PANEL DISCUSSION: Upgrading the water grid

From left to right: Jeff Mount (PPIC), Ashley Boren (Sustainable Conservation), Curt Aikens (Yuba Water Agency), Jason Phillips (Friant Water Agency) Photo by PPIC Water Center

In September of 2018, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released the report, Managing Drought in a Changing Climate: Four Essential Reforms, which asserted there are five climate pressures affecting California’s water: Hotter temperatures, a shrinking snowpack, shorter and more intense wet seasons, rising sea level, and more volatile precipitation—with wetter wet years and drier dry years.  In response, the report recommends four policy reforms: Plan ahead, upgrade the water grid, update water allocation rules, and find the money.

At the PPIC event, Water Priorities for California’s Next Governor, held just days after the election last fall, a panel discussion focused on the issue of modernizing of the water grid.  Seated on the panel was Jason Phillips, CEO of the Friant Water Authority; Jennifer Pierre, General Manager of the State Water Contractors; Curt Aikens, General Manager of the Yuba Water Agency; and Ashley Boren, Executive Director of Sustainable Conservation.  The panel was moderated by PPIC fellow Dr. Jeff Mount.

When I say modernizing the water grid, I’m talking about taking that mix of surface storage, groundwater storage, and conveyance systems and operating it more like a grid, analogous to but not the same as the electrical grid, and how we modernize that, not just the operation but the physical features themselves,” said Dr. Mount.  “That includes everything from water markets and trading, the way we allocate water, the water rights system – that all has to be modernized to basically adapt to these droughts of the future, and of course, the floods that usually come right after them.”

Dr. Mount directed the first question to Jason Phillips.  “What we really want to look at are the vulnerabilities and opportunities in improving this grid.  You are at ground zero in a system that is going to have to make a major cut in the amount of water you have with the existing infrastructure, which was originally designed to do conjunctive use programs.  I want to hear your views on your grid and the kinds of things you need to do within your grid to basically improve its performance.”

Jason Phillips began by noting that the Friant Division was one of the first conjunctive use projects in California.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, farmers had settled in the San Joaquin Valley and found that it was a very nice place for agriculture, but there was an over-reliance on groundwater.  In the 20s and the 30s, Friant Dam was constructed as part of the Central Valley Project.  Friant Dam is just north of Fresno; the Madera Canal delivers water 30 miles north and the Friant-Kern Canal which delivers water 152 miles south to Bakersfield.

Friant Dam has functioned a lot as it was intended, which was to capture surface water and deliver it 30 miles north,” said Mr. Phillips.  “But it really added 1 MAF of surface water to recharge groundwater in those years when it was available, and in the drought years, when it’s not, most of the ag community in the Friant Division can pull water out of the ground.  Much of the districts that have contracts with Friant, I think are going to be able to make the right investments and survive probably better than a lot of others in this SGMA world that we’re living in.”

It’s a much different picture when you look at the San Joaquin Valley as a whole.  “If you look at DWR’s map of critically overdrafted groundwater basins, those basins are mostly in the San Joaquin Valley,” Mr. Phillips continued.  “It’s not new; it’s not like last 10 years a whole bunch of agriculture came in – in 1981, they finished a study on the Mid-Valley Canal.  The idea was going to be to take water from the Delta, and enlarge the Delta-Mendota Canal to bring water to the Mendota Pool and bring it up to the San Joaquin Valley and to Madera and Tulare counties where there is still a lot of overdraft.  The report said there was currently 1 MAF of overdraft in the valley; this was after Friant Division and the San Luis Unit Division was built, and both at about 100% allocations every year, there’s 1 MAF.  The report projected by 2020 it would be at 1.5 MAF per year overdraft.”

That report in 1981 was projecting 1.5 MAF of average annual overdraft in the valley, right up near the Friant Division,” said Mr. Phillips.  “And what has happened since then?  Really, nothing except as environmental laws have gotten more strict and more water has gone to outflow and that 1.5 MAF per year overdraft projection has actually grown quite a bit.  At least, we think 2.5 MAF, and we’re about to release a new study that we’re doing that shows it might be upwards of 4 MAF.  So the problem is not one that is going to be solved with minor solutions, there’s going to be major solutions, whatever those might be.”

