Phil Isenberg with parting words of advice: ‘Whether the tunnels are built or not, the underlying problems must be addressed’

MCWRA Isenberg SliderboxRetiring Phil Isenberg presented award at Mountain Counties Water Resources Association event

Phil Isenberg recently announced his retirement from the Delta Stewardship Counil, ending fifty years of public service in a career that has spanned from being mayor of Sacramento, serving in the state assembly, to chairing the Marine Life Protection Blue Ribbon Task Force, the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, and most recently, the Delta Stewardship Council.

At the recent Mountain Counties Water Resources Association, MCWRA Isenberg awardMr. Isenberg was given an award commemorating his many years of service.  Mountain Counties Ambassador Dave Breninger presented him with a plaque, calling him “great water warrior, and a gentleman who knows about the power of influence and the power of persuasion.”

The event also featured Phil Isenberg as the keynote speaker.  Here’s what Mr. Isenberg had to say.

Phil Isenberg began by noting that he ended fifty years of public policy and political life about seven weeks ago.  “In my career, I managed to spend a lot of time insulting people – or teasing them anyway, and let me just tell you about a theory that I have.  My theory of public policy is that there are a lot of awfully bright people involved and they have professions or occupations, so I’ve given bad times to doctors, to lawyers, to schoolteachers, and in a good part of my life, to environmentalists and to water managers and elected water officials.  The theory is that all of us get lost too fast in all the details of what we’re doing day to day, and we never step back and try to put ourselves into a context where things always happen, even if we’d prefer that they not happen.  Politics and politicians doing nothing is something not happening, but it’s a thing and it has consequences.”

One of the things I have tried to do in the water battles is figure out whether there’s a way to talk to people,” he said.  “I’m impressed with the fact that people tell me in private different things then what they tell me in public, and whether its medical professionals, health care professionals in general, hospital administrators, or water people – get somebody in private and everybody’s pretty reasonable.  You can see a course out of a dilemma coming up; it won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap, but you can see solutions.”

MCWRA Isenberg 1But get people in public and they talk in the American style of conversation, which is usually loud voices, lots of invectives, and absolute statements of purity and truth which under no circumstance should ever be varied,” he continued.  “I say to these people, what the? We had a conversation about this, why aren’t you saying what you said in private?  And of course, people get mad at me when I do that because membership organizations demand bottom line positions from their executives, which in many ways is why the worst job to have in the water world is a water professional manager.  The worst job because you have elected boards to deal with, and basically elected politicians want to say yes to everyone because it’s easier.  In the water world or the healthcare world or the education field, a lot of laws, if you take a look at them, over time, they promise everything to everyone, sort of.  But the public hears the promises they want to hear, and they impose on water managers the duty to give them whatever it is they want at virtually no cost, any time they want it, and with no irritation in the process.”

But whether you want to be a local official and condemn state and federal officials all the time, or whether you want to try to solve all the problems in your region or in your local community, the fact of that matter is policymaking, water supply, and money are statewide and nationwide, and there is no way to simply look at a discrete problem and ignore the rest of the context,” he said.

One of the things about the drought that’s most amazing to me, is how many people have died because of the drought?  Zip.  Now that’s a testament to the water management and system that we all condemn but is a really proud tribute to the state of California.  Not one death attributable to the drought – not one – in the entire state of California.  Economic losses to be sure, but relatively modest economic losses.  We’ve managed to develop a water system in California that’s as responsive as we allow it to be.”

Mr. Isenberg referred to a recent commentary that appeared in the Sacramento Bee that was written by Jay Lund, chair of the Delta Independent Science Board.  “Normally, technicians or operatives, like me – I’m a political type so I tend to talk in political terms about things, and a lot of my references are obscure or meaningless to real people, engineers are guilty of the same thing – all us technicians who know a lot about something tend to speak in something other than simple English,” he said.  “You’d think a top notch engineer at Davis and an academic would write or speak in a confusing or professional manner, but Jay on the other hand manages to speak quite plainly and he has a delicious sense of humor.  He said in this op-ed piece, and I’m going to paraphrase, ‘I know we’re arguing about everything – we’re arguing about no tunnels, we’re arguing about Sites versus Temperance, who gets all the money, all that stuff – that’s all fine, you have to go through that stuff, but put in context the larger things that are going on in order to know how you’re behavior and your agency’s interests are going to be affected.’”

