California’s water future: Converging threats, strategic responses

David Wegner says the assumptions of the second wave of water development are no longer valid; we must work together to usher in the ‘third wave’ of water

Solutions to California’s water problems is going to take action on many levels: at the community level, at the county and regional level, at the state level, and of course, at the federal level as well.  CWPC_logo_final 1 smAt the California Water Policy Conference held earlier this year, David Wegner, a former senior staffer with the House of Representatives, drew on his wealth of experience working on western water issues in Washington, DC to discuss how solutions to water problems can be galvanized on the federal level.

David Wegner recently retired from a senior staff position on water, energy and transportation committees in the U.S. House of Representatives.  In that position he worked on legislation that directly affected administration policy and federal agency actions related to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy.  Prior to serving in Washington, D.C. he worked for over 20 years for the Department of the Interior managing water and science programs in the Colorado River basin and the Grand Canyon.

Here’s what he had to say.

CWPC David Wegner 2David Wegner began by saying he would be taking a higher view of things.  “I’ve recently retired from the House of Representatives where in my role as the only westerner on the senior staff as well as the only bona fide scientist and engineer, I found it challenging to interpret Western issues with many of our members of Congress.  This was not because they are not smart folks; they are really smart people (most of them) and they have an interest in some of these issues, but they just don’t have the time to drill down to understanding them, so one of the biggest jobs I had on the Hill was having to help members understand the issues, specifically water, renewable energy, etc. and how then to take that into the process.”

It’s hard to get traction on these issues in Washington DC,” he continued.  “You can pick up a newspaper and you can see we’re either arguing about a Supreme Court nominee or some arcane issue related to the election process, so I want to spend some time talking about the high level perspective, some of the history of why we are where we are, and then how we might we move forward from this.”

To prepare for this speech, Mr. Wegner said he went out and reconnected with some of those who used to visit him in Washington DC.  He talked to policy makers, agency officials, stakeholders, and scientists, and out of those conversations, he compiled the following list of quotes:

CWPC David Wegner_Page_02You’ve heard a lot of these,” he said.  “They’ve been reiterated over and over … these statements and a lot of them are what we are consistently trying to deal with today.”

CWPC David Wegner_Page_03Mr. Wegner then surveyed the contemporary writings on water policy and water in the west, from Mark Reisner, author of Cadillac Desert, to Dan Beard, the former commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation.  “A lot of these folks have done a great job trying to capsulate from their perspective some of the challenges that are being put forth as we try to deal with the issue of water and water policy in the West,” he said.  “I spend a lot of time now trying to interpret for members when we can use the term, ‘climate change,’ to try to figure out what does that mean to the water and water resources.”

Mr. Wegner noted that in the Water Resource Development Act bill of 2014, the term ‘climate change’ is not used as to do so would have raised a red flag and likely doomed its passage.  “We instead called it extreme weather,” he said.  “Well, as extreme weathers were being felt, and whether its hurricanes or whether it’s the drought, there’s a whole variety of ways it’s manifesting itself within our system.”

CWPC David Wegner_Page_04The impacts of climate change are many, and we have to figure out how to represent these issues of water and water supply in terms of the policy and the impacts to the individual members and to the agencies, Mr. Wegner said.  “The point here is that water shortages have both a cumulative and an additive impact on our water futures, whether it’s future of agriculture, water restrictions if you’re in southern California and the state of California in general, or development restrictions – often in places like the Front Range of Colorado, we might restrict development without a dependable and reliable water supply, so there are a variety of things.”

CWPC David Wegner_Page_05I think Mark Cowin’s comment on what’s happened over the last several months is pretty pertinent,” he said, reminding how it wasn’t all that many months ago that the talk was about the Godzilla El Nino that was approaching.  “How quickly it changes – and for a lot of reasons.  The key thing to realize is that we cannot depend upon El Ninos to bail us out each and every time we go into these droughts.  We are in a ‘new normal’ in respect to our relationship – and I want to stress that – our relationship with water.”

