Panel at ACWA’s Spring Conference discusses forest restoration, biomass power plants, wildfires, and other upper watershed management issues
Experts agree there is an urgent need to accelerate the pace and scale of forest management activities. From development of biomass energy and facilities to on-the-ground projects and watershed-based partnerships, this panel discussion at the ACWA Spring Conference explored the barriers and opportunities to restoring the forests to a more resilient condition. Seated on the panel was Barnie Gyant, Deputy Regional Forester with the USFS Pacific Southwest Region; Chief Ken Pimlott, Director of Cal Fire; Jim Branham, Executive Officer of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy; Steven Brink, Vice President of Public Resources with the California Forestry Association, and Celeste Cantu, General Manager of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority.
The panel was moderated by Dave Eggerton, general manager of the Calaveras County Water District, who noted this is an important topic for him as he has experienced fire events first-hand at both home and at work. Mr. Eggerton set the stage for the panel by discussing some of the policy work ACWA has been involved with regarding forest management.
ACWA adopted it’s first-ever policy statement on the need for improved forest management within the headwaters areas of the state, and although one might think of the Cascades and the Sierra, it really applies to all areas of the state, he said. “It’s the upper watershed areas that supply our human and agricultural needs across the state, and the idea for us as an association to really venture into a policy arena that focuses on that natural infrastructure and the fact that it has been severely impacted by the suppression of fire for the last hundred years,” he said. “Many of the adverse consequences of that directly affect out water supply, not only the quantity of water flowing out of the mountains and upper watershed areas, but also the quality. We can certainly see that by the events of the last few years and the catastrophic fires that we’ve had.”
In 2015, the policy statement became an actual framework document. “It’s one of our organization’s pillar documents as far as the policies that we stand for, support, and work for,” he said. “I’m chairing the implementation workgroup on that effort to actually see the changes on the ground that we want to really provide for more resilient landscape, the forest, the meadows, and to really provide the environment that’s more resilient to the catastrophic fire that we’ve seen so we don’t see the utter devastation with the loss of pretty much all vegetative and animal life in those areas of these fire events.”
ACWA has joined the California Forest Watershed Alliance, teaming up with other organizations such as the California Farm Bureau, the Regional Council of Rural Counties, and the Nature Conservancy to advocate for changes at the state and federal level, open additional investment in the fuels treatment, and to restore the landscape, as well as advance the underlying science of how the watershed responds to these projects and the impacts of fire after treatment and the improvements in that. “Particularly right now, with the way the system is set up now, the Forest Service is forced to cannibalize the budget they would use for fire suppression to respond to the fires, and those costs continue to just skyrocket over the last decade, and it becomes more and more of a problem for us,” said Mr. Eggerton.
BARNIE GYANT, Deputy Regional Forester, US Forest Service
Mr. Eggerton then introduced the first panelist, Barnie Gyant, Deputy Regional Forester for the Pacific Southwest Region, region 5 of the U.S. Forest Service. Region 5 is comprised of the 18 national forests in California. Barnie Gyant has been with the Forest Service since 2012; he oversees the areas of program development and budget, ecosystems management, ecosystems planning, information management, and tribal relations.
Barnie Gyant began by saying that he started his career as a fisheries biologist, “so early on I knew without water, there wouldn’t be any fish,” he said.
Back in 2011, the Forest Service identified that there was a need to treat 6 to 9 million acres to get the landscape back to a resilient state, said Mr. Gyant. The Forest Service set goals to retain and reestablish the ecological resilience of the land, provide a range of ecosystem services, sharpen the focus on ecological restoration, increase pace and scale of restoration, and build additional partnerships focused on restoration.
He then presented a map of California, with the national forests represented in green overlaid onto the major rivers and aqueducts in the state. The forest service in California manages roughly 20 million acres; there are 18 different national forests in the state.
Mr. Byant noted that the momentum on forest management has been growing. In 2013, ACWA established the headwaters principles; in 2014 there was the California Water Action Plan and the water bond; in 2015, ACWA developed the headwaters framework, the Sierra Nevada Watershed Improvement Program began, and the California Headwaters Partnership was formed. “A lot of things really started to fall into place with the recognition that we needed to do something different in our headwaters here in California,” Mr. Gyant said.
“Healthy watersheds and clean water, the basic premise is this: when it comes to water, we gotta have it, we want it, we want plenty of it, and we want it clean when we want it,” he said. “That’s what all the citizens want, whether here in California or across the great nations of ours.”
What we have is a fuel problem, Mr. Gyant said, showing a picture of a cabin in 1915 and the same cabin in 2002. “There’s a tremendous amount of fuel build up on the national forests,” he pointed out.
