of doing over time. “In part because our process can be so cumbersome otherwise, but we’re looking for solutions,” she said. “I hope many of you have seen the increased level of outreach and conversation before we even propose things as well as trying to engage with you individually and in groups throughout our process. I think it may take a little longer, but we’ve been able to get a lot of things done in a much better form because of the suggestions and the engagement and the multiple conversations we’ve been able to have with all of you.”

Ms. Marcus noted they also have been working on rates and pricing. “We’re continuing to find ways to be helpful, not just in conversations about Prop 218 but in writing letters and explaining what’s happening during the conservation regs and how folks have been risen to an occasion that wasn’t planned for, and about how investments in your future water resilience are worth paying for.”

In the future, the spaces to watch are indirect potable reuse, direct potable reuse, and the reporting regulations,” she said. “And what we do on the emergency regs, not just in the short term but after April 1st is a place to watch. Hopefully we’ll have so much rain and snow they go away, but all of those conversations are really critically important. Then it will be a year or two of Bay Delta on the standards and obviously the proceedings on Water Fix which are two separate things.”

And I’ll stop at that.

Gordon Burns, Undersecretary for Cal EPA

Gordon Burns then talked about the efforts on groundwater and implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

When you think about it, SGMA is emblematic of the greater Water Action Plan effort as a whole,” he said “First, it was a major policy change and it really stands for the proposition that we can, when we put our minds to it, make major policy changes in California successfully. Secondly, its success is interconnected to success on a lot of the other elements of the Water Action Plan – it’s important to conservation, it’s important to storage and conveyance and vice versa. Those things are all important to making groundwater management successful as well.

ACWA BurnsThirdly, I would emphasize it really is a local and state partnership,” he continued. “A partnership between local agencies and tribes and other local stakeholders with assistance by the state of California, and if necessary, with enforcement by the State Water Board in the backstop role when local agencies aren’t able to comply for a while. That’s a theme that runs through a lot of the Water Action Plan – that we do need to all come together and make this all work together to be successful.”

Mr. Burns then turned to the accomplishments of the last year. “It’s been a busy year for the Department of Water Resources,” he said. “I think it’s been a very well managed process this year and I think that’s widely acknowledged. About a year ago, the first thing that the statute required was for the Department to establish and update the list of critically overdrafted basins. They did that; they added some in the Central Valley and on the Central Coast and deleted a couple from the Oxnard Plain. This affects when the plans are due. If you’re on the list of critically overdrafted basins, your plans are due in five years; if you’re not, they are due in seven. By the way the list technically is not final until Bulletin 118 is updated by the Department in 2017.”

The Department of Water Resources finished the first set of regulations that govern adjustments to the basin boundaries ahead of schedule. “The window to apply for basin boundary adjustments is open and will be open until the end of March. They haven’t yet received any applications that I know of, but I think about 18 agencies have signaled that they plan to apply for a basin adjustment.”

Clean-up legislation was passed this year to clarify issues such as the role of mutual water companies, the groundwater sustainability formation process, and other clean-up oriented things, Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Burns noted groundwater sustainability agencies have been forming all year. About 113 local agencies have notified DWR that they would like to be a GSA; some of those overlap with other local agencies that want to be a GSA, and that needs to be worked out. “In general the feedback that we’re getting from staff is that these are complicated and sometimes difficult discussions, but that it’s been very constructive, and we’re certainly pleased to see that,” he said.

The next two years are going to be big years for both the state and local agencies, he said. “First and foremost, DWR will be releasing its regulations that govern what goes into the local management plans and how they are going to be evaluated,” he said. “This is really the heart of SGMA, and it’s a very interesting topic to local agencies because it really determines what they need to do to comply with the statute. A draft of those regs is going to be released soon. There will be a 30 day comment period and at least three public meetings as required by statute. Keep in mind that this is on a very tight timeline as the regs have to be final by June 2016.”

The Department of Water Resources will be releasing a report of estimated water available for groundwater replenishment; the report is due at the end of 2016. The Department is also required to post any best management practices which will supplement the regulations and offer guidance and instruction on how to put together good plans.