Waves of water development …

Mr. Wegner said that looking back through his career, he’s noticed there have been these ‘waves’ of western water over the years.  “Each of these ‘waves’ of water come with a suite of assumptions that we used and in some cases continue to use in the management, and it’s those assumptions of how we’ve developed the water in the past that are really at the crux of a lot of the debate and dialog that we’re in today regarding the future in relationship to water,” he said.

CWPC David Wegner_Page_07The first wave was the creation of water rights and beneficial use.  Ground zero for that was in California during the Gold Rush as miners needed availability and access to water in order to mine.  “This concept of water rights and beneficial use is premised on several issues,” said Mr. Wegner.  “One is, ‘first in time, first in right’; the second is the concept of beneficial use, and third is that any water running downstream is wasted water.  And to many people in the 17 western states, that today is still the mandate they live by.  If that water is going downstream, it’s being wasted, and we’ve got to find some way to capture it.”

CWPC David Wegner_Page_08The second water was water development and the creation of the hydraulic society that resulted in the age of western water development.  “Whether it’s from the original small sluice gates or canals to the development of the massive irrigation systems such as the Central Valley Project and the Central Arizona Project  – all of these developments occurred because we put the framework down for water rights, we put the framework down for beneficial use, and we began to develop a society that was available to start managing and developing these water resources.

CWPC David Wegner_Page_09The hydraulic society we created in many respects still exists today, he said.  “On top were the government and Congress in particular as well as the agencies; we had the water districts that represented the local farmers and ranchers, etc. and we had the water development community,” he said.  “In many cases, these were the big engineering companies, these were the folks that wanted to build these projects that were to become the icons of our Western water society,” he said.  “We’ve still maintained this hydraulic society in general respects, but there’s been kind of a breakdown, especially with respect to Congress, because Congress has not kept pace with the issues that are going on in the western United States in particular in regards to water and water management.”

The wave of water development was based on assumptions …

CWPC David Wegner_Page_10The construction of the western water plumbing system was based on several assumptions, which have often become a security blanket.  “One of the biggest was this concept that the historical water information is a good predictor of the future,” he said.  “We call that the ‘stationarity’ concept; it’s thinking you can use the past to predict the future.  Today, we’re finding that assumption is being violated on many different levels predominantly because the hydraulic system has changed, our climate is changing, so we cannot use the past to predict the future.”

There’s a lot more variability today, and we’re gathering more data so we understand more of the variability now, he said.  We’re learning about things such as ENSO and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, Arctic ice and changes to the jet stream and upper atmospheric flows; and the blobs and other temperature anomalies.  “All of these things fit together,” he said.  “This is where we need to develop the new applications, we need to develop the new models, and we need to understand the relationship between a lot of these elements.”

CWPC David Wegner_Page_12The second assumption is that building big reservoirs and regional water projects will shelter us from drought,” he said.  “Just in the last year, you could have gone to many reservoirs and seen a lot of bare earth exposed. In the Colorado basin, at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, it is impacting hydroproduction.  Right now Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam are at least one-third less hydro being produced because of the loss of reservoir head due to the volume of water in the reservoir, so we can’t anticipate that building more reservoirs will provide enough storage to protect us from droughts.  You need one critical thing when you build a reservoir; you need water to fill the reservoir.  Without that, we need to find alternative approaches.”

CWPC David Wegner_Page_13The third is that water rights and private property will protect us,” he said.  “This is an issue – the foreign purchase of land, and the water rights that go with it.  In Arizona, this is a huge issue right now.  … Australia’s faced this same issue, and they have just capped the amount of foreign investment that can be made in terms of purchasing land in Australia, because they are worried about somebody coming in and cornering the market on water rights.    Virtual water exported overseas; this is a huge issue and there is no data collected on this … we need to get our arms around to understand the dynamic there.”

There is also the ‘buy and dry’ of the farmland, an issue especially on the eastern slope in Colorado.  “I’m all for development and maintaining our economic process, but we also have to look at maintaining open space, maintaining habitats, and understanding the relationship of this buy and dry piece that affects a lot of us, because of the way our water rights are set up in the country, this is an issue we need to address.”