How are those people going to deal with SGMA?,” said Mr. Phillips.  “I look at it as, if you were stranded on an island with 100 people and only enough water for 66 people, and you’re told to form groups and make it work.  You’re in a closed system and you don’t have access to desalinate the water around you, so you have to start figuring out the solutions or you are not going to survive.  You’re going to have to start doing reality TV and kicking people off the island, or whatever, but that is literally the challenge we are facing right now in the San Joaquin Valley.”

Now within the Friant Division, I think we’re probably at 300,000 acre-feet of overdraft,” Mr. Phillips said.  “If you take all the million-plus acres that are in the Friant Division, and we’re going to figure out a way to balance that out.  But there are a lot of people that have no access to surface water.”

Dr. Jeff Mount asks, but how are you going to improve that grid?  Is it really just going to be coming up with clever ways to do demand management?

Demand management is only going to help if you have people stop farming,” said Mr. Phillips.  “Because we are in a closed basin in the San Joaquin Valley, every acre-foot that you conserve might help the farmer that conserved it but it’s recharging less groundwater and ultimately it is not reducing the total demand for water in the system.  The same with recycling; it might help the person who gets recycled water, but that acre-foot you recycled is going to go the San Joaquin River and meet an outflow objective that now we have to release out of Friant Dam to meet.  It’s like that in every basin.  I’m not saying conservation and recycling, don’t do them; we should do them, we’re going to do them, but the net deficit of the water balance stays the same.”

It’s really mass balance,” said Mr. Phillips.  “You’re looking at the water you otherwise lose in the wet years, and you need to find a way to capture that and convey it to new groundwater recharge locations, so one of the things that we have to do is look at our conveyance systems.  We have the Friant-Kern Canal, the Delta-Mendota Canal, and the California Aqueduct.  There’s a lot of land that does not have access to surface water because of conveyance.  That’s step number 1 that would have been funded to a large extent or fully with Prop 3, and now folks will have to find a different way to do that, but upgrading the conveyance system is number one.  Then you have to find out how you’re going to put water in that conveyance system.”

Dr. Mount directs the next question to Ashley Boren.  “The bottom line is mass balance.  There’s a tremendous amount of push to basically use every drop as carefully as possible.  The State Water Board is going through its water quality control plan, and there’s the San Joaquin River Restoration Plan – what always strikes me is the environment is a constraint in these systems rather than a partner in these systems.  I know in your organization, you’re trying to shift that paradigm.  Give me some examples on what we might do to engage the environment in the infrastructure itself.”

Ashley Boren agreed it’s a serious issue for the San Joaquin Valley.  “It’s a monumental task to successfully implement to SGMA.  In the San Joaquin Valley, we think about opportunities that floodwaters present, but the state is not really prepared for the kind of floods in wet years that we’re going to experience.  We need to think about it in terms of mitigating flooding downstream community risk, but we also want to make sure we take advantage of that huge opportunity that those floodwaters present.”

The seasons are getting shorter and we’re going to have fewer bigger storms so we have to figure out how to capture that water quickly,” continued Ms. Boren.  “The way we are currently set up in our grid, we can’t do that, so what Sustainable Conservation has been advocating is to mimic what nature used to do.  The water used to come out of all those rivers and spread out across the land, and it was really one giant wetland with high water tables, so what we’re saying is let’s do that again, but in a more managed way, directing the water to the soils that are good – sandy soils for percolation.”

There are some really creative things happening in the San Joaquin Valley to maximize recharge, whether its not planting annual crops and using fallow land, or looking at using permanent crops and flooding those that are on good sandy soils and crops that can handle water, or private basins where farmers are taking a certain percentage of land out of production to build a private basin to capture water,” Ms. Boren said.  “To do that, we need canal infrastructure to move that water to the places where it can be recharged, but we also need to remember that we have natural infrastructure that’s also equally important.  The idea of reconnecting to our floodplains and allowing our floodplains to slow down that water, protect downstream communities, accomplish recharge, and provide very much needed habitat, particularly in areas like the San Joaquin River and the tributaries, we think that’s a very important component.”

Ms. Boren then gave a list of issues that need to be thought about to make this happen.  “One is the beneficial use issue,” she said.  “There needs to be clarity about when recharge is a beneficial use, because just recharging water is not a beneficial use – it really depends on what that purpose of that recharge is for.  Right now, we’re recharging to store it then later pump it out to use it above ground, and that’s a beneficial use.  But if you’re recharging groundwater for a non-extractive use, maybe water quality or subsidence, it’s not clear when that’s a beneficial use or not and it’s on a case by case decision by the State Board.  We have to get clarity because to make the kind of investments that need to be made in canal infrastructure and floodplain restoration and others, we need to have some certainty about what kind of recharge we can do.

