Panelists share different perspectives on the troubled estuary
At the Planning and Conservation League’s annual symposium held earlier this year, one of the panel discussions focused on the Delta. The panel discussion was not centered around the California Water Fix (more commonly known as the Delta tunnels project), but instead each panelist gave a different perspective on the estuary.
The panel discussion started with Dr. Tina Swanson from the NRDC Science Center who gave a presentation about the Delta and freshwater flows; next was The Bay Institute’s Gary Bobker who pointed out that the process underway at the State Water Board to set new water quality standards needs to be watched carefully; Colin Bailey with the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water spoke about the human side of Delta’s problems; and lastly, Susan Lien Longville discussed the many ways Southern California has been working to develop alternative water supplies.
Here’s what they had to say.
DR. TINA SWANSON: The Delta is in chronic man made drought
Dr. Tina Swanson is director of the science center at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Prior to joining NRDC, she was executive director of the Bay Institute and chief scientist.
Dr. Tina Swanson began the session with an introduction to the Bay-Delta system. “The San Francisco Bay Delta is the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas,” she said. “It’s a very interesting and complicated estuary; it is formed by the confluence of California’s two largest rivers, the Sacramento River from the north and the San Joaquin from the south. Where the rivers have their confluence, that’s the Delta and the freshwater portion of the estuary; water from that region of the estuary flows downstream into the San Francisco Bay and ultimately out the Golden Gate in to the Pacific Ocean.”
“This is a very complicated system but in fact, it’s incredibly well studied scientifically,” she pointed out. “Much of the monitoring and the science that has gone on in the Bay Delta is the result of the fact that the system is exploited for its water, and in fact, some of the monitoring programs were put in place as a requirement for the permits of the state and federal water projects to take their water. They were required to monitor the effects of those actions on the system.”
One of the surveys is the Fall Midwater Trawl Survey, initiated in 1967, which samples numerous locations in the upstream portion of the estuary four months in the fall. “They drag a trawl, they collect fish, they identify all those fish, they count how many fish they get, and they look at it across the entire region for which they are surveying,” Dr. Swanson said. “One of the things they do for some of those species is they calculate what’s referred to as the Fall Midwater Trawl Abundance Index. This is actually not an actual count of fish; it’s an estimate of the abundance of those fish species in the system, compared to how many are being caught per area sampled, and it’s most useful to track the abundance of those fish over time. The actual number doesn’t mean a whole lot, but it does mean a whole lot when you compare one year to the next to the next.”
She presented a slide of the six species for which the Department of Fish and Wildlife have been tracking since the beginning of the trawl, noting that these are the formerly most common species in the system. She noted that the Delta smelt, longfin smelt, and splittail, shown on top as photographs, are native species endemic to this system; the bottom three, shown as drawings, are nonnative species.
She next presented the results from the Fall Midwater Trawl, noting that the graph is presenting the results of combining the numbers for the six species together, and comparing their abundance for any particular year relative to their average abundance for the first 25 years of the survey. “So from 1967 to 1992, I’m expressing the abundance of all of these fish as a percent of their average, and then I’m lumping them altogether; I am really taking a lot of data and I’m mushing it together because I want to show you a pattern, and this is the pattern that you get, starting in 1967 at the beginning of the survey.”
“For the first 25 years, there is the combined average for the combined six species and you can see that it fluctuates a little bit,” she said. “In fact, if you dug into the data for the individual species, you’d see that in some years, some species were vary abundant and others were less abundant, but collectively the six species were all about here. You can see dips; these correspond to dry periods where freshwater flow into the system is slow, the 1976-77 drought, and also the 1987-94 drought, when in fact the collective abundance of these species dropped about 50% compared to what it had been during the average first 25 years.”
Dr. Swanson pointed out that she was presenting the data in what’s called a logarithmic scale. “Because if this is 100%, starting in the 2000s, the populations of all of these species basically declined markedly, you could say plummeted. They fell 95%. In the last several years, of course which does correspond to dry years, the collective abundance of all these species is just 5% of what it was during the first 25 years of this survey. For some of the species, it’s worse than that. For Delta smelt and longfin smelt, it’s like 1% of their abundance just 30 years ago today.”
