Agency officials give their views on the California Water Fix
The California Water Fix hit several milestones in 2015, and 2016 is viewed as a critical year to move the project to the next level. Is it finally time to ‘fix’ the Delta? In this panel from ACWA’s spring conference held in Monterey earlier this year, DWR’s Mark Cowin, Kern County Water Agency’s Curtis Creel, Northern California Water Association’s David Guy, and Metropolitan Water District’s Jeff Kightlinger discuss the latest details and views from their respective agencies. The panel moderator was Brent Hastey, Vice President of ACWA.
“We’ve had 5 years of drought,” said Brent Hastey, vice-president of ACWA. “It’s been challenging for the water community and all Californians, but on the upside, it’s put California water’s needs and issues at the forefront. Progress is being made on many fronts as we implement a comprehensive water action plan. A few examples: The historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is being implemented. New recycling and consolidation plans are coming online. Policies around water, marketing, and transfers are being modernized and expanded. The public is saving more water than ever before.”
“For the Delta, 2016 is viewed as a critical year to take the effort to the next level,” Mr. Hastey continued. “We’re just months away from the release of an EIR-EIS for the California Water Fix, with the hope for a record decision by the fall of this year, and today, we’re going to get the latest update on this project and hear directly from the stakeholders.”
He then introduced the panelists:
Mark Cowin, Director of the California Department of Water Resources: Mark Cowin was reappointed by Governor Brown on April 13, 2012; he has extensive experience with California water resources, management, and has served as director of DWR since 2010. He’s worked at DWR since 1981.
Curtis Creel, general manager of the Kern County Water Agency: He oversees the operation and administration of the agency, which has broad water supply management responsibilities within Kern County, including coordinating local participation in the State Water Project, developing and operating groundwater banking programs, and the operation of the Cross Valley Canal.
David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association: Mr. Guy works closely with an interdisciplinary team of experts to bring diverse interests in the Sacramento Valley together to foster regional sustainability for farms, cities, wildlife refuges, fish, and recreation in the region. He has been working on Bay-Delta issues for several decades and has served on various gubernatorial bodies advising state and federal agencies on the Bay-Delta.
Jeff Kightlinger, General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California: Metropolitan is the largest municipal water provider in the nation, providing an average of over 2 billion gallons of water a day to 19 million customers across southern California. Metropolitan serves one out of every two Californians in the six counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura.
Mr. Hastey then started with Director Mark Cowin, asking him to talk about what’s happening with California Water Fix.
MARK COWIN, Director of the Department of Water Resources
Mark Cowin began by asking for a show of hands of all in the room who were familiar with the California Water Fix or Delta tunnels project. Then he asked how many had their minds made up as to whether or not it’s a good idea or a bad idea. “Come on, I’m not buying it,” he said. “Honestly, this is one of the challenges we’ve always had with this project. First of all, so few people know where that Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is, they couldn’t find it on a map, and they don’t know how important it is to California both in terms of a water supply perspective and, of course, our natural heritage as well.”
“Unfortunately, the folks that generally are aware of how important it is are born with a birthright as to an opinion as to whether or not delta conveyance is a good idea or a bad idea, and there’s really very little room for factual inter-space conversations about this project, and I mean, that’s just the world we live in and something we have to deal with every day.”
The state and federal projects were constructed by the state and federal governments starting in the 1940s; large storage projects were built in the northern Sacramento Valley and conveyance systems were built to supply water to the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, and Southern California, said Mr. Cowin. “In the Delta, we built two big pumping plants within a couple of miles of each other down at the southern end of the delta to feed those big conveyance systems. And those pumping plants are essentially the heart of the state and federal water projects.”
“Unfortunately, we built those pumping plants in the wrong place. That’s just what it comes down to. They’re positioned at the end of dead-end channels. It’s impossible to apply modern screening technology in those locations just for the lack of bypass flows. We essentially operate salvage operations where we pull the fish that we capture out of the water in big buckets, we put them in trucks, and we haul them off to another spot and release them in the Delta. It’s essentially a striped bass feeding program for fishermen in the delta and very ineffective in terms of actually saving fish, but that’s all that is possible in terms of fish protection with the pumps in the location they’re at right now.”
There are a lot of stressors in the Delta, and the pumps aren’t the only thing affecting fish conditions, Mr. Cowin pointed out. “When the delta was settled 150 years ago and on, stream channels and levees were thrown up and streams were channelized. We had great loss of floodplains and wetlands. Invasive species were introduced. We’ve had effluent from human uses of water upstream that affect water quality of the delta. All of those things, including pumping operations, have some effect on the viability of native fish in California. But out of all those stressors, I think it’s pretty clear that project operations have been the most heavily regulated stressor to date at any rate.”
