ACWA CONFERENCE: Secretary Wade Crowfoot highlights the principles and priorities of the Water Resilience Portfolio

Wade Crowfoot has been the Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency since January 2019 and oversees an agency of 19,000 employees charged with protecting and managing California’s natural resources. Secretary Crowfoot brings over two decades of public policy and environmental leadership experience. Most recently, he was the CEO of the Water Foundation; prior to that, he was a senior advisor in the Brown Administration.  At the Association of California Water Agencies virtual conference last week, Secretary Crowfoot gave this keynote address, focusing most of his comments on the recently released final Water Resilience Portfolio.

Secretary Crowfoot began by saying that clearly, 2020 has evolved into a year that none of us could have ever expected, and that for the vast majority of Californians, most have had clean, abundant water flowing out of the taps in this moment of uncertainty and anxiety. He acknowledged that while there are those in California that don’t have clean water, largely due to the efforts of the member agencies of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), the majority of Californians do.

(And he reiterated the need for everyone to be wearing a mask.).

Background of the Water Resilience Portfolio

Mr. Crowfoot then noted the recent release of the final Water Resilience Portfolio, which Governor Newsom calls the blueprint for the next two and a half years of his term. The genesis of the water portfolio came from an Executive Order in April of 2019 at a time when many were unclear where the Governor’s priorities lay with regard to water issues, especially given the reputation for water issues for being complex and conflict-ridden. Governor Newsom’s Executive Order articulated the need for a diversified comprehensive water portfolio for the state.

In the Executive Order, Governor Newsom identified eight key priorities to be embodied in the final version of the portfolio, which included prioritizing multi-benefit approaches, utilizing nature-based solutions or natural infrastructure, leveraging data and technology, and framing the work around regions, recognizing that depending on the region of the state, there are different opportunities and challenges with respect to water. It also included bringing in best practices from other places in the world, breaking down silos within state agencies, and deepening partnerships.

In January, the Newsom Administration released the draft water resilience portfolio, at the same time, invited constructive criticism and feedback from the public and stakeholders on the draft. They received more than 200 detailed letters and communications with specific suggestions around how the draft could be modified. As a result of comments received, 14 new actions were added, such as prioritizing upper watershed health, tribal partnerships, stormwater management, flood safety, and salinity. Five actions were deleted, such as actions related to the climate resilience bond as the bond will not be on the November ballot.

Other actions were modified due to comments received. For example, the draft portfolio had recommended water users provide real-time data on their diversions, but due to the thoughtful input received about the difficulty and the barriers to doing that, they instead the proposed action to instead assess the cost and benefits of directing of requiring real-time data provision.

I’m really proud that the portfolio includes what we hope is a real distilled assessment of California water,” said Mr. Crowfoot. “We tried to focus on an explanatory approach, because while you all have lived California water and water in your regions for your entire careers, a lot of the policymakers that we hope review this document, haven’t. So we really wanted to distill what’s happening, but at the same time, we wanted to be thoughtful about the diversity among regions. So one of the appendices breaks down California water by region and provides four to five pages of graphical summaries of water issues faced in each region, including our assessment of areas of vulnerability in each region.”

Principles of the water portfolio

Three principles provide the foundation for the portfolio.

One is that we are a system of systems in the state.You all have educated us that we really need to empower regions to build their sustainability, build their resilience, build their reliability, and then we as the state need to provide support,” said Secretary Crowfoot. “I want to just take a direct quote from the summary that water resilience will be achieved region by region based on the unique challenges and opportunity in each area; therefore local, regional and tribal leadership is critical moving forward.  All of the agencies and governments can do a better job of integrating water planning and management to steward shared water watersheds and aquifers. And then importantly, as the state government, we need to focus on enabling regional resilience while continuing to set statewide standards, enable projects of statewide scale and importance, and tackle challenges beyond the scope of any region.  So we think that there’s a role for the state to play, but it is really in full partnership with regional leaders.”

The second principle is that connections build strength.We need to maintain the physical connections between among the system of systems, obviously conveyance underground storage above-ground storage, but also more connection of information, data, and shared practices.”

The third principle is that preparation pays off.We know from the last drought that many urban water agencies, for example, had done a lot of planning and diversification of their water supply within their regions and were therefore able to weather the drought more effectively than had they not done that. So we really hope to empower regional planning to prepare for what will be drier dries and wetter wets.”

Priorities for the Water Resilience Portfolio

The final portfolio includes 142 actions across four categories, which are unchanged from the draft: maintaining and diversifying water supplies, protecting and enhancing our natural systems, building those connections and being prepared.

The governor provided the same observation that many of you did, which was, ‘142 actions is a lot. And how are you going to actually move the ball forward on the most important of those actions if you’ve listed so many,” said Secretary Crowfoot.  “It was important for us in developing this blueprint that we hope will inform future governor’s work is that we be comprehensive.  So while different stakeholders find different priorities important, I would make an argument that each of those 142 actions is actually helpful and needed in decades to come to actually achieve water resilience. At the same time, we obviously need to be pragmatic and practical given we have finite resources and bandwidth as leaders. So the governor also directed us to be very clear about communicating our key priorities within the portfolio.”