“When the fires are over and the media goes home, that’s really when we’re left with this huge scar on the landscape that we need to do something with,” he said, noting that landslides occur when the landscape doesn’t have any vegetation. After the Bagley Fire in 2012, there were several more sever fires: in 2013, the Rim Fire burned 257,000 acres; in 2014, the King Fire charred 98,000 acres and the Westside Complex fire scorched 185,000 acres.
Then came the insects and disease. “It was on the radar, but it’s actually come to the forefront so it’s on everyone’s radar today,” Mr. Gyant said. “The dead trees threaten roads, infrastructure, and the public. And particularly for us in the Forest Service, we’re inviting the public come to the national forests, and we need to make those areas safe. It’s a big problem.”
Mr. Gyant then presented a slide with two maps, the left one showing the drought-related tree mortality, and the map on the right is a fire threat map. “We work closely with CalFire and Chief Pimlott and his staff, looking at fire and the problems that exist in the state.”
Disposing of the material is a problem. “We have air quality issues, so what do you do? You continue to burn the piles and think of what that might do to the air quality,” he said. “Another one is trying to remove it from the landscape because if you don’t move it, it becomes a huge amount of fuel for the fires that occur on the land.”
There are biomass facilities across the state that generate electricity from wood or biomass. However, Mr. Gyant pointed out that in 2016, biomass facilities which generate a total of 227 megawatts could be lost if contracts are not extended.
“What’s going to work for us is collaboration,” said Mr. Gyant. “We know that managing 20 million acres, we’re not going to get to where we need to without collaboration and a lot of help.”
There are many collaborations between the Forest Service and others, such as the Dinky Creek Collaborative, the Cornerstone Collaborative, and the Burney-Hat Creek Collaborative. They also work closely with the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
“There are opportunities to increase partnerships and collaboration,” Mr. Gyant said. “We’re going to need help. We’ve got a big problem here in the State of California, and no agency or entity – none of us are going to be able to do it by ourselves. We need to join together and look at how we can pool our resources together, whether that’s human resources, financial, or just skills in order for us to conquer this problem, because it’s rampant across the state.”
CHIEF KEN PIMLOTT, Director of Cal Fire
Moderator Dave Eggerton then introduced Chief Ken Pimlott, director of Cal Fire since July of 2011. He is also California’s State Forester. Chief Pimlott began his fire service career nearly 30 years ago as a reserve fire fighter with the Contra Costa Fire Protection District. His subsequent years of service include 28 years with CalFire.
Chief Ken Pimlott began by presenting a slide showing the tree mortality around Bass Lake. “We’re spending a lot of time and effort on what really is a slow moving disaster for California, in particular the central and southern Sierra, with many communities like Bass Lake in Madera County and Shaver Lake in Fresno County experiencing over 80% tree mortality in and around these communities,” he said. “It is literally changing the face of the Sierra that we know and that future generations will know. These are places where people recreate, they do business, and it’s going to be very different going into the future.”
Chief Pimlott noted that California is still in the fifth year of a drought, despite rainfall patterns and the El Nino that didn’t really materialize as predicted; Northern California received more of the benefit than the southern half of the state. “But whatever rainfall or snowpack we received isn’t going to do anything to address the mortality in terms of the existing trees that are already dead or in the process of dying,” he said. “It has helped us in the short term with delaying some of the busy part of the fire season, but we are still in critically dry conditions statewide.”
“What the rain did for us was generate a significant amount of light flashy fuel grass, which we didn’t have in the last several years due to lack of rain, so right now have that kindling which is the receptive fuel bed is to start fires,” he said. “We’re certainly heading into what we feel will be another challenging year for fires. We’re geared up with our partners at the state, federal, and local level.”
The impact of bark beetles has been tremendous. At the time of the conference (May, 2016), Chief Pimlott said there were 29 million dead trees in the Central and Southern Sierra, acknowledging that is a very conservative number. The number of dead trees would subsequently be estimated to be upwards of 66 million.
He presented a slide of photos taken less than a year apart from the same location. “It has changed just since February with almost 100% mortality around that home. What homeowners are facing across the Central and Southern Sierra is how to address removing and dealing with, in some cases, 100% tree mortality on their property,” he said.
In October of 2015, Governor Brown issued an emergency proclamation due to tree mortality, which specified several actions to take: identify areas of the State that represent high hazard zones for wildfire and falling trees; remove dead or dying trees in these high hazard zones; identify potential storage locations for removed trees; distribute portable equipment across high hazard zones to remove and process wood waste locally; expand the practice of prescribed burns; extend contracts on existing forest bioenergy facilities, and monitor tree removal efforts to assess effectiveness in protecting forest health and resilience.