“It’s not just the fish that we capture at those pumps that are being regulated,” he continued. “It’s this notion of entrainment. It’s the reverse flows that the pumps cause that pull net flow across the Delta – an unnatural pattern, and influences some species of fish to move into the southern Delta where mortality is higher, and that is what we’re being regulated against. That’s never been clearer than this year’s operations, when we had very restrictive OMR (Old and Middle River flow) conditions required by the fishery agency. So you can’t just count the fish that the pumps affect. It’s this idea of entrainment, which is much harder to actually measure the effects of, but that’s the regulation that we’re really up against.”
“That creates great conflict because it’s the winter and spring months when we have these heavy flows through the delta that we want to take advantage of with pumping activity, and that’s just the time when delta smelt are migrating and the time that these regulations and restrictions on pumping are put in place, and that certainly played out very clearly this year.”
Mr. Cowin then played the following video:
The California Water Fix is proposing three new intakes capable of 3,000 cubic feet per second located within about a 5-mile span on the Sacramento River near Hood, with a combined capacity of 9,000 cubic feet per second to partially supply the south Delta pumps. “The total capacity of both projects is 15,000 cubic feet per second, so even at maximum operation it’s less than the full capacity of the projects,” Mr. Cowin noted.
There would be two 30-mile tunnels bored 150 feet down. “One of the benefits of that approach is that life can go on more or less above on the surface, particularly after construction, so there are less impacts on transportation and upon land use in the delta itself,” he said. “Our current estimate for the project is $16 billion when you include the mitigation costs. Essentially what we’re looking for is enhanced flexibility and the opportunity to take advantage of higher flows in the Sacramento River without resulting in these entrainment issues that restrict pumping.”
“This year could not have provided a more clear example of the kind of benefits we’re talking about,” he said. “It’s a very conservative estimate, I believe, but between January 1 and March 1 of this year, we estimate that we could have exported 486,000 acre feet of water above and beyond the requirements of our existing biological opinions simply by having this intake capacity and being able to take advantage of high flows that are above and beyond what would be considered environmental beneficial flow. That’s huge, and I can’t overstate how much flexibility and how important these opportunities are to the viability of the state and federal projects.”
“We often look at water projects as some incremental benefit. In this case, I think we’re all aware here in this room that maintaining the status quo is not an option. We’re either going to make this type of investment or we’re going to look at the continuing eroding baseline of the reliability of our water supplies and likely the viability of the native fish that we’re attempting to protect through environmental regulation.”
Mr. Cowin said that Endangered Species Act issues and their effect on project operations aside, he thinks the project is important to the viability of the state and federal projects just in light of climate change. “The effects of sea level rise and the new seawater intrusion that will cause us to alter project operations to continue to repel seawater. The effects on snowpack. We’ll have more flashy floods. Those opportunistic moments like we’ve had this year will become more and more important. And of course the risk of levee failure and inoperability of the south delta pumps. The one statistic here that I can’t dislodge from my brain … if you consider 1 foot of sea level rise, it takes what we now consider a 100-year peak high tide event and converts that to a 10-year event, so imagine what 5-1/2 feet does in terms of flood risk in the Delta.”
It’s been a long 8 years in planning the project with a lot of twists and turns along the way, he said. They looked at dozens of different concepts, screened them, and studied 15 alternatives, creating over 35,000 pages of environmental documents and permit applications. The proposal has been downsized from a 15,000 cfs to a 9,000 cfs, and the alignment and features of the project have been changed to minimize impact to local communities, landowners, and native wildlife.
“Last year, we pivoted from a habitat conservation plan approach to a section 7 ESA approach, the more usual type of approach to project creation,” Mr. Cowin said. “We’re highly motivated to move this project along the most viable form of permitting that is available to us, and the Section 7 approach would appear to provide that more viable approach to permitting. We continue to work towards avoiding and minimizing effects of the project as we complete the planning process.”
Mr. Cowin noted the recent announcement of a settlement with Contra Costa Water District on their concerns about how the project might affect their water quality and their costs for water treatment. “I do appreciate the leadership at Contra Costa Water District for rising above the local politics and doing what I think is right for the rate payers, so hats off to them for being that courageous. We are open to other settlements, and our door is open to look at how we might resolve potential conflicts with other water users.”
Mr. Cowin emphasized that they are not promoting California Water Fix as a silver bullet for California water. “We have the Governor’s California Water Action Plan,” he said. “We need to pursue all of those elements in that plan regardless of our decision on California Water Fix, but the fact is pretty simple that, for most regions of California that depend on Delta water, there simply is not a feasible alternative to replacing even a significant part of those supplies in a way that won’t result in extremely high cost to water users and chronic water shortages in drier years.”
There are still a lot of next steps before us, even though we’ve taken a lot of steps already, he said. “We’re busy preparing to present our requests to the State Water Resources Control Board this summer on our change of point of diversion request, effectively asking them to modify our water rights to allow us to divert our water through the north Delta intakes,” Mr. Cowin explained. “The State Water Resources Control Board has the authority to apply permits or conditions to our water rights based upon potential impacts to other users of water and to effects on wildlife, so this will be a very intensive process over the next few months. We’re working hard to present information in a way that’s very useful to the State Board in making those decisions.”
