WATER COMMISSION: Conveyance projects panel discusses Imperial Valley to San Diego pipeline, “fish-friendly” Delta diversions, and more …

Presentations highlight San Diego CWA’s Regional Water Conveyance System Study, addressing California Aqueduct subsidence, and the San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint

The Water Resilience Portfolio directs the Water Commission to assess the state’s role in financing conveyance projects that could help meet the needs in changing climate, a task that the Commission has taken on wholeheartedly in recent months. (Here is coverage from the September meeting.)

At their November meeting, the Commission heard from two panels: the first panel was from project proponents who discussed conveyance projects being proposed by their organizations.  The second panel, which discussed the human right to water within the context of conveyance projects, will be posted next week.

The panelists were:

    • Kelly Rodgers, Director of the Colorado River Program for the San Diego County Water Authority who spoke about the Water Authority’s Regional Water Conveyance System Study that is looking at the possibility of building a conveyance facility from the Imperial Valley to San Diego County;
    • Jennifer Pierre, General Manager of the State Water Contractors who spoke about subsidence along the California Aqueduct and the importance of restoring and maintaining the capacity of the State Water Project;
    • Scott Hamilton, Chairman of the Technical Committee for the San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint who spoke about the concepts behind the emerging plan; and
    • Jay Ziegler, Director of External Affairs and Policy at the Nature Conservancy who spoke about the factors the Commission should consider when thinking about conveyance or infrastructure projects.

San Diego County Water Authority’s Regional Water Conveyance System Study

Kelly Rodgers is the Director of the Colorado River Program for the San Diego County Water Authority.  She kicked off the panel presentations by discussing the San Diego County Water Authority’s study of building a conveyance facility from the Imperial Valley to San Diego County.  She began by noting that the San Diego County Water Authority (or Water Authority) was created in 1944 by the state legislature as the San Diego region’s wholesale water supplier serving 24 member agencies in the metro area of 3.3 million people and a $245B regional economy.  They are governed by a 36 member board.

The San Diego County Water Authority is a member agency of the Metropolitan Water District.  The region has minimal groundwater resources due to the area’s particular geology, so the region is highly dependent upon imported water.  Decades ago, the Water Authority depended almost solely on Metropolitan for its water deliveries; however, over the years, the Water Authority has worked hard to develop local water sources, such as the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, and securing their own water supplies from the Colorado River through the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA).

The QSA was finalized in 2003; through the QSA, the Water Authority receives 280,000 acre-feet of supplies each year, which includes conserved water from an agriculture-to-urban transfer from the Imperial Irrigation District and from the concrete lining of sections of the All American and Coachella Canals for which the Water Authority was responsible.

Not only are the QSA supplies low cost and cost-effective, but they also are highly reliable, and they truly are a lifeline for our region because they help to meet 50% of the region’s demands,” said Ms. Rogers.

The Water Authority doesn’t have the infrastructure to bring the QSA supplies into San Diego, so they have an agreement with Metropolitan Water District to deliver the water to San Diego through their Colorado River Aqueduct.   In 2047, the Water Authority has the option to extend the agreement for the QSA supplies with Imperial Irrigation District into the future. At the same time, the Water Authority’s agreement with the Metropolitan Water District will end.  Because of this, the Water Authority is studying options on how to receive their QSA supplies.

Our goal is to maintain reliability, manage costs, and risk uncertainty for our ratepayers and an important part of this is integrating partnerships for regional benefits,” said Ms. Rodgers.

The Water Authority is studying building its own aqueduct from the Imperial Valley to San Diego County.  There are three routes under study, all starting at the All American Canal and extending westward to San Diego County and connecting to the Water Authority’s extensive aqueduct system.

With over 100 miles of the pipeline passing through so many communities, including those that are economically disadvantaged, we wanted to look at partnership projects and that potential along each of these routes and how could we make this which once was a single-use concept into a multi-use facility to bring multiple benefits,” said Ms. Rodgers.