There are also issues around water rights, Ms. Boren noted.  “One is we just need to modernize our water rights system so we know who has what.  And when we do have these peak flood flows that come very quickly, we need to facilitate the ability to capture those above the level of what fish and wildlife need.  Governor Brown’s administration did have a temporary water rights permit program; it’s uncertain if that will continue under the new administration but we think it should.  In addition, the State Board has started a process to establish a streamlined process to get a permanent water right for peak flood flows and they want to establish a threshold above which those waters could be taken, and that threshold has to be protective of fish and wildlife.  We think that needs to be done regionally because the threshold needs to be higher in the San Joaquin River tributaries then it does in the Tulare Basin where that interconnection between groundwater and rivers has been lost.”

Dr. Mount then turned to Curt Aikens “We often look to the Yuba Water Agency as an example of genuinely integrated water management and the advantages that come with integrated water management.  You are doing everything now from headwaters restoration work, hydropower work, flood management, along with all the water supply issues and habitat issues.  We often to look to this as a model, and in thinking about it, you have a grid that you manage within it.  Can we scale this?  Is it just going to work only because of the Yuba Accord that happened in the Yuba River with unique circumstances, or is this something we might be able to scale up?”

Curt Aikens said that it’s a blessing that the Yuba Water Agency pretty much contains almost the entire watershed.  “The other thing that has led us to have such great success is really good leadership from Boards and from staff to really smart consultants to see what the challenges of the future are.  I will admit it it’s a lot easier to do something where you have one County of Board of Supervisors, you don’t have a lot of cities involved, and even then, it is a big challenge.  Sometimes your own customers can be the most difficult part of the challenge sas we found out with the Accord, but it takes a lot of collaboration, it takes a lot of good science, being interest based, and really bringing all the parties together.

It’s a lot easier where you have a watershed within one organization but can it be duplicated?,” Mr. Aikens continued.  “I looked at what the American River has done to some extent with it’s Water Forum and how it is approaching the voluntary settlement agreements for Bay Delta; I think it can be done, but it’s more of a challenge for the leadership to collaborate, to look at all the interests, and find a way within their constraints and their interests to move forward.”

Dr. Jeff Mount then turned to Jennifer Pierre.  “We have this grid and this grid is made by and run by and run for people, people often with very competing interests.  You are in the thick of it.  … I want to get your perspectives as we think about modernizing the water grid.  We’re looking at the voluntary settlement agreements.  They may well be a model if they are successful … for what we should do in general.  These are going to be as we all know, wildly imperfect, but they may be the future.  I want to hear your perspective on that since you’re in the thick of this with WaterFix and the Water Quality plan that’s coming from the State Water Board.”

Jennifer Pierre said that there are three ways she thinks about the grid.   “One is the actual hard infrastructure.  It’s interesting that pretty much everybody on every panel have all been talking about the need for conveyance, and that’s exactly what Water Fix is attempting to do as that’s an important part of the grid.  There’s also the part of the grid of the existing infrastructure in terms of how we utilize existing infrastructure in a way that allows us to be more flexible and responsive for this volatility we’re all talking about.  Then lastly related to the voluntary agreements is the ability that we have to have decision support science and the ability to accept uncertainty because we will need to be flexible and we will need to be able to respond to conditions.  We can estimate what the trends will be, but we really don’t know exactly what it will be, so we need to be able to create mechanisms that allow us to make decisions and be flexible over time in a way that helps us meet our objectives from a water supply perspective, from an ecosystem perspective, and to adapt over time to what we learn from our science programs.  It’s changing data into information, and so I think that’s really where to me, having a little elbow room around how we utilize the stuff is really, really key, regardless of whether we build or don’t build more hard infrastructure.”

Dr. Mount asked if the state is well designed for that.  For example, if you were starting from scratch, would you have a separate Central Valley Project and a State Water Project? Ms. Pierre said no.  So why not unite the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project?