If you look at the trend line for available water supply over a very long time, guess what. In recorded history since we’ve started to record it, it’s pretty flat.  Now it varies from year to year and that variation is both opportunity and disaster at the same time.  If your supply of a commodity is relatively stable but the demands on the water supply seems to grow with the number of people, the size of the economy, the development of new and different interests, power generation, environmental interests and so on, there’s a time where a static supply is not easily able to satisfy all demands.”

Jay has six things that he thinks are happening now and will happen in the future – whether you build tunnels or don’t build tunnels, whether you build new reservoirs or don’t build new reservoirs, whether you spend $80 trillion on flood control or not – this is what a very prominent scientist said about it.”

1. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will export less water and some islands will flood.

I don’t know of any scientist or hydrologist who looks at this situation and comes to a much different conclusion,” said Mr. Isenberg.  “Of course from the Mountain Counties perspective, the more water that’s exported from the Delta, the greater the pressures on you to somehow provide increases in supply, but put the self interests aside, the fact of the matter is much like most water sources that are developed, even the Colorado River, time and human demands and impositions on water use means you run up against that imaginary but real line where demand exceeds supply.  We have to look at doing something else.  Now that’s what your water managers do as a matter of habit, but of course the public that is not as involved in this does not.”

Of the things that Jay has mentioned, this one sentence is worth your note: ‘Ending groundwater overdraft will increase demands for Delta water.’  This is the old lesson, ‘be careful what you ask for, you may get it.’  There is no doubt about the fact that for those people, particularly the Central Valley ag interests that are heavily dependent on underground water and have been depleting the sources for some time, you can’t realistically think they are going to say, ‘we have to reduce our groundwater use and we won’t ask for any water from the Delta.’  I don’t’ believe that.  I believe people will.  And that of course is pursuant to the demand that as public officials, you should give to people whatever they want, even if you can’t, and if you can’t deliver, at least give them a promise.”

2. The San Joaquin Valley will have less irrigated land.

I think that’s probably true,” said Mr. Isenberg.  “You’ve all heard the discussions about the salt and selenium tainted lands in the valley; you understand all the problems of all the uses of water and facing the clay tables that somehow force that farther up, the discussions going on in Washington on the settlement between Westlands and the federal government …

To the point of the matter, I’ll give you an example.  A year after the legislature passed its big water package in 2009, same year, for the first time in my political career, I was invited to attend a meeting of Western Growers.  I’m a Democrat and an environmentalist, and both of us were surprised – I was surprised they invited me and they were surprised I was coming.  We were talking on a panel talking about the legislation; it was John Herrick, the water lawyer from the Delta, Dan Nelson then the chief executive director of San Luis Delta Mendota Water Agency and then innocent little me, and the conversation was about the legislation meant and what it was all about.  It’s in Las Vegas in one of those fancy casinos; there are 250 people in the audience, and it’s not my usual audience to speak to, but in conversation about water use, Dan said, ‘Well we know we can’t farm 8 or 9 million acres of land, each and every year, we know that.’  I said to myself, ‘If I’d said that, they would have shot me, they would have shot me dead’.  This is the difference between public conversation and private conversation that we need.”

The argument on Valley ag land is really an argument about expectations.  Is the water supply of California supposed to guarantee a desired income for everybody in the state – is that what it’s about?  It may be.  It certainly hope and expectation.  But the point is Jay thinks and I think too that there will be adjustments in land being irrigated and that will make a difference.  It will not solve all the problems – nothing solves all the problems.  Dave and I were just chatting about the fact real people always complain, ‘why can’t you get to work and solve those problems?’  My rap goes as follows: when is the last time that you knew of any society that had a perfect education system?  How about any society that delivered health care to everyone?  How about societies that abolished poverty forever?  We go through this exercise of introspection and occasional action in something like 30 to 50 year increments, and we kind of lurch forward, something happens, something changes, there are a lot of unexpected consequences.”