January of 2017 is the deadline for submitting alternative plans. Mr. Burns explained that there are some instances in which people feel that their basins are already managed sustainably; they can opt out of complying with all the formal requirements of SGMA if they can demonstrate that the basin is in fact being managed sustainably. These alternative plans need to be submitted to the Department for review. “There’s probably not a lot of basins that will qualify, but certainly we’ll see some that will be attempting to do that,” he said.

The middle of 2017 is the deadline for local agencies to form groundwater sustainability agencies. “This is important because if a basin doesn’t have coverage by local agencies that have qualified for this GSA designation, that’s the first window of opportunity for the state board to intervene, so we expect folks to take this very seriously,” Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Burns then turned to other related groundwater issues. Last year, two bills were passed that together reformed the judicial adjudication process for groundwater. “The goal was to make the process which is famously expensive and time consuming a little more cost effective, and there was broad agreement on ways to do that,” he said. “Nobody thinks that these things are going to be fast and cheap, but the goal is to make it less cumbersome, make the process a little more easy to manage, more logical, and ergo hopefully a little cheaper and a little faster.”

Mr. Burns emphasized that adjudication is not an alternative to SGMA. “It is entirely possible that people will be going forward with adjudications while they are also complying with SGMA, but adjudication is not a way to opt out of SGMA,” he said. “There is, however, in the adjudication reform statute, provisions to merge the two and to help people who want to determine what their water rights are and also comply with SGMA to come up with one comprehensive approach in which those ideas are merged, and we hope people take advantage of that. It could be very useful for durable plans.”

The State Water Board has asked the University of California to do a study on the current adjudicated basins, the results of which will be released in the next couple of weeks. “We think it will be instructive to folks looking to manage their basins to see how adjudicated basins have done so and hopefully it will prompt a lot of discussion about the success and the things that have worked and not worked for the adjudicated basins.”

Following an executive order from the Governor, the State Water Board is prepared to offer temporary permits to store floodwater if the El Nino comes through as promised and there is floodwater, Mr. Burns said. The board has already lowered the fees and are working with applicants to expedite permits.

DWR is finishing up a $10 million grant program to counties with stressed groundwater basins. “My understanding is they received about $7 million in applications which is money for well permitting ordinances and planning that should complement SGMA,” he said.

In summary, this is major legislation, and ACWA deserves a lot of credit for shaping the legislation and its implementation,” Mr. Burns said. “The implementation of this is going to be hard, it’s going to be complicated, and it’s going to continue for many, many years. Groundwater management itself is hard, but hopefully we’ll get past the broader political arguments like should we doing this and be able to talk more about the technical aspects of how to actually do projects and make these things successful.”

We really look forward to engaging with you on all of these SGMA issues and shaping its implementation and making it a success in the years to come,” Mr. Burns concluded.

Chuck Bonham, Director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife

One of the things I realized over the holiday break is the need for me to say thank you more often,” began Chuck Bonham. “That starts here with my fellow panelists, because I’m not sure I would survive what has been one of the most interesting and challenging experiences of my life without a group like this up here.”

ACWA BonhamMr. Bonham said he would be reporting on the accomplishments of his Department. “But first, join me in a quick trip in the go-back machine and imagine a time when streams and rivers once ran freely from high in the mountains to downstream reaches, meandering naturally through lowland and floodplain habitats, connecting with coastal estuaries and the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “The variability of natural water flows in this complex system created vibrant and resilient habitat for many species and function to store water, recharge groundwater, naturally purify water, and moderate flooding.”

Those are the first two sentences on page 9 of the January 2014 California Water Action Plan under the action, ‘protect and restore important ecosystems,’” he said, adding that he quotes this not to diminish the duty to provide water to people or grow the food that fuels the nation.   “But it informs how I get to the Water Action Plan.”

Biodiversity is the measure of richness of life,” he said. “It turns out California is one of 25 biological hotspots on the entire planet. We have more species than any other state in the union – we have 6700; and we have more endemic species than any other state in the union, meaning found nowhere else in the world. We lead the nation in biodiversity and sadly we also at the same time, lead the nation in loss of biodiversity.”