“We have an expectation and a commitment from the Obama administration that we will consult on our California Water Fix biological opinions this summer and fall,” he said. “We still expect that we will complete a biological opinion this fall, which will then allow us to complete the NEPA-CEQA processes shortly after that. Then we really get into the tough stuff, and that’s when the potential beneficiaries of this project, the participants, have to put their heads together and figure out if they want to pay for this thing, and if so, under what terms, what cost sharing agreements, and how will benefits be shared. Those will be tough decisions.”
At the end of the day, here’s how I look at it,” said Mr. Cowin. “We face a daunting level of uncertainty when it comes to the Delta, and no matter what flavor of that uncertainty that concerns you the most, we’re better off with this new conveyance capacity than we are without. The effects of project operations on fisheries through entrainment and the very clear benefit that with new north Delta diversion capacity, no matter what future flow conditions are placed on the projects and other water users in the future, we’re better off with additional north Delta capacity.”
“The effects of climate change are very clearly a driver for this project and the flexibility it provides, not only for sea level rise but the effects on our hydrology and loss of snowpack,” he continued. “It’s going to make the ability to capture those unregulated flows more and more important to the viability of the projects. Even beyond that, squeezing out more benefits from ancillary projects, the storage projects, the more intensive conjunctive use, and the groundwater management projects that we know we have to implement. We’ll get more benefit out of those projects, both for water users and the environment, with this north delta diversion capacity in place.”
“I’m not trying to be over dramatic here, but I truly believe that we’re at a turning point, and if we as a society decide that the state and federal projects need to be viable through this 21st century, I think a decision to build this project is essential,” Mr. Cowin concluded.
CURTIS CREEL, General Manager of the Kern County Water Agency
Curtis Creel then gave his thoughts. He noted that Mr. Cowin said it has been an 8-year journey, but in reality, it’s more like a 50-year journey. “The discussions about dealing or addressing the inefficiencies of moving water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta system have been debated for a long time,” he said. “In fact, the Department of Fish and Game first proposed the concept of a peripheral canal back in the early ’60s. It’s exciting to see that the Department of Water Resources is pursuing this phase of completion for the State Water Resources Development System, which includes both the Central Valley Project and State Water Project.”
“The bottom line is that all of the other things that Mark Cowin has talked about with regard to storage, conjunctive use, and a lot of the benefits of providing additional facilities elsewhere in the state don’t provide much benefit without us addressing those inefficiencies within the Delta,” he said. “As an example, within Kern County alone, we have millions of acre feet of storage capability to store water. We just simply don’t have the ability to get it there. In fact if you increased the storage capability south of the delta by an infinite number, under the current regulatory regime, the maximum amount of water that you can get is about 60,000 acre feet per year, so concepts such as ‘big gulp, little sip’ without addressing the friction within the Delta simply don’t work.”
“I think I speak for most of the State Water Project agriculture (but I can’t say that I necessarily speak for Central Valley Project agriculture on this) is that we are still looking at this particular solution for addressing the Delta inefficiencies on a business case,” said Mr. Creel. “We need to determine whether or not it makes sense to do this – are we able to get the reliability and water supply at some sort of affordable rate.”
“Now affordability is a state of mind to some degree, and to keep it in perspective, when you take the original State Water Project bonds, $1.75 billion, and you project to today, just to put it into comparison, back in 1960 that was equivalent to the state’s annual budget, so we compare that to today’s Cal Water Fix of $16 billion and how that relates to the state’s budget. The other thing is that original $1.75 billion probably equates to about $10 billion today. If you had to build that existing project under those conditions today, it’d probably cost you about $10 billion, and that doesn’t include all of the additional regulatory requirements and standards that they would have to meet that this particular project has to meet.”
“Still, having said that, we do need to determine whether or not this is a project that agriculture can sustain us long enough to see built, and we are excited about getting to the point of being able to have that discussion, which will occur later this year,” Mr. Creel concluded.
DAVID GUY, President of the Northern California Water Association
Moderator Brent Hastey then turns to David Guy for his thoughts. “I represent the area that’s upstream of the Delta, and that’s the Sacramento Valley,” he said. “The reason that we care about this is that everything in the Sacramento Valley funnels essentially into the Delta. Above the Delta, we have about 2 million acres of farmland. We have six national wildlife refuges, fifty state wildlife areas, and four runs of salmon, 2 of which are endangered. We have cities and rural communities that are sprinkled throughout the region. Obviously, our objective is to be able to provide water to all of those beneficial purposes, both now and into the future.”
