METROPOLITAN COMMITTEE: The Newsom Administration’s draft Water Resilience Portfolio

On January 3, State agencies released a draft Water Resilience Portfolio which outlines more than 100 integrated actionable recommendations in four broad areas that are intended to help California cope with more extreme droughts and floods, rising temperatures, declining fish populations, aging infrastructure and other challenges.  The draft document is essentially the basis for the Newsom Administration’s water policy and is currently being circulated for public review with feedback being accepted through February 7, 2020.

At the January meeting of Metropolitan Water District’s Conservation and Local Resources Committee, Nancy Vogel, Director of the Governor’s Water Portfolio Program at the Natural Resources Agency, gave committee members an overview of the draft resilience portfolio.

Ms. Vogel began with the background of the document.  At the end of April 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom issued an Executive Order directing the Natural Resources Agency, the California Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture to prepare a water resilience portfolio that will meet the future needs of California’s communities, economy, and environment.

The Governor’s executive order was about two and a half pages long and there was a lot packed into it, she said.  “He asked that we prepare this portfolio after we had done an inventory and assessment of many different aspects of California water, including future supply and demand by region, statewide water quality, and other factors.  He also asked for extensive stakeholder input; we conducted more than 20 public meetings around the state through the summer and fall and I met with representatives of at least 60 different groups.  We received substantial and impressive input from more than 100 individuals and organizations.  So when you see the actual document, it’s hefty.  The Executive Order helps explain why it is so big.  Don’t be overwhelmed by it, because there are big appendices in it that address the inventory and assessment aspects of what the Governor called for.

The main portion of the document is about 25 pages, which lists the actions proposed for what the state should do going forward.  Ms. Vogel said there are many factors that drive the need to assess California’s water investments and policies, such as a growing population and increasingly warm average temperatures which are altering precipitation, shrinking the snowpack, and intensifying drought and flood.

We think of this draft document as an integrated set of actions that if carried out, are designed to help communities prepare for and to recover from shocks – primarily drought and flood is what we have in mind,” said Ms. Vogel.  “The Governor’s Executive Order asked that we embrace projects that offer multiple benefits that utilize the powerful but pretty hard to quantify services of natural infrastructure such as aquifers and floodplains and wetlands and forests.  He asked that we take a regional approach and build partnerships.  And as it is true across the entire administration, he also called for integration of state efforts so that state water-related entities are not working across purposes or hindering efforts of local and regional agencies to deliver regional resilience.”

The portfolio proposes 133 separate actions which fall into four main categories: to maintain and diversify water supplies; to protect and enhance natural systems; to build connections of all kinds, from physical to digital to human; and to be prepared by planning and making investments.

Ms. Vogel acknowledged the draft portfolio does not propose any radical ideas such as new mandates on water users or overhauling the water rights system.

I like to think of it as useful incrementalism,” she said.  “It attempts to build on the significant water policy changes that were made under the Brown Administration which were propelled in part by the 2012-2016 drought; in those years, the Governors and the legislature have enacted several complicated and important laws related to groundwater management, conservation, and safe drinking water.  A key element of the portfolio is getting those laws fully and comprehensively and fairly implemented, which is no small task.

Some elements of the portfolio highlight the need for greater state government efficiency such as coordinating grant and loan programs across state agencies to fund multi-benefit projects; evaluating state water-related plans and consider modifying, consolidating, or discontinuing; and developing expedited and cost-effective permitting mechanisms for restoration projects.

Other proposed actions are aimed at gathering, creating, and better disseminating the information that can help all water managers, local, state, or federal, which includes building on ongoing work to efficiently and transparently quantify the timing and flows that fish and wildlife need in their habitat on California streams, she said.  It means getting more fine grained information about water use so that water managers have a better sense of what’s going on in their watersheds.  It also means doing consistent, trusted analyses by watershed of the potential effects of climate change on water resources using the best science which she noted is an important role for the state.

The main themes in the draft document are by and large water management in California is a local endeavor,” said Ms. Vogel.  “The state’s role is not to solve every water problem, but rather to help catalyze, support, and guide beneficial actions that will largely be carried out by entities other than the state.  Further, we want to build on the momentum we had coming out of the last drought, and the state must make the effort to improve its own operations so that we’re a help and not a hindrance to the complex multi-partner multi-benefit regional projects that I know all of you are tackling that help build resilience.”

The appendices of the draft portfolio contain the assessments for each of the ten hydrologic regions of the state that consider sources and uses of water, major surface and groundwater pollutants, instream flow requirements where they have been set; likely climate change effects; and water rights, such as the total volume associated with water rights in the region.  They also accessed a variety of databases and reports to assess water-related vulnerabilities by region, ranking them on a scale of 1 to 4 on about a dozen different measures, such as drought preparedness, flood risks, climate change, and other factors.

We didn’t do these rankings to guide any kind of policies, regulations, or funding,” said Ms. Vogel.  “We did it simply to make the point and to illustrate the fact that every region in California has different vulnerabilities when it comes to water resources and therefore our approach has got to be based on a regional scale.

Given the focus of the committee, Ms. Vogel turned to the draft efficiency, recycling, and stormwater actions in the portfolio.  “We think it’s profoundly important to carry out AB 1668 and SB 606, the conservation as a way of life laws that were enacted in 2018 to create new efficiency standards for residential use and reporting requirements for agricultural use,” she said.  “We agree with Met that compliance with the state’s Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance (MWELO) is important, and can make a notable improvement in water use efficiency.

She noted that the Governor’s budget proposal includes $20 million for agriculture water use efficiency grants, and the PUC will be updating the calculator it uses to help utilities figure out the energy savings associated with water conservation.