Maybe we will, eventually,” Ms. Pierre said.  “There are obviously very coordinated options between the two projects, and regulations express themselves differently.  I don’t think one way is better than the other in terms of whether it would be State Water Project or Central Valley Project, but rather, if it were a unified project, I think it could be more efficient, not just in the planning exercises that sometimes are frustrating, but really in how we share water and how that gets moved around the state for water rights and water supply, for flood protection, and for ecosystems and having a lot more flexibility.  To me, that is the name of the game.  That’s what WaterFix is all about, having that flexibility, having regulations that don’t hamstring us.  We’re also working on a contract amendment to really have water management tools that allow us to more effectively move State Water Project water from one user to another.  That is a huge upgrade in terms of the movement of the water in a way that is cost-effective and actually provides the water where it’s needed.”

Dr. Mount then noted the defeat of Proposition 3, which would have funded a number of water projects, attributing it to possibly bond fatigue.  He asked Jason Phillips what’s the Plan B? … How are you dealing with that users and what creative solutions are you offering them?

Jason Phillips noted that less than a third of Prop 3 would have directly benefitted the Friant Division.  “What we had recognized is that we need to have some money to upgrade the conveyance system in the Valley and when the bond was being put together, it was being looked at as how can we make sure that the money gets put where it needs to go to fix the problems and to get the water when it’s available to where it needs to be?  The collective feeling on that was no. …”

Friant-Kern Canal; Photo by DWR

So moving forward, how do we invest in the infrastructure we need?  Should we merge the CVP and the State Water Project?  We’ve kind of tied ourselves in knots in California with our complex system, and CVP water users like us would say, well the first thing that’s going to happen is we’re going to have to pay a whole lot more money because of the way that DWR operates it, and then we’re going to get into all these arguments on water allocations and priorities that are just going to get complicated enough to make it take too long and we get a switch in politics and then we move on.  And we’ve been in that cycle for decades.  And it’s no different when we talk about investing in new infrastructure.”

The Water Fix is a good example, Mr. Phillips said.  “Water Fix is a project that would allow more flexibility to deliver more water when it’s available and in a more environmentally friendly way.  However, one of the main barriers is all of the water agencies – the Bureau of Reclamation has over 300 contracts for the water, so it’s all different than how the state does it, and we open ourselves up to so many arguments, debates, and vulnerabilities.  The environmental community, at least those that would choose to find a way to kill this project have so many buttons to choose from, it’s crazy.  It goes for every single project that we want to build, and I don’t think funding would be a problem if we could find a way that the people who are going to put there money there will know they will get a benefit for it, and other people who maybe are fine with what they have know they won’t end up with less water, and to me, that’s a major institutional barrier that we have to overcome.”

Dr. Mount then turned to Curt Aikens, noting that while people focus on water scarcity, one of the signatures of change is increasing volatility so that flood management is balanced with water supply management.  “All of us who read the Central Valley flood plan looked at that price tag and were very impressed by the number of 0s within it, and as Ellen Hanak coined the term some time ago, ‘fiscal orphans’, flood management is a fiscal orphan.  Although there is new help from the federal government, it’s not going to solve the problem, so I’m curious of your thoughts about how we deal with that part of our infrastructure.”

How the Yuba has dealt with that is to say, how can we as one of the poorest counties in the state, find a revenue source,” said Mr. Aikens.  “We were fortunate that we have a lot of water supply, sometimes in the drought, and then we have too much with the flood, and we manage to work a series of laws for transfers and so for many years, two or three decades, we survived off of transfer revenues and were able to reinvest into our mission which is primarily water supply and flood protection.  I think having that coequal goal out there really helps us with all this.”

New Bullards Bar; Photo by DWR

Mr. Aikens said that after 50 years, the generation benefit from the project is a lot less than it was 10 years ago, so they’re looking at to sustain the transfer of water and our generation benefits.  “There’s not much we can do on the generation side, but one of the concerns that we have is how do we go forward with the Bay Delta process?  We put the Yuba Accord together which was just a marvelous way of creating a win-win-win, we were able to take care of the environment with instream flow requirements, we were able to sustain our water transfers by taking that increased flow and be able to transfer that, and then we were able to work with our own farmers to put contracts together to make all this work.  It’s a pretty unique situation.

