PANEL DISCUSSION: Water agency officials discuss the California Water Fix

panel-2Can the conflict over the Delta tunnels be solved? Officials from Northern, Central, and Southern California discuss the tunnels and other issues that confronting California water managers

With the Delta tunnels hearings underway, as well as the update of the State Water Board’s sgvwf2016_logo2x2water quality control plan for the Bay-Delta, there is much on the horizon for California water in the coming years.  At the San Gabriel Valley Water Forum held last week in Pomona, the closing keynote panel discussed the challenges and opportunities for California water going into the future.  The panel featured Jeff Kightlinger, General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; Brent Walthall, the Assistant General Manager with the Kern County Water Agency, and Jim Peifer, with the City of Sacramento; it was moderated by Tim Quinn, Executive Director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA).

Moderator Tim Quinn began with some opening remarks to set the stage.

TIM QUINN, Moderator

tim-quinn-1“I started in the water industry in the early 1980s when ‘complete the State Water Project’ was the vision of Southern California’s future.  If you compare that to now, how you have turned the world upside down from an import dependent system into a resilient locally-driven system where you have created entire industries in California, the same thing has happened in Northern California.  My Southern members think they’re the only ones doing it, my northern members think they’re the only ones doing it, everybody has been doing it.  We are an extraordinarily accomplished generation of water managers although we don’t typically think of ourselves that way.”

“There were the Mulhollands in previous generations, the O’Shaughnessy’s, and the others that developed the system, they became famous.  I like to point out to audiences that we don’t have one or two of those; we have scores, even hundreds of people who have taken risks to pull projects through and that is why we’ve gotten through this drought so well over the past five years.”

“But if this morning was about accomplishments and the things we have done, this panel that you’re about to hear is about the challenges that still lay before us.  The Delta, out of control regulations coming from both state and federal agencies – those are things that we have not yet managed today as well as we have done other things and you couldn’t ask for a better panel to address the topic.

“Let me start by taking you back to the Delta.  The Delta has always been our hardest thing to resolve.  I’m going to start here and I’m going to end on this note, too.  I work for a very diverse association; we represent the entire state: north, south, ag, urban, east, west – and we have demonstrated that it is possible for us all to be on the same page when it comes to the Delta.”

“Back 3 or 4 years ago when the Brown Administration seemed to be headed down a path of Delta-only, tunnels-only, that was alarming to us at ACWA, so we developed something we called the Statewide Water Action Plan.  The Governor’s California Water Action Plan closely reflects what we call the Statewide Water Action Plan, and we got 106 agencies from all over California – your boards voted to adopt resolutions to support that SWAP, and so did the northerners, recognizing that it included something like Cal Water Fix at the time, the BDCP.  Now that makes it clear to me that as long as we stay focused on a statewide program that’s working for everyone, we can all get what we need, but that proves difficult.  It really does prove difficult.”

“I think as most of you know, in my MWD years, I used to spend 150% of my time on Delta issues.  Now I spend only 20% of my time on Delta issues and I’m so much happier.  The Bay Delta Accord was a brief moment of success that I think we need to figure out how we did that and get back to some of that.  There’s been CalFed, BDOC, BDAC, CBDA, DSC, BDCP, why do we put ourselves through the torture of this alphabet soup?  Because it’s just like banging your head against the wall or it seems that way, and the reason we keep doing it is simple.  The Delta is really important.  It’s important to you in Southern California, its’ important to the folks up in the Sacramento area; the Delta is the hub of the system, it is really important, so we have no choice but to keep banging our head against that wall until we get it right.”

“The latest attempt to get it right, they call it Water Fix, which is accompanied by Eco Restore.  Now all Water Fix does is it’s really pretty simple.  It moves the intake on these big projects.  They are in the wrong place, and it’s attempting to move them from a little river that can’t handle up them up to a big river that can handle them.  You’d think it would be fairly straightforward in not increasing the capacity of the system, they are just moving where it takes water from, and you’d think World War III is happening and maybe it is, in fact.”

