Armando Quintero, chair of the California Water Commission, gives an update on the Water Storage Investment Program, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and the Water Resiliency Portfolio

The California Water Commission consists of 9 members appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate.  Seven members are chosen for their expertise related to the control, storage, and beneficial use of water and 2 are chosen for their knowledge of the environment.  The California Water Commission has numerous responsibilities, and in 2014, the Commission was tasked with allocating $2.7 billion of Prop 1 funds earmarked for water storage projects.  At the 2020 Kern County Water Summit, Chair Armando Quintero spoke about the role of the Water Commission, gave an update on the Water Storage Investment Program and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and spoke of their new role defined in the water resiliency portfolio.

Armando Quintero began by noting that California has a Mediterranean climate and is one of only five such regions in the world.  “Mediterranean regions have cold, wet winters when the snow falls in the mountains and hot, dry summers when they can grow food and fiber in the fertile valleys, and they are all experiencing the same problems we are when it comes to water and water management,” he said.  “It was just last year that South Africa literally went to zero water because of the climate change and the impacts that affected them.”

Chair Quintero recalled how a few years ago, he was looking at early maps of California and came across one from 1888, which caught his attention because that’s the year his grandmother was born.  In 1888, Tulare Lake was in its full glory and was about five times the surface area of Lake Tahoe.  As the Central Valley was subsequently developed and managed to grow food to support the population, the system was greatly reconfigured.

All those changes literally in three or four generations, so the time scale that we operate in is a really important thing to keep in mind,” he said.

He also noted that in the last 1300 years, the state experienced two significant droughts, one from about 900 to 1100, and another from 1200 to 1350.   During those droughts, the state experienced drought conditions punctuated occasionally by big precipitation events and floods.  And in fact, 100 feet down below the surface of Lake Tahoe and Lake Tenaya, there are mature trees still standing on the lake bottom, he said.

One of the things to think about in terms of water is that we need to think about the saving accounts that we’re trying to manage, as well as being able to build and manage the infrastructure in a way that will allow us to go forward,” he said.

California receives about 200 MAF of water in rain and snow every winter in an average year; about half of that is actually used by vegetation and it gets absorbed into the soils, and about 65 MAF of that water goes to ag, urban, and environmental needs.

He presented a map of a cross section of California, noting that in a typical year, the state gets about 15 MAF of snow; Current reservoir storage is at 40 MAF, and if the soils are healthy and retaining water like a sponge, that represents about 80 MAF.  Capacity of the state’s groundwater basins are between 1 and 1.3 billion AF of water.

We don’t how much of that can be used for drinking and for ag, but it’s a big supply,” he said.

THE CALIFORNIA WATER COMMISSION

The Water Commission was created in 1956 by Casper Weinberger; in that year, water responsibilities were distributed throughout various agencies in the state of California and it was actually his efforts that created the Department of Water Resources and many of the water agencies as we know them today, he said.  He also noted that another reason the Water Commission was created was to go to Washington to lobby for funding for water infrastructure projects, a task which is still in the statute.

The Commission has nine members that are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the State Senate.  They meet monthly.  Some of the Commission’s responsibility includes being a public forum for discussing water issues, advising the Department of Water Resources, approving DWR rules and regulations, monitoring the State Water Project, and naming new facilities.

The Commission also adopts resolutions of necessity for DWR relative to eminent domain proceedings.  “We haven’t done that yet although we are going to be holding the hearings for the new single tunnel,” he said.  “That’s something that may be coming in the next year.”

THE WATER STORAGE INVESTMENT PROGRAM

Proposition 1 was a $7.5 billion bond measure; in 2014, the Water Commission was tasked with allocating the $2.7 billion that was set aside for the public benefits of water storage projects.

Mr. Quintero noted that one interesting aspect of the bond was that the water storage funds were set aside as a continuing appropriation, which means that the body that’s handed that money has full responsibility for it; the legislature can’t redirect it nor can the Governor decide to do something else with it.  That’s it’s full intent.

The water bond had a number of different authors, so in the end, what came to the Water Commission was a bond that had a lot of very specific direction and a lot of language that they had to figure out.

We did that in a public process,” he said.  “We went around the state and said, how do we take the language from this statute and turn it into regulations so we can turn around and deliver the money to do what the bond says we’re supposed to do.”