The Regional Water Conveyance System Study has two phases.  The first phase, now complete, focused on engineering and cost estimates and a very high-level look at partnership potential.  The outcome was that Alignment 3A and 5A are technically and financially feasible with an estimated capital cost of $5 billion.

Even with that cost, they would provide billions of dollars of net present value savings for our ratepayers,” said Ms. Rodgers.  “Importantly, we found that there were several partnership opportunities along each of the conveyance routes that we will study further in Phase B.  Some of the potential partnerships have the potential to provide resiliency for the southwest and support public good and really align with the Governor’s Water Resiliency Portfolio.”

Those benefits include:

    • ensuring cost-competitive supplies for ratepayers by exploring all options of conveyance and options to reduce risk and cost;
    • adding resilience through operational storage and additional facilities to manage water supplies effectively in both wet and dry cycles,
    • addressing climate change;
    • supporting the QSA conservation programs that help with the sustainability in the long-term for the Colorado River;
    • integrating renewable energy to support state goals;
    • promoting Salton Sea restoration in support of the state’s efforts; and
    • engaging a variety of stakeholders, including federal, state, local agencies, tribes, Mexico, and private partners in an integrated collaborative effort for efficient use of resources.

Ms. Rodgers then gave some specific examples.  By the time the Colorado River water reaches the Imperial Valley, it is extremely salty, so as part of the project, they are contemplating reducing the salinity of the QSA supplies with a water treatment plant located in the Imperial Valley.  The brine water effluent from the water treatment plant would have a salinity much less than that of the Salton Sea and could therefore be used to create habitat at the sea and help to cover the exposed playa to improve air quality in the region.

Power would also be needed to operate the pipeline, the treatment plant, and the pump stations with the facility, so there’s a great opportunity to generate renewable energy for the facility through things such as in-line hydro or pumped storage, as well as integrating renewable energy from a variety of sources.  This might include geothermal, wind, and/or solar development where the Water Authority could potentially partner with a developer and be an off-taker.  This would help to support the state’s renewable portfolio standard goals.

Along each of the potential to add or ramp up surface and groundwater storage in the San Diego region and Imperial Valley to provide flexibility for water managers to manage water deliveries effectively, to store water when demands are lower, and tap into that storage when demands are high, and capture runoff as well,” said Ms. Rodgers.  “Another aqueduct could support increased resiliency to reduce risk of supply interruptions through things like normal operations, maintenance, and repair activities as well as in emergencies, such as in storm events or seismic events affecting other delivery systems in the Southwest, and that includes Mexico as well.”

In Phase B, the Water Authority will continue to engage with potential partners and stakeholders, perform a detailed economic and risk analysis that will analyze funding strategies such as Private-Public Partnerships, state bonds and grants, and develop a plan to address how funding would be provided for project implementation.

The general takeaway is that for a project of this magnitude and complexity, it’s going to take some time,” she said.  “The implementation we’re looking at, about ten years of pre-construction activities, 15 years of construction, and an online date of 2045, but that’s in advance of those QSA agreement milestones of 2047, so some could say this is just in time delivery.  It does include key decision points, so we can pivot based on how the future becomes more clear.”

As a regional water planning agency, we must look way ahead for very large projects, and we need to start now, if we really want to really leverage those partnership opportunities, have the dialogue, and make sure we vet all opportunities, engage stakeholders, and create a facility that could yield multiple regional benefits,” Ms. Rodgers concluded.

California Aqueduct Subsidence

Jennifer Pierre is the General Manager for the State Water Contractors, an association that represents 27 public water agencies across the state from Yuba City in the north, to the Bay Area, Central Valley, Central Coast, and down to the Metropolitan service area and including the San Diego County Water Authority.  In her presentation, she discussed the subsidence of the California Aqueduct and the importance overall of the State Water Project to the state of California.

The map on the slide is from a recent report by the Department of Water Resources that shows the California Aqueduct’s path through subsided areas in the Central Valley.  There are a number of areas of subsidence that have occurred along the California Aqueduct.