“That’s now before the State Board on a relatively straightforward matter to modify their water rights permits to allow them to take water from a different place.  There are 85 parties.  We don’t do anything small in California water; there are 85 parties to the proceeding; 68 of them have filed formal protests.  29 of those protests have been filed by ACWA members, City of Sacramento amongst them, who take their water upstream of the state and federal pumping facilities, so it’s pretty clear that peace has not broken out quite yet.

We’re going to get the perspectives of each of the panelists …”

JEFF KIGHTLINGER, General Manager, Metropolitan Water District

kightlinger-1“I’m going to talk briefly about what we see coming for us as we move forward here.  Right now, Metropolitan provides Southern California with somewhere between 1.8 and 2 MAF of water per year.  That’s the demand on Metropolitan, and it works out to a little more than 50% of all of Southern California’s demands.  We’re supplying 19 million people here in Southern California across 6 counties, and we do half of it with local water, a lot of it the groundwater basins, and what rainwater we capture and put into those basins in the San Gabriel, Orange County, and San Fernando valleys, and we do a good job with that.  We also do a good job of doing conservation, recycled water, and all those programs that enabled us to continue to grow and use the same amount of water.  In 1990, we were 14 million people; and Metropolitan sold 2.4 MAF.  We actually sell less water today and we’ve added 5 million people.  And that’s a real success story with our local water supplies.”

“But those two sources of imported water that Metropolitan provides come from two places: from the Colorado River and from Northern California through the State Water Project.  And both of those sources have been pretty heavily stressed.  The Colorado River went into drought in 2000.  It’s been in a non-stop 15 year drought; we’re down to about 40% capacity on the Colorado River in terms of the reservoirs.  We were at 100% in 2000, so we have slowly but surely eroded all that cushion on the Colorado River dealing with the last decade and a half.  In fact, we are on the verge of getting the first ever Secretary of Interior-declared shortage on the Colorado River, which would impact Arizona primarily, but politically, it’s going to be a big deal; there’s about a 60% chance likely it will happen.  Not in 2017, but in 2018.  So it’s not a matter of if but when we go into shortage on the Colorado River, and that’s going to be a big deal in the Metropolitan world.”

“Then we go north, and eight of the last ten years have been in drought in Northern California, and we’ve been cutback somewhere around 25% of our supplies to deal with endangered species fish, so both our big arteries of imported supply are under heavy duress, heavy strain right now, and it’s making it very hard.  We don’t have cushion on either system right now, so we’re going to have to propose some fixes.”

“We have plans to help the Colorado River, sharing contingencies, and cooperative measures that we’ll be doing with Southern Nevada and doing with Arizona, but we also need the exact same thing in Northern California.  We need some form of Delta fix to recapture some of that lost supply to firm up our reliability.  That’s setting the stage for the challenges that Metropolitan still has to work through: to continue to grow our local supplies, but find ways in which we can shore up some of that reliability of those really basic pillars of our water supply, those two big pillars of imported supply for Southern California.”

BRENT WALTHALL, Assistant General Manager, Kern County Water Agency

walthall-1“I’m Brent Walthall and I work for the Kern County Water Agency.  We’re located around the areas of Bakersfield and we provide agricultural water to about 700,000 acres of farms, and also municipal water to the city of Bakersfield and the surrounding urban areas.

“The title of the panel is challenges and opportunities, so I’ll mention a few of the challenges first.  For the folks we send most of our water to, about roughly 1 MAF about year or about half of what Metropolitan does out of the State Water Project, it’s about running a business.”

“Farmers, whether they are large corporate farms or small family farms, they run businesses, so they are susceptible to all the same sort of pressures that any business has, and cost increases are chief among them.  And farmers have been suffering some significant cost increases in recent years – the price of fuel, the price of water, the price of labor – all of these things continue to go up and they affect farmers, particularly smaller farmers, the most.  And that’s not a surprise to anybody who has run a business.  Those kinds of inputs to your bottom line are significant in your success.”

“At the same time, they’ve been experiencing the same reduced water supply that Jeff just referred to.  On the State Water Project, our supplies have been cut by somewhere between 25 and 40% to meet environmental regulations out of the Delta.  So solving the Delta would actually be a big step forward to securing a reliable water supply and we recognize that.”