“I’m real blessed,” he continued. “I’ve worked with a great team of folks in the Sacramento Valley, many of which are here today, and that includes water resources managers, board members, and biologists. We have a whole suite of folks that work on this, and what our real objective is is to bring a different style of discourse to the Bay Delta than we had in 1981 and the late ’70s that led to the conversations around the Peripheral Canal. We are wanting to have a different kind of a conversation, and I think we are well on that way.”
It’s no surprise to folks, but every water right holder pretty much upstream of the Delta has filed a protest to the State Water Board with respect to the change petition, and we have provided comments to the environmental document prepared by the resources agencies, Mr. Guy said. “What’s important is that it’s not the tunnels – I know that’s what the media likes to portray – but from the upstream perspective, it’s not the tunnels that are the issue. The real question that emerges is how are we going to operate the projects around the tunnels.”
That is largely what the protest in the comments they have filed with the State Water Board is how will the projects be operated. “Obviously, with Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom being upstream of the Delta, the folks’ water rights and contracts in the Sacramento Valley are inextricably linked to the operation of those projects. The one thing that we’ve seen the last couple of years, for those of you who’ve been watching, is that the operation of those projects is on a finer margin than we’ve ever seen before, and the way those reservoir levels are operated has a dramatic effect on the way that we do business in the Sacramento Valley. So I think we’re more sensitive to project operations than we ever have been before.”
“In the Water Board process, we want to make sure that there’s no injury to water right holders, contract holders, and fish and wildlife in the Sacramento Valley, and we think there’s a path forward to do that, but at this point, we just don’t simply understand the way the projects will be operated,” Mr. Guy said.
“The governor at a couple of points has kind of said that you can’t say anything about the Bay Delta unless you’ve read the 30,000 pages of documents. I’m pretty sure that collectively in the Sacramento Valley we have read the whole set of documents, and not only have we read them, but we also have the best and the brightest that are looking at those … but at the end of the day, we want to make this process work. I think we all understand that we need to move water through the Delta in a more effective way that’s fish friendly, and we are very supportive of figuring out ways to do that.”
“A larger part of the process is the Water Quality Control Plan process that’s kind of in parallel with Water Fix,” he said. “It presents a lot of exposure to water suppliers throughout the state, including those in the Sacramento Valley, and so we have kind of proposed what we’re calling a D1641+ dynamic, where we build off the State Water Board’s Decision 1641 and start developing some plus features around what that can look like, and that includes a whole lot of actions in the Sacramento Valley that folks are undertaking. We have a salmon recovery program and we’ve actually completed projects over the last several years in partnership with others. That’s been a real promising adventure.”
They also want to explore new ways of providing a block of environmental water to the Delta to help. “What we’ve all seen over the drought is that one year it may be longfin that is challenged, one year it may be delta smelt, and one year it may be cold water pool for salmon. What we want to explore is ways to think about creating environmental blocks of water. That initially could be done through potentially some market transactions. Then ultimately, we think Sites Reservoir, a large regulating reservoir on the west side of the Sacramento Valley, can provide potentially about 200,000 acre feet of water. The public benefit component of Proposition 1 talks about benefits to the Delta ecosystem. We think that could be something that we all collectively explore.”
“We have proposed this idea of kind of this larger holistic solution that we think will help solve the Delta, and we look forward to working with this administration over the next 2-1/2 years to see if we can’t implement it,” Mr. Guy concluded.
JEFFREY KIGHTLINGER, General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District
Jeffrey Kightlinger began by saying he’s a bit of a rare person in California – an eighth-generation Californian. “You wouldn’t guess it from my name, but my grandmother, Laura Machado, was from an original Spanish land grant family,” he said. “I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I decided to go to UC Berkeley, and I was kind of stunned at this north/south rivalry. It was actually news to me. Like all Southern Californians know, Northern California is a nice place to visit and apparently to get water from which I was completely unaware of at the time. And then I decided to stay in northern California, went to law school, and decided I would become a criminal lawyer, a prosecutor, which was probably good training.”
“I am one of the rare 10% that actually voted yes on the Peripheral Canal, living in northern California at the time,” he continued. “I had no idea what it was and I didn’t care. It was just all of this rhetoric about southern California stealing water. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, so that ditch that I drive by up and down Highway 5 is moving water. Well, I’m going to vote for this just because everybody in northern California is so firmly against it.’ So I’m part of that 10% in northern California that voted yes on it. That was the only thing I remember … “
“It’s interesting how this thing has evolved over time, and yet, here we are, still debating it. I do think the tenor of the conversation, at least from my recollection from 1982, is much better today. We’re talking to northern Californians and we are trying to figure out how we’re going to make this work. Most people I talked to had never heard of a peripheral canal. My parents said, ‘We have no idea how we voted on that thing. We probably voted yes, but I really couldn’t recall.’ So most people don’t recall this debate that took place in 1982.”