Now we’re faced with Bay Delta and a 55% unimpaired flow,” Mr. Aikens said.  “It would wipe that out, it potentially takes the revenues away for us to work with like our Blue Forest Project in the upper watershed, and it potentially takes away revenues to build the secondary spillway.  One of the things is we have an existing infrastructure.  Our challenge is how do we make better use of that infrastructure with very limited funds.  We’ve chosen with the secondary spillway to improve flood protection, but also like Lake Mendocino, to look at ways to improve our water supply.  We’re really good at forecasting those storms for awhile, and if we do that, then we can retain that water above the flood pool and move forward.”

It gets back to how do we work as a state,” said Mr. Aikens.  “I think the challenge we have is to really focus on interspace collaborative settlements where we have good leadership that’s not stuck in a silo, that’s not stuck in ‘this is my regulatory area’, but looking for a way of how do we balance all the issues across the board and find a way to make it work in this very challenging environment.”

The topic of the discussion then turned to funding.  Dr. Mount turned to Jennifer Pierre, noting that Water Fix has always been a ‘beneficiary pays project, but as Phil Isenberg would regularly point out, Californians want everything and somebody else to pay for it.  So who is going to pay for the repairs on Oroville Dam?  Right now, the federal government is not being a very good partner … are ratepayers going to have to come up with that money?

Jennifer Pierre pointed out that the State Water Contractors represent 27 public water agencies, of which Metropolitan is the largest but definitely not the only, and each of those public water agencies are making investments in their own regions and backyards.  A lot of cities and agricultural areas are doing innovative things, and they pay for that, they fund those, she said.  They also pay for all of the costs associated with the State Water Project.

Oroville Spillway, Photo by DWR

I don’t think the costs have been completely sorted out on Oroville, so I can’t really speak exactly to that, but we do not seek others or taxpayers to pay for the State Water Project facilities as we have always paid for those facilities,” Ms. Pierre said.  “The Water Fix standard that the beneficiary pays is consistent with everything else we’ve always done on the State Water Project.”

I do want to point out that the Water Fix project is the most cost-effective way to stabilize water supplies for the State Water Project,” Ms. Pierre continued.  “The price tag is always brought up but when you compare anything that else could be done regionally or on the project, it is by far the most cost-effective which is why we are pursuing it.  It is the most responsible way to stabilize the water grid for the State Water Project.  And it doesn’t just benefit the State Water Project.  There are benefits even outside of the CVP to having improved conveyance.  There are benefits to the environment by having the ability to be more flexible, there are benefits to being able to respond to salinity and sea level rise to the flashiness of the water and what is that safe amount you can take when you have a condensed season of high flows on the Sacramento River in a way that we can take that safely.  That’s why we’re pursuing it, and we are planning to pay for it.  There are 5 north of Delta water agencies that are State Water Project contractors and they are not going to be paying for it, and that’s another piece of the contract amendment we’re working on.”

Dr. Mount acknowledged that the most difficult of the fiscal orphans is the environmental side, and Prop 3 had a lot of money for environmental restoration to purchase flows.  There still is a lot of money out there in Prop 68 and Prop 1 that hasn’t been spent down, but this is a public trust resource.  What are your views on how we might change the way we approach paying for the environmental issues with the costs and trying to restore the environment?

Ashley Boren noted that the bonds passed over the years have been helpful in funding very badly needed environmental restoration work but they are certainly not sufficient.  “We really do have to figure out some stable long-term funding source for the environment because the needs that we have, whether it be instream fish passage to fish barriers, or floodplain restoration, the needs are huge.  Even if Prop 3 had passed, it had a lot of important money but not enough for what are we facing, so whether it’s a public goods charge or some other kind of vehicle, we do need to figure out a long-term, stable funding source.”

Dutch Slough restoration project under construction; Photo by DWR

It’s also critical for the funding that we do have for restoration be spent as cost effectively as possible.  “One of the things Sustainable Conservation has been involved with is how do you create much simpler permitting processes to get these restoration projects done.  Our environmental regulations do not distinguish between restoration and development projects.  You have to go through all the same processes and hoops and that is a very costly, complicated, and long process, so we have been developing programmatic permits in cooperation with the agencies so that all of the environmental protection measures and everything that is needed is known up front so projects can be designed for that and can go through much more quickly.  And that will result in more of the money that we do have being spent on actual improvements to environmental conditions.”