CWPC David Wegner_Page_14Those assumptions and our historic logic are being challenged today, Mr. Wegner pointed out.  “Hydrology is variable and it’s getting more variable every single year.  The agencies are slow to change.  Having worked for the Bureau of Reclamation for 23 years and watching the agencies on the Hill maneuver and do their job, they are like those big container ships … you have to start turning them three to four years in advance just to get them to even think about changing their approaches to things.”

We have to look at more than just a one-off of our traditional approaches,” he said.  “It used to be you could dust off something, staple things together and ship it off, it’s a brand new study.  That ain’t going to work anymore.  We have to start thinking outside the box and with a different perspective.”

CWPC David Wegner_Page_15Water management exists in multiple silos of knowledge and responsibility, Mr. Wegner said.  “We have 26 federal agencies that have water in their mission statements, and of those 26, about 8 of them are the real big players in terms of water missions and water management, but do you think those 26 silos talk to each other?  Unless you’re the USGS … the rest of the agencies really don’t share data, so we don’t have a common data set, we don’t have a common interpretation of the data, and all we have is this information spread all over.  Put on top of that, each of the states are collecting water data, and there are many agencies within the states who are collecting water data, so add another data layer to this … and then about a third of the federally-recognized tribes have active water programs, so it’s the combination of all this data and information, we need to figure out a better way of sharing that, of using it, and interpreting it.”

CWPC David Wegner_Page_16Fragmentation on the water sector limits its ability to innovate, he said.  There is little incentive for the federal agencies or others to innovate, and there’s little incentive for the water management entities to come together to look for alternative approaches.  “Following the status quo approach of the traditional hydraulic society will not provide sustainability or reliability so what I would contend is that I would look to the third wave.”

The third wave of water

CWPC David Wegner_Page_17The third water wave is an alternative approach, Mr. Wegner said.  “I think the water managers need to get creative in their approaches … This will require collaboration, it’s going to require sharing of data, and it’s going to require nurturing stakeholders in public private partnerships.”

So how can we address these threats and develop more of a strategic response?  “I contend that a sustainable water future for California, the west, and the nation should evolve through using and enhancing our available tools, and there are a lot of them out there,” he said, noting the work with Dr. Famiglietti and the GRACE satellites, the work with JPL using high elevation LIDAR to look at snowpack and snow moisture content, and using forward osmosis and reverse osmosis.  “There’s a great opportunity there.  Throughout the University of California system and throughout the nation, there are those who are doing innovative research who need to have their perspective brought into the arena of water management in moving forward.”

CWPC David Wegner_Page_18We need to gather accurate and real time data, Mr. Wegner said.  “In today’s world, we all have these cell phones, we expect real time response … For us to be effective players in the water management policy world, we need to get better at taking this great amount of data that’s being collected out there, synthesizing it, analyzing it, and putting it in a format that people can readily digest and use in their modeling or their management or their predictive necessities.  I think we need to combine resources with respect to data collection and management.”

We need to develop new partnerships for funding, such as public private partnerships, Mr. Wegner said, noting that the WRDA bill of 2014 specifically authorized the Corps to develop 15 pilot projects around the nation.  “They are just starting to finish the policy to implement those 15 pilot projects, but what they were telling me is they are looking beyond P3 now, and are looking at P4s, P5s, P6s – bringing together a group of entities in a public-private partnership agreement, and it may be one or two federal agencies, the public piece, with 3 or 4 private entities, to see how they can manage to look at developing new management approaches to water.”

Mr. Wegner said we need to develop an educated public; California is on the leading edge of this in the nation, but the rest of the country doesn’t get educated as we do here in California.  “We need to take the model of what’s going on in California and spread it out around the nation, because having the public that understands the value of water is critical if we’re going to make the right policy, and if members in Congress are going to pass the right legislation to implement sound, resilient, sustainable water policy for the future.