“They’ve also suffered losses of water supply for other reasons.  The recently enacted Sustainable Groundwater Management Act affects us significantly. We’re in what’s known as a critically overdrafted basin, largely because we use it.  We like that empty space to some degree because we have very significant groundwater banking programs.  In wet years, we take that excess surplus water and we put it in the ground for dry years, so we don’t mind having a little extra space but right now, we have a little too much extra space in the groundwater.  The drought has impacted that, and our own use has impacted that.”

“In addition to that, the continuing implementation of additional regulations is becoming a problem as well.  On the horizon, we see an additional restriction in water supplies coming south of the Delta reserving those supplies for environmental purposes.  We don’t see that dynamic letting up anytime in the near future, and largely the reason is because we’re not solving the Delta problem – whether it’s an infrastructure problem or a biological problem, we’re not solving either.  So to the extent that we don’t solve that problem, we would expect those regulations to continue to tighten and our water supplies to continue to decrease, so for us, solving the Delta is a very high priority.”

“Let’s talk about some of the opportunities for agriculture.  The opportunities are not limited.  Water conservation is always our first recourse.  ‘We’re conserving, why isn’t everybody else?’ We heard this a lot during the last year that urban areas were conserving but ag wasn’t required to.  That was true only on paper.  Because agriculture conserves, not because they are directed to, but because it’s one of the largest single cost inputs to any farm, so they do it every year, all the time, because it’s the economically smart thing for them to do on a daily basis.”

“We’ve seen very aggressive conservation in our area.  Up to and including completely getting rid of the crop.  The microdrip in our area is very extensive, largely because as a State Water Contractor, we pay the full cost for water, so the cost incentive has always been paramount for our farmers to conserve water.  The drip irrigation is extensive.  Someone once calculated it, and the amount of drip tape installed just in Kern County would circle the globe 9 times.  That’s a lot of drip tape.  But if you’ve driven through Kern County on I-5, you’ve seen those rows and rows and rows of trees, and so you probably know you can get nine times around the world with some of the drip tape installed on those farms.”

“Other things are more aggressive, particularly with respect to how they handle the crops themselves.  For example, another thing we hear in the media all the time is that going up and down the 5, you look and say, ‘they are still planting trees, why are they still planting trees?’  I drive the 5 all the time.  I live in Sacramento and I go to Bakersfield for work twice a month, and what I see is we’ve been removing old trees – trees that have reached their life expectancy and are started on the downward slope of the yield curve.  In other words, their crop is becoming less each year, yet they are large trees so they take a lot of water.  Once that happens, you have a tree taking a lot of water and producing a lower level of yield, it’s time to get rid of that crop, so what they do is they get rid of those trees and they plant new trees.  If you’ve seen the new trees, they look like sprigs.  They’ve got like five leaves on them for the first few years.  And as a result, they use very little water.  So while some people look at that as a water conservation error, it’s actually in increase in water conservation for us.  We’ve gotten rid of old trees that use a lot of water and we’ve replaced them with young trees that use a little bit of water.”

“’OK, so how about in the future? You’re just planting more crops for the next 20 years.’  Yes.  Farmers are optimists.  Many of them have family farms; they would like to continue farming in the future, I can’t blame them for wanting to continue their own businesses.”

“The other thing I would mention as far as optimism is concerned is something Jeff didn’t mention but I know his agency is very focused on, and that’s the science in the Delta.  I think we’ve come to understand that over the course of the last 20 years, the science that’s being relied on in the Delta to set the rules and regulation for its operation have not worked, and I don’t think any reasonable person can argue with that point.  We have not seen any increase in the species we’re concerned about, particularly the smelt or the salmon, and as a result, we need to change the way we approach that.  Jeff’s agency in concert with other agencies, mine included, have started to invest in science programs that are not run by the regulatory agencies.  At first we were concerned we were just going to be called tobacco scientists, so what we did is we set up a firewall to be sure that our agencies that are working on science, those scientists we have, are tasked specifically to look at unexplored areas of biological inquiry in the Delta and are separate from the way we operate out agencies.  In other words, they make their own decisions on what science to pursue.”