Currently, the state is recycling about 700,000 acre-feet of water per year; the State Water Resources Control Board has set a policy with a target of 2.5 million acre-feet of water being recycled statewide by 2030.   Draft portfolio actions include increasing the Clean Water State Revolving Fund’s financial capacity; completing raw water augmentation regulations by 2023; creating risk-based water quality standards for onsite collection and non-potable reuse of water in apartment, commercial, and mixed-use buildings; and updating 20-year-old ‘purple pipe’ regulations to expand use of non-potable recycled water.

Ms. Vogel noted that Governor Newsom is proposing a $4.75 billion climate resilience bond for the November ballot, and of that, $1 billion would be dedicated to regional and interregional resilience projects such as water recycling, stormwater capture, wastewater treatment, water reuse, conservation, and watershed protection.  About 60% of the proposed bond in the Governor’s budget would go to essentially dealing with anticipating flood and drought which would support many of the actions in the draft portfolio.

Some of the actions in the portfolio are taken from the State Water Resources Control Board’s STORMS report which focuses on removing the barriers to capturing and reusing more stormwater.  Those include developing a framework to identify cost of compliance with stormwater permit requirements; piloting stormwater capture and use projects through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund; and developing best management practices and standards for the design and construction of recharge wells used to capture urban stormwater.

As for next steps, the administration is gathering written feedback through February 7.  The document will then be refined and improved based upon the feedback; once the document is finalized, it will be sent to the Governor.

It then becomes the playbook for state government on water issues and hopefully provides tools for local and regional entities to help build water resilience,” said Ms. Vogel.

DISCUSSION HIGHLIGHTS

Director Larry McKenney (Municipal Water District of Orange County) offered his thoughts.  He praised the report’s insight that climate change impacts will be felt uniquely by each region which requires regional strategies rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach.  He also praised the comment in the closing section that says that says that despite preparations, we know there will be issues that can’t even be predicted now, so as part of the strategy, we need to develop our institutions to be adaptable.

That’s a big issue and a big thought,” said Director McKenney.  “I hope we don’t lose that, so don’t let anyone comment that one away,”

However, with respect to increasing urban water use efficiency, he said he thinks it should be expressed in the portfolio that resilience won’t be served just by hardening demand.  “To be resilient, we need to recognize that we’re trying to be efficient in use, but we can’t be driven by efficiency in terms of water supply development.  We need redundant multiple water supplies in a portfolio approach.  State policy hasn’t always supported that, public relations don’t always support that, so it would be helpful if the resilience portfolio recognized that as a fundamental part of resilience, we’ll need to overbuild supply so that when we have hardened demand and we get into a drought, we don’t have a disaster.

Lastly, Director McKenney noted that residential use is projected to become increasingly efficient and that agriculture is expected to continue to outstrip supply; that same paragraph (page 15) goes on to say that groundwater production will fall, and that groundwater recharge is important to maximize the amount of groundwater that can be pumped on a sustainable basis.  The draft says that capturing precipitation when it comes in increasingly short and intense periods is crucial, and that we need to find ways to redirect and store floodwaters in the aquifers.  The draft urges the Water Commission to look at providing state funding for improved conveyance.

Groundwater isn’t only used by agriculture,” he said.  “We have significant groundwater resources in our urban areas and the Met service area that are significant aspect of our supply.  Long before SGMA, we had problems with overdraft and we all did adjudications.  Then we all came together after suing each other for decades, we figured out how to collaborate, and we came up with ways of managing those groundwater basins.  In every case, the key to the solution was to import water to augment supply which is what the San Joaquin Valley says they need now.  And we paid for that.  And the state has always taken the view that’s not a public benefit, that’s a water supply that the users pay for.  And so, I think it’s important that be recognized if we’re going to talk about state policy about the groundwater problems in the Central Valley, that the state has in the past has always viewed that as a user problem, not a state problem, and if there’s some change to that, there’s got to be an articulated reason why that’s a new policy.”

In other words, the sustainability that was achieved in the adjudicated groundwater basins in Southern California happened without state involvement,” said Ms. Vogel.

Not only without state involvement but on our dime,” said Director McKenney.  “DWR has obviously been a key part of that, but we pay for it.  And we have a water rights system that says that you invest in infrastructure like that such as the State Water Project and you get rights, and those are investment-backed expectations.  We know and accept, because it’s the right thing to do, that we now stand in line behind in some sense environmental needs because after our rights were established, the state recognized that you need to protect the environment and that’s all well and good.  But agricultural use is not in that same category.  They are just other users like we are.

Director Adán Ortega (City of Fullerton) said the key milestone in the report is the term resiliency itself, because for many years, the common term has been reliability.  “The term of resilience is definitely something that can change the game for the whole state,” he said.  “That being the case, I read it and I didn’t see how it translates into policy and what it means overall.  Some possibilities of what it could mean include perhaps a time when nobody gets left behind.  Metropolitan, for example, is extraordinarily reliable this year and resilient; we have more water in storage than in any time in our history, and at some point, we have to ask what’s next.  Part of that includes economic resilience, so what happens when systems become so efficient that they can’t meet their infrastructure maintenance and budget requirements because of declining sales, so economic resiliency for water systems comes into play as part of the equation of how we have resilient institutions.”

Lastly, Director Ortega noted we’ve come along way with recycled water, and there are a lot of older projects that promised to drought-proof the region.  “We promised users and the bond market that this water would be for sale during droughts as a way for repaying debt,” he said.  “We now have efficiency standards for recycled water that are just like regular water.  So it means that there needs to be a compatible investment in the expansion of distribution systems in older systems, lest they begin to fail in their bond obligations and in their promise to their customers that they would be able to have these on an uninterrupted basis.”

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