The proclamation identified a task force, but Chief Pimlott said there are over 80 different organizations, both government and non-government, that are participating in the task force from the local level all the way up to the federal level. “Our immediate needs are to bring critical resources and funding to the most highly impacted areas, and then look at bigger term issues,” he said. “It’s forest products utilization and biomass and how do we leverage what’s going on now to try and maintain and bring back capacity to deal with processing the material.”
“Probably the biggest single challenge we face right now is that the infrastructure isn’t in place to process the removal of the downed, woody material such as the logs or the fine material, the branches, the brush, so literally we have log stacks scattered at every roadside, every turnout, and in vacant lots throughout the Sierra, from the Tuolomne south into Tulare and Kern counties. It’s a significant problem.”
“We’re also looking at the expanded use of prescribed fire,” he said. “We have a Memorandum of Understanding among the leadership of the Forest Service, and we’re bringing other partners in to look at increased use of prescribed fire across the state. Particularly on the 30 million acres that CalFire is responsible for, we have to be aggressive in initial attack and fire protection, because there are people and resources out there that we are protecting in the state, but the result of that has been unnatural fuel build ups and fires such as what we saw last year in the Valley and the Butte fires, two of the top ten most devastating fires in the state’s history.”
With the leadership of Governor Brown’s administration and the renewed interest in forest management and forest health in California, there are a lot of forest health initiative projects, looking at high hazard, high priority areas around the state from a fire hazard and tree mortality perspective. “We’re leveraging multiple stakeholders, and multiple landowners to get the biggest bang for the buck from a variety of different funding sources and opportunities, so you’ll be seeing more of that going forward,” he said.
The task force is working to address the variety of management policies and objectives for public land as engaging with private landowners across the state, looking at reforestation, fuels reduction, prescribed fire, conservation easements, and forest pest management, as well as increasing capacity in seed bank and nursery stock. “CalFire is working to rebuild our nursery program to provide a niche seed source for those critical areas around the state to ensure we’ve got regeneration occurring,” said Chief Pimlott.
He then presented a ‘placemat’ that shows the different partners and landscape-level project activity around the state. He explained that the spoke and wheel around the center of that are who are the key partners that need to be engaged around the state with projects; the various initiatives are identified across the bottom – all the plans, the forest carbon plan, the scoping plan, the various forest management plans; and in the ready room on the outsides are other agencies and organizations that we maybe haven’t even thought about yet that we need to include. “This has been our way of reminding ourselves that the only way we’re going to be successful is through collaborative efforts,” he said. “We’re not the only game in town, and there is so much going on, and how do we engage in areas where we haven’t before to leverage opportunity.”
Chief Pimlott said that CalFire was slated to receive cap and trade greenhouse gas reduction funds in the Governor’s budget, with the majority of the funds being used for forest health and forest management projects such as the collaborative projects underway around the state.
Chief Pimlott lastly turned to the Forest Carbon Plan. Senate Bill 32 required a climate scoping plan which is currently being updated. “In order to meet that, the Governor has a very aggressive carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reduction rules for the state here in the next several decades. Part of that requirement is the development of the Forest Carbon Plan.”
The Forest Carbon Plan will set quantitative targets to ensure an increase in net forest carbon storage in California, identify actions necessary to meet quantitative planning targets, evaluate GHG emission and carbon sequestration trends, and to develop specific recommendations regarding approaches for funding actions to ensure that forests in California provide net long-term carbon storage.
“The forest is really the one area that can actually increase carbon sequestration,” he said. “Rather than just reduce GHG emissions, it can actually be the place where we can store more carbon, so how we actively engage in that with the carbon plan will be helping us identify what those targets and the cobenefits that are associated with the forest – water, air quality, wildlife, all of that – with establishing the forest as a carbon sink and a sequestration source. It’s a very aggressive time frame to have the carbon plan done by the end of this calendar year.”
JIM BRANHAM, Executive Officer of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy
Moderator Dave Eggerton then introduced the next panelist, Jim Branham from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. As Executive Officer of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, he is responsible for day to day management of the organization, and works closely with the Board of Directors in developing policy and program priorities. Mr. Branham has than 30 years experience in natural resource and rural community issues in California.
“This region that I get to work in – one-quarter of the state, 22 counties – is a primary watershed for the state of California,” he said, presenting a map of California. “More than 60% of the developed water begins in the Sierra Nevada, much of that on forest service managed land, so we think it’s important to remind folks there is a direct connection to so many places in California.”