Jennifer Pierre pointed out that EcoRestore estimates to be a billion dollars of restoration and the State Water Project contractors are paying for that.  It’s estimated that $100 million annually is being collected from the Central Valley Project contractors, and the State Water Project contractors for science and research, and water exporters are paying for that.  “There’s actually a lot of money on the table, but how are we using that?  I think that’s a better question to be asking ourselves.  How are we using the money that’s on the table before we start talking about needing more?  I’m not saying that we don’t, but we just gloss over what we’re already spending on and are they really addressing the priorities that we have today?”

Dr. Mount then said to the panelists, you go to the Resources Agency, you step in the elevator, and in steps the new Governor.  He steps in and you have him for 16 floors.  What do you say?

Governor, fancy meeting you here.  I’m Jason Phillips, I’m with the Friant Water Authority, I’m responsible for delivering water to over a million acres in the San Joaquin Valley, very productive areas.  You’ve probably heard there’s a water crisis brewing in the Valley and if we don’t take major actions soon, there’s going to be land retirement forced on us of probably between 1 to 2 million acres.  We are not prepared in the San Joaquin Valley to deal with this, what we desperately need is a strategic plan for how to balance water conditions in the San Joaquin Valley and the next 15 years.  Would you be willing to take a meeting to talk about partnering with us to develop that plan?

Jennifer Pierre answered, “Governor, Congratulations.  As you move forward in water for California, remember that flexibility is the name of the game.  We need it for the existing grid, we need grid improvements, and we need the ability to use decision support science in order to operate those as best we can … don’t wait for the perfect plan, we’re going to suffer every year that we delay.”

Curt Aikens said, “What i would say is that your ability to accomplish your water agenda is going to be largely dependent upon who you appoint to director positions and board positions.  I ask you to give some real thought to appointing proven leaders that have expertise in their field, champions that want to champion projects that go beyond the regulatory requirements in their department and find comprehensive interest-based solutions that take people out of their silos and provide an overall solution.”

Ashley Boren said, “Governor Newsom, very nice to meet you.  I want to tell you I was really impressed how you jumped right into the job the day after the election and sent a letter to the State Board asking them to delay their decisions so that the settlement negotiations had a chance.  I want to urge you to say involved in those settlement negotiation discussions to make sure they happen and we come out with a real solution that we can measure with outcomes for fish and wildlife while managing also for communities and the local economies.  This is very important for you to do because if this does not get solved now, you are going to have escalated conflict over water during your administration when you have many important goals, including the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act which as you know, was the first major water law in 100 years, but just passing legislation doesn’t make it happen.  It’s a huge lift and you really have to double down to providing support to implement it successfully.”

The floor was then opened up for audience questions.

Question:  How do Delta tunnels fix the Delta?

There’s no silver bullet for the Delta, so I don’t want to come off as saying they “fix” the Delta, but what they do do is provide a couple things,” said Jennifer Pierre.  “First of all, the flexibility to move water in the Delta in a way that can be responsive to the conditions in the Delta versus just having one single point of diversion.  They help to improve the ability to have a more natural flow in the south Delta where entrainment impacts have been a concern for many years.  They are also located at an elevation that is adaptable for climate change, and I think in general just having the ability to move different knobs in response to what we really don’t know is our future, so that’s the purpose of those.”

Question: How can we improve our grid and get markets so they can really work?

For the State Water Project, we’re working on a contract amendment that allows us to better move State Water Project water amongst ourselves so that, for example, in years when a contractor south of the Delta would have been going to Yuba County and looking to transfer that through the Delta, they can instead look to another State Water Project south of the Delta and try to be more efficient within that service area,” said Jennifer Pierre.  “I think there is some programmatic permitting that could be helpful on the transfers, but I think collectively, we need to start to recognize that we need to be able to move this around but there are some people don’t want to see that happen.”

Question: The unusual if not unprecedented step of the Governor and Governor-elect signing a letter urging the Water Board to delay action on the water quality control plan update – I’m interested in the panel’s perspectives on what do you read into that?  Is that a good thing?  Does it mean we can get to a good outcome?

It was a very welcome announcement,” said Curt Aikens.  “I think that there’s great possibility to get together on a voluntary agreement.  Quite frankly, I think we need some leadership at the Governor’s level, and it’s really welcome to say, I want all you guys to get together.  It’s almost like locking people in a room and saying, ‘I’m not going to let you out until you find a solution to all this stuff.’  I think we need a little bit more leadership and focus on let’s get something done here.  I think this is a step in the right direction.”