She pointed out that it isn’t just a few species whose population abundance is in decline – it is all of them, natives and nonnatives. “This is one of the most strong and clarion calls for us that something is wrong in the Delta and the upper estuary with regards to its ecosystems and the abundance of fishes which are really one of the best indicators of an aquatic ecosystem,” she said.
As a scientist, she is interested in what is causing the declines. “Scientifically speaking, I try to organize the information that I have, and I regularly use a model like this, called a Pressure-state-response model,” she said. “What it is saying is that there is some pressure or problem in the ecosystem which is causing a change in the state of something that we’re interested in; that’s the scientific side of the equation, understanding what the problem is and what the result in the ecosystem is. As a scientist-advocate working for an environmental organization, my job is to work with policymakers and policy advocates to say, given that we don’t like that state, what do we do? What’s the response that we need to put in place? Whether it’s new regulations or new policies, the response should be based on the understanding of the relationship between the pressure and the state, and usually the response is aimed at addressing the cause of the problem and trying to change the pressure.”
Dr. Swanson then elaborated on the pressure on the state of the system. “One of the pressures – not the only one but it really is the prime driver – is the fact that over the decades, we have been taking progressively more and more freshwater out of this estuary and diverting it from the rivers upstream and also from the estuary itself in the Delta,” she said.
She presented a graph that depicts annual Delta outflow by decade from the 1930s to present day. “This is the average percent of the runoff from the mountains that actually got to the estuary,” she said. “Even in the 30s, we were taking water out of the rivers for farming; however progressively since about 1950, the percentage of water that is running out of the mountains as snowmelt or river flows that actually reaches the estuary and has been going down and down and down to the point where now, on average, it’s 50% or less. Ecologically speaking, in terms of the functions of rivers or estuaries, that is not ecologically viable. That is not sufficient to maintain a healthy aquatic ecosystem. This is a pressure on the system.”
There are consequences, Dr. Swanson pointed out. “One of the things we all know about California is that from year to year, we get wet years and dry years,” she said. “What this graph shows is the consequence of that water being diverted from the system. We’ve taken a system which over this 80 year period saw wet years and dry years, which are being expressed in that upper graph: wet years are blue, dry years are red. Now the estuary, the San Francisco Bay estuary, as far as it can tell, based on the amount of water its getting, is in chronic man made drought.”
The drought may be moderating this year, but the estuary isn’t seeing it and hasn’t seen it for many years, she said. “When you look at the past 15 or 20 some odd years, some 60% of years have effectively been drought for the estuary, and as you saw from that abundance graph of fish, fish don’t do as well in droughts because they are not getting enough freshwater in their habitat.”
The consequences of low freshwater flows is that it changes how the salinity is distributed within the estuary as it allows more salt water to encroach up into the upper portions of the estuary, she said. “For fish, that changes the habitat; for us it also has consequences because we’re trying to draw freshwater out of the upper portion of the estuary. In fact, as the consequence of our water management operations, we are now most often managing this estuary to have just enough freshwater flow to flow out of the Delta to keep the water fresh enough for that water to be useful to us. We’re running it right on the edge, so when you hear some of the complaints being made about freshwater flowing out of the Delta into the estuary and saying we really should be capturing that, scientifically speaking and quite frankly policy speaking, that’s nonsense. That water is needed to flow out; otherwise the utility of the Delta as a source of water is useless.”
There are other consequences for the ecosystem, Dr. Swanson noted. “One of the things that we have done by creating essentially chronic manmade drought conditions and changing the upper portion of the estuary is that we’ve made that habitat much more favorable for invasive non-native species, such as nonnative plants, invertebrates, and non-native fish,” she said. “They like this environment, but the native species don’t, and in fact the non-natives have direct harmful impacts on the native species. As an example, when young salmon are moving down the rivers, when they get to the Delta, if they unfortunately are either drawn into the central Delta or make a wrong turn, the likelihood of their survival is extremely low, because they will most likely be eaten by a non-native predator which as far as they can tell is living in a habitat like an Arkansas lake.”