Secretary Crowfoot then went through the portfolio’s priorities.

Priority 1: Implementing the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act.

It was a long road to get to the point where the state had identified funding to meet the obligation. We have to provide all of our residents clean and safe drinking water , but that is obviously challenged by impacts of the greenhouse gas reduction fund, which ultimately became a large source of implementing this act. But nonetheless EPA Secretary Blumenfeld and Chair Joaquin, Esquivel and others actually have a plan in place to implement the drinking water act, including actually getting projects on the ground this year.”

Priority 2: Support local implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

You all know that SGMA is both very important and also very challenging to implement. The Department of Water Resources and the State Water Board are actively working within their regulatory roles under SGMA. DWR is evaluating the groundwater sustainability plans that have been submitted, but state agencies need to do more to limit the impacts of this very necessary movement to the sustainable management of groundwater.

So we are establishing a state SGMA support team, which will be a multi-agency group that is going to target where and how we can be helpful for local implementation.  For example, streamlining state approvals for groundwater recharge projects that take winter flood flows and get them underground. There will be more on this in the coming days and weeks. But if you’re an agency that is focused on SGMA implementation, and you have a way that the state can be helpful or remove barriers that we put up that make it hard to implement SGMA, you will have a very focused, active interagency team on this. It will ultimately be led by Secretary Ross at the Department of Food and Agriculture, Secretary Blumenfeld at Cal EPA and myself at the Natural Resources Agency.

Priority 3: Achieve voluntary agreements.

“We are still focused on achieving a voluntary agreement to implement the protection of beneficial uses in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems and the Bay-Delta,” said Secretary Crowfoot.  “We continue to be convinced that a voluntary agreement that uses science to adapt and improve the environmental health of these rivers is the best way forward compared to what could be over a decade of regulation and adjudication of this issue.”

Obviously at the same time, this effort to achieve voluntary agreements has been compounded by differences between the state and federal government on protection of endangered species within the Delta. We recognize that the voluntary agreements from our perspective need to take place within the four squares of state and federal law. So we did feel it was important to stand up and ensure the protection of these endangered species. But we remain a hundred percent committed to resolving these issues with the federal government. And ideally would like to find a solution to move forward outside or beyond this litigation so that we can focus on the grand voluntary agreements. And while that is being navigated, that question of litigation and how to really find solutions and move beyond. We are interested in working with tributaries to explore voluntary agreements with those tributaries who are not actually party or impacted by litigation.”

Priority 4: Updating regulations to expand water recycling with a specific focus on getting those direct potable reuse regulations done by 2023.

We know that particularly in Southern California, many of your ambitious diversification goals require the state to establish these first-ever Direct Potable Reuse regulations, so Secretary Blumenfield and Chair Esquivel are very focused on that.”

Priority 5: Promote healthy soils.

There are voluntary efforts underway that the state government is supporting agricultural producers efforts to put more organic content into their soil and build up the health of the soil, which not only improves it as an asset for farmers and ranchers, but also allows for more retention of water, as well as sequestering carbon. We think this is a big win, win, win for agricultural water use and agricultural management in years to come. Secretary Ross, who was in essence, a coauthor of this portfolio, speaks very passionately about that.

Priority 6: Restore multi-benefit floodplains.

This is another win, win, win in the water space. We know that actually letting our rivers expand where appropriate into seasonal floodplains provides important environmental habitat for protected species, reduces flood risks on downstream communities, and in a lot of places allows for groundwater recharge. We can and should be doing a lot more of this at a large landscape level, so more on this in the weeks to come. But one thing we’re focused on is really using the existing bond funding out there to advance these important projects.”

Priority 7: Accelerate smart, new water storage projects.

In 2014, California voters approved Prop 1, which was a $7 billion investment in water, $2 billion of which would go to water storage. Ultimately, the California Water Commission identified eight projects, both surface storage and underground storage, for public funding to fund the portion of those projects that would deliver public benefits.

Five years on and those projects are still being developed and we think we actually need to help those projects, the ones that are demonstrating feasibility but are not there, actually get there. So whether it’s Sites or Pacheco or Los Vaqueros or the groundwater projects – actually getting them done. That’s one thing Nancy Vogel is going to focus on along with the Water Commission is how to support this storage getting online. We obviously need to make sure that any new storage improves water reliability, provides environmental benefits, and mitigates any environmental impacts. I know these Prop 1 projects are only a subset of many regional water storage projects that you all are planning, but we want to recognize the role that smart well-positioned storage has within our state’s water portfolio.”

Priority 8: Modernize Delta conveyance.