The bond explicitly stated that the funds for water storage could only be used to pay for ‘public benefits,’ which were specifically defined in the bond language as ecosystem improvement, water quality improvement, flood control, emergency response, and recreation.

The Water Storage Investment Program received 12 applications asking for a total $5.8 billion.

It was a diverse set of projects that were intended to also prepare the state for climate change and future droughts,” he said.  “Unlike previous legislation that had funded water projects, this legislation or this bond language actually said that applicants had to put together climate change models for their projects and make an argument for the value of what their projects would do, looking forward up to 2070.”

The Commission then determined the ‘Maximum Conditional Eligibility Determination’ (or MCEDs).  Eight projects were selected; four of them were surface storage projects (Los Vaqueros Reservoir Expansion, Pacheco Reservoir Expansion, the Sites Project, and Temperance Flat Reservoir) and four of them were groundwater projects (Chino Basin Conjunctive Use program, the Kern Fan Groundwater Project, South County Agricultural Program, and the Willow Springs Bank Conjunctive Use Project).

If they are all successful, they have the potential to add 4.3 MAF of new storage capacity – that’s almost a 10% increase to the water storage capacity of the water that we manage in California,” Mr. Quintero said.  “This does represent one of the state’s largest investments in water storage in a generation.

One of the challenges with the bond was that the Water Commission was directed to take applications and determine if the projects were going to work, and this has to be done before the projects had their permits, he said.  So there were over 70 staff from the Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife that evaluated each of the applications.

Before the final award hearing can be scheduled, there are several more requirements.  One of those requirements is that the project applicants must complete and enter into contracts for the administration of public benefits with the relevant agency managing those benefits:  The Department of Water Resources will administer the recreation, flood control, and emergency response benefits; the State Water Resources Control Board will administer the water quality improvement benefits; and the Department of Fish and Wildlife will administer all of the ecosystem improvement benefits which includes things such as refuge water supplies, wetland and riparian habitat enhancement, and increased flows for winter and spring run salmon.  The administering agencies are going to have to submit draft contracts to the Commission after their final environmental documents are completed, and the final contracts are all going have to be executed before the Commission can release the funds.

Other requirements are a completed feasibility study, commitments for at least 75% of the remaining funding needed for the project, environmental documentation complete, and required permits obtained.  The final award hearings will take place when the requirements are all completed.

We’re hoping by 2022, we’ll have all the formal documents in place,” he said.  “Some of the groundwater projects are expected to go online within the next two years at most, but a project like Sites, we’re not sure when that’s going to come online, it could be around 2030.”

THE SUSTAINABLE GROUNDWATER MANAGEMENT ACT

Chair Quintero then touched briefly on the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (or SGMA).

In September of 2014,  Governor Brown signed a three-bill legislative package of laws collectively known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) that set in motion a plan to sustainably manage the state’s groundwater basins.  The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires local groundwater pumpers to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies and to develop Groundwater Sustainability Plans to manage their groundwater basins.

The yellow and orange areas on the map represent groundwater basins designated as high and medium priority that are subject to SGMA.  Twenty-one of the high priority basins are considered critically overdrafted; most of these critically overdrafted basins are in the San Joaquin Valley, although a few are in other areas.

Groundwater basins considered critically-overdrafted were required to adopt and submit groundwater sustainability plans to the Department of Water Resources by January 31, 2020.  All the other medium and high priority basins have to have their plans submitted and adopted by January 31, 2022.  Adjudicated basins are considered exempt from SGMA.

When we argue with each other over what we’re going to be doing with water, we end up spending a lot of money in the courts and nobody really gets what they want,” he said.  “There’s a winner that gets some of what they want; they’ve spent a lot of money, so we’re hoping that SGMA actually creates a system whereby there’s regional balance, recognizing that we have 20 years still to get those basins to a sustainable mode.”

Currently, Chair Quintero said that the Department of Water Resources is staffing up; there needs to be more people helping the GSAs work through their issues, as well as better coordination and support to get permits in place for the Water Storage Investment Program recipients.

I do speak with Secretary Crowfoot regularly, and we continually talk about how we can streamline the regulatory processes around permitting,” he said.  “We are working on a project right now that has to do with environmental permitting, but that’s also illuminating a lot of the potential solutions for getting streamlining in place relative to things like water storage.  Here we are in the middle of this climate change era, and we literally are in a situation where we only have days to make decisions and days or maybe a month to take advantage of opportunities, and so as a community and a state, we have to work together to be more resilient and how we can operate with that.”

