Irrigated rice field; Photo by Bruce Barnett.

CA WATER COMMISSION: Newsom administration envisions a new role for the Water Commission

Just about a year ago, when Governor Newsom gave his 2019 State of the State address, he spoke about the solutions to California’s water problems as not being a single solution but rather an integrated, broad set of solutions that need to be implemented.  The Governor then followed that up by issuing an Executive Order in April that directed the Secretaries of Natural Resources, Cal EPA, and the Department of Food and Ag to come together and develop a water resilience portfolio which would be the road map for the administration’s water policy for the next three years.

At the February meeting of the California Water Commission, Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot addressed the Commission, tasking them with assessing and prioritizing the infrastructure needs around the state and helping to determine the state role in rehabilitating that infrastructure.

Secretary Crowfoot began by defining what the term resilience means in the context of the water resilience portfolio.  “What we’re really talking about is protecting people and places from the impacts of climate change, so we talk about climate resilience,” he said.  “When we talk about water resilience, it’s how can we help communities, agriculture, natural places, our fish and wildlife actually weather these impacts from climate change, drought, and flood and adapt and ultimately continue to thrive in them.”

The Executive Order directed the agencies to conduct a process to collect public input as well as to do an inventory and assessment of the needs and opportunities.  In early January, the draft portfolio was released for public comment; over 180 separate comment letters were received by a wide variety of stakeholders and organizations.  Based on those comments, they are working on refining the draft into a final version.

The water resilience portfolio identifies the need for improved and modernized conveyance that is both climate and earthquake resilient, not just in the Delta but also the infrastructure that moves the surface water around regions of the state.  In the Central Valley, major conveyance infrastructure such as the Friant-Kern Canal, Delta-Mendota Canal, and the California Aqueduct have been damaged by subsidence.  The draft water resilience portfolio identifies the need for the state to play a role in rehabilitating that infrastructure.

Click here for the draft Water Resilience Portfolio.

Secretary Crowfoot acknowledged there are big questions about who should pay for what.  The State Water Project utilizes a beneficiary pays approach so the water users will pay for any modernized Delta conveyance, not the taxpayers, and the Delta Mendota Canal and Friant Kern Canal, have their own funding agreements.

We’re hearing feedback from across the state that there is a lot of infrastructure rehabilitation that needs to get done in different places, not only the Central Valley, there are other places,” he said.  “So what we’ve identified within the water portfolio is a real need to understand and prioritize what are the most important infrastructure investments that need to be made across the state to build resilience both within each region and across regions.  And then what is the role for the state to actually play in that, recognizing that the state should not be the only contributor for infrastructure funding for such projects.  There are water users that should invest and certainly federal government and federal agencies that should invest.”

Secretary Crowfoot then had a proposal for a new role for the California Water Commission.   “If we’re really working on building our water resilience moving forward, we have to understand what are the infrastructure needs in coming decades and then what’s the state role,” he said.  “So within the draft water resilience portfolio, we’ve identified the Water Commission as a potential venue or entity to, in partnership with DWR and the Water Board, really help us assess and prioritize the infrastructure needs, and figure out what is the state role in rehabilitating that infrastructure.”

We think you all are uniquely poised to lead that effort in many ways as a result of your experience in a very technical, very detailed process of understanding the public investments of Prop 1 dollars in storage and how they would generate public benefit,” he continued.  “You are a public commission, and so as we would undertake this dialog around infrastructure investment, there needs to be a way that members of the public can interact and inform that process, so what we’ve talked to your chair and Executive Director about is actually calling for the Water Commission to play such a role in the final version of the water resilience portfolio.

Secretary Crowfoot then closed by saying they are working to finalize the portfolio as soon as they can; he anticipates the final version might be done by the end of March. During the discussion period, Commissioner Curtin asked if they were considering looking at governance issues that might help develop regionalization in a stronger way?   If you’re looking at a statewide system, it even becomes more critical that a more effective governing structure, he said.

Secretary Crowfoot acknowledged that it’s a very decentralized system with thousands of agencies responsible for providing drinking water, irrigation supply, wastewater, and that is a real challenge.  Different parts of the state have very different water needs.

I’d say the core principle of this water portfolio is water resilience will not be created from Sacramento.  We need to empower regions to actually build their own resilience,” he said.  “However, that doesn’t mean devolving into a simply a confederation of these different agencies.  The state still plays a role.  … The question of governance is recognizing that we need to elevate regional leadership, and that regions themselves need to come together and to the extent possible, organize around priorities.  But then how does the state actually help fund those priorities, sort those priorities, what responsibilities does the state have on infrastructure beyond just the SWP?  These are important questions.”

Some water agencies that have come and said, ‘we have real challenges with our water infrastructure and subsidence, and we

The Russell Avenue bridge, over the Delta Mendota Canal in Firebaugh has subsided until there’s almost no space between the bottom of the bridge decking and the canal water surface, July 23, 2015.
Photo by: Florence Low / DWR

need state support,’ and while we’re sympathetic to their needs, my conclusion was that we can’t just take an ad hoc approach based on who comes asking for resources,” he said.  “We have a finite amount of resources at the state, we have to understand what the needs are, develop principles around when the state invests, and where the state invests, and then prioritize accordingly.”

Secretary Crowfoot acknowledged DWR’s efforts to drive regional priorities through its Integrated Regional Water Management Planning Program which worked very well in a lot of places and less well in other places.  “One of our priorities this year is advancing a climate resilience bond for voter consideration in November.  This is a shared priority of the Assembly, the Senate, and the Governor.  Right now, 62% of our proposed climate resilience bond is water investments because drought and flood are such critical climate threats, and within that, almost $3 billion, the largest amount that we’re recommending within a category, is for regional priorities of $1 billion, so your work this year and even into next year on infrastructure and really helping us think through how we make these infrastructure investments could dovetail very well if we collectively in the state are able to put a bond measure on the ballot that’s approved by voters and then it can really help guide our allocation and implementation of that bond.”

Commissioner Curtin noted that within the Water Storage Investment Program, every project was essentially looked upon as an individual discrete project and the connectivity to other parts of the system such as upper watershed management or groundwater capture was not really in the mix.  He suggested there be instructions that connectivity and interregional impact is an important part of the program.   

Secretary Crowfoot agreed. “We are challenging ourselves within the administration to try and think differently and not just within the same boxes that we have in the past, and integration is a key watch word,” Secretary Crowfoot said.  “I think there’s real potential for a product developed by the Commission with input from the public to really be a strong form of guidance for our work in coming years.  We’ll have to scope it out appropriately.”

During the Executive Officer’s report, Joe Yun outlined how the two tasks for the Commission listed in the water resiliency portfolio would work into the Commission’s workplan for the coming year.

Assessing the state’s role in financing the regional conveyance will be a priority item this year for the Commission.  The Commission should have their recommendations finalized by the end of 2020 or early 2021 so they can be considered and incorporated into any future funding programs as they materialize. 

So Commission staff is putting together plans to help the commissioners understand the conveyance need and how conveyance relates to resiliency.  They are looking to hold meetings across the state in order to get an understanding of the needs of each region.  The task will also involve looking at what the state’s previous roles have been in infrastructure funding and what possible funding mechanisms exist.  Similar to the Water Storage Investment Program, the public benefits related to regional conveyance projects would likewise need to be understood.

The second action item listed in the water resilience portfolio, which Secretary Crowfoot didn’t spend much time discussing, is researching flood insurance beyond the national program; that work will probably start late summer or fall, Mr. Yun said.  They are working on coordinating with DWR on that.  



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