Mr. Bonham then turned to the Water Action Plan, saying that contributing to the Water Action Plan has been one of the most pleasurable professional experiences he’s had. “What is the Water Action Plan to me?” he said. “It’s about vision. Chapter 4 in that document has the essential ingredients to me for restoring some of these most important watersheds. It’s an exercise in prioritization. It does not list everything. And I’ve taken it to become a personal workplan.”

When the Governor stands up this morning and holds it, I know I have an obligation to exceed expectations that are written in it,” he said. “Management, they say, is about the art of getting together to accomplish desired goals and objectives, and it often hinges on accountability, because what’s trust, what’s respect, and what’s confidence without a belief that we will get things done, period.”

Mr. Bonham then directed the audience to Action 4 of the Water Action Plan, and discussed the Department’s progress item by item.

Restore key mountain meadow habitats.Why? They are our best storage reservoir,” he said. “You can actually go into these degraded landscapes in rural parts of California and forge incredible partnerships principally with landowners to restore meander to high Sierra streams, allow water to percolate better, and get a ton of natural species benefit.  As it turns out, wetlands restoration is one of the most efficient sequesters of carbon of any landscape scale type, so we’re using greenhouse gas restoration funds and we’re using Proposition 1 funds. We’ve done these projects in Tuolumne County, Sierra County, Tulare, Tehama, Nevada, Lassen, Placer, and Mariposa in the last two years. We’ve only got 9 acres done, but we have about 1254 acres in design.”

Manage headwaters for multiple benefits.If anything proves that, it’s our experience this past year with catastrophic fire. This will actually be the first potentially more wet hydrologic season we will see after the Rim Fire, which is several years ago. The city of San Francisco, my department, Cal Fire, and others are very nervous how a scarred by fire landscape will respond to more water. There’s exciting work underway at the Sierra Nevada Conservancy.”

Bring back salmon to the San Joaquin River.The San Joaquin River used to be the home of the southernmost Chinook run on the west coast. We lost it in the 50s, but we actually have cultivated fall run in a conservation hatchery built in the last two years; we’ve put them back in the river, consistent with the settlement agreement and the partnership, and seen them start to repopulate as a pilot project. We just yesterday in our first round of Proposition 1 funding for restoration grants, we funded about $3.3 million into the San Joaquin system, including about $1.3 million to focus on the impact from invasive species, both plant and fish to this restoration effort. The Governor’s budget released last week, it all runs together; it includes $18 million for my Department to continue.”

Eliminate barriers to fish migration.We said we were going to do ten of the top unscreened diversions. We said we were going to publish a list identifying those ten; we’ve published the list and we used it as the basis for our grant making. We have one in design, two in construction, for a total of 3, including as of yesterday, the final funding to complete the largest unscreened diversion on the Sacramento River, which is the Woodland-Davis Reclamation District 2035 project.”

Protect Key Habitat of the Salton Sea Through Local Partnership. “We’re going from about 600 acres of restoration being done at the local level to a scale we hope of about 3600 acres.”

Water for wetlands and waterfowl.We’ve done 45 projects in the last two years, about $6.5 million to improve our own efficiencies and supply delivery to benefit waterfowl. The Governor’s budget includes the first allocation of state obligation funds under Proposition 1 to agency to continue our partnership with groups like Ducks Unlimited and California Waterfowl Association. We’ve looked at our own lands, and we’ve done about 48 plans across our own acres – about 400,000 acres to improve our own water use on our own properties.”

Assess fish passage at large dams.We said we were going to figure out a way to create a template; we’ve done it. We’re sorting through the complexity, and in some instances I feel is me betwixt the devil and the deep blue sea, meaning, right now our salmon in the Central Valley are trapped on the valley floor. 95% above large dams which are not going to be removed, what are you going to do? We’ve got a lot of work to do with local environmental groups and rural landowners, but Yuba County Water Agency is willing to consider helping us put fish back in the Sierras for the first time in 100 years in the north Yuba.”