“A few years ago, the Forest Service, in what I think was a visionary document about the state of the condition, identified that we have a lot of forest that is not healthy,” said Mr. Branham. “That’s not fall color, those are dead trees. It’s a result, as are the fires, of a combination of factors that include that for decades, we’ve been really good at suppressing fire.”
Mr. Branham said they’ve done some calculations, and 80% of the dead trees that Chief Pimlott talked about are in the Conservancy’s region. “That’s a staggering thing to think about,” he said. “Some communities have got 80% of the trees in their community are dead. The Sierra National Forest has estimated half of the trees in their forest, and probably more like 2/3rds when this is done, so think about that. An entire national forest has lost that much of their forest, and there are all sorts of implications.”
The fire severity is what is really alarming, he said. “The size is alarming, but fires are burning at a much higher severity,” he said. “I just saw a map that shows that the Butte Fire in Calaveras County was closer to 60% high severity; the King Fire was about 50%, and the Rim Fire was about 40%. Historically, about 20% of those fires burned at high severity.”
There is no living vegetation left in these high severity areas, and if you look at it on a map, it’s not a mosaic; it’s these big red blobs that represent a huge loss of all vegetation, he said. It causes a lot of impacts; water and water supplies are really affected by this. “There are real impacts to infrastructure, to water, and to the system when you have these large fires followed by erosion – that is pretty much a guarantee.”
He presented a slide with two pictures of an egg mass in the Rubicon River pre- and post-King Fire. “The fire went right up that canyon in terms of high severity,” he said. “So there are real environmental consequences as well from these kinds of events.”
The Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service have been looking at restoring meadows and the role they play in storing water and releasing water later into the season. “We’re going to need all of those we can because all of the climate change indicators suggest the amount of snowpack is slowly but surely going to be reduced, and we’re going to be seeing more precipitation as rain and less as snow, so again meadows become extra important, beyond all of their ecological benefits as a natural storage facility or process,” Mr. Branham said.
Mr. Branham noted that there is a lot of ongoing efforts in the state to implement AB 32, California’s ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that forests have been generally viewed as a critical positive part of that equation. “We store a lot of carbon in our forests, and that’s important. Forests take greenhouse gases out of the air and store them. But we don’t store them when we’re burning them up; we don’t store them when we have massive die-off.”
“The Rim Fire produced greenhouse gases a little under 2.3 million vehicles per year, and that’s just for the fire, it’s still out there emitting with all the dead trees, so it will be multiples of that when it’s said and done,” he added.
All the trees in the pictures we saw earlier that were dead; two years ago, they were standing live stocks of carbon; they are now standing dead stocks of carbon. “The amount of lost carbon is dramatic, so as California struggles with this issue, and as all of us work on what do we do about this, we need to figure out how we make sure the forests are doing what we want them to be doing, which is storing carbon in the long term and being more resilient to fire and disease as time goes on.”
The Sierra Nevada Conservancy recently launched the Watershed Improvement Program, which is a partnership with the Forest Service, CalFire, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Forestry Association and others. Mr. Branham presented a map with an overlay of the national forest within the Conservancy’s region, noting that the Forest Service is the primary landowner in their region. “We’re really looking to restore the health of the forest – the streams, the meadows, the whole ecosystem and the communities, and figuring out how we address that tree mortality issue. Certainly a lot of the efforts now are trying to protect public infrastructure from falling dead trees.”
“There are huge consequences to a forest like the Sierra Nevada National Forest saying that about 2/3rds of their trees are dead,” he said. “What does that mean, and how do we even get our arms around that particularly in light of what’s coming with climate change. These are huge issues that we need to be able to take a thoughtful approach to.”
Mr. Branham pointed out that there really is a sweet spot. “If you get forests in a certain condition, you’re going to have benefits of water yield and water quality, of habitat, storing carbon, recreation – all of those things,” he said. “It’s not as if we need to manage for five different outcomes in five different ways. We understand what we’re trying to do here. We’re really trying to improve habitat conditions and working landscapes, trying to stabilize carbon storage in the region and improve water quality and quantity throughout the year.”
The use of prescribed and managed fire is important, he said. “We have one of the best air quality regulatory systems in the world and we’ve done amazing things in cleaning up our air, yet it is a challenge to do the work we need to do on the landscape in putting fire out there when we want it, where we want it, at the time we want it, and where we can manage it, versus these large wildfires that we have in essence no control over.”
Mr. Branham echoed the previous panelists’ concerns about the loss of the state’s milling and bioenergy capacity . “While we’re struggling to figure out what to do and how do we remove all these trees, there’s also this huge question of what do you do with it, because we’ve lost the infrastructure and we’re losing more as time goes on.”