THE NEED FOR BETTER DATA ON BOTH ENDS OF THE SPECTRUM

Chair Quintero said in addition to being chair of the Water Commission, he is the Executive Director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced, and one of the things they discuss often is having accurate early information for water in the system.

So imagine if we had the infrastructure in place so that we knew how much water was sitting up in the headwaters of the state,” he said.  “Imagine if we were able to know what that meant throughout the Sierra Nevada in terms of how much water was going to move through the system, how much water was going to be absorbed by the soils, how much water was going to go up through evapotranspiration through the trees and the watersheds, and how much is going to come out the bottom.  Wouldn’t we all love to know what was going to come out the bottom in two months, and being able to have a hard number that you could then start working with your regional partners with to decide how you were going to manage that year’s runoff.

On the other end of spectrum, Chair Quintero said he is an elected member of the board of directors at Marin Municipal Water District.  Right now, they are installing AMI or automated meter readers, and he has an app on his phone that alerts him when the water is running.

I don’t know how people who don’t have something like an app like this can understand how much water they use in a day without having to go read their meters and really keep track of it,” he said.  “What we have to do is improve the information systems for all of the decision makers in the systems, you, the watermasters, everybody has to have early information so they can make the decisions to adapt to the conditions, and the same is true for homeowners.”

WATER RESILIENCY PORTFOLIO

In April of 2019, Governor Newsom directed the Secretary of Natural Resources, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Secretary of the California EPA to draft a water resiliency portfolio for the state.  In his Executive Order, the Governor asked that the projects that offer multiple benefits, use of natural infrastructure such as forests and floodplains, include innovation and new technologies, encourage regional approaches among water users, examine successful models from outside California, integrate investments, policies, and programs across state government, and encourage partnerships with local, federal and tribal governments, water agencies and irrigation districts, and other stakeholders.

Hearings were held all over the state and at multiple agencies and NGOs to gather input on what should be included in the portfolio.  The Water Commission held two listening sessions; panelists included water policy specialists, environmental scientists, hydrologists, conservation folks, community organizers, academia, agriculture, water district managers and coordinators.  The Commission compiled those recommendations and submitted them to the administration.

We also looked at how are we going to finance all this,” he continued.  “It can’t be just the state through taxes, so we’re going to have to come up with investment portfolios and policies and programs that the state can help with, but we also have to look at partnerships with local, federal, and tribal governments, water agencies, irrigation districts and virtually all of the stakeholders.”

The draft water resilience portfolio was released on January 3rd of this year, and it listed 133 actions across four broad areas:  Maintain and diversify water supplies, protect and enhance natural systems, build connections, and be prepared for drought and flood.

The water resiliency portfolio calls on the Commission to do two things: to assess State role in financing regional conveyance and to examine flood insurance beyond the national program.

Wade Crowfoot, Secretary of Natural Resources Agency, came to the Commission meeting in February to discuss the Commission’s role in assessing and prioritizing the infrastructure needs across the state, and to then figure out what is the state role in rehabilitating that infrastructure.

Our plan this year is to move the Water Commission meetings around California, and what we want to do is take a look at regional conveyance issues, and by this fall, come back to the Governor and the state leadership with our recommendations,” he said.

A good example would be the Friant Kern Canal,” he said.  “The Friant Kern Canal has collapsed because of subsidence and that system is only able to deliver 40% of the water it was intended to move, so what role can the state play in terms of financing for things like that.  So we’ll be coming to a place near you soon and we want to hear what the issues are relative to conveyance and what the needs are.”

With respect to the second task of examining the possibility of a state-run flood insurance program, Chair Quintero noted that they have already been thinking along those lines.  He reminded how at the beginning of his presentation, he had mentioned that one of the tasks in statute for the California Water Commission is to go to Washington DC to ask for money for flood and storage projects.  “We’ve had a couple conversations with the flood control board, and I think that there may be an opportunity for the flood control board and the Water Commission to work together on projects where we manage floods for storage as best we can, and it would be an amazing way to get federal support for some of the things we need in California.”

Every time I come down to the valley and I’m here every week, I wish Californians could be misdirected on their maps when they are driving north and south so they would get diverted across the Central Valley to see what you do,” he said.  “So many folks in the state don’t understand what’s going on that allows them to have breakfast and lunch and dinner.”

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