There are water quality consequences as well. “One of the things we’re starting to see more of in this system because of low freshwater inflows, low water velocities and elevated temperatures, combined with some nutrient problems both from wastewater treatment plants and agriculture, is that we’re starting to see blooms of toxic blue green algae called microcystis; it isn’t very good fish food, it isn’t very good primary production for the system and in fact the algae itself creates toxins, which are toxic. We have had some very serious blooms in the Delta that correspond with warm temperatures and low flows which are a direct relationship of our management of the system. It’s bad for the ecosystem, and in fact since we’re drawing drinking water from this system, it means that those utilities that are drawing this water are going to need to treat it. This is the same algae that shut down the water plant in Toledo, Ohio.”
“So that’s where I’m going to close,” said Dr. Swanson. “What I wanted to share with you was the fact that our management of this system has consequences for the utility of the system to provide benefits to us as well as benefits to the ecosystem itself. This needs to be a functional system, and clearly our current management and policies, which are in place to the extent that we actually enforce them, are not sufficient to be able to sustain either the ecosystem or the utility of this system for people.”
GARY BOBKER: Water quality control standards important; they are the way broadest, deepest, most enforceable set of protections for the estuary
Gary Bobker joined The Bay Institute in 1992 and has been one of the key negotiators for a number of the landmark environmental negotiations such as the Bay Delta Accord and the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement. Mr. Bobker currently directs the Bay Institute’s Rivers and Deltas program and is deeply involved in the State Water Board’s update of the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan.
Gary Bobker began by noting that Tina’s slide shows an important point. “What it says is that in the last 40 years, there was one year that nature provided us with super critically dry, the very driest conditions that almost never happen in nature, and it’s actually happened I think 19 out of the last 40 years for the Delta – that is the scale of alteration we’re talking about,” he said. “That is not sustainable. This is not hyperbole when I say we’re looking at the potential collapse of one of the great ecosystems of the world and the loss of many of its signature native species. No joke. We’re as close to it as we have seen throughout my entire professional career.”
So what can be done about it? “A useful way to think about how we respond to such a drastic state of affairs here is what do we do in the short term to prevent the hemorrhaging and not lose the pieces, what can we do to reduce the ongoing pressure on the system, and then what can we do to set a baseline of protection so that we are not constantly hovering around the margins and constantly flirting with extinction,” he said.
He noted that in his presentation, he would talk mostly about the third part, the baseline of protection that we should be looking for, but he wanted to first touch briefly on the other two. “The first one is just not losing the pieces, and that’s extremely relevant right now,” he said. “Things like Endangered Species Act protections and other regulatory minima aren’t really efficient tools for restoring ecosystems. But when things get this bad, they are the safety net that prevents everything from falling apart, and that’s been the Endangered Species Act implementation since 2008 when the federal government revised the protections based on challenges from environmental groups including the NRDC and the Bay Institute. Those protections, minimal as they were, have provided a thin lifeline to make sure that we have not lost species under some of the most stressful conditions we’ve ever seen.”
Mr. Bobker referenced the recent Congressional attacks on the Endangered Species Act protections. “We have a Congress now that is not particularly friendly to environmental interests, and in the last couple of sessions, legislation has been introduced by the Republican majority to essentially gut Endangered Species Act protections for the Bay Delta,” he said. “It’s de facto; we’re not really changing the ESA but it’s a de facto change essentially would exempt California form implementation of some of these key measures, so it’s something that people really should be aware of … the Valadao legislation that’s in the house would really just remove most of the key protections that exist now, and the Feinstein legislation in the Senate, which is far better in most ways, still has some troubling provisions that would make it a little bit more difficult to fully implement some of those protections.”