Mr. Wegner said efforts are needed on three levels:

On the national level …

CWPC David Wegner_Page_19“Besides educating the public, we have to educate members of Congress, and also most importantly, their staff, because they are the ones that do most of the work in terms of writing legislation and writing policy,” he said.  “You also have to get to OMB, the Office of Management and Budget.  That agency pulls the purse strings for the federal agencies and if you’re not educating OMB, they are out there doing their thing over here in one arena, where the agencies might be doing another thing and Congress is directing them to do another.”

We have to identify options to the traditional water development approach, he said.  “The historic way was that some member of Congress would write something into a water bill or a bill of any sort, and it would get pushed forward.  In the old time, we called those earmarks.  Earmarks are dead in Washington DC.  It’s rare that you’ll get a site specific allocation of money … most of those site-specific site authorizations and appropriations just aren’t happening anymore.  So we have to think of a new way to deal with this.”

In the WRDA bill of 2014, a whole new process of bringing projects up from the bottom, identifying how those projects were to get to the administration so the administration can send a list of projects that Congress can do a thumbs up or a thumbs down on.  “It gets around the earmark rule, it provides a process so that the locals can be much more engaged in the dialog, and it also helps to do a better process in terms of transparency and openness on how we make decisions related to water projects.”

These ideas and concepts are well meaning when they get started, but we have to make sure we follow through, he said.  “You all have to keep pushing on the agencies to do it – otherwise, it becomes words on paper and it sits on the shelf, or it sits in somebody’s inbox and gathers dust and it goes on to the next administration, and they’ll come up with something brand new.”

Mr. Wegner said it’s important for Californians to come to Washington, DC because it’s the only way congressional members and staff can get their arms around the issues facing the west.  “The reason for that is because as Congress has evolved especially over the last ten to fifteen years and the ability for staff to go out is extremely limited,” he said.  “And without staff being able to go out, we depend upon two forms of communication: one, what the members hear when they go home to their districts, and what they hear from folks who call them or talk to them, and two, if somebody from the regions that are being affected or water districts or some other example come to Washington and make it a point to educate us because without that, we are consumed by inside the beltway thinking and logic.”

On the regional level …

CWPC David Wegner_Page_20I’m a great believer in watershed approaches to dealing with water resource issues,” said Mr. Wegner.  “This goes back to Major John Wesley Powell in 1874; after he finished up his trips in the Grand Canyon, he said we have to have a new approach to managing water in the West, where we’ve got to talk about managing water on a watershed basis.  It makes a lot of sense.  The reason is because of the variability; the hydrology is different from Washington, DC to Portland Oregon, or from Butte, Montana down to Los Angeles, so we have to figure out approaches that represent what the watersheds need.  Part of this has to do with interpreting how these various directives that Congress gives or actions that the agencies take can be melded together.  The one size fits all approach from inside the Beltway doesn’t work in the long run.”

We need to avoid the fragmentation of these approaches and the impacts that they have,” he said.  “Fragmentation limits our ability to think outside the box.  It limits our ability to diffuse new ideas and incorporate new ideas into our dialogs, and it certainly does not give a clear message to entities who would finance these programs or projects to ensure that they want to invest in these things.”

On the state level …

CWPC David Wegner_Page_21Each state is unique; they each have their own set of approaches and implementation of water rights and water laws and we have to recognize that,” Mr. Wegner said.  “The federal government in my opinion should not come in and implement a one size fits all approach.  I think there are a lot of ways that we can leverage our expertise and to work and help the water districts on how to work with them in terms of educating them, giving them the right data, and helping them understand the challenges that are in front of us, and doing it in a manner that allows us to move forward.

The role of science

Mr. Wegner then turned to the role of science, saying there are four key areas that he hears legislators and agencies say they need from the scientific community:

One is the scientists have to maintain their credibility. Any of us who have published professionally or who are involved in academic process or teaching realize the importance of credibility.”

Secondly, science needs to be transparent.  “We can’t hide behind the data; we can’t hide behind the analysis of the processes, but we need to make the science transparent.”