Restoring habitat in the Delta.We have 150 acres completed in the last two years, we have 700 acres in construction, and we’ve got almost 2500 acres in design. We’ve launched Cal Eco Restore as of last spring, and let me tell you how that makes a difference. If you’re a fish swimming up the Sacramento River and you get to Knights Landing, forever, in certain hydrologic years, you risked straying into the Colusa Basin and getting stuck 100 miles from your native river. We’ve known about it, and in fact, in 2013 we lost 600 winter run to that straying. A couple of months ago we stood with Reclamation District 108 and that problem is now fixed. Get it done.”

The list goes on and on, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say what I experienced in the Russian River is what can be replicated in the San Joaquin and the Sacramento systems,” said Mr. Bonham. He spoke of the efforts of the landowners and water users in the tributaries to the Russian River who came together and developed an approach to address conservation and the coho salmon as an alternative to regulation. “Almost overnight we went from 0 voluntary agreements between us and landowners to close to 60 who agreed to forebear water use and to build off stream storage reservoirs or small ponds to capture water in high years and remove diversions in low summer months; my Department agreed to expedite the processing of the permitting for those off stream storage reservoirs.”

Let me turn to the San Joaquin and the Sacramento,” Mr. Bonham said. “Right now as we speak, there are regulatory proceedings underway where many of you are in arguments with me. Whether you need a license to continue to operate your private hydroelectric dam which is governed by federal licensing, or whether you have a water right dispute with me, in other parts of these tributaries, people on their own accord have started discussion about a better way. My offer is in 2016, let’s take those existing proceedings and let’s integrate our voluntary spirit and efforts with our regulatory proceedings at my Department and with the board for water quality control plan update, and see if we can forge settlements which will be as good or better for all of us then the force of compulsion. That’s what I’ll be focusing on in 2016.”

I’ll end with two thoughts,” he said. “Bill Donahue is a reporter at the Washington Post and he quoted a guy named Mike McHenry a few years ago who was a tribal biologist for the Elwha tribe on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, engaging in what was at the time the largest dam removal project in the country. And Mike said, ‘When I got into wildlife biology, I never thought I’d be working with excavators, but I came to realize that if you want nature back, you have to go big.’ I want to go big in 2016, and some of these metrics I’m behind and some I’m ahead. I’ve got an obligation to hit each of them for the Governor and exceed it.”

Thank you for all you’ve done to get us there, but please, we need your help. Let’s get it done. We can do this,” Mr. Bonham concluded.

Mark Cowin, Director of the Department of Water Resources

Mark Cowin began by echoing his appreciation to his fellow colleagues on the panel. “I agree with Chuck; I don’t think I would survive in this job without colleagues of the caliber that you have before you today and you have my appreciation.”

ACWA CowinWhen I think back, I honestly believe that the creation of this California Water Action Plan was about the smartest thing I think I’ve seen the state government do in my career, at least along the line of resources management,” he said. He also credited ACWA for assisting in the process by producing a document which was used as vital input as they put the Water Action Plan together.

From my standpoint, it’s a great thing for all the reasons you’ve already heard – it’s our guidebook, it’s our workplan, it’s a coordinating function among our state agencies, but more and more, if we can really live by this thing and make it grow over time, I think it becomes a way of making our agencies function better,” he said.

Mr. Cowin then turned highlighted the accomplishments of his Department over the past year, noting that there is a summary of accomplishments document that has a lot more detail. “This has been a busy year for DWR, not only our role in putting together the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, but on about another dozen fronts as well. I honestly think it might be one of the most incredibly busy years in DWR’s history.”

Along the lines of action 1, making conservation a way of life, I think we’ve had incredible success in our partnership with ACWA on the Save Our Water campaign,” he said. “That coupled with some individual efforts by agencies around the state, I really do think we penetrated in ways we never have before and got the message out about what this drought thing really is and what we all can do about it from a practical standpoint. I think that’s been a tremendous accomplishment.”

The water use efficiency staff have been incredibly busy. They published a new water efficient landscape ordinance which was approved by the California Water Commission and is set to be adopted by local agencies beginning this year; they launched a turf and inefficient toilet replacement program; and made $33 million of Prop 1 funds for ag water use efficiency projects available which will be awarded in 2016.