After all the bad news, Mr. Branham had a little ray of hope. “What’s interesting right now is there is a diverse high level of support around the need to do something different, that the path we’re on isn’t working very well and these outcomes aren’t what anybody wants,” he said. “We have people working together who aren’t used to working together. We have groups that are major litigants on every forest service plan in the Sierra Nevada for years who aren’t litigating; they are sitting at the table and trying to help, so we have a good foundation. There are some interesting new tools being created, some opportunities to do work differently.”
“The good news for us is that the Watershed Improvement Program connects to a lot of things, including ACWA’s headwaters framework, the California Water Action Plan, and the AB 32 scoping plan, so there’s a recognition of what we need to be doing it and where we need to be doing it. We just need to be able to take that to the next level.”
Mr. Branham ended by noting that he has the saying, ‘Do not confuse activity with accomplishment,’ on his desk. “We can all attest to the fact that we go to a lot of meetings, and there is a lot of activity. But where we need to focus is is the activity getting us to accomplishment, and always try to stay focused on that, and it’s a challenge. The government, that’s what we do, we do a lot of meetings, but I feel like we’re moving the needle; we’re beginning to get to the place where we can point to accomplishment and see that the activities actually result in something.”
STEVE BRINK, Vice President of Resources for the California Forestry Association
Moderator Dave Eggerton then introduced Steve Brink, Vice President of Resources for the California Forestry Association, a job he has held since 2005. Prior to that, he spent 26 years with the U. S. Forest Service. Steve is going to give us the perspective of the forest products industry, the private forest owners, and registered professional foresters.
Steve Brink’s presentation dug deeper into the issues facing California’s bioimass power plant industry. “We are now facing an insect and disease epidemic following four years of drought, now leading into our fifth year of drought, particularly in the southern Sierra,” he began. “That wood does not make lumber. So I’m not going to talk about the sawmills much, because that’s not the solution to our insect and disease problem. Those trees are gone.”
Mr. Brink said the biomass power plants are important, as the state has a 10 to 20 million ‘bone dry ton’ wood waste disposal problem. He explained that two bone dry tons equals one green ton; the difference is because trees are 50% water.
The Burney Power Plant, just east of Redding, is a 30 MW biomass power plant that consumes 240,000 bone dry tons of wood waste a year. It takes 8000 bone-dry tons to make a megawatt of power that generates almost five jobs per megawatt, Mr. Brink said. “It’s more than just the insect and disease problem. We have urban demolition wood as we speak being trucked from the LA Basin to Arizona. We have the County of Sacramento on the edge of starting to truck demolition wood from that county to Nevada, so we have a wood waste disposal problem big time.”
Mr. Brink presented a similar set of photos showing the advance of tree mortality in the Sierra National Forest. “The Sierra National Forest is finding that their Ponderosa Pine type is essentially 100% dead,” he said.
He pointed out that the megafires that occurred in the San Bernardino Mountains in the early 2000s caused a type conversion from forest to brushfields and chapparal, and it’s been predicted that the same thing will eventually stretch as far north as Lake Tahoe. “Because what we have here is a type conversion. You are not going to get this pine type back. You’ll have remnants of it and there will be some wins along the way, particularly in the national forests of getting some of it regenerated, but in general, this is a type conversion.”
“It’s also an enormous fuel problem,” he said. “That’s one hundred tons per acre of dead on the landscape. If we don’t get that off of there, heaven help us if a wildfire starts because, these trees are so dry they actually explode when the fire hits them.”
He presented a map showing expected tree mortality by October 2016, noting that currently most of the mortality is from Sonora to Lake Isabella, which is the six county area outlined in black on the map. “I predict by the end of the summer, the whole northern part of the state is going to look similar – not quite as bad but similar,” he said. “The Northern part of the state has some substantial mortality already. It’s not just Highway 50 south. Unfortunately in our national forests, 2/3rds of productive forest land or 8 million acres are in the mapped high hazard zones. There is substantial mortality.”
Back in 1980, then-Governor Jerry Brown established the state’s biomass power plant industry by creating a 12-cent per kilowatt hour price floor, equivalent to about 20 cents today. As a result, 66 power plants were built in a decade, producing almost 1000 megawatts.
“The price floor expired, the contracts came up for renewal, and the prices dropped like a rock,” said Mr. Brink. “In 2011, we went from 66 down to 37 power plants, and by this fall, we may be down to about 17. The biomass power plant industry is in severe decline at the worst possible time because those power plants consume millions and millions and millions of the wood waste stream problem that needs to be disposed of. We can’t haul it all to Nevada and Arizona.”