The second part is reducing pressure on the system, and there are many other ways to provide alternative supplies that are less damaging to the environment, he said. “There’s a wealth of information about all the ways in which we can provide more environmentally friendly and economically efficient water supplies, and you know what? The fact that we’ve had a major drought, it’s really driving a lot of that, so we’re going to see a lot of I think very significant changes that were never possible before,” he said. “The problem is that the rate of change – it’s a generational change when you talk about doing these major water reforms, and in the meantime, the ecosystem is collapsing, so we can’t rely on promoting good behavior to save our estuary; we actually have to think about some other things.”
Mr. Bobker reminded that in 2009, the state legislature made it the policy of the state of California to reduce reliance on the Delta. “One way to do that is to provide water supply from alternatives; another way to do it is to say there is only so much you can take out, and that gets me to the main thing I want to talk about today which is, what’s the right venue and what’s the right threshold of protection for the Bay Delta? I’d argue that it’s a process that is a lot less sexy and lot less interesting than fights over the ESA or fights over the Delta tunnels or fights over new dams that motivate a lot of folks in our community, and that’s the setting of water quality standards for the Bay Delta and other water bodies.”
He acknowledged that fighting against the Delta tunnels or big white elephant storage, but he pointed out that you could defeat every one of them and it wouldn’t save the estuary. “You can’t put all of your energy into defeating bad projects if the thing you’re trying to protect is being eroded and actually in danger of disappearing and that’s where this whole issue of setting water quality standards comes in.”
“The federal and state Clean Water Acts call for fishable, swimmable waters where the physical, biological, and chemical integrity of the nation’s waters is fully protected – and I emphasize that, fully protected,” he said. “The law requires you to pay a lot of attention to the most sensitive beneficial uses of water. Even when you have to balance among all these different uses, which you have to do in setting water quality standards – you have to balance between drinking water, irrigation, industrial uses, and environmental uses, you have to look at which one is the most threatened and most sensitive and clearly in our case, that is fish and wildlife beneficial uses.”
The Clean Water Act is a level protection that goes far beyond other tools like the ESA, Mr. Bobker pointed out. “Under the Clean Water Act, you designate beneficial uses of water, and in the San Francisco Bay Delta estuary, we’ve defined estuarine habitat, fish migration, cold water habitat, wetlands uses, and a whole slew of other uses and we have to protect all of them and we have to protect them at a level that fully protects them,” he said. “The state of California periodically sets those water quality standards and then periodically reviews them to see if they are adequate. I would say that Tina’s presentation is telling us that something is not working with our current water quality standards.”
“These water quality standards address things like how much flow should enter the estuary, and how much flow should pass through the estuary, and that’s because flow has been identified as one of the major water quality characteristics that determine the health of the estuary and is necessary to protect those beneficial uses,” he said.
Under federal and state law, water quality standards are reviewed every 3 years; the State Water Resources Control Board completed its last review in 2006, Mr. Bobker said, noting that the State Water Resources Control Board (or State Water Board) is the state body that oversees the setting and implementation of water quality standards, a role delegated to it by the US EPA. The State Water Board began its current review in 2009, the same year that the legislature passed the Delta Reform Act, which required the State Water Board to look at the flow needed to protect the environment, independent of what regulations and of all the balancing.
“So the state put its regulation on hold for a year, went through that process and delivered a report to the legislature that basically said that if you had to rely on flow alone, it would take about three-quarters of all the flow in the system to fully protect all of the fish and wildlife uses, and there’s a huge scientific record to support that that’s about the right threshold,” he said. “Studies from around the world suggest that if you go beyond 15 or 20%, you really start to have negative effects on the environment when you divert that much, but 75% at least seemed like a reasonable threshold. That was a pretty powerful finding.”
So the State Water Board went back to work on setting water quality regulations. For the San Joaquin basin, which has a baseline of about 30% of the total flow that used to make it to the San Francisco Bay from the San Joaquin River now flows out, the State Water Board proposed raising that to 35%. “Just about everyone who was involved in developing or applying the scientific information about the flow needs of the estuary pretty much said that’s a complete loser,” he said. “Even water users said that wouldn’t be effective; of course, their argument was it wouldn’t be effective so don’t do anything. So the state then said they needed to review this. That was in 2012; we’re still waiting for them to come up with their revised proposal; it’s supposed to come out later this year. And in the meantime, we still haven’t seen any drafts for the Sacramento River basin.”