“I do think most people are prepared that it is time to do something,” said Mr. Kightlinger. “Talking with the governor, he at one point said, “You know, there’s a reason people vote on government. They don’t necessarily want to vote on every single project. They may not agree that this is the right project, this is the right time, but they do know I’ve read most of those pages and that I’m prepared to make a decision. And that’s my job.’”
“I do think that, in some respects, it’s our job,” he said. “Our job is to deliver what we believe is the best possible project that we can deliver at this time, at this place, at this moment in California history. So I do think we’re there. Now is the time to call the question and see are we ready to do this.”
FOLLOW UP QUESTIONS
Moderator Brent Hastey then had questions for the panelists. Turning to Mark Cowin first, he said, “You mentioned that support from the Obama administration is critical to moving the Water Fix forward. Where the federal agencies on the project and what is being done to bring them along? We’ve seen a big change in the political world – is the Water Fix going to be done before there isn’t an Obama administration, and we’re not quite sure what the next administration’s going to be?”
“So notwithstanding the Federal Government’s regulatory role and their requirements not to be pre-decisional, we have clear support from the Obama administration, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Commerce regarding the project,” responded Mark Cowin. “They think it’s a good idea. They think we need to get it done. That said, the Federal Government is a big apparatus with a lot of moving parts, and I think what we’re witnessing right now is that those parts aren’t very well connected, so this is a very dynamic situation and a lot’s in play right now.”
“It’s difficult to speak to specifics, but what I’m seeing right now is the need for much better integration of our regulatory process across state and federal government,” Mr. Cowin continued. “I’m not talking about dismantling or weakening the Endangered Species Act, but what’s clear to me is that when we have separate agencies in state government and federal government implementing Clean Water Act provisions, implementing Endangered Species Act provisions, implementing state legislation, state authority and state statutes, all with similar objectives but completely different processes and oftentimes different regulated bodies under different jurisdictions, it leads to chaos and gridlock and I think that’s what we’re in the middle of right now.”
“There’s a way through it – through force of perseverance and leadership, but it’s going to require a will to move through the process,” said Mr. Cowin. “In the longer run, I think that we all need to demand better state and federal government when it comes to regulating our natural resources and particularly our water resources in California.”
Moderator Brent Hastey then turned to Curtis Creel with Kern County Water Agency and asked him where agriculture stands on its willingness to help fund the California Water Fix.
“So can agriculture afford to pay for it? The short answer is yes. But let me elaborate,” replied Mr. Creel. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who can remember us being children back in the 60s, and their parents literally took them out of school to have a family discussion about whether or not to participate in the State Water Project. It was that important to them. These were families that had to make those choices as farmers. Can we afford to participate in this project? I think at the end of the day after much discussion around the dinner table, they all concluded that they couldn’t afford not to do it. It was important for the local economy. It was important for their family business. And it was important for California.”
“I think we’re at the same crossroads today,” continued Mr. Creel. “The problem that we have is the discussions are very theoretical right now, and until we actually call the question, until the state says, ‘Here’s the project. Here’s the cost. Here’s the yield,’ it really is a theoretical discussion.”
Mr. Creel referred to Mr. Hastey’s mention of whether the project will be completed during the Obama administration. “It’s going to take 10 years to construct this. It will be 10 years before we see any benefits coming out of this project. And clearly, just like when you’re building a house, you can’t live in the house while you’re constructing it, but yet you have to be prepared to pay for that, and so how do we go about spending $16 billion over the course of 10 years and not impact the economy of those folks that are having to pay for that, but allow them to still be productive, allow them to pay for their share, and allow them to still get water supplies.”
“The answer to that may be in how creative we are in developing that financing,” continued Mr. Creel. “The state was very creative in developing the financing for the original State Water Project that allowed for extending those payments out to a point where it was affordable, so again, I think the short answer would be yes, but there’s a lot of conditions on that. We still have to see the business case. The jury’s still out on that. And we’re working very hard on trying to figure out how we – not fund it necessarily – that’s part of the problem – but how do we finance this and still be able to keep our economies affordable and sustainable going forward.”
Turning next to David Guy, moderator Brent Hastey said, “Additional storage above and below ground is vital to California. I think we can all agree on that. Sites Reservoir is a key project being advanced in your region and around the state. How effective will this and other storage projects be without a Delta Fix? Can we build sites if there’s no Delta Fix?”
David Guy began his response by giving some details about the proposed Sites Reservoir. “It’s an off-stream regulating reservoir on the west side of the Sacramento Valley, just west of the town of Maxwell,” he explained. “It would have a capacity of about 1.8 million acre-feet depending on the configuration, and it would operate somewhat similar to San Luis for those of you who know how that operates. The water would be moved through the Glenn-Colusa and Tehama-Colusa Canals and pumped up into the reservoir.”