He presented a bar graph of electricity and biomass energy prices, noting that the blue line is the price of natural gas over time. At the time the biomass power plant industry was established, it was similar to the price of natural gas, so it was very easy for the Governor to establish the 12-cent price floor that created the industry. Shortly after that, the price of natural gas dropped to the 4- to 6-cent range where it’s been ever since. “So when the price floor went away around the year 2000, the price offered by the utilities to the biomass power plants dropped like a rock. Then the renewable portfolio standard came along in 2006; and the state decided to subsidize wind and solar in a very big way, and so utilities have bought wind and solar to manage their renewable portfolio for around 8 cents a kilowatt. It takes 10 to 14 cents to have a biomass power plant industry. Even more if you have small power plants.”
“If you’re a utility, and you can take care of your renewable portfolio with wind and solar at 8 cents, why would you ever buy biomass power at 10 to 14 cents?” Mr. Brink said. “You won’t. The result is our power plant industry is rapidly going to zero, and it’s going to take state government step in if we’re going to see our biomass power plant industry saved.”
He presented a map showing where the biomass plants have been built. “They are essentially in the ag fields – Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley – and they are there for a reason,” he said. “Sitting in the middle of ag waste, it’s practically free feedstock back in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Many of those plants have shut down because their energy price contract expired. Many more have power contracts that expire between now and October. Things are going in the wrong direction.”
Mr. Brink then gave some numbers to illustrate the magnitude of the problem. “If we took 75% of those dead trees off the landscape and took them to a biomass power plant, and we did it over the next three years, and that’s assuming no more dead trees, we could run fully take care of 1500 MW biomass power plant – that’s the scope of the insect and disease problem,” he said. “We only have about a 400 MW biomass power plant industry … The state government has never incentivized after the 12 cent price floor. Even under Governor Schwarzenegger and even now under Governor Brown. So that’s our situation.”
Mr. Brink pointed out there are other impacts. “If Burney Forest Power goes down in October – their contract expires in September – there’s a sawmill next to it called Shasta Green that has a conveyer belt that runs from the sawmill to the power plant with all the mill residuals. The mill has already said if Burney Forest Power goes down, the sawmill is done. You take that sawmill and that power plant out of the employment picture for that small area around Burney, and you could see 50% unemployment overnight. That’s what the impact can be of these remaining pieces of infrastructure in these small rural areas. It’s enormous.”
But perhaps more importantly, Mr. Brink noted the environmental benefits of the biomass power plants. “We’ve known for 37 years that if you burn wood waste in a boiler versus doing this, you can have a 98% reduction in pollutants by controlling the combustion,” he said. “Placer County has done two studies since then, 2010 and 2015 to verify the numbers. A 98% reduction in pollutants. We can monetize that now because this state spends an enormous amount of money to reduce emissions. In different forms – diesel rules, you name it.”
“There’s an 11 cent per kilowatt hour of environmental benefit of a 98% reduction in pollutants,” he said. “The biomass power plant industry goes away, what are we going to do with the wood waste, particularly the ag waste in the valleys? Are we going to start piling it and burning it again? Which we outlawed statutorily in 2007? I don’t think we want to go there.”
An 11 cent environmental benefit more than overcomes the difference between the subsidized wind and solar contracts, and it’s what it takes to have a robust biomass power plant industry, said Mr. Brink. “You only need about half and there’s some environmental benefit. You could use cap and trade revenue, although the bad side of that is you have to go fight for it in the legislature every year to get the money; another approach is it’s about $1.00 a month increase on each ratepayer’s utility bill to make this happen, to have a robust biomass power plant industry. A $1.00 a month for the 13 million ratepayers in this state, that’s another approach. There are other approaches.”
Mr. Brink then gave his conclusions. “I didn’t talk about sawmills because sawmills are not the answer for the wood waste disposal problem we have in California. It solves some other problems, but our biomass power plant industry is, I believe, just absolutely essential for the wood waste disposal issue that we have in this state. The good news is it has enormous environmental benefit if we’re just willing to pay for the benefit.”
CELESTE CANTU, Executive Director of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority
The last panelist to speak was Celeste Cantu, Executive Director of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority. Celeste Cantu joined the Authority 5 years ago, and has been working on integrated regional water management plan called OWOW, One Water One Watershed, that addresses all water-related issues joins entities and hundreds of stakeholders seeking to create a new vision of sustainability for the Santa Ana River watershed.
Celeste Cantu began by saying she would present a different perspective. “You heard Barnie say that he is interested in water because he likes fish and without water, there’s no fish,” she said. “I have the flip side of that. We’re just sitting fish, because without fish, we don’t have water down the stream, and we’ve looked to the forest as a way to develop a more resilient water quality and quantity supply in the valley.”