“We’re still waiting for new regulations from the state which has clearly identified that this estuary is in severe trouble because there are insufficient flows to support beneficial uses required to be protected under the Clean Water Act,” Mr. Bobker said. “The fish and wildlife are reacting to the lack of flow and their populations are crashing.”
The State Water Board started their review in 2009, and here it is, 2016, and we’re still waiting; it’s likely that we won’t get final decisions until 2018 or 2019, he said. “This goes back to the point I wanted to leave you with, which is that along with whatever attention you may be paying to things like the Delta tunnels, or the things that are exciting and get your blood going, all of us need to be paying a lot more attention to this process of setting water quality standards because in the end, less sexy though it may be, this is going to be the broadest, deepest, most enforceable set of protections for the estuary,” he said. “If we get a good set of protections from the State of California, we actually have a chance to not only protect the extinction of probably 5 of more native species in the next few years, but to actually put the estuary on a path to a more self sustaining condition.”
“It’s ironic to me that here in California, we pride ourselves on how green we are and on the leadership that we have provided in dealing with climate change and carbon reduction,” Mr. Bobker said. “Yet, we are going to be the first part of the country to lose a major ecosystem, and that is not something that any of us should be complacent about and so hopefully all of us can help to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
COLIN BAILEY, Environmental justice and the Delta
Colin Bailey is Executive Director of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water and leads the organization’s efforts to implement the human right to water.
Colin Bailey then discussed the human impacts of the situation in the Delta. But first, he told the story of how the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water came to be. “In 1999, a group of low income communities of color largely in the Bay and the Delta, as well as California Indian tribes came together out of the right perception that under the CalFed process, those constituencies were largely left out of the decision making process and not part of the public discourse,” he said. “I happened to be a capitol fellow at the time with Cal EPA, and I asked my then-mentor what is CalFed? because I wasn’t really working on the water piece. He said, ‘it’s how the state of California is getting schooled on what environmental justice is.’ My colleagues at the time did a relatively good job for the time in getting environmental justice on the table. That effort was incubated with the great vision of Peter Gleick into what became in 2005 the formal non-profit and 17 years later I now direct the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, which has gone far beyond the Bay and the Delta, and now is a statewide organization supporting the water justice movement, a grassroots movement for the democratic and transparent allocation of water rights and a whole range of other things.”
Seventeen years later and the dynamics are oddly familiar, he said. “It has to be viewed in our perspective through the lens of regionalism and disparate impact. Our colleagues from the UC Davis Center for Regional Change presented the regional opportunity index, which is this matrix of looking at social and all other ways of well-being: physical well-being, health, access to credit, and they took this matrix and they’ve applied this in many places around the state. The profile for the Delta communities is almost identical to that of the lower San Joaquin Valley, which is of course is well known, because if you carve it out, it effectively looks like a depressed third world country by most metrics in terms of the gap between the income, the relative access to health care to higher education to credit, transportation access, access to good paying jobs, linguistic isolation, and a whole range of things.”
Given what the other panelists have said, the Delta can be considered exploited, which refers not only to the direct ecological impacts but to the people as well, he said. “Sociologists talk about a term called internal colonization, and we think that’s an apt description of what is going on in the Delta because it represents a resource that’s been tapped by the settler state colony for quite some many years, and the resource extraction continues, much to the consternation of many of the groups there.”
“A key point that our tribal members make is that in the present day, because of the attractiveness of the Delta, many of the California Indian tribes were in fact thoroughly pushed out of the region and no longer have a landed base,” Mr. Bailey said. “There are still cultural interests there, but that has repercussions for the modern day decision making process which privileges formal legal rights. In fact those very same tribal groups talk about the Bay Delta planning process as effectively the second conquest of the Delta.”