“We’ve seen some benefit from this.  Just recently this summer, the federal agencies proposed an action that would provide water in the summer for outflow for fish, and we looked at the data and said, there’s nothing in here to support a connection between that increased outflow and increased fish.  Going through some of the science that we developed and that Jeff’s agency had developed, we realized that scientifically, there was at least as much chance they were going to harm the fish as improve the status of the fish.  In the end, they didn’t do that particular action for a variety of reasons, but we’d like to think that the science we’ve developed over the course of the last 5-7 years is starting to turn the tide.  It’s included in more decisions recently and it’s changing how biologists look at the Delta.  We think that can only be a good thing.  And that’s a reason for optimism.”

“So with that … “

JIM PEIFER, Supervising Engineer with the City of Sacramento

peifer-2“Thank you for inviting me to participate in this panel discussion.  I am Jim Peifer, I am with the City of Sacramento, and I’ve been asked to present the Northern California perspective on water supply in the Delta.  I’ll first discuss some of the diversity in California amongst water agencies and then some of the concerns over the Delta and why the city of Sacramento and others are protesting the Water Fix.  I’ll finish by giving some thoughts on the path forward together.”

“Much like Southern California, Northern California is diverse.  The northern part of the state consists of different water purveyors with different missions, such as agricultural or urban; and different types of water rights and entitlements.  Geography plays an important role in this, such as what watershed a water agency might be in.  Regulatory requirements sometimes heighten conflicts amongst these agencies and work to pit one against the other.  With all of this, there are several different perspectives on water and we don’t always agree.  So I guess I’m giving a perspective on water, not necessarily ‘the’ perspective.  But I think I can bring together some common threads and discuss them at large.”

“I have to say we are working better together in Northern California than any other time I have known in the past.  We’re talking and listening to one another, and working to resolve tensions that occur in Northern California.  It’s hard but necessary work.”

“One part of Northern California merits special discussion in this though, and it’s the Delta.  It’s a collection of farmers, water users, residents, county governments and other stakeholders, and the reason why I am bringing this up is that they tend to get a lot of attention, and they have a different perspective than a lot of other parts of Northern California.”

“For those of us living and working in the Sacramento region, Delta problems hit close to home.  Most of the water that flows to the Delta passes by our front door on the Sacramento and American Rivers.  The Sacramento and its tributaries support family farms, wildlife and fish habitat, recreation, hydropower, and the population surrounding the Sacramento region.  But it wasn’t really until the last two decades that water supply issues posed by a troubled Delta began to impact those of us north of the Delta.  Now problems from the Delta threaten water supplies both north and south, and the Delta is a shared concern amongst all of us.  And we must work together to solve them.”

“I’d like to take a moment to explain a little bit more about what Northern California fears.  And that is draining the reservoirs to a point that we don’t have access to water.  So how does this really work?  Well if reservoirs are brought down or emptied during the summer and fall, or perhaps spring, and there’s insufficient precipitation the following winter, Northern California reservoirs could be left with just enough water to meet environmental needs and not for agriculture and municipal needs.  This underlies a huge tension between Northern and Southern California.”

“Generally as I understand it, export regions – I think you call yourselves import regions – don’t want water stranded in reservoirs in the north part of the state and they want that water moved so it can be moved across the Delta and pumped.  Northern California again does not want the reservoir levels to get so low that consumptive uses cannot be met.”

“One of the things that we learned from the Water Fix environmental documents was that Folsom and Shasta reservoirs would be potentially drained one year out of ten in the future, largely due to climate change.  This is a pretty bleak prospect.  Think about that for a minute.  In my region, Folsom is the water supply for about a million and a half people, and that’s about the same population or pretty close to the San Gabriel Valley, and could you imagine a situation where from around the end of September until it started raining again, there wasn’t enough water to meet those demands.  What would it be like, the impacts on the community? Would a business want to go there? How would it impact fish?  The consequences would be really catastrophic.”

“So why is the City of Sacramento protesting?  The state of California and the US Bureau of Reclamation have said that they are not injuring any other user of water.  They are simply constructing a new diversion point north of the Delta, and no changes are being proposed on how those reservoirs are being operated.  And when I say the reservoirs – Shasta, Oroville, Folsom reservoirs, I’ve heard this said by several officials at DWR and the California Natural Resources Agency, and I believe they are being sincere when they say this.”