3. Urban areas will use less water, reuse more wastewater, and capture more stormwater.

You’re seeing all the signs of that right now,” said Mr. Isenberg.  “The PPIC study that gave report cards on water consumption and use during the drought, they gave urban dwellers an ‘A’.  I think it’s too high, because the urban savings are relatively easy to do.  My neighbors who condemn everyone for not being allowed to water their lawn four times a week, notwithstanding, there were virtually no disruptions other than cosmetic in urban areas around the state. I understand you’re going to find some examples somewhere, but not there.  The urban areas were a success, but because the urban use of water, business, commercial, non agricultural and human use of water is roughly 9.5-10 million acre-feet per year, roughly 10% of the water used, you can only go so far with that, but it’s the one where you can make short-term changes by adjusting behavior.”

Political note: I have learned the hardest thing in public life to do is change human behavior. It’s a lot easier to pass a law then to get people to like it and to pay attention to it,” he added.

4. Some native species will become unsustainable.

All the environmental organizations go nuts because the Endangered Species Act says you have to save everything – it doesn’t quite say that by the way, but that’s how the political debate goes,” said Mr. Isenberg.  “Yes, I think that’s likely to happen.  For those of you who would say, ‘that’s good, we get rid of that stupid Delta smelt that we don’t have to talk about it anymore.’ but behind the Delta smelt are things called salmon, and it’s not as easy to dismiss a salmon as a Delta smelt.  The point of this is, the water use for human beings is irreversibly linked to the environmental consequences of transforming our society and building all the structures to save, collect, distribute and use water.

I suppose you could visualize Donald Trump will come in and abolish the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Drinking Water Act, and you can do anything you want any time you want – if you believe that, then maybe you should just wait for it to happen.  But the practicality is as managers, you have to live day to day.  The discussion about how Sites was going to go through the application process is a hard infinitely complex management discussion of how agencies and interested parties try to respond.”

5. Water solutions and funding will become more local and regional.

“The PPIC did a study a few years ago of all the major water spending within the state of California by the federal government, the state government, and local governments, and they discovered that for everything – capital improvements, operations and maintenance, everything – it was between $30 and $40 billion a year.  Over time, that’s a lot of money.  But here’s the question: how much of that did the feds contribute, the state, and the locals?  This is for water supply, wastewater treatment, and flood control.  The feds contributed between 3 and 4%, the state contributed 12%, and the local agencies all contributed 83%.  And that single fact alone shows why we have a localized and relatively diffused water system in the state of California – because locals pay for the lion’s share of the water system.  Jay thinks, I think too, that’s likely to change only to increase the local costs somewhat.”

As a former mayor and city councilman, I’m fully cognizant of what we used to call the political game of milking the federal or the state cow whenever we had an idea we wanted funded … but I think you have to be practical about the limits of what’s being delivered.  The legislature-developed, voter approved bonds contain provisions designed to protect larger public interests, largely environmental interests for species and water quality in the Delta for that money.  So the thing you have to think about is what do we need to do if we have to carry that same share of costs forward.”

6. In the future, water will be managed more tightly.

He’s not entirely clear what he means, but he’s pretty clear that it involves increased reporting of actual water use, human water use, agricultural water use, and environmental water use, and the notion that the urban and agricultural water management plans that you all participate in developing will become in many ways enforceable documents,” said Mr. Isenberg.

Now I say those things only because politics tends to ignore the context and just concentrate on the Delta debate and the tunnels debate and it is the least interesting debate in the water issues of California, in my opinion.  Because whether you build it or don’t, the other underlying problems remain and must be addressed.”

So what does that all mean for water managers?  I guess it means don’t screw it up.  What else could it mean?  You are in the best of times and the worst of times, as the saying goes.  You have a kind of average water year this year, but it’s going to look a fifth year of drought in a little bit, and nobody knows what next year is going to bring.  You saw major changes in legislation attributable to the drought finally impressing the media and the public that something was going on that they were concerned about.  They are not as concerned this year as they were the previous year, but they are still concerned, so how you do that is an art form.  There’s no science in this.”

When you have to go to your constituents and tell them you are going to increase water rates 3% a year for the next four years, I bet you you’ll get a lot of kickback form a lot of places up here,” said Mr. Isenberg.  “The point of the matter is you’re managers – whether you’re elected managers or appointed managers, you’re managers – and you make this system work so that in a real four and a half year drought, we didn’t see anybody die because of the drought, and that is a remarkable tribute to you and your industry.”

“I give these speeches now only occasionally, and I thought I would just thank you for allowing me to do so and for John for inviting me …

Visit Mountain Counties Water Resources Association online at

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