Mr. Bailey pointed out that there are 4 million people living in the five Delta counties, which is contrary from the narrative you hear from those trying to advance the extraction. “The narrative is often that it is a relatively underpopulated area and that the impacts are in fact not affecting over 10% of California’s population,” he said. “But in fact it is a delicate ecosystem and an overburdened one, and ultimately we do it as a part of larger scheme that includes the potential raising of the Shasta Dam, the addition of the Sites Reservoir, and ultimately the return and the doubling down on outmoded 19th century approach to water infrastructure, conveyance, and big dams, and to some degree to social policy from that era. Our colleagues around Shasta, the Winnemem Wintu, would consider this a continuation of the policy of cultural genocide and of dispossession.”
“Ultimately, the frame that applies best is one borrowed from sociology and that is that the Delta, because of the great resource that it presents, is being set up as a sacrifice zone, and we very much view it as that,” he said. “Among the downstream impacts are that low income domestic well users, subsistence fishers, California Indians who are both cultural and subsistence fishing as well as low income water utility ratepayers, whether they are in water mutuals of which there are many or the city of Vallejo or other cities in Contra Costa County, will face extraordinary impacts from the degradation of the water in the Delta, as well as the flow. And it’s those various constituencies that Environmental Justice Coalition for Water aims to represent in the current debate around the Delta.”
Mr. Bailey reminded how the demographic outlook of the Delta population is quite similar to that of the San Joaquin Valley. “For those who would pressure the state to draw more resources from the Delta for their largely corporate ag businesses, those same groups are invoking the plight of largely farmworker communities in the San Joaquin Valley quite cynically, and unethically in my view, as a reason why that extraction should in fact continue,” he said.
What’s going on in the Delta gets to the heart at what it means to live in a just and a democratic society, and so we all must ponder those big questions as we look at the process underway, he said. “The human right to water factors mightily into the equation here,” he said. “We filed for party status in the Water Fix Delta tunnels water rights proceedings, and I’m told by the chief hearing officer with a smile on her face that she checked with counsel and this is actually the first time in 102 years of water rights administration in California that an environmental justice organization has ever participated in as a party to a water rights proceeding, so it’s a very interesting but exciting and terrifying prospect.”
The Environmental Justice Coaliton for Water was responsible in large part for the passage of the human right to water in 2012 and for its implementation, Mr. Bailey said. “Just weeks ago, at our agitation, the State Water Board in fact adopted an implementation resolution for human right to water, which among other things says it will be the policy of the board that the human right to water must be considered in all of its activities, expressly including water rights allocation and administration, so we think we’ve done something good here.”
He also noted that on the same day the State Water Board passed the human right to water resolution, they also passed a subsistence fishing and tribal cultural use resolution; it doesn’t actually enshrine those uses as beneficial uses, but sets into motion the process by which those will be explored for that designation. “It may be a little too late in coming for the Water Fix hearing itself, but we’ll see just how those factor in. It certainly should factor into the water quality standards piece.”
SUSAN LIEN LONGVILLE: Southern California water supply reliability, the Dorothy Green way
“Susan Lien Longville has been beating the drum for sustainable water management for virtually her entire career,” said Jonas Minton in his introduction, noting that Ms. Longville founded the Water Resources Institute at CSU San Bernardino, is a member of the Board of Directors of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, and serves as the director of the Southwest Mega Region Alliance which works to reimagine environmental and physically sustainable infrastructure development and strategies.
Ms. Longville discussed her work in Southern California and the options for alternative water supplies, noting that her she is here on her own, and not of the behalf of any organizations she is involved with.
There has really been an awakening in Southern California that’s taken place over the last forty years, Ms. Longville began. “Forty years ago Southern California prided itself on growing local communities into giant megaregions by building imported water infrastructure,” she said. “In 1913, we started getting water from the Eastern Sierra, and the moment that the Colorado River water compact was signed, we were ready to bring Colorado River water into Southern California. Obviously Southern California is the lion’s share of the domestic water use of the State Water Project. Forty years ago, people really thought of these entitlements as being as good a gold. This is our water; we built it, they promised it to us, and we’re going to get this water.”