“However, there’s a disconnect between the analysis for Water Fix and what the officials are saying.  Our experts have dug into the Water Fix analysis and they have found that the reservoirs are assumed to be operated aggressively to make that project work.  Again, there’s a disconnect between what the state officials are telling us and what we’re finding in the analysis.  Now I’m not suggesting there’s a conspiracy in all of this; I can appreciate that these studies are very hard to perform and there’s a lot of people involved.  And this is just part of the give and take of making sure that these projects work well.”

“In my opinion, the first step in the path forward is to resolve the protests.  That includes negotiating an operations agreement for the reservoirs that does not lead Northern California without water.  This is job number one.  In Northern California, we knew that we would be having this conversation sooner or later, and we’ve been getting ready for it.  We have some thoughts on how to make sure that we can continue to get water to Southern California without draining those reservoirs.  We’re ready for this dialog.  But I’m also appreciative that Metropolitan and the State Water Contractors have also anticipated this, and they have come to talk to us.  And this is nice.”

“Water Fix is not the scariest thing to Northern California water managers though.  Rather, it’s the dull sounding regulatory proceeding that is underway called the Bay Delta Water Quality Plan Update, and it’s been said a couple times earlier today, I think there was a question on how it would affect Water Fix.  A leading idea among the regulatory agencies is releasing a large amount of water in the spring in order to help the Delta, but in our view, it could lead to reservoirs being drained in the fall. If the plan is not done right, it’s risks damaging the economy of the state and shifting environmental impacts from the Delta to the upstream tributaries.  If not done right, it will impact the water supply for both Southern and Northern California.”

“So where do we go from here?  First and most importantly, we need to work together.  That involves discussing our issues openly and finding ways to move forward.  Working together needs to be coupled with appearing united.  If we appear divided, that will give others opportunity to come in and say that water suppliers just don’t have their act together, and they will impose solutions that are not reflective of our needs.”

“The second thing we need to do is work on all the elements of the California Water Action Plan, not just parts that the administration like or that water suppliers like or that environmental NGOs like best.  The plan needs to continue to be comprehensive, and the water suppliers need to inform that process collectively.  We need to construct infrastructure to meet the needs of the environment and water users.  This includes new storage above and below ground.  Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley is one example, but the Sacramento region is also in the early stages of developing a federally acknowledged groundwater bank that could have benefits within the American River region and to other regions in the state.”

“We need to continue our downward trend in water use.  Like you, we are committed to water use efficiency.  Not just during the drought, but for the long term.  The Sacramento region has been decreasing its water use for more than a decade, and we plan on continuing to do that.  We need to invest more in alternative supplies, capturing stormwater, constructing recycled water facilities and so on.  And in that vein, we applaud Metropolitan for its recent decision to develop alternative supplies to imported water.”

“Then lastly, yes, we need to improve conveyance across the Delta.”

“Sometimes we feel that Southern California guesses at what Northern California wants or needs.  I ask that you talk to us.  When I started my remarks, I talked about Northern California working together to solve its water issues.  I think we need to roll this up on a statewide scale and work together as one.”

“To sum it all up:  The problems in the Delta threaten water supplies, both south and north.  It’s a shared concern.  We need an operations plan.  This is a key to resolving conflict, particularly in the near-term.  We need to work together on important policy issues, like the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan.  We need to talk openly.  We need to be united, and we need to build the water structure to support California’s economy and environment.  All this is going to be hard work, but it’s necessary.”

“Thank you.”

TIM QUINN

tim-quinn-1“I hope it didn’t escape you that these three panelists from very different parts of the state of California are not representing positions that are all that different from one another.  Each of these organizations in fact passed resolutions to support ACWA’s Statewide Water Action Plan, which includes a – I’m not saying ‘the’ but ‘a’ solution to move the intakes in the Delta.  We’re certainly hearing our Northern Californian representative Jim Peifer reach out to say let’s sit down and solve some of these problems, so with that, my question to the trio of you is, are we moving in that direction?  What is going on to try and resolve some of the differences between ACWA’s Northern California members and those that are trying to make something happen in the Delta?”