“All of you live in watersheds, most likely living towards the valleys but maybe not,” said Ms. Cantu. “If you look upstream, every one of you (with some exceptions) would find a forest, so I would encourage all water managers to look upstream and make sure there’s water in that stream for fish because that means there’s water coming down that’s going to end up in the valley for your consumption.”
But you have to look at the point of the true beginning of where it starts – the headwaters, she said. “If your headwaters aren’t healthy, you’re going to be paying the price for water quality and water quantity and it’s not a good business proposition. It’s a much smarter business proposition to kind of take care of business at the get go.”
Ms. Cantu then gave some information about the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority. The Santa Ana watershed is home to 6 million people and includes parts of San Bernardino County, Riverside County, and Orange County and a sliver of LA County, a total of 2,650 square miles.
The Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority (or SAWPA) was established in 1968 as part of the stipulated judgment; the four major water wholesalers at the time, Orange County Water District, San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, Western Municipal Water District, and the Chino Basin (now Inland Empire Utilities Agency) came together and agreed that they would set aside some money every year to pay for professional staff to help them to deal with mutual concerns, both problems and opportunities. Later, Eastern Municipal Water District joined, and so the Authority is a JPA of those five major water wholesalers.
In 2007, the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority began development of the ‘One Water, One Watershed’ plan, which took a landscape-level or watershed-level approach. “It’s an approach where we holistically look at the entire watershed and say what are our assets, what are our liabilities and how can we find synergies and efficiencies to make our world a better and more productive place, and more resilient for all water resources in the area,” she said. “It’s not just water supply, but also stormwater management, wastewater management, habitat, species, and recreation. Everybody consumes all of those resources.”
“It’s a bit different of an approach, but I’m happy to say that the approach has really taken off, and so we have lots of colleagues now. It brings us lots of challenges when you start looking at how those pieces work together as they don’t work together very smoothly; we’ve silo-ized everything. This came out of the whole assembly line idea of efficiency.”
“I’ve decided that efficiency is our enemy,” said Ms. Cantu. “We really need redundancy as we don’t know what the future’s going to give us. We need several paths that we may need to move forward in. If we narrow it done to just one path, we may find ourselves that was the wrong path because so much is changing and our challenges are so great.”
“So it was in looking at how to maximize those paths that give us a resilient water portfolio that really led us to look up into the forest,” she said. “We’re guided by nine principles which we adapted from Peter Senge; they are that you have to look at the hydrology of your watershed, and the first thing you need to do is start by understanding that you live in a watershed. That’s news to a lot of people, but that’s the first important part. Then you have to look at the political boundaries; they are just made by humans, the water drop or the fish or the forest or fire really does not respect those boundaries. You’ve really have to blow up those boundaries long enough to think about how the drop rolls and how the fish swim and how the fire burns to understand it.”
Realizing that we don’t have all the money in the world, we have to work in concert with nature in order to make our dollars go further; we need to see each problem as interrelated and look for the synergies among those problems. “Solving our problems one by one as if they were stand alone one-offs is not going to get us where we need to be,” she said.
‘One Water, One Watershed’ is a shared vision for the watershed and that’s not an easy ask, she acknowledged. “Everybody looks at the perspective, but when we ask them to come to our table, we ask people to suspend their loyalties to whomever pays their check, and think for a moment what it means to be a citizen of that watershed; to think of the greater good, and worry about the forests, or the downstream people, or the fish, or worry about the others as if they were you’re number one job, not just what your paycheck pays you to do. We think out of that comes breakthrough innovations and it’s really quite amazing how you can solve problems if you change that perspective or change that care or value and to create a water ethic.”
“In our vision, it means everybody in our watershed knows where their water comes from, which is a really hard thing to answer because it comes from a huge multiplicity of places,” she said. “Understanding how much water they use is not easy, but we’re getting a lot better at it.”
“What you put in the water that affects downstream users and where the water goes when you’re done with it. So the reason we want fish to swim in water is that when that drop passes that fish, it comes down to us, the humans in the valley, and we’ve got to maximize those beneficial uses as it cascades from the forest down to the ocean.”
We have to realize that we have all got to do it together, she said. “Water supply guys can’t fix the forests, and probably the foresters can’t fix the forest either. We all have to work together. So a lot of us think big which is part of why we we’re going to the forests, so Forests First.”