But over the next 25 years, that began to crack. “It cracked with things like Mono Lake, it cracked with the 4.4 plan on the Colorado River, it cracked as the Delta began to collapse, and so Southern California has seen that imported water supplies are not as reliable as they used to be,” she said. “They even admit in their integrated regional water management plans that they are going to become less reliable, but the Delta is one where the drumbeat is now stronger than ever.”
Forty years ago, the campaign to create the California Coastal Commission was underway, and the moment that the Coastal Commission was created, Dorothy Green turned her attention to Southern California’s water assets, recognizing they were undervalued, underappreciated, and underutilized. “Dorothy Green said in 1978 that we have enormous assets down here and instead we focus only on what we can get; and besides being underappreciated and undervalued, these assets are not being utilized. She laid out a blueprint for future water supply reliability in California as far back as 1978, when she pointed out the incredible groundwater basins and capacity for groundwater storage and conjunctive use.”
“She talked about recycled water which was just getting going in very, very small ways as being water in the future,” Ms. Longville continued. “She talked about stormwater capture, water going out to sea, and how we could save that in both centralized projects near dams near taps and watersheds and how we could do it in a decentralized way in the urban environment. Mostly she just believed in water use efficiency, and she was there the California Urban Water Conservation Council from the very beginning, and she had the courage to stand up against the peripheral canal in Southern California, publicly, in a big way because she believed we didn’t need it, our future didn’t lie there.”
Dorothy Green’s book, Managing Water: Avoiding Crisis in California, was finally published before her death. “She tried to take a look at things that were happening in Southern California related to these assets, and at least to put it down on paper, because it was so important to see where we were and where we had the capacity to go, so I’m going to talk about the evidence over the last 40 years for all of these things Dorothy talked about.”
Water use efficiency
Southern California water use has shown a relatively flat line since 2000, despite the enormous growth in the last 15 years, Ms. Longville said. “That’s because the building codes were in place for indoor water use through all of that growth and we have homes that are not using as much water,” she said. “The landscape water use efficiency state requirements that slowly that have been implemented mean that we have landscapes outside which are not surrounded by turf and inefficient sprinklers irrigating a crop we don’t need.”
During the mandatory water restrictions, the water agencies that serve these areas of primarily new growth, it was difficult for them to ramp down 25% when 80% of their growth was water efficient to begin with, she noted. “How do you ramp it down? You can’t change out infrastructure inside the houses. The lawns are already not there, so it was a real challenge.”
Ms. Longville said she’s become thoroughly convinced over the last few years that gallons per capita per day is the worst way to look at conservation. “More importantly, we need to look at how efficient in the urban world our water use is and what progress we’re making in making it become more efficient because we have a lot of older homes and a lot of older landscapes and a lot of older public lands, and that’s all just beginning, so water efficiency is off to a good start.”
Dorothy Green also talked about groundwater storage and conjunctive use. “For forty years, the vast majority of our groundwater basins, if they were recharged, they were recharged with imported water that came from somewhere else,” she said. “When we thought about recharge, that’s what we needed your imported water for. If we weren’t going to take it straight to at treatment plant, we were going to put it in the ground so we could have it. That was really our groundwater management.”
“But as we were growing and paving more of our watershed, we were losing historic recharge, and so we were not maintaining it and instead using water from the outside,” she said. “That has shifted enormously. Everywhere it’s feasible, project design is underway. It’s growing so fast, it’s hard to even keep track of. It’s not just one watershed, but throughout a whole region. We’re doing a project with Prop 84 money. This is not even the new Prop 1 money. This is $55 million to put 180,000 AF into conjunctive use to create 60,000 AF of dry year yield, and we’re doing it in four basins: in the Chino basin and the Elsinore basin and the San Jacinto basin and the San Bernardino basin.”
We need to repurpose our dams, Ms. Longville said. “It takes the Corps working with the Bureau and with local water agencies forever to repurpose the dam and make it a dual project, but LA DWP, LA County, and the Southern California Water Committee have all said that there’s so much potential there.”