JEFF KIGHTLINGER

kightlinger-1“I think we’ve made a lot of good progress the last six months or so.  We’ve resolved some of the protests you’ve talked about.  We’ve resolved issues with Contra Costa County for instance, an area that’s not popular with exporting water to Southern California. but we sat down with their water district and resolved their issues primarily around water quality, and put that protest to bed.  We’re having that same conversation with north of Delta farming interests and we resolved probably about 90% of our disagreements with them on how the project would operate, and I’m hopeful that will also be put to bed shortly, so slowly but surely we’re working with other water districts throughout the state in resolving the issues on the Cal Water Fix program.”

“At some point, the issues become political and not technical, and then it’s probably not up to water agencies to resolve amongst themselves, and we’ll see if at some point the Governor and the Legislature can pick up some of those, but we made quite a bit of progress in the last six months in terms of resolving some of this.”

BRENT WALTHALL

walthall-1“I’d agree with what Jeff said.  I think the conflict comes from the forum that we’re currently in at the State Water Resources Control Board, a quasi-judicial body with ex parte rules and lawyers practice before it, so it has all the connotations of conflict.  But I would note that even though it does, all of the settlement work that we’ve done that Jeff just described, I think there are currently in the works eight or nine different efforts with the same folks that are in those hearing processes.  They have been successful and I suspect that all will reach some degree of success, so in spite of the controversial and acrimonious nature of the State Board, the water agencies are still able to work with each other to come to resolutions that minimize that conflict so that is another reason it gives me some optimism.”

JIM PEIFER

peifer-2“I’m heartened by those words that the export regions are doing that and we have been having those discussions.  A number of agencies in Northern California continue to discuss this.  I agree with Brent that it does sound acrimonious, but there is an opportunity for negotiation and resolution, and we look forward to that.”

TIM QUINN

“You mentioned there was a lot of difference between Northern California entities.  Is it your impression that the vast majority, most of them are trying to get to yes, or are most of them just trying to stop things?”

JIM PEIFER

peifer-2“I would say that a large portion that are outside the Delta, up the Sacramento Valley, Feather River, American River, they are really interested in finding a solution which protects their water supply needs and also makes sure that Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley can continue to get water supplies.  The Delta is sort of in a different place.  It’s my suspicion that it’s going to be tough work and they may not ever yield on California Water Fix.”

“Maybe there’s a model, though.  One thing I’d like to offer is Sacramento County, which is going to be the location where the intakes get built; they were opposed to East Bay MUD diverting off the Folsom South canal years ago, and Sacramento County was able to stymie the efforts of East Bay MUD building an alternative water supply for that service area.  It was the leadership of Dianne Feinstein who seemed to lock all those people in the room until they came up with a solution.  So there’s maybe an opportunity, I don’t know, but it may be a step too far for Sacramento County.”

Audience question: “Mr. Peifer, we are challenged in Southern California by what I believe is a persistent and erroneous perception in Northern California that the water is just going from Northern California to Southern California to fill pools.  We have been really seriously engaged in water conservation and in developing local water supplies such that we have been able to successfully weather the drought of the past five years.  What do you think can be done to alter that perception of Southern California water use, and as a follow-up question, have you completed the installation of retail water meters in the north?”

JIM PEIFER

peifer-2“It’s funny because we complain about Southern Californians saying that Northern California is just a bunch of water wasters.  I think what we need to do is continue to educate the public that this is a statewide issue that we all need to reduce demands, and we also need to acknowledge that Southern California should be given a lot of credit for the water conservation that they have done, and make that heard.  You guys are a little ahead of us admittedly, but we are continuing to improve water use efficiency and we are committed to that.  I think it’s a message that we need to spread together and dispel myths.”

“Lastly, our water meter installation program will be done by the year 2020.  Our city council has adopted a program and increased the funding to make sure that program gets done ahead of 2025.  They raised rates significantly for ratepayers, two times around.  I have to say the city council took the courageous step in the height of the recession to increase rates substantially in order to move the water meter program ahead of schedule, and did it again recently to put even more money into it to make sure we get done by 2020.  Along with that, we are also installing automated meter infrastructure, and that way we can allow customers to better manage their water supplies and we can allow them to detect leaks, so we take this seriously.”

“Getting back to your first question about dispelling myths.  I think we all need to get together and work on that.  It doesn’t serve any of us well to have that persist.  It’s throwing each other under the bus.  Once again, we need to work together on these issues because if we’re not united, we’re going to be in trouble.”