Merced River; Photo by Kelly the Deluded

Sustainable Conservation is not in the room in these settlement negotiations but we are big proponents of them because we think our fish populations are really in very serious condition and increased flows are important,” said Ashley Boren.  “But we think that habitat restoration is also important and we feel like all the strategies need to be brought to bear at once, and so that’s one reason.  The second is that I just fear endless litigation if there isn’t some kind of settlement agreement that is pushed, so I’m not sure what it means that he did that, but I was happy that he did it to make sure we give it the best chance it has to happen.  I do think whatever does come out, it’s got to have outcomes that can be measured and monitored for fish and wildlife because that is such a critical issue.”

I think from the water users perspective, it was very welcome to see the engagement that quickly,” said Jason Phillips.  “I think it was the right decision.  The regulatory sledgehammer approach for the past 30 years has failed miserably and a lot of us are suffering because of it and the fish are not doing better.  We need settlement agreements where the focus is how do you restore specifically to the objectives that you’re shooting for and not just say, hey we’ve got leverage to hit the sledgehammer, so I thought it was welcome.”

Jennifer Pierre also agreed it was welcome.  “We are also part of a coalition letter to ask for the delay, and I think it’s not a delay in action, it’s a delay.  This stuff is not easy, it’s not as simple as unimpaired flows; it is way more complicated.  I think that giving us a little bit more time is going to allow for something that is durable and that is sustainable from an environmental perspective, and that hopefully will reduce litigation.  I think those are all important concepts and I appreciate that the Board is giving us a little bit more time in order to sort this out because I am very optimistic about it.

Question: “My county is very good at recycling water, so we are recycling better than half the water that would otherwise go to the ocean.  We have pretty good conservation programs.  When is enough on reduced reliance on the Delta? And how is that distributed to the people who have reduced reliance and those that haven’t?  It’s a somewhat different concept then what I heard when we passed 7xx and it’s a very key thing.  So the people who can talk about reduced reliance on the Delta, I’d appreciate if they would address that.”

I am angry right now about this topic, but I’ll try to stay calm,” said Ms. Pierre.  “I think it is well recognized by most of us that all of you within the Delta service area have been making the investments to reduce reliance and this myth that somehow down in Southern California and throughout the Valley, there is this wasteful use of water all over the place and that needs to be reigned in from people in Sacramento is ridiculous.  I think the facts are there, and I think that we need more people to stand up and say, here’s what we’re doing.  I think we heard about it from Inland Empire, we are hearing about it from you, and all of our members, all 24 South of Delta members are doing things locally to reduce their reliance and it needs to be better recognized.  We need to get past the myth, so the more you can stand up and say it, the better, but I don’t know when enough will be enough.”

Question: Another topic not mentioned today are seismic issues.  Do you feel like our water grid is prepared to withstand a major event that is inevitable, geologically?

There are processes for analyzing maximum credible earthquake and we have gone through that,” said Curt Aikens.  “We have done analysis on our dams and our gates, and have determined that the structure is adequately designed for the science that we have today.  We’re looking at future improvements too.  The secondary spillway, while it’s designed for flood protection, it’s going to be a big safety improvement and dam safety enhancement because we’ll be able to release more water from behind the dam quicker in case something happens, and I think we’re in a pretty good position.”

Dr. Mount asked Jennifer Pierre about seismic risk and the State Water Project, noting that some people have argued that the question of outage in the Delta due to an earthquake is actually small relative to the outage that can occur elsewhere in that system, particularly on the San Andreas in the south.  How well are you prepared for outages because of earthquakes?

The system has been identified for a long time as needing to have a seismic retrofit, but the Department has been working on some of the other California reservoirs and has been upgrading those, so I think the risk is known but we’re trying to work through it,” Ms. Pierre said.  “We have the same sorts of hurdles that we have with anything related to the State Water Project, and that is that there’s just blanket opposition to any sort of improvement on the State Water Project, even if it’s in the name of public safety.  Water Fix also has a huge seismic value, both under an emergency condition but also long-term ability to continue to provide water to 27 million Californians, so we’re working on it.”

And with that, Dr. Jeff Mount closed the discussion by saying he’s hoping they will hear a lot of discussion about the concept of the water grid in the Newsom administration.  “At PPIC, we’ve been touting this now for some years,” he said.  “We need to think about it as a grid.”

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