Mr. Guy said that if Sites Reservoir had been in place this year, they would have been able to capture a little over 900,000 acre-feet of water; even last year, when California had the lowest snowpack ever, a little over 400,000 acre-feet could have been captured, according to DWR’s estimates. “It sure would have been nice these last couple of years to have had that asset sitting upstream of the delta, and I think that’s what the promise of Sites Reservoir offers,” he said. “When folks looked at Sites, they’ve modeled it with delta conveyance and without, and I think the bottom line is I think it can work in either configuration.”
“Recall that Proposition 1 contained some provisions that talked about public benefits for statewide water system improvements,” added Mr. Guy. “Some of those provisions in Proposition 1 are well suited for Sites Reservoir, and that public benefit water would be beneficial to the Delta, to the ecosystem, and to water quality in the Delta.”
Moderator Brent Hastey then turned to Jeff Kightlinger, and asked about the recent purchase of islands in the Delta. Can you provide the thinking behind the purchase and how the land will be used?
“Metropolitan has a long, proud tradition and history of practicing self help,” replied Mr. Kightlinger. “In the 1930s during the Great Depression, Southern California voters voted 2 to 1 to build the Colorado River Aqueduct and finance the construction of Hoover Dam and Parker Dam in a time when the country was 40% unemployed, and we weren’t going to get any help from the state and federal governments. In the 1990s, after the drought it forced us to go into water rationing throughout Southern California for the first time in our history. We decided to go build the largest reservoir the state had built since 1960 – Diamond Valley Lake, and come up with the $2 billion and the $1 billion of added pipelines to go feed that Diamond Valley Lake Reservoir.”
“We’ve been doing a lot of talking about the Delta,” Mr. Kightlinger continued. “We’ve been talking about other stressors. We’ve been talking about habitats. We’ve been talking about getting things back to a more natural system and filling up 30,000 or 40,000 pages worth of documents and $260 million worth of study and pretty much nothing on the ground. So when this opportunity came along to purchase 20,000 acres, we presented it to our board and said, ‘There’s a lot of options here. There’s a lot of potential here. There are a lot of good things that could be done here. But someone’s going to have to start doing it. We’ve been talking and studying it forever, so what is our interest in doing that?’ and our board voted and said, ‘Let’s go do this. Let’s start making things happen. Let’s start investing in this area that is so critical to California.’ So that’s where we’re going. We haven’t closed escrow yet, by the way, so that’s coming up in June. June will be the 75th anniversary of the first water delivered from the Colorado River Aqueduct, so it’s a good time for practicing self help.”
Moderator Brent Hastey then noted that it’s going to take eight to ten years or more for this WaterFix to become operational. What can we do in the meantime to improve conveyance reliability?
“We’re doing some things,” replied Mr. Cowin. “Clearly, we’ve made some advancements in the last year regarding more monitoring and trying to push science to give us better ideas of cause and effect in the Delta between project operations, between turbidity of water, and between aquatic weeds and their effect on fish, so we’re getting a better idea of what is causing stress to fish. Then can start to take action to try to mitigate those stressors.”
“In the last couple of years, we have learned about turbidity management and how it affects the reverse flows and fish migration in the Delta,” continued Mr. Cowin. “I would have said prior to this year that that has benefited us quite a bit in terms of project exports while minimizing effects on fish. This year, because of the extremely low populations of delta smelt, there was what we call very conservative administration of our biological opinions, and frankly turbidity management didn’t do a whole lot for us relative to the last few years, but it’s still an emerging science and a new tool for us. I think the most important thing we can do is – aside from dealing with regulation is to practice some self help. We within the Natural Resources Agency are drafting what we refer to as the Delta Smelt Resiliency Plan, trying to put together a list of common actions that we can proactively take – not mitigation, not in response to regulation, but things that we ought to be doing to help populations of delta smelt become more viable. That, in turn, should reflect itself in regulation and project operations at some point in the future, but I think we have to get to the mentality of taking action for our own self interest, as opposed to just response to regulation which, frankly, doesn’t appear to ever lead us to a better place.”
“At Metropolitan, we work both in Northern California with our State Water Project supplies and on the Colorado River on our Colorado River supplies,” added Mr. Kightlinger. “In 2003, California was cut back about 600,000 acre-feet of Colorado River Water by Secretary of Interior, and most of the brunt of that impact fell on Metropolitan. So we went out and did things. We lined canals. We put together cooperative programs with agricultural districts to transfer water to them. The last 2 years, during this drought, Metropolitan’s had a full Colorado River Aqueduct thanks to our partners in the Imperial Irrigation District, the Palo Verde Irrigation District, and the lining of canals.”
Metropolitan also hasn’t experienced any regulatory cutbacks because a decade ago, they entered into a 50-year habit conversation plan. “We didn’t know if it would improve species or not, but we went out and planted habitat. We were monitoring. I believe it’s about 45 species; 35 of them have rebounded significantly over the last decade. The other 10 are stagnant, but they haven’t gotten worse. We’ve had no new listings. We actually are on the ground doing things and making a difference. We have to get to that spot up here in the Delta. We’ve spent enough study. It’s time to make some decisions, and it’s time to actually get on the ground and start restoring the species and helping our water flow at the same time.”