Audience question: I think we see agency managers trying to work together across the state, and more and more we see that everybody’s trying to solve the problem.  My question is, will politics undo the solutions that you all are trying to come together on, and if there’s a risk of that, what do we need to do to try and avert that?

BRENT WALTHALL

walthall-1“I don’t think politics will undo solutions, and the reason is that politics frankly in my view is always looking for solutions.  If a group of water managers come together and they can develop a solution and it needs any kind of legislative assistance, so they take it to the legislature, a ready-made solution with all or most people agreeing, that’s a solution that a politician wants to see, wants to foster, and wants to help happen.  So I don’t think politics gets in the way of it as much as it does facilitate it, provided that the water managers have done their job in advance.”

JEFF KIGHTLINGER

kightlinger-1“The only thing that I would add is that if you’ve been watching Congress the last few years, we are very gridlocked in this country.  Every presidential election is within a whisker of each other because we’re at 51/49 margins on every issue, and it goes on social issues, it goes on our business issues, so Congress gets gridlocked pretty easily.  California, we’re a nation state.  We’re kind of a microcosm of the rest of the country, and so Sacramento can also get that way.”

“Water is one of those issues that does tend to gridlock people at that political level.  They really hate to impose solutions from the top down, so then the answer means us water managers have to propose solutions from the bottom up.  I don’t know that the politics would stop it if we did get a growing consensus among water managers on how to do it, and that becomes our job then, because I don’t think Sacramento can grapple with it.  It’s too divisive, and it will have to come from the bottom up.”

Audience question: What about the ballot?

JEFF KIGHTLINGER

kightlinger-1“We love doing initiatives in California.  What do we have – 17 on the ballot this time around? Usually they are incredibly well thought out with no lasting repercussions. [laughter]

“This election is no different.  That’s usually not the way to solve things is by the ballot, but voters get frustrated.  They don’t see any action, they don’t see solutions, so they toss something on the ballot and usually we tend to regret those solutions, so again, I think it’s up to us to get ahead of the curve, propose solutions.  You have Prop 53 this time around; in my view, not very well thought-through solutions to some of the growing problems in California, but if we don’t’ find solutions amongst ourselves, frustrated voters will grasp at other solutions.”

Question: “It’s not politics that might unravel this, but the endangered species act biologists seem a wee bit out of control to those of us that manage water.  200,000 AF for outflow in summer and you point to them that there’s no scientific basis for that, and the argument that I’ve been getting back is, but it’s so close to extinction, we don’t’ need science.  A hunch ought to be good enough.’  Well those hunches can be expensive.  Similarly last week, the State Water Resources Control Board put out proposed regulations on the San Joaquin River that would dramatically increase required flows.  Do those things bring us closer together or do they push us apart?”

BRENT WALTHALL

walthall-1“They don’t help, that’s my view, and that’s because I have a bias towards the water managers solving the problems versus regulatory agencies solving the problems, but the bottom line is, unless we provide that science, an odd thing for us to do as water managers is to step into the scientific realm.  The bottom line is that playing field has been vacated by the regulatory agencies in my opinion so we have to fill that void.  We have to provide that quality science that can allow regulatory agencies to see it, have it handed them on a silver platter, they can understand it and then act on that, rather than the hunches.”

JIM PEIFER

peifer-2“This proceeding you’re talking about, this Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan and the other elements of it, it’s going to be a tough nut to crack for us, but we do need to get together as Brent said and solve this as water agency managers and bring a solution forward in order to make sure that water supplies, both to Northern and Southern California, are not impacted.  It’s probably one of the biggest things that could affect it, and we do need to get together and solve that issue.”

Audience question: “Yesterday, I had the good fortune of being on an ACWA trip, and we visited the UC Davis smelt research facility at Tracy, right there by Clifton Court Forebay.  And they can produce 40,000 smelt in no time.  At the same facility, they had a handout that showed the count population of the smelt, and virtually on the graph you couldn’t see it for the last five, six, seven years.  … I was trying to get the fellow from DWR to tell me why the reservoir storage is so low, and it’s because we can’t operate the pumps at full capacity, even though there is water upstream at Oroville and Shasta.  So is it time to release those smelt as we do other species?”