Ms. Cantu said that they have found the forest service to be willing and easy to work with. “They have worked hard to understand what our needs are and we have worked hard to understand what their needs are,” she said. “We came together and did an MOU that was executed in 2011-2 where we agreed to work as much as we can in concert with each other. It started out with us giving them $1 million dollars; they leveraged it for another $5 million. They have agreed to strategically do activities in the forest that have a direct benefit to us. We have agreed to monitor that through instream gauges and other things. We don’t’ have a lot of data yet because it hasn’t rained a whole lot, so that’s been kind of a problem. But we know that rain events will come in the future, and we’ll be able to have some empirical data.”
“33% of all of the landmass in our watershed is in the San Bernardino National Forest, so that’s really significant,” Ms. Cantu said. “When you think about managing the watershed to be as productive and as resilient as possible, and 33% of it is in the national forest, you’ve got to be best friends with those people, because the number certainly requires it. And 90% of all the precipitation that falls in our area falls in the forest, so that is where we have to put our focus on how to manage that water. 60% of all the water we use is groundwater, that groundwater is largely replenished by rainfall and snowmelt from the forest that if it works right, it slowly percolates and it replenishes our aquifers and cascades down right into the river.”
“That large mechanism starts with a healthy forest, but when we looked to the forest, and we thought that it’s not as healthy as we think it should be, and that functionality that we kind of get for free is really impaired,” she said.
So these are the areas the Authority focused on. “It’s protection of the headwaters, so we are looking for increased yield, we are looking for meadow restoration that will improve the recharge area, slow down the snowmelt, less flash floods and more percolation as it goes through, keeping the water cleaner, less debris flows, sediment control … Road restoration was another thing that was important. Removal of invasive species; we’ve seen a lot of Tamarisk and arundo come in that use a tremendous amount of water and displaces natural habitat, so removal of invasive species is something that is one of the focuses.”
Recreational opportunities are also important, said Ms. Cantu. “We want people to understand what the forest does for them in terms of protection of their water. We think as members of our community, if they understand that functionality and that benefit, they are more willing to take care of the forests, so it’s very important to us.”
Ms. Cantu said they hadn’t had any large fires recently. “That’s because we got all the fires before, our fires were big first, I’ve no idea why, but we’ve been really lucky to dodge new big fires. Our forests regenerate really, really quickly. Even without water, it’s amazing how fast they can grow, and that biomass is something that we’ve been really concerned about.”
Large fires result in debris flows, which in turn cost the County of San Bernardino a tremendous amount of money, she said. “It also pollutes that water so that water that we’re counting on to replenish aquifers and carry all the way down to Orange County is not available. We have to let it go by because it’s so full of sediments and pollutants. That’s just a lose-lose situation for us. So by working strategically together, the Forest Service has learned what our priorities are and they are very responsive to us; we also learned their nomenclature and have been very supportive of them as they seek additional funding. It’s been a really fantastic partnership.”
She presented a slide showing where the fires have been in the past. “You can see at the top there is where we’ve had a lot of really big ones, so every place that you saw for a forest before, we’ve had some big fire there, so we kind of did a lot of fuel clearing quickly,” she said. “It’s not the best way to do it, but it’s gone, and it’s regenerating now.”
“So what we’re doing for our restoration measures are thinning, road retrofitting, meadow restoration and chaparral restoration for the lower levels. For the water supply effects on the Santa Ana River, we’re looking at quality gains and quantity gains and we’re looking to document that. There are economic benefits to the entire watershed when we’re looking at having Mother Nature do a lot of our work for us – it’s kinda sorta free, so we want to make sure that continues to happen. When we look at maximizing the water that’s available to us, we import water from the Colorado River, from Northern California, and you’ve heard about the Sierra and how that important that is for us.”
“If you look and you want to extend your watershed into where all of our water comes from, it includes basically all of the western part of the US. We know it’s important to us to keep as many opportunities for water storage available as possible, because we don’t know which one of these we can count on or not count on as things go on in the future … it’s still one we want to take good care of.”
“Everyone’s familiar with hard paths: that’s building dams, building plants and pipes and pumps – those are very important and that’s where we spent most of our money in the 20th century, but the soft path is where we also need to spend energy in the 21st century, and that’s people, processes, and projects. We think of the Forest Service relationship as in that soft path of maximizing our relationship with people, processes, and projects.”
“This is what happens if we don’t get it right,” said Ms. Cantu. “If we don’t’ have those relationships and we don’t’ make those investments, this is what our future is like and that’s just a lose-lose for everyone.”
Sign up for daily email service and you’ll never miss a post!
Sign up for daily emails and get all the Notebook’s aggregated and original water news content delivered to your email box by 9AM. Breaking news alerts, too. Sign me up!