Third, science needs to be transferable.We need to share databases. It is the future in terms of how we manage this large amount of data that we’re collecting.”

Lastly, Science needs to be supported. Many of us historically have gone on the year to year basis of doing science, but we need to have a consistent viable way of maintaining support in terms of finances for the various agencies and studies.”

Developing alternative sources of water …

In 2009, Mr. Wegner and Congressman Napolitano put together a 1 million acre-foot plan for Southern California to basically identify how we could implement water reuse and recycling, stormwater capture, and a variety of other methods.  “We found we could easily within two years, find a million acre-feet in Southern California to help ease the constraints of import restrictions from either Northern California or the Colorado River basin.  These ideas are out there, the challenge is getting the funding for them and to get the agencies to embrace them.”

The Bureau of Reclamation has never been a strong proponent of Title XVI, Mr. Wegner said.  He explained that the Bureau is a traditional agency with a long vested history in building things, and Title XVI was something that was forced on them by Congress.  “The Bureau doesn’t get a lot of funding out of Title XVI because it doesn’t ask for it and because it doesn’t put a lot of engineers to work … but Title 16 provides a way to get real water, real quick.  And the reason for that is because a, it usually has limited environmental impacts … you can generally provide real water within 12 to 24 months, if you’ve got the right sequence put together.”

Wedges are for splitting wood,” he said.  “I think there has been a lot of effort made by people to try to drive wedges between the various water communities in California, and west-wide, and I think there doesn’t need to be these wedges between us.  We need to find ways to build bridges between our uses that if you use a drop of water on ag, it doesn’t mean it only can be used for ag; it’s got other uses, it’s got other supporting elements for it, whether it’s for groundwater resupply or for creeks or streams.  We need to work together; we don’t need to be split apart on these issues.”

CWPC David Wegner_Page_25Mr. Wegner then presented a chart of costs from various sources of water compiled by the Congressional Research Service, pointing out that if we’re going to encourage the development of portfolios of water to increase reliability and sustainability, we ought to know what those costs are.  “Various members of Congress are absolutely right.  They are going to criticize that Title XVI water costs a lot as compared to some of the historic water we’ve developed in the west, but when entities need water for a cities and industries, we have to look at alternative supplies, and in order to make decisions, we need to know what the true costs are.  What concerns me the most though is the very last column over here that talks about we’re not even collecting data on some of these issues.  And if we aren’t collecting data, how can we make good decisions?  We need to collect the data if we want to make good decisions on our water future.

Mr. Wegner then concluded with his take home points …

First off, water is way too important to not work through the issues and the problems.  “You are the water leaders, you are the water managers, and you are the ones that have to continue the dialog after you leave this room today.  It’s up to us to maintain that discourse.”

Second, we need water leadership that is inclusive, willing to work outside the box, and focus on transformation.  “It’s easy to go sit in an office in Washington, DC behind a big desk and put off having the dialog that you need.  Water is so important that we have to be inclusive and we have to develop leaders who are willing to sort through these tough decisions.  Leaders who will think outside the box and focus on transforming our traditional wave 1 and wave 2 of managing water into the future in terms of embracing change and what it’s laying out for us.”

The traditional approach can serve as a stepping stone.  “Our water infrastructure that we built initially in the United States, a lot of it is pertinent to our future.  We have to update it that aging infrastructure in some cases; we have to manage it differently.”

Water impacts each and every one of us; educate, don’t separate.

All segments of our society need to be part of the discussion if we are to be sustainable.  “We can’t afford to shift the cost of developing and maintaining our water onto parts of our society who it becomes a disproportional impact on. We can’t just ship and bottle water.  We have to figure out how to do this effectively and appropriately.”

Lastly, he ended by displaying the quote,

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

I think we need to develop and nurture great minds and the ideas that they produce.  I want to really thank the young people in the audience here.  You are the future.  Don’t stop.”

Thank you.”

More from the California Water Policy Conference …

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