Action 2, increasing regional self-reliance and integrated water management across all levels of government, I think we really have made some dramatic progress here, thanks in part to the funds made available by Prop 1,” he said. “But we within DWR have worked very hard to try to reduce the red tape to make the application processes as efficient as we can and to move money as appropriately as possible.”

Mr. Cowin said that from his Department’s standpoint, the goal of the Integrated Regional Management Program is not just to move money out the door, but to use it as effectively as possible to incentivize good regional planning, good local cooperation among regions, and to drive local investment. “I think we’ve been very successful in those regards as well with more work as always to be done,” he said.

In late 2014, the Department awarded $221 million and this week they announced the award of $232 million in IRWM grants. “It’s amazing to me that it doesn’t receive more attention from the media, but these are big investments and perhaps more importantly, we’re seeing local cost matches on the order of 4 to 1 so that’s a total project investment of something on the order of $3.3 billion and that’s very significant.”

About 14% went to projects that directly benefit disadvantaged communities, he said. “I think moving forward, we’ve got more work to be done here. We need to get past the point that we’re providing for the problems of underserved communities through emergency response and instead get the investments made to provide safe drinking water for all Californians.”

The Department is using its share of cap and trade funds to provide grants for projects provide both energy efficiency and water savings, he said.

Probably the most important thing in my mind regarding this particular action of increasing regional self-reliance has been our implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and I couldn’t be more thrilled in the first steps in setting this program forward,” Mr. Cowin said. “I know we’re just getting to the hard parts and 2016 is going to prove even more difficult than 2015. … To my mind moving forward, the most important thing that I wanted to see over the next year is full implementation of SGMA – no retreat, no rollback. I think we have to absolutely make this initiative work for California.”

Regarding action 3, achieving the coequal goals for the Delta, he said DWR was very interested in assisting the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Natural Resources Agency in getting projects done. “The accomplishments of 2015 were fun; we’ve got a longer list of things to do which really start to make a serious impact so I’m looking forward to that,” he said.

Mr. Cowin then turned to discuss the Delta tunnels. “I think probably there are more people with fixed opinions about California Water Fix in this room then most samples of California,” he said. “Obviously, you all are exposed to water issues and probably view the tunnels through the prisms of your own interests and concerns and visions for the future. I will say that from what I see, there are many different conversations going on about just what these tunnels are, what they are for, and what might happen if they are implemented. Those concerns are based upon how the project will be operated, what the resulting effects on water supply and water quality might be for any particular water user, concerns over the regulatory process and permitting process for these tunnels, will water rights or some new regulation be placed on people, even though they don’t benefit from the tunnels – those are things we hear quite a bit about, and of course, concerns from the folks that are supposed to benefit from the project whether or not the costs are commensurate with those benefits that they might expect to receive.”

All of these are understandable concerns,” Mr. Cowin said. “I think we can address them and we will address them. Of course we are required to address them through the myriad of regulatory processes that we’re still engaged in, but I think we have much more success in getting to agreement just through thoughtful dialog. I look forward to more opportunities to have that kind of discussion with anybody who is interested in California Water Fix and starting a new conversation that really is hopefully based on real facts and not paranoia or concerns of what might happen.”

From my standpoint, our life would be a lot easier if we just forgot it and put it aside and didn’t fight this fight,” he continued. “We’re not doing it because we want to build a monument to ourselves, we’re sure as heck not doing it because we think it’s easy; we’re doing it because we think it is essential for California’s water future.”

We have a perfect example today of what this project might do for the state and federal water projects,” he said. “We’re ramping down pumping at the state and federal pumps today as a storm rolls into California this weekend in order to provide adequate protection for Delta smelt. If this project were in place right now with its modern screening technology and without the risk of entrainment, we would not be doing that. So it’s a very vivid example of the flexibility that this project can provide for us and the reason we’re pursuing it.”

But it’s not just about operating the projects better – this project make everything else work better as well,” he said. “More reliable and predictable water markets are going to be improved if we can more reliably more water through the Delta. More storage projects work better under the same premise. Better groundwater management if you can move more water for recharge … it gets down to having a reliable supply of high quality water that you have to have as a base if you are going to implement adequate water conservation programs and if we’re going to get really aggressive about water recycling in the future, so those are all the reasons that we continue to push the project.”