David Guy said he had three thoughts. “The first is the self help. In the Sacramento Valley, again, we have a salmon recovery program that includes flow arrangements on every tributary in the Sacramento River system at this point. It also includes a whole suite of projects that will enhance habitat for salmon and enhance different life cycle stages for the salmon, and I think there’s investments being made throughout the valley by water agencies in partnership with others. We’re working with several conservation partners, which have been great in advancing that, so I think the self help element is very important. Salmon are struggling. We all can see that. But it’s going to be these kind of actions that I think we can all work together to help over time.”
“The second thing that I think is important is the work that the Delta Stewardship Council and the Independent Science Board is doing to change the debate around science in the Delta, I think has been very helpful,” Mr. Guy continued. “We’re never going to have consensus on science, I suspect, but hopefully we can at least have a platform that we can all kind of work from, and I think that will be an important platform going forward in a lot of the work that they’re doing.”
“The final thing that I’ll just put out there is that I think there are some opportunities to add some of these environmental water blocks to the Delta dynamic,” Mr. Guy said. “That’s something we want to explore and something we’ve been working on with some of our conversation partners that want to solve problems. Folks like the state and federal contractors are interested in that, so I think there are some real opportunities there, and that’s something we can do in fairly short order if there’s a will to do that.”
Kern County is a closed basin, so every drop of water that comes in stays within the basin, and there’s a tremendous amount of effort to take advantage of those supplies, recycle them, and reuse them, said Curtis Creel. “We’ve invested half a billion dollars in infrastructure and water supplies for groundwater banking so that when there’s surface supplies available that’s in excess of species needs we have a place to store that water and use it at later date. Looking at new programs, what’s old is new. The idea of reclaiming water that is part of industrial processes, such as oil recovery, is also being looked at for irrigation purposes, and just encouraging the local communities to be far more efficient and useful with their water supplies.”
“Generally, the farmers have all been very frugal with their water supplies in Kern County because it’s too expensive for them not to do that. They already are using drip irrigation practices in many cases,” continued Mr. Creel. “Looking statewide, as part of the state and federal contractors, we did form a State and Federal Contractor Water Agency, and one of the main goals of that organization was to promote science within the Delta. I think, over the past several years, that organization has been very effective in looking at – not the areas that the state and federal administrations have already been investigating, but looking at other areas and other stressors where there could be improvements and getting dialogue going into those areas, so we can seek improvements in the ecosystem eventually that could improve conditions for fisheries.”
Question: How comfortable do you feel with the commitments you’re getting from the Obama administration and others, especially in Section 7 permitting and how that’s going?
“It’s been a long conversation,” replied Mr. Cowin. “We’ve been working with the state and federal fishery agencies in developing this project for the entire 8 years that we’ve been talking about, so there aren’t a whole lot of new surprises out there. We’ve certainly employed as many of the suggestions and thoughts in developing our proposed project as we can. We have a draft biological assessment that we’re ready to submit to the federal agencies and begin formal consultation. I think all of that has worked well over the past few years.”
“The big hurdle and the new thing that is causing us much grief right now is essentially the effects of the last 3 or 4 years of severe drought that have affected populations of native fish to unprecedented levels, so we’ve got the lowest smelt indexes measured last fall that we’ve ever had,” continued Mr. Cowin. “You all have heard the statistics on mortality of the salmon runs in the last couple of years, so huge effects on fishery populations just at a time when we’re trying to essentially enter our formal consultation on California WaterFix. So as I spoke before about the eroding baseline, well, it’s happening before our very eyes, and unfortunately, even faster than we anticipated, so it becomes a challenge for federal regulators to understand how to go about consulting on a project that, under our view of the world anyway, is a net benefit for fish populations and yet conduct that consultation while populations of fish are crashing for any number of reasons in real time. I’d say, as we convene today, the federal agencies have not figured out how to make that work. And we’re struggling to find the path forward, and it’s an active conversation.”
A question from the audience member questioning whether this project was the best decision to be making. How are you going to assure me that my children are not going to be growing up saying that we put in the absolute worst project possible?
“I don’t want to presume that the difficulties that our forefathers had when they went through their decision making process and decided for what reasons they needed to locate the pumping plants for the state and federal projects in the southern Delta,” replied Mr. Cowin. “I’m sure that there were considerations regarding economy and the fact that pulling water through the Delta provides fresher water for south Delta farmers and communities. I’m sure that all played into that decision. Regardless, we have what we have today.”
“It’s been at least 50 years since the Department of Fish and Game at the time began to speak loudly to the effect that we’ve located these pumps in the wrong place, so this is not new news,” continued Mr. Cowin. “It’s not something we just dreamed up. It’s been a chronic problem with project operations, most heavily recognized in the last couple of decades since the Endangered Species Act has really come into play on project operations. So this isn’t something we thought of yesterday, and we’re trying to solve for next week.”