Next is modernizing the conveyance system that moves water from storage to use. We continue to be concerned about the vulnerability of Delta levees that provide for fresh water to over 25 million Californians and are vulnerable to earthquake, sea level rise, and saltwater intrusions. So we remain focused with our state water contractor partners on actually delivering on conveyance – not to expand exports from those river systems to the Bay area, Central Valley and Southern California, but to maintain reliability because even as all of our regions diversify water sources and become less reliant on far away water sources, we know that this backbone infrastructure will remain critical to address drought and future climate impacts.”

Priority 9: Stabilize the Salton Sea.

The Governor personally maintains focus on stabilizing the Salton Sea in Riverside and Imperial counties. The state has an obligation to generate 30,000 acres of habitat and dust suppression, both to protect public safety of residents in that region and to restore critical environmental habitat on the Pacific Flyway. I’m pleased with the progress that we’ve made. The recently passed budget includes new capacity, new positions to move forward, but we need to continue to bring a major urgency and priority to this.

Priority 10: Remove the obsolete Klamath Dams.

We have an opportunity collectively to complete the largest river restoration in American history by working with our partners, tribal leadership in the Yuork, Karuk, and Klamath River Tribes, local governments, and PacifiCorp to remove four now obsolete dams on the Klamath River which ultimately less expensive to remove and restore the river than relicensing would be. You’ll hear more from the governor directly on this priority, but we remain really focused a decision from FERC or the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last week moves us closer to this vision, but also provides some complexity. So we’re looking forward to partnering with Pacific Corp and other partners to actually get this done in the next couple of years.

Priority 11: Better utilize data and information for management.

Sometimes this can seem a little conceptual, but we have real specific actions that we want to take, including reducing the duplicative requirements that state government puts on water agencies for data. We want to be an aggregator of data. We want to be a sharer of utilizable data, but we also want to be efficient with the way that we collect that. So more on that in the weeks and months to come.

Judging the success of the portfolio

So what does success look like? Secretary Crowfoot acknowledged that the process of building resilience won’t be done in two months or even two years – it’s more of a multi-decadal effort, he said.

Here’s our vision. We look forward to a future where all Californians have clean and healthy drinking water, where our native fish populations can recover, where reliable water helps agriculture, communities, and tribal governments thrive. Our cities and towns can grow and our economy can grow as we use water more efficiently, and we capture, store, and share water through droughts and times of … not a lot of water at the same time. We protect our communities from floods and, and, and lastly, and importantly that we continue to adapt our water management based on sound, sound, science and collaboration beyond conflict.”

Secretary Crowfoot concluded by saying that the administration will be holding itself accountable by providing annual updates, and expressed his appreciation for all who worked to complete the water resilience portfolio, including Secretary Ross, Secretary Blumenfeld, and Nancy Vogel, as well as the DWR graphics team.

Q&A highlights

Question: How does the state plan on re-engineering the voluntary agreements process following some of the recent actions surrounding the incidental take permits and the biological opinions?

Answer:I think we need to resolve those legal differences between the state and the federal agencies, as well as the water contractors and the state. It seems important to resolve those legal differences as a step in the pathway to voluntary agreements. We’ve said very clearly, privately and publicly, that we would like to get around a table with everyone, including our federal partners and federal water contractors and resolve these issues. From my perspective, I think everyone wakes up in the morning wanting to protect these fish and improve reliability. And what we see between Reclamation and DWR is the operators are actually working together really well.”

And in a lot of respects, the framework of the ITP and the biological opinions can be bridged, so it’s our goal to do that. We recognize that resolving those issues is really important. At the same time we issued this VA framework back in February, broad strokes, what we think is scientifically adequate and so we want to work toward that as soon as we can. We know that includes improving flows. We know that includes a tripartite commitment to habitat between the state, federal, and local water agencies. So let’s continue to move forward on that.

Then lastly, where there are tributaries that are not impacted by those legal differences, we’re eager to engage with them on whether we can solve for their tributaries and achieve essentially pieces of the voluntary agreement puzzle, within those tributaries that can ultimately figure into a grand agreement.”

Question: Water infrastructure funding is a high priority for ACWA. The legislature’s talking about a hundred billion dollar economic stimulus package. Has the governor reacted to that yet? Is there the potential there for funding water infrastructure and SGMA issues?

Answer:Late last week, the legislature provided the outline of what it would be that economic stimulus package. We have not assessed that in detail. And so we don’t have any specific reaction from the governor or the governor’s office. What I will say though, is we agree there needs to be more investment in water infrastructure. The governor, back in January, before COVID hit, had proposed a climate resilience bond, which had a large portion for water infrastructure and the priorities within the draft portfolio. We know that the climate resilience bond won’t be on the ballot, but we remain very interested in understanding where and how the state can invest. Likewise, with the federal agencies and federal government, we’re really excited that the federal water infrastructure bill WRDA is advancing. We’re also in active conversations around how we can ensure that any stimulus funding can actually be invested in California’s water system of systems. So any, and all ideas we look forward to, and we recognize it’s going to take more investment to actually get this portfolio done.”

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