The Department will be pursuing processes before the State Board; they hope to complete the biological assessment and enter formal consultation through the ESA process in the next few months, and their NEPA-CEQA effort will continue, as well as a variety of other permitting processes, he said. “Aside from all of that, we look forward to engaging all of you in whatever forum or discussion you’d like to have on the project,” he said.

Mr. Cowin then turned to water transfers. “I am very interested in seeing what we can do about water transfers,” he said. “There’s just three basic rules to approve a water transfer: you have to show that there’s no injury to any legal user of water, no unreasonable effects on fish and wildlife, and no unreasonable effects on the overall economy of the county from which the water is transferred. What’s wrong with that. So to the extent we want to do away with those restrictions, then we can make water transfers happen really quickly but I don’t think that’s the intent. My hope is that through continued deliberation, we really just need a more systematic way of analyzing what those impacts are and how they should be mitigated; we shouldn’t have to start over again every time somebody proposes a water transfer. I think there are new technologies that can be applied here, so I think there is room for a robust discussion about how to make water transfers a more important part of the picture.”

He then addressed the water storage, starting with a story about how he was on an airplane headed across the country for a family Christmas, and found himself seated next to two gentlemen from the Delta who quickly found common ground in their despise for the Department of Water Resources. “They got to a point in their discussion where they talked about how the Department of Water Resources has wasted all of that money in all of those water bonds by not building any storage projects,” he said. “If I could do one thing, I would go back and interject at that point, but in case anybody doesn’t know it, we’ve never had a water bond that’s authorized money for big storage projects before. This isn’t a typical financial assistance program.”

Mr. Cowin said he thinks there is still a lot of misunderstanding about the Water Storage Investment Program. “We’re not looking to subsidize local water projects,” he said. “We’re looking to use that $2.7 billion to make an investment for Californians towards the public benefits that are defined in the water bond, so that’s our intent. I think if everybody started thinking about it that way, we’d have a better conversation and make more progress, but this is the role of the California Water Commission and they are on it, they are passing the regulations, and this will be a lively debate and hopefully a very successful program in the next year or two.”

Obviously this is a year of great opportunity from my talks with folks out there, I see a whole lot of good will, plenty of fear, some maybe opportunism, and that’s unfortunate, but at the end of the day as everybody says, we’ve got to work together to make this work, and obviously that’s true,” he said. “So let’s dig just a half inch deeper. What does that mean? Well, I’ve got two thoughts for you. First of all, as you all engage in these issues, keep one eye on your interests and one eye on the big picture. If you can take that approach, we can make great progress, because we have so many creative people and great problem solvers in the California water community. Don’t get bored, don’t get mad, don’t turn this over to your litigation team or we will lose the opportunities that 2016 provides us.”

On this side of the table, I think we still have a tremendous amount of work to do to make our bureaucracies live up to our aspirations,” he said. “I think this is the challenge of my generation, at least I feel that way. We have big organizations, a lot of moving parts, it’s hard to get them all turning in the right direction, I’m committed to repeating the message over and over again to try to get my agency working towards these goals as efficiently as possible, and also with my fellow agencies here, so that we’re all one unit marching in the same direction, at least four steps forward and one step back instead of two steps forward, and one step back.”

Question and answer highlights

Groundwater recharge and water rights

Question: “We are very interested in being able to capture floodwater, to recharge on-farm to use for recharge, and we’ve been in discussion with the water board about some of the water rights implications of that and what needs to be done, but I’m seeing both in terms of groundwater recharge and also in terms of the fact that the water bond calls for groundwater storage being part of the storage strategy for the state, and the implementation of SGMA, that there’s going to be a need to have the water rights division of the water board sit down with SGMA implementation and figure out how the GSPs are going to deal with some of the issues that have come up in terms of water rights, in terms of beneficial use, and some of these other issues. It just seems like there’s a potential collision between some of the existing water rights thinking and the implementation of SGMA and moving things forward things like on-farm recharge and groundwater storage, so I’d like to put out to DWR and the Water Board how you might think about bringing these things together so we don’t end up with a collision.”