JEFF KIGHTLINGER

kightlinger-1“Right now we have endangered species, smelt, at a low levels of population, and they were the primary driver this year of shutting down pumping and the primary driver for why we didn’t move wet winter water into San Luis.  This year really unfolded poorly and was in my view poorly managed.”

“We had had a proposal to build a smelt hatchery, we have a number of hatcheries for salmon and other endangered species, and Fish and Wildlife Service was actually very much in favor of this proposal and built it at Rio Vista about 6-7 years ago; then there was a change in management and they decided they didn’t want to do it.  It’s very controversial among environmental group to mix man-grown fish with native-born fish, so it was opposed by the environmental community and so FWS has sat on the proposal for the last six years.  It’s been frustrating to us, because if they are on the verge of extinction, we should be using every tool in the toolbox, and this one, for a number of reasons has not been accessed.  But we have a new manager of Fish and Wildlife Service in Sacramento, and so we’re going to approach him and urge him to start using these tools.”

TIM QUINN

tim-quinn-1“Whether it includes releasing artificially raised smelt or not, it’s hugely positive news that the state is pushing the feds in the direction of a life cycle approach to protecting these species, instead of the narrow relatively small number of tools that they were using before.”

“I want to go back to the question about the ballot, which I interpreted to be asking some fear, is that a way that people undo what you need in Southern California.  By the way, I’m not advocating go to the ballot.  If you’re ever drug to the ballot on the Delta issue alone, you’ll probably lose. If you go to the ballot to support the Governor’s California Water Action Plan, I think you would probably win.  I’m not advocating that we go to the ballot, but I can tell you in my world, and I touch bases with all different parts of California, there is overwhelming support for a comprehensive plan that looks like the Governor’s plan.  If you pull any single element out of it and try to move it by itself, you’re probably in trouble.”

“I have five elements for success from ACWA’s perspective that we all need to do, north and south.  The first is we have to work together.  That came through time and time again, and there’s no doubt in my mind that we can do that.  North and south, it can’t stop with the water managers.  You have to reach out to the business community, to the agricultural community, to the labor community, to the NGOs that you can work with, it’s not a long list but there are some of them.  We have to hang together or we will hang separately in the famous words of Benjamin Franklin.”

“Second, institutions count, and our institutions right now, both state and federal government, they are compartmentalized, they don’t act in unison, we need to get back to the way they were behaving some 20 years ago when we did the Bay Delta Accord, the federal government had formed something they called Club Fed, the state government had a water policy council, and they forced themselves to speak with one issue.  In those days, before the State Board staff would have come out with something that would have upended coequal goals and a whole lot of other things, they would have had to gone through a policy review process, and probably wouldn’t have survived, so we need to get back to much more coherent decision making, certainly by the federal government and probably by the state government as well.”

“Third, there have got to be open and transparent processes, particularly with respect to science.  When you’re doing your science down in a silo and you know what you’re political view is going in, it’s not hard to predict what the science is going to be coming out.  We are victims of that, and they need to open that process up the way they did in previous administrations.”

“Fourth, to state the obvious, you’ve got to focus on comprehensive solutions, not on individual pieces of the puzzle, but on the whole puzzle.  That’s hard.  One of the most valuable lessons in my career was that sometimes to solve a problem you have to grow it.  That was in the negotiations for the Monterey amendments for the state water contracts, and you grow this by looking at a statewide comprehensive plan together where you’ve got a good chance of keeping a broad coalition in agreement.”

“Last, it has to be about coequal goals.  We care both about water supply and our economy.  That sounds like a no brainer, doesn’t it.  We get decisions out of state and federal agencies on an almost daily basis and you cannot for the life of you figure out what it has to do with the policy of coequal goals and we need to get government back to where it’s focusing on the coequal goals, and everything that it does is trying to move us towards that, not away from that, and the State Board actions, the ESA actions we’ve mentioned, are good examples of decisions that move us farther away from the coequal goals, not closer to it.”

“Most of you know me to be an optimist, and I definitely am, but I am seeing more possibility for hanging together than I am the possibility for falling apart.”

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