“This really gets to the viability of these projects,” said Mr. Cowin. “It’s easy to contemplate maybe the alternative is just to abandon the projects. That’s a choice. These projects provide drinking water to most Californians and at least a third of the irrigated agriculture in the state of California, so it’s a big decision if we decide that we are going to abandon these projects. Not to be made lightly. It will have huge effect on our economy. It will have a huge impact on the landscape of California. So heavy decisions. What I most want to say in response to what I believe the question was is that doing nothing is a decision in itself and will lead us towards this pathway of decommissioning the state and federal projects, so if that is the decision, let’s do it actively, but we’re not going to be able to wait for perfect information to make a decision and move forward.”
Jeff Kightlinger agreed with Mark Cowin. “We obviously are never going to be in a position to say, “I have now every bit of information, and I can safely predict the next 75 years and how things are going to turn out.” You never get there. Do we have enough information to make an informed decision today? Absolutely. … That’s all you can do as policy makers and decision makers. It’s what we do in our day-to-day lives, every single day, and it’s what we need to do here at this point in time. I look back and think, ‘The California of today would not have been here but for those decisions made in 1960.’ They were absolutely the best decisions with the information they had at that time. And that’s what we’ll do today.”
Question: The State Water Project contractors are well represented here, but the federal contractors aren’t here. What’s the status of financing, and what happens if the federal contractors don’t step up?
“These are very tough decisions,” said Mark Cowin. “Frankly, we do have it a little easier on the State Water Project side in terms of the decision making process, simply because of the way that our contracts are written and the fact that all of our south of delta contractors stand in equal priority to one another. The CVP system is much different. There a ranking of priorities. And so that leads you to a place where incremental improvement gets applied to different classes of users, and it makes a more complicated decision on how to both share the benefits and share the costs on the federal side, so I don’t want to suggest that the feds and the federal water contractors, for that matter, are simply lagging. They’ve got a much tougher lift to figure out how they would go about funding this project.”
“What I do think is important for both the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation to do in the near future is to better depict what the no-investment outcome looks like, so there are clearer terms that folks can consider,” continued Mr. Cowin. “As I’ve said before, the do-nothing will not be continue along your current water supply reliability curve as if it hasn’t changed, but rather I do think that we can predict better how we would operate essentially two classes of projects, one taking advantage of new Delta conveyance, the other not, and provide clearer choices to those that need to make the investment decisions.”
“We’ve spent $260 million to date on studying this,” added Mr. Kightlinger. “The federal contractors, CVP contractors have paid 50%, just as us state contractors have paid 50%, so they haven’t backed out. They’ve paid their share of everything to date, so we’ll see at the end of the day.”
Moderator Brent Hastey wrapped up the panel discussion by giving each speaker a chance to add their closing thoughts.
“I think this has been a good discussion,” said Mr. Kightlinger. “Wrapping up, in my experience, when you get to the end of an administration, you have to make decisions or you just lose so much time, and in California, us being essentially off-cycle with the Federal Government, you lose 2 years usually for a new administration and then you lose another 2 years as we go into a new gubernatorial cycle, so this is the time to make a decision, right now, with the Obama and Brown administrations, hopefully on the same page. And it’s time for all of us, I think, to call the question and demand answers and demand our elected leaders make some tough choices.”
“As with everything in the water world, you need to have some motivation,” said David Guy. “You need to have some deadlines. I think this state administration has committed to some solutions here through the California Water Action Plan, through some other letters and that kind of thing, and I think we just need to all kind of roll up our sleeves and see if we can’t make some progress by the end of 2016 and then obviously try to get some things done in 2017 before this state administrative transition.”
“I wholly agree that we’ve been studying this problem for a long time, and it is time to make some decisions,” said Curtis Creel. “I have confidence that we know enough information now to be able to take a look at the proposal and have the state administration call the question. Now the issue is to set the deadline and bring that to those that are going to have to invest in it, so that we can make the decision.”
“I do appreciate the chance to talk with you all about this project,” said Mr. Cowin. “When I think about what’s changed in my career in water management, over the last couple of decades in particular, and the thing that is most transformative is just how we’ve come to accept that uncertainty is much greater than we ever imagined back when these projects were originally designed, back when we planned for our future water infrastructure over the last century. We have come to accept in the last couple of decades that global climate change and other factors beyond our control drastically affect the certainty with which we planned, and the question, I think, is still before us. What do we do in the face of that uncertainty? Do we let it paralyze us or do we make the investments that we know will hedge risk in the future? And that’s what it comes down to, and I think this project is probably the poster child for that type of question, but perhaps the outcome is a signal for how we intend to deal with this uncertainty moving forward, so I think it really is a critical decision for California, a critical decision for the United States, and I’m still very hopeful and motivated to get to the right place.”
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