We are talking all the time,” replied Felicia Marcus. “This is one of those things where folks who are not devotees or experts in water rights, if it gets inconvenient, they say there’s something wrong. I’m a believer in the water rights system. In California, it’s very complicated and there are rules. What you need to do to take water of any surface water course is you need to apply for a permit, and that permit, people forget, is not just an amount, it’s a time, place, and manner of use. There is a requirement, this comes up also in the analysis when we’re talking transfers, is that you can’t do something with water on a watercourse unless we or another agency have made the equivalent of two findings. One is that it won’t hurt another legal user of water which is supreme, and that it won’t have an undue impact on fish and wildlife, two very reasonable things.”

A water right is not just an amount, as I said, it’s time, place, and method of diversion, so someone has to look at it to see,” Ms. Marcus continued. “This is a gross generalization but if you’re talking about winter flows, peak flows in particular, then there may be, especially in the winter when most people use their water in the summer, then maybe there’s room for it, but someone’s got to check and make sure there is, because it is conceivable that you’re talking somebody else’s water. That’s what we’re there to make sure of, because water goes a long way down a watercourse and sometimes the most senior people are near the bottom of the watercourse, so someone has to do the due diligence to figure it out.

Ms. Marcus said that in the case of large flood flows for groundwater recharge, they would do an expedited process because that should be easier to figure out, but there can be an issue of taking somebody else’s water who was relying on it, or that the method of diversion you are proposing is going to hurt somebody else’s ability to take water they have a right to. “It actually doesn’t need to be a large challenging process if people get the information together; then we have a relatively short protest period where it has to have public notice so someone can raise their hand and say wait a minute, I’m worried that’s going to hurt my ability to exercise my water right. If nobody raises their hand it goes quickly, if someone raises their hand, we have to look at it. It’s all about fairness in the system we have.”

The water rights system is something that protects folks as much as it seems like a burden, she said.

We don’t have the time today to talk about the proposal that seems to have gotten a lot of traction about calling it a beneficial use,” Ms. Marcus said. “I understand the reason why people think that’s a good idea. The faster easier idea is just to comply with the water rights law.”

Mark Cowin added, “I wouldn’t think of SGMA as on a collision course with water rights laws but it certainly is exposing some of these issues that have been around for a long time and will become more and more important as local agencies start to develop and implement their plans. I look forward to lots of debate, when we get around to the notion of having actual plans in place and trying to deal with whether or not one plan has an adverse impact on a neighboring plan, either through diversion of storm flows, compliance with the water rights, subterranean flow – there’s going to be a heck of a lot of work done to sort all this out.”

I think there is room and an important conversation to incentivize conjunctive use process and figure out better ways to get more water into the ground to replenish the aquifers,” said Gordon Burns. “We’re certainly open to that conversation and welcome ideas on it. PPIC put out a study recently where they were making suggestions on some of these things and these are worthy ideas that we should be talking about.”

Inclusiveness in the Delta Planning Process

Question from Skip Thompson, a member of Delta Counties Coalition: “I applaud the administration and the panelists trying to move this very difficult issue forward. I’ve heard a lot about collaboration, and Ms. Marcus said, ‘we’d love to talk to you’. I guess as a member of the Delta Counties Coalition, we as a group have been trying to talk to the administration. We’ve had a lot of conversation if you will, but we’ve never been made part of the solution, which we can be. So my question is, you talk about stakeholder involvement, when are groups like mine going to be seen as a partner in this effort and be seen as valuable assets to the process?”

Ms. Marcus said that State Water Board welcomes their engagements in any of our proceedings in general on the work they are doing. “There will be a lot more as we do our standards setting and our Delta Watermaster is always there to help make sure that we’re listening to people one on one, so we very much have an open door and welcome your engagement. But I suspect you’re talking more about Water Fix then our standards, but when it comes to our standards, we welcome your engagement. And then on the Water Fix, you can as parties, but that’s in an evidentiary adjudicatory rather formal setting.”

I appreciate the question and the admonition and obviously we would love to engage with you,” Mark Cowin said. “We’ve had our dance cards filled out quite a bit over the past few years, and starts and stops. … I’m more than interested in starting a dialog with the Delta Counties Coalition whenever you would like.”

