GUEST COMMENTARY: Water Resource Prioritization during COVID 19

Guest commentary written by Robert Shibatani:

Under the pall of COVID-19, when we say and concede that life will not be the same as we once knew it, what exactly does that mean? Obviously, we’re seeing the initial signs; empty streets, shuttered businesses, shelter-in-place orders, face masks, etc. But what does it mean after the initial adjustment period subsides? There are essential services like water, electricity, natural gas, gasoline, food, law enforcement, emergency services, but how far down the list do we go without putting more people in harm’s way than would otherwise be necessary?

Let’s take the water industry for example. Operation of our water and wastewater infrastructure is vital. To that there is no denying. We must also maintain and operate dams, reservoirs, flood control facilities, water conveyance, groundwater well networks, and many more. Source water supplies, water quality testing, and flow monitoring remains necessary. I would think that most people would support these contentions.

Having said that, under these trying times, it is incumbent on regulators, elected leaders, as well the industry to take a hard look at what bare water essentials are absolutely vital. In the California context for example, as one of the most heavily regulated States in the country, we have to ask whether all of the various regulations, policies, programs, and processes are genuinely critical in order to healthily maintain human livelihood during these unprecedented times. That question generates many not so subtle questions. For example, do we really need IRWM or water use and conservation efforts and oversight or, what about the Bay-Delta or California Water Plan? Are these unequivocal necessities today?

To get more specific, turning to the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), the same questions can be asked. Do we urgently require continuing efforts in various SWRCB programs regarding wetlands policy, suction dredge mining, cannabis cultivation, ELAP, permit/licensing, clean beaches, operator certification, peer review, administrative hearings office, 401 water quality certification, and many more? I mean, really, cannabis cultivation? With respect, sometimes the SWRCB does do things that are mind boggling.

At present, given all of the threats and potentially increasing risks, I would also support lockdowns or “shelvings” on all endangered species act procedures overseen by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service or National Marine Fisheries Service. I would also suspend U.S. Army Corps pf Engineers’ 404 permit requirements. The same would apply to all CEQA/NEPA requirements for specific water-related supply projects and wastewater projects.

To be clear, no one is saying that many of these programs do not offer value both to the environment and our communities, but these are extraordinary times and they call for extraordinary decisions. We have before us a clear and present danger. The decisions we make must be based on current reality, untainted by agency or personal bias and, while unlikely, decisions must also be based without political tinkering from the Capitol. Until we, as a global society, get control of this horrific pandemic, ideologies, whether steeped in conservatism or progressiveness, and all of the fidelity that go along with either, must be pushed aside. This is no time for partisanship.

Regulatorily, however, the issue gets much more complicated. At each of the federal, State, and local levels, regulatory oversight must be significantly curtailed. Again, this is not to imply that such regulatory rule is patently unnecessary (although many believe this to be true even under normal conditions), but we are talking about vital human survival, not whether a rare invertebrate species will survive urban expansion. As an example, if a new well field is proposed for a small rural enclave, why should they have to go through the laborious ESA review, public comment, and approval process? Even if there are listed species present, I would surmise that a national, no I stand corrected, global disaster would trump (no pun intended) endangered species.

Prioritization is all about both perspective and relevant context. It requires a pragmatic view of the entire situation, by standing back and really assessing one’s values, principles, and priorities. Ideally, you start from the minimum and work upwards. Most, however, choose to work their way downwards (as what the U.S. is doing now) and, in so doing, often go too slow and miss countless opportunities to stave off the disaster at key intervals.

In short, I would advocate peeling back many of the environmental regulatory requirements and attempt to isolate and leave the skeletal prerequisites of water delivery to the citizenry. This is not the time for “touchy feely”, superfluous environmental preservation, conservation, and recovery ideals. I suspect much of the now unemployed population would not be overly happy to hear that federal/State employees are still conducting creel census’ or species surveys, and cannabis cultivation at taxpayer expense, while they have lost their jobs.

About Robert Shibatani:  Robert Shibatani, a physical hydrologist with over 35-years combined academic, legal, consulting and water advisory expertise, is an international expert witness on reservoir-operations, climate change hydrology, commercial flood damage litigation, and water supply development. He is Managing Partner for The SHIBATANI GROUP International, a division of The SHIBATANI GROUP Inc. and resides between Toronto, Canada and Sacramento, California.

Please note: The views expressed in this guest commentary are those of the author and should not be attributed to Maven’s Notebook.

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