Ms. Longville gave credit to Congresswoman Grace Napolitano. “Her mission in life is through WRDA to get the Corps to get into the stormwater capture business,” she said. “We have to go past the days of what we built dams to do – single purpose dams just to get it away as fast as possible to prevent loss of life and property, and it’s just absolutely foolish.”
Urban stormwater capture
Back in 2000, the LA San Gabriel Watershed Council started the water augmentation project, which was a study to determine whether it was safe and effective to infiltrate urban stormwater for infiltration into groundwater basins. “The project is finally completed after 16 years, and everywhere they did it, from industrial sites to school sites to neighborhoods and stuff, not only was it beneficial, it was without impacts and it works, so that’s why now when we see this new generation of integrated infrastructure projects that are really about stormwater capture and about infiltration. They all were built on this groundbreaking work that was done in Southern California.”
Ms. Longville referred to the work by Tree People on capture and infiltration, Community Conservation Solutions which works to capture and reuse urban stormwater on public lands by creating green spaces and smart parks, and LA Green Streets working to do green projects on the streets.
“The LA River restoration project is about dechannelizing the river but it’s also about an opportunity to build green spaces and at the same time, to turn our faces towards the river rather than our backs,” she said. “We want to turn our face towards a real river; it’s going to create opportunities for tremendous smart growth and at the same time capture more water than we’ve ever captured in the past and create habitat and increase water quality.”
The problem with integrated infrastructure projects is how do you monetize them – whose water is it and how many people are you going to have doing this, she said. “We don’t have a project yet that’s full scale or that’s underway where we absolutely know we’re going to be able to solve this problem.”
Ms. Longville said they’ve been working with others on the concept of Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFDs), which are based on bringing together public agencies with private investors and developers to create a 30 years business plan and to create a revenue stream to do a project over 30 years. “It’s a different way of looking at it, rather than saying we’re going to build it, it’s going to work, you say no, we want to do this, this is what we need, this is how we’re going to pay for it, and these are the results we’re going to get over 30 years for doing it. It’s yet to be proven but I tell you the counties and cities were heavily lobbied this last year, by consulting firms that want to help them to put together the EIFDs to get this project started.”
Dorothy Green also talked about water reuse. “Back in those days, water reuse in Southern California was pretty small, and what we have seen over the last four years is nothing less than phenomenal,” Ms. Longville said. “IEUA has the capacity to produce 60,000 acre-feet of recycled water, and right now there recycled water use is almost 33,000 acre-feet, and that is split among irrigation and industry and agriculture and a good portion for recharge. Some of that water that they produce, they have to put into the river under the judgment, so they always have to have at least 17,000 acre-feet to put into the river to satisfy the judgement to Orange County which is capturing that water for the biggest indirect potable reuse project in the world.”
The Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System produces 31,000 AF a year which is put back in the groundwater basin in Orange County, and now Mayor Garcetti wants to do the same thing in Los Angeles County, she said. There are many agencies competing for the water bond money, it’s being pursued everywhere where it’s feasible, she said.
Ms. Longville also noted that Southern California has the first direct potable reuse project. “The City of San Diego and San Diego County Water Authority has spent $2.5 million, and by 2023 they are going to be putting in 15 million gallons per day into San Vicente Dam, and by 2030, they hope to put in 83 million gallons per day into San Vicente Dam, and then that will blend in and eventually get into treatment plants. It’s the first.”
Lastly, Ms. Longville turned to land use in new developments. “One of my passions is alluvial fans and so much of Southern California development is in alluvial fan floodplain areas,” she said. “These are areas that were historic recharge and they were why these groundwater basins over the course of hundreds of years became so vast. What have we learned about Southern California in the Chino basin is that we do everything in the way we build with levees and channels and debris basins to basically destroy it. We have to leave water floodway corridors, we have to let the sediment and the water come in and cluster the development up on the sides. We have to build different, and that’s something I will continue to work on for the rest of my life.”
In closing …
“I want to close by saying that the past is not the future,” said Ms. Longville. “Reliability is brighter because most Southern California water agencies and its local governments are bringing assets that were undervalued to the table.”
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!