Apart from the prior effort under the BDCP, our Department is actually engaged with many of the counties in the Delta, either we already have existing conservation community plans or habitat conservation plans around county areas, or we’ve been working for several years to do them like with the agricultural community in Yolo County,” added Chuck Bonham. “When I started four years ago, coming from being an appointed member under Governor Schwarzenegger to the Delta Conservancy, which has as counties representatives, I was worried when we say restoration, there’s an automatic resistance in the Delta counties and the rural landowners to engaging in that front. I believe this idea of taking the restoration component and decoupling it from the infrastructure question can create a space where we can more engage those who have public funding like my Department in Prop 1 can go through something like the Delta Conservancy and interface with you and find the best marriage for on the ground restoration that’s respectful of the rural value, the ag value, or the local county value, and I see that as very promising as we go into 2016.”

I do believe that the last two years have helped us understand the need for greater transparency, particularly around the Delta and how it operates,” said Karla Nemeth. “Not just with the Delta counties and the folks who live there, but also with water users south of the Delta, with environmental groups, who are really looking for accountability in how the system is operated, and to ensure that the system is being operated in a way that considers all the needs and that respects all the rights values. I think there are some strides we’ve made in the last two years in the context of drought that I think we all value in terms of transparency. Nothing helps with accountability than transparency, and Supervisor Thompson, I think there is additional work to do when we continue to move forward with California Water Fix and how that system would be operated, how we get that information out to the public, and ensuring that there are measures in place that any kind of system would be operated in a way that’s accountable to all the laws and regulations and to the folks who you represent in the Delta.”

Delta concerns about Cal Water Fix

Question from Bill Wells from the California Delta Chambers: “The concern of everybody in the Delta is that there’s so much water being taken out that the X2 point will move further upstream and destroy everything. This concern I’m sure is shared with the vast majority of the elected officials in Northern California so I don’t think … earlier you said it’s my wrong opinion but it’s not, it’s an opinion shared by many, many people, millions of people, so what assurances are in place? Actually my only question is, can you give me three or four examples of where a diversion like this has worked and not harmed the existing water way, killed off all the wildlife like it did in the Colorado River Delta … “

I have two,” responded Chuck Bonham. “I don’t think it’s completely the same fruit to fruit analogy, so I’m stipulating that. Pretty recently we had an experience of screening the new Red Bluff Diversion Dam up the Sacramento system as you get closer to Keswick and Redding; it’s not the same size necessarily as the proposed diversion here, but it’s a really large, many thousand cfs diversion, and preliminary and best I can tell, I’m not privy to all work, but this idea of screening something large using today’s technology seems like it can work when you compare it to things that were built about 50 years ago with these older screens that it’s just really hard to retrofit them, so that’s one.”

Number two, you also had in your question this concept of assurances which I appreciate you focusing on that because I think it’s critical to accountability and trust,” continued Mr. Bonham. “So we will participate for our mission and interests when the board’s proceeding gets to the second phase. … We right now don’t have a regulatory structure, I’m not saying we are going to permit it, but if we were, we right now don’t have a regulatory structure that allows my Department under the California Endangered Species Act to have a permit with conditions about ecological need, and that’s a conversation underway, and that is an example of a potential way to create an assurance, and I’ll leave at that.

I just want to state that obviously advancement of this type of technology would be cutting edge,” said Mr. Cowin. “I don’t know that there have been deployment of this big of screens that we can cite examples for, so I’ll grant you that this is a bigger program applying proven technology, but my bigger point here is, this isn’t a new diversion. You framed the question as if this is a new diversion on a natural system. We are making diversions of this size and magnitude and frequency out of the natural system right now. The point of this project is to help us continue to do that much or less in a way that’s more ecologically friendly than the current system. And that’s a different approach to the question …

Watch the webcast …

Daily emailsSign up for daily email service and you’ll never miss a post!

Sign up for daily emails and get all the Notebook’s aggregated and original water news content delivered to your email box by 9AM. Breaking news alerts, too. Sign me up!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
%d bloggers like this: