TIM QUINN: The Challenge of Our Time: Healthy Economies and Sustainable Groundwater

Speech at Kern County Water Summit emphasizes groundwater replenishment and partnerships as the keys to successful SGMA implementation

Since the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) was passed in the fall of 2014, new Groundwater Sustainability Agencies have been formed across the state to manage the groundwater basins, and the discussion has now turned to the difficult task of preparing plans to sustainably manage their groundwater basins.  With Kern County being home to three basins considered critically overdrafted and with about half of all water use in the region coming from groundwater, just how implementation of SGMA is going to play out was a topic of much of the discussion at the 2018 Kern County Water Summit held in March of this year.

In keeping with that, the luncheon keynote speaker was, Timothy Quinn, Executive Director of the Association of California Water Agencies.  In his remarks, he focused on groundwater replenishment as being key to lessening the impacts, as well as the importance of working together to find creative and innovative solutions.

Tim Quinn began by noting that he took some time picking the title of his speech, because he does believe it’s the challenge of our time to implement SGMA in a way that is protective of our local economies.  “That’s our job; it’s not going to be easy and I think we need to work together,” he said.  “That is more or less my theme for you today.”

Mr. Quinn is the Executive Director of the Association of California Water Agencies, a statewide organization that represents 430 public water agencies who collectively are responsible for 90% of the water delivered to cities, farms and businesses in California.  ACWA is governed by a board of 37 people, a diverse group representing every corner of California – ag, urban, east, west, north, south; he noted that in his world, east and west is more of a dividing factor than north and south.

They are very diverse, and when you are that diverse, it can be your worst enemy, or if you can get yourself together, and they’re pretty good at doing that, it can make you much more effective,” he said.  “One thing it does is make us – I think we are the foremost champion of comprehensive water solutions for the state of California.”

In a nutshell, what my board of directors would like to see moving forward as a package is more local resource investment in conservation, recycling, desalinating, stormwater recovery, storage, and all of those things that you can do at the local level; solve Delta conveyance problems once and for all, SGMA implementation, safe drinking water for disadvantaged communities and others,” he said.  “Comprehensive means we manage this resource from the peaks to the Pacific, so we are a strong advocate for better forest management in California because it will improve water supply, water quality, and the ecosystem of our forests.”

Mr. Quinn said that although ACWA agrees with the Governor’s California Water Action Plan as a framework, as an organization, they feel free to ‘fight tooth and nail’ over some aspects of it.  “There’s a lot of devil in those details and we want to make sure we have the ability to protect our interests as the California Water Action Plan moves forward,” he said.  “We’re facing some really tough decisions in 2018.  This is the last year of Jerry Brown’s governorship … and even though some of those decisions are really tough, standing still is simply not an option.  We have to move forward.  And we are.”

With respect to California Water Fix, Mr. Quinn says that ACWA is not at any of the negotiating tables, but the board of directors is very clear that as a matter of policy, they support Delta conveyance solutions as part of a statewide comprehensive plan.  “One of our messages to the Brown Administration and previous administrations was if the only thing you want to talk about is the Delta, the only thing you’re going to have is an argument,” he said.  “So let’s talk about the Delta in the context of storage and conservation and recycling and desalinating and all of those things.  We can support the package moving forward, but it’s very hard if you approach them just one at a time.”

ACWA is a strong supporter of water storage as part of a comprehensive plan; as an organization, they supported Proposition 1 which was passed by voters in 2014; it set aside $2.7 billion to pay for the public benefits of water storage projects.  Eleven projects have applied for funding, which includes Sites, Temperance Flat, and expansion of Los Vaqueros, plus 8 other surface and groundwater storage around the state.  “I don’t think they are all going to get funded, but the Governor has made it crystal clear that moving storage is part of his agenda, it’s part of state policy, and I think you can look forward to $2.7 billion going out the door on a conditional basis.  Projects are going to have to prove they meet the requirements that the voters approved back in 2014, but when all the dust settles, storage is going to be a major accomplishment of the Brown Administration.”

Mr. Quinn highlighted the importance of making local resource investments, noting it’s important to not lose sight of what we as a generation have done.  “When I went to work at the Metropolitan Water District in 1985, the first thing I was taught was the ‘complete the State Water Project’ speech, because that was the vision of Southern California, more imported water was how they were going to meet their needs for the future, and a man named Carl Boronkay pretty much tore that speech apart and started writing speeches about integrated resources planning.  As a generation, we have turned 180 degrees here.  It’s not that the imported water is that important; it’s hugely important.  But we have heavily invested in local resources.  Per capita water use in our cities is down, water productivity in our agricultural areas is way up, and those things are what have kept this state afloat in the last 25 years and we need to keep that momentum up.”

Mr. Quinn then turned to implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.  “Of all the complex challenges we’re facing today, in my opinion the biggest by far is resting on the shoulders of water managers and other leaders in the Central Valley, especially the San Joaquin Valley, and it is the implementation of SGMA,” he said.  “Occasionally, I listen to water managers in the San Joaquin Valley say ‘we’re just going to have to live with 40% of our land going out of production.’  It can look that way if you look at it in isolation; I would encourage you not to look at it in isolation.  Managing water, meeting the challenge of SGMA is going to mean managing atmospheric rivers better than we have in the past.  Replenishment water is going to be a huge key to successful implementation of SGMA.”

Successful groundwater sustainability plans will have to take innovative local actions to match demands with sustainable supplies.  “We think at ACWA, that’s going to mean integrating what you’re doing into a functional surface supply system, which we’ve lost over the last couple of decades, and we need to restore it,” he said.

Progress is being made, Mr. Quinn said, citing the recent PPIC report, Water Stress and a Changing San Joaquin Valley, as evidence.  “The Public Policy Institute of California report that came out late last year surveyed of 81 San Joaquin Valley water agencies; 75% of them have active recharge programs.  There’s a wide range of replenishment tools that they are using – I couldn’t think of any that they are not using.  In 2017, you’d expect them to get a lot of water in the ground and 4.6 MAF was recharged in the San Joaquin Valley in 2017, and much of that in Kern County. We can do better, but we did a pretty good job taking advantage of that good water year.”

Mr. Quinn spoke of his travels in the Central Valley, where he has seen innovation and problem-solving at work:

  • Del Puerto Water District, a CVP contractor, has entered into a partnership with the cities of Modesto and Turlock to take their wastewater, treat it, recycle it, and use it for irrigation.  Now their minimum supply is going up from 0% to 60%; he noted it was not cheap, but they are paying for the bulk of it themselves.
  • North San Joaquin Water Conservation District, just east of Lodi, operates out of a garage; it’s just two guys with no staff who don’t get paid, but nonetheless run a pretty good district, he said. The night of his visit, they were holding a Prop 218 election with their growers to pay for an $18 million capital project to capture high flow Mokelumne River water, which they had a water right for, to put into their groundwater basins.
  • The agencies on the San Joaquin tributaries are coming up with innovative ways to get water into their groundwater basins when it’s available.
  • Red Top was an unmanaged area without a water district that was using a lot of water and was a ‘poster child’ for land subsidence, he said. They have now formed a water district that’s talking with water districts who have surface supplies about how they do some innovative things to conjunctively manage supplies.  “The trick is to combine those wet period flows with groundwater recharge and if you’d have told me 10 years ago, I’d be listening to that conversation, I probably wouldn’t have believed you,” he said.
  • And of Kern County, Mr. Quinn said, “I’m a long time admirer of water managers in Kern County, because when you’re not fighting with each other, you’re being incredibly innovative.”

He presented a slide, noting is was a slide from a previous presentation by Eric Averett and saying that it underscores the daunting challenge that we’re facing.  “We need to find various combinations of supply augmentation with demand management and that’s the challenge,” he said.  “If we don’t find ways, if you just accept the surface water system the way it is, then that cavern is going to get filled with land out of production, you’re going to watch your economy shrink.”

And that’s not SGMA’s fault, it’s the overdraft’s fault,” he continued.  “SGMA gives you tools to deal with the overdraft, but if we don’t actively work together to make sure that the surface supply system is restored and that we can get access to wet period replenishment water, which I absolutely believe we can do without doing harm to the environment, then land out of production is going to be the consequence of dealing with that overdraft over time.  We should not find that acceptable, period.”

The PPIC report shows that a lot can be done locally, but capturing the flows from the atmospheric rivers is where the solution lies, and the place to catch water from those atmospheric rivers is up in the Bay Delta watershed, he said.  “It’s enormous, they get a lot of atmospheric rivers, and when they come and give us their bounty, a lot of that water heads for the Delta, and we need to be better prepared to take it then we are today.”

He presented a slide with a chart, noting that the chart is from a recent ACWA study called the Water Storage Integration Study which was performed by MBK engineers.

On average, you have about 10 MAF of water a year that’s going out to San Francisco Bay,” he said.  “I’m not arguing that that’s a waste; I am arguing that we can take a fraction of that with minimal impacts on the environment that can do a lot of good for our groundwater basins and our economies as we move to implement SGMA.  In a wet year, over 22 MAF of water in excess of environmental requirements is going out to San Francisco Bay.  The vast majority of that is because of atmospheric rivers, so we need to do a much better job of capturing some of that water as part of our groundwater sustainability plans.”

Mr. Quinn noted that Kern County has a lot of absorptive capability in the groundwater basins, and there’s a lot of water in the atmospheric rivers, so we have to find a way to connect those two.  “We’re going to try to contribute some ideas for that through our Groundwater Replenishment Initiative, so that we can greatly reduce the amount of land out of production that has to happen to meet the requirements of SGMA,” he said.  “I’m very encouraged by the innovativeness that’s happening with local agencies to deal with this, but we need to work together to get some wet period imports to restore the integrity of our surface supply system so that we can meet the challenge of healthy economies and sustainable groundwater in Kern County and elsewhere.”

There are two bonds headed for the ballot, Proposition 68 in June and another backed by National Heritage Institute and Jerry Meral that is expected to quality for the November ballot.  The ACWA Board of Directors supports both of the bonds, noting that the bond that will likely be on the November ballot has funding to help with SGMA implementation and subsidence in the Central Valley.

ACWA would strongly urge you to talk to your boards about taking a support position and being active; combined there’s about $13 billion investment in California’s water system, and we will do everything we can to educate voters, make sure they understand the ups and the downs to encourage them to go to the polls and hopefully vote yes,” he said.

Mr. Quinn then turned to SB 623, the proposed ‘water tax.’ He noted that the goal is to provide safe drinking water for disadvantaged communities, and ACWA strongly agrees with that.  The legislation proposes fees on fertilizer, dairies, and other agricultural operations in exchange for enforcement relief, which ACWA also agrees with.  “But they want to end the package by putting the first ever tax on drinking water, and we will fiercely oppose that as we’re concerned about where this leads to,” he said. “We are told by the proponents of the tax to provide safe drinking water to disadvantaged communities that it’s only a buck a month and who could object to that.”

We also know that there’s AB 401, affordable water out there, if they are looking for about $100 million for my member agencies for drinking water, it’s $600-$700 million to subsidize about 1/3 of California households to meet affordable water requirements passed by the legislature,” he continued.  “That takes you up to about $100 per household per month.  And in the California water planning process, Kamyar keeps talking about all they need is $10 per month per household tax on water to support state bureaucracies and that takes you up over $200 per month; of course, there’s the forest people and a long list of other people that take you up to $300 -$500 per household per year range and that’s we’re afraid of, quite frankly.”

Mr. Quinn said that the water agencies are not set up to be a tax collector for the state of California.  “Our biggest problem is that California has been living off of the investments, the innovation, the creativity, and the willingness to solve problems at the local level, and if you are letting the state of California get in to the relationship between you and the ratepayers to this substantial degree, I think you do a great deal of damage to the ability of the local government to do over the next 20 years what they’ve been doing over the last 20 years, so again I encourage you to think about it.  This is a big issue to my organization.

He then ended by saying that overall, this is a good news story.  “We have a plan; we need to implement it and we need to implement it paying attention to the devil in the details,” he said.  “SGMA is off the ground, but we need to focus on replenishment.  Nobody is going to do that if we don’t, and so I think we need to do it together, and we need to make it a crystallizing issue so that as we move forward with SGMA implementation, we are protecting to the maximum degree we can the local economies that you are here to protect.”

Mr. Quinn said that while he doesn’t like everything that Governor Brown has been doing, the water tax being an example of that, the Governor has become a champion of a comprehensive program moving forward and that is consistent with what the ACWA board of directors is looking to see happen.  “We need to do everything we can together, to make sure whoever the next governor of California is continues on the same path that Governor Brown has charted for us which was the same path that Governor Schwarzenegger was on.”

That’s what I’ve got for you today …

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