She noted that the subsided areas do not necessarily overlap with those that receive benefits from the CA Aqueduct.  “For example, those south of the Tehachapis receive water through the California Aqueduct, but are nowhere near where the subsidence impacts are occurring, and yet their water supply is being impacted by the subsidence and the reduced performance of the facility.”

The California Aqueduct is the State Water Project’s primary backbone that delivers water from the Delta throughout Southern California, Central California, and the Central Coast.  The Aqueduct supplies 27 million Californians a portion of their water supply and irrigates about 750,000 acres of farmland, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley.

The other important thing that the State Water Project supports is it provides the mechanisms for local agencies and regional agencies such as San Diego County Water Authority to be able to diversify their local and regional supplies through providing for storage or the base water supply for recycled water, and other projects that enable these local public water agencies to implement those other local resiliency projects,” said Ms. Pierre.

The public agencies that are the State Water Project contractors are billed for 100% of the costs of operating the State Water Project, but the water received varies by a number of factors.

The primary benefits are water supply to the public water agencies, but the State Water Project serves many other roles,” said Ms. Pierre.  “It has recreational roles, it provides water for fish and wildlife both upstream and in the Delta, and also provides operational and other mitigations necessary for compliance with ESA, water quality control plans, and other regulations.  The point I want to make on this slide is that the costs of the project are stable, whereas the benefits vary, and the benefits vary by the recipient as well.  They do not all accrue to the State Water Project contractors.”

She acknowledged that over time, the costs of operating the State Water Project have gone up; however, it remains one of the most cost-effective sources of water for most contractors, given that the infrastructure has been constructed.  She noted that even as allocations and the benefits accrue to the SWP contractors vary year to year, the total costs are trending upward for all of these public water agencies.

Ms. Pierre than gave a list of the State Water Project’s public benefits:

    • About 27 million or 2/3rds of all Californians receive are receiving some of their water supply from the SWP and therefore it really is driving the economy;
    • It supports a large portion of the ag industry in the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere;
    • It provides an underlying base water supply that makes developing other local and regional projects possible because it is highly reliable and therefore local agencies can count on that as part of their portfolio that gives them the ability to either store water for drier times, do groundwater banking, or recycled water projects.
    • The State Water Project serves a number of Disadvantaged Communities to some extent, so it’s critical to consider rates. “For most of our public water agencies, this is one of the more affordable water sources because the infrastructure is already in place and costs are related primarily to maintenance, even as they go up,” she said.  “It is still more cost-effective than constructing a whole new infrastructure.”
    • The State Water Project contractors also support critical habitat and ecosystems through mitigation obligations and other voluntary actions.
    • The State Water Project generates renewable energy. Pierre noted that about 60% of the State Water Project energy use is generated through that renewable energy source, and they are highly committed to helping the state meet its renewable energy goals in the 2040 time period.

The State Water Project can assist in climate change adaptation and resilience.  When the project was built in the 1960s, surface water reservoirs were used to capture and store the spring runoff and move it throughout the state for use in drier periods.

That is changing,” said Ms. Pierre.  “We are going to have to be able to quickly adapt to the precipitation coming in the form of rain instead of snow and that coming more ‘flashy’ and in more extreme periods of wet and dry.  Our infrastructure is going to need to respond to that, and the California Aqueduct is part of that.  It’s important that the infrastructure and the operational rules associated with it are able to capture those wetter, faster storms and move that into storage for use when it is dry.  The California Aqueduct is the transport vehicle to allow that to happen, so we do need to make sure that the Aqueduct is functioning at its top capacity so when we do have these big flashy storms, as we saw in 2017 and 2019, that we can actually move that water.”

The State Water Project water supplies also provide other benefits. One of them is that State Water Project supplies are blended with other supplies to meet water quality standards; for example, Metropolitan blends State Water Project with the Colorado River supplies to meet water quality standards.

It’s also important for groundwater management.  “We also serve the Mojave Desert region, Riverside, and Northern Los Angeles areas that do have groundwater basins that they do manage and that require essentially blending to make sure that they are meeting those requirements, so in terms of adapting over time, we need to make sure we can really move this water,” said Ms. Pierre.

The California Aqueduct has lost about 20% of its capacity due to the subsidence, making it unable to take full advantage of the large storms and move that water throughout the state.

At the end of the day, this is what water gets delivered to people’s taps and farms, and what they are using to run the economy of the state,” said Ms. Pierre.  “So even though the State Water Project and the California Aqueduct are definitely a statewide water supply, I would consider, it really does impact how local and regional planning and resiliency can be conducted.  We need to have the State Water Project operating as best as possible.  To that point, repairing this infrastructure benefits the entire state and allows those local and regional projects to really make the most out of those investments.”

In terms of funding, Ms. Pierre said they see a path forward for a cost-share between the state, the federal government, and local water users, including the State Water Project contractors.

The California Aqueduct is not the only facility in the San Joaquin Valley,” she said.  “We really think this something that is a San Joaquin Valley-wide issue that should be shared amongst the various parties so that we can quickly and equitably make the repairs that are needed to ensure that the overall state and regional water supply structure is intact and can really respond to the changing climate and the instances where we really need to be able to move and store the water that is made available to us.”

San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint

Scott Hamilton is the Chairman of the Technical Committee for the Water Blueprint for the San Joaquin Valley.  In his presentation, he discussed the overall concept for the San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint.

The Blueprint is not really a plan at this stage; it’s a process to figure out really what we can do in terms of water management in the valley,” he said.  “SGMA was good policy.  It essentially saves the San Joaquin Valley groundwater basin, but it has very far-reaching implications.  What we’re trying to do here is figure out how we can properly implement SGMA without catastrophic consequences.”

Early on, Dr. David Sunding, an economist from UC Berkeley looked at the consequences for the San Joaquin Valley if nothing was done to address this.  He estimated that over 1 million acres of farmland would go out of production, 42,000 ag jobs would be lost in the Valley and 65,000 jobs valley wide, and the loss of $7 billion a year in revenues.

That’s $7 billion in people’s incomes at all different levels,” Mr. Hamilton said.

There is also a need to address the water supply reliability and safety for disadvantaged communities, address land subsidence issues, and prepare the San Joaquin Valley to be more resilient to climate change.  The environment needs to be considered, as the San Joaquin Valley has seen a great loss of both wetland and riparian habitat over time.

All of those issues – SGMA, disadvantaged communities, flood risk and habitat are what the Blueprint is trying to address,” said Mr. Hamilton.  “It’s a grassroots community-led initiative designed specifically to try and address those challenges.”

The Blueprint is looking at addressing disadvantaged communities with multi-benefit projects, such as creating new recharge land but locating that habitat close to the disadvantaged communities.  He cited as an example that the Arvin Edison WSD has recharge basins close to the city of Arvin, and the Arvin receives benefits as a result of that.

Another part of the Blueprint is an environmental vision.  Land coming out of production could potentially sit idle, so part of the vision with the Blueprint is to put together an environmental vision that restores upland, riparian, and wetland habitats in the Valley, and to put that together in a way that makes sense.  The Blueprint would also address flood risks by expanding floodplains and using flood flows to boost recharge.  Another component would be interregional conveyance; flood risks can vary by watershed, so water could be moved from one watershed where the recharge facilities are already full to another basin where they are underutilized to alleviate the flood problem.

The Blueprint has four steps to sustainability.  “The steps are pretty simple; the plan not so much,” Mr. Hamilton acknowledged.

The four steps are:

    1. Understand the problem, where the shortages are, and how big they are.
    2. Identify where excess water now exists within the state.
    3. Move that water to where it’s needed.
    4. Expand the beneficial uses to include recharge and habitat.

Mr. Hamilton then discussed each of these steps in turn.

Understanding the problem: They have spoken with representatives of individual subbasins and have some preliminary numbers; a lot will depend on what plans and projects come to fruition and which don’t, but it’s about 1.5 MAF or more.   He noted that it doesn’t include the water needed for environmental restoration which could be another 200,000 acre-feet.  He also noted that there can be substantial disparities with the subbasins themselves, such as undistricted ‘white’ areas that have no surface water and other irrigation districts that are in pretty good shape.

Identify where excess water now exists within the state:  The San Joaquin Valley needs at least 1.5 MAF; if they maximize all of their local sources to the extent it is economically feasible, it would be about 250,000 acre-feet.

All of the GSPs are planning on doing that,” said Mr. Hamilton.  “They are planning to recapture urban water and recycling that water to the extent any of that is economically feasible, so if we do all of that, we’re at least still 1.25 – 1.5 MAF short.  Where does that water come from?  So logically, we’re looking to the Delta.”

He presented a chart from a 2017 PPIC study.  “The short story here is even once we look at all of the existing uses, all of the in-Delta uses, Delta exports, system water, ecosystem water, there is still on average 10 MAF a year of uncaptured water.  So we’re looking for 1.5 MAF per year out of that 10 MAF.  That is water that is truly uncaptured after meeting all of the existing uses, including the ecosystem needs.”

The reason why we can’t capture that water right now is that we need to protect the endangered fish that’s in the Delta.  So how do we export that water without hurting endangered fish?”

Mr. Hamilton explained that the plan is to put perforated pipes at the bottom of the water column in gravel media and have a very slow downward percolation.  “The reason why that works is that fish have a natural buoyancy; they will just stay in the water column as long as that vertical velocity is slow enough.  And we tested this we juvenile, larval Delta smelt, the youngest, most sensitive fish to figure out what that vertical velocity would be.  So if we do this, we can divert water without hurting the fish at all.”

What would that look like in the Delta?  What we’re trying to do here is to make the water diversion invisible to the fish, so those perforated pipes would go in those infiltration beds that you see.  They just connect straight into the collector channels, and then the water is pumped out the collector channels.  One of the advantages here, unlike the existing diversion facilities at the state and federal facilities, there is no dead-end for the fish.  The fish don’t get trapped.  They just move back and forth over the infiltration galleries while the water is being diverted.”

We had MBK Engineers look at how much water we could generate with that, and with these facilities, we do believe we can get between 1.5 and 1.7 MAF year on average out of the Delta.  Obviously, in the really dry years, we’re diverting nothing, and in the wet years, we’re diverting quite a bit more than that.”

Moving the water to where it’s needed:  They are looking at new conveyance facilities, one coming off the Delta Mendota Canal going to the Madera Canal, and another from the California Aqueduct that would serve the heart of the Valley, through northern Kern County and then up into the Tule, Kaweah, Kings, and Tulare Lake subbasins.  (Maven note: I’m not sure he really explained how the water gets from the collector channels to the California Aqueduct and the Delta Mendota Canal.)

We’re looking at potentially 10,000 cubic feet per second of total use here,” said Mr. Hamilton.  “The southern one is about 3600 cfs but the northern one is about 2200 cfs.  To put that in perspective, the capacity of the Friant Kern at its headworks is about 5300 cfs.”

Put it to beneficial use:  “There are lots of different ways you can do that.  Obviously, we prefer projects that provide multiple benefits.”

This is all roughly estimated to cost about $9 billion, he said.  “$2.4 billion for fish friendly diversions in the Delta, $1.3 billion for the four Madera facilities, $230 million for expansion of the Friant Kern Canal to the Kings River, $1.4 billion for a Mid-Valley Canal and $1.3 for a Trans Valley Canal, and then $2 billion for environmental enhancement, so all of that adds of up to $9 billion.  We think because money has been traditionally made available for environmental purposes for environmental enhancement, and that could be easily a 50-year project, so we’re thinking that that $2 billion could come from that continuing source. Still, the rest of it is going to have to come from different sources, but primarily the water users themselves.”

As for priority conveyance projects in the San Joaquin Valley, Mr. Hamilton said there isn’t yet an official Blueprint perspective, but here is the list:

    • Restoring the lost capacity of the Friant Kern Canal
    • Expanding the Friant Kern Canal and Madera Canals
    • Connecting the Delta Mendota Canal to the Chowchilla Bypass because a lot of the GSAs are looking to use water off the Chowchilla Bypass, but they’re not going to have enough floodwater coming off that to meet their needs,
    • The fish-friendly diversions, essentially a key lynchpin
    • Mid-Valley Canal to move the water into the Central Valley

These elements broadly tie into the Governor’s Water Resilience Portfolio.  “They get at really what the Blueprint is trying to do, which is to sustain the economy to help disadvantaged communities, preserve wetlands in the valley, which is consistent with our theme of finding the surface water and moving it to where it’s needed,” said Mr. Hamilton. “It provides a lot of flexibility, particularly in the Delta, because we’re looking at multiple places for fish-friendly diversions in the Delta, and that provides DWR and the Bureau with an enormous amount of flexibility compared to how they operate right now.”

As to resiliency in the face of climate change, we can better manage high flows and put them to beneficial use, we can interconnect and recharge, and we can enhance floodplains.  All of those give us a whole lot of flexibility in the face of fluctuating circumstances with climate change.

Mr. Hamilton then explained why he thought the state should fund conveyance infrastructure, citing flood protection and the human right to water.  “It’s an investment,” he said.  “If you invest in infrastructure, you get back tax revenues.  There are also human health and welfare considerations.  When we think about disadvantaged communities, we don’t tend to think about the people in those communities, but most of those people have valley jobs that depend on agriculture to put food on their table.  Their struggle is real, and if we take the water away, we are fundamentally influencing them and their welfare.”

There’s also protection for infrastructure, there is food quality and safety, environmental restoration, protection of open spaces, preserves for endangered species, food enhancement through floodplains for native fish, and as part of our environmental vision, air quality benefits, so there are a lot of reasons why the Commission and the state should be thinking about some sort of public investment.”

Mr. Hamilton agreed that it’s reasonable that beneficiaries should step up and pay.  He suggested that one thing to contemplate from a state policy perspective is how funding water infrastructure compares to the government’s role in funding roads or funding high-speed rail?  He noted that currently, the Blueprint is funded through voluntary contributions, and the Department of Water Resources is stretched for resources as well.    They are interested in finding out if there are funds available to help with funding, and when they go to build the projects, what funding structures might be possible.

The road ahead is going to be hard,” Mr. Hamilton said.  “If we don’t do anything, that vision is pretty clear about what that is going to look like.  If we move ahead here, it’s going to be a hard road.  There’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of political issues to deal with, a lot of expense, and it will take a lot of commitment. But we also think there’s a great opportunity here.  With SGMA, people are forced to make decisions, so now we have an opportunity to move ahead if we can come up with the right plan, and we’re looking around to get a lot of involvement from a lot of people to figure out what that is.”

Nature Conservancy Perspective

Jay Zeigler is the Director of Policy and External Affairs at the Nature Conservancy in California.  In his presentation, he discussed the critical principles that his organization believes the Commission should evaluate first and foremost when considering infrastructure investments.

The Nature Conservancy’s mission is to conserve the lands and waters upon which all life depends.  “In California, what that really means is getting to balanced groundwater and surface water budgets that are more predictable across multiple water year types,” he said, noting that the Nature Conservancy has participated in water supply and water policy issues over the past 20 years.  “We need to get to balanced groundwater and surface water management across California.  We’ll probably have to do that first on a watershed by watershed basis, but we have to get there. We owe that to Californians, both today and for future generations.”

Mr. Ziegler pointed out that California law is very clear that the beneficiaries should pay for water supply benefits, so there’s a very high bar to meet in thinking about those public investments, whether it’s from bonds or other sources into water conveyance.

If you look at California today, you see the most complex, hydrologic delivery engineered systems of anywhere in the world,” he said.  “For the first 100 years of development of that system, we have drastically underestimated the impacts of that system on the environment and are only beginning to reconcile those impacts today and confront additional challenges from climate change, as we look around the corner.”

He noted that today there are 4000 freshwater plants, animals, and fish in freshwater ecosystems across the state. Among those, one-half of those species are vulnerable to extinction in the next 50 to 70 years. If you consider the species that are only in California, 90% of those endemic freshwater fish, plants, and wildlife are vulnerable to extinction.

It’s not just about the Delta,” said Mr. Ziegler.  “We all need to be thinking more holistically about water management, but that’s the place where we’re starting from today.”

The Human Right to Water is an important consideration; he noted that the Nature Conservancy supported that legislation and they strongly believe that if conveyance is used to exchange water rights in some way that is more predictable in the basins that have an enforceable SGMA plan and a sustainable groundwater and surface water budget framework, those investments are probably critically at the top of the list.  Groundwater stabilization holistically across the valley is certainly is a public value and there may be ways to achieve a balance that is facilitated by infrastructure. Still, it should meet a very high bar.

Multi-benefit investments that address flood protection, groundwater recharge, water supply for the environment, and facilities for conjunctive use water management that provide a more sustainable or more predictable supply for environmental uses and other public benefits are considerations that can be factored, but they are generally a fraction of a project cost and should be recognized that way,” Mr. Ziegler said.

As a fundamental starting point, the Governor’s Water Resilience Portfolio is certainly a critical bar to meet, he said.  Longer-term, the California Water Plan and Water Resilience Portfolio strategies have to be fully integrated and have to be integrated with regional water supply strategies and other public benefits in order to hit the bar.

Mr. Ziegler noted that 85% of funding for infrastructure, both gray and green, comes from local agencies, 12% from the state, and 3% from federal sources.  “The state and your role at the Commission is to be a critical catalyst for the kinds of really smart water investments that provide a pathway for a more durable future, both for the environment, for ecosystems, and for people,” he said.

He underscored that these are tricky matters, noting that political observers think that infrastructure investments that were not well defined was the principal reason for the defeat of Prop 3, an $8.3 billion water bond on the 2018 ballot.

So your role is shepherding and stewarding investments that really meet these bars of providing for public benefits, for providing accountability, for ensuring that we’re not putting good money after bad, and that we really are requiring that there is a balanced groundwater and surface water management plan for the allocation of public resources because that’s critically important,” Mr. Ziegler said.  “The Governor has shown a willingness and the legislature almost moved to put a climate resilience bond on the ballot in 2020.  Our organization among others is moving actively to support a bond that is scaled to meet the climate challenges that California confronts on the 2022 ballot, and dealing with floods and stormwater risk in a climate change world and the stresses on already incredibly stressed ecosystems is just fundamentally critical.  We’re lagging on the kind of investment that we need to make a difference.”

DISCUSSION HIGHLIGHTS

Commissioner Swanson asked Mr. Ziegler what he meant by the exchange of water rights.

One example is that refuges in the Central Valley, south of the Delta, are almost 100% dependent on groundwater resources and a wet year from Mother Nature in order to have adequate water supplies,” said Mr. Ziegler.  “We do believe that there are opportunities to think about some of the basins that are experiencing critical overdraft where we can think about allocating a certain share of water rights that may be held by regional water agencies to the refuges, for example, to enhance wildlife habitat.”

We know that we’ve lost 95% of wetland habitat throughout the Central Valley and particularly impacted south of the Delta, and we also know that the Pacific Flyway is in crisis, so we have to do better at meeting refuge water supply needs,” he continued.  “One way of doing this may be if we can get to a sustainable groundwater management plan that’s in balance with reasonable surface water supply assumptions as a key condition for that, we see an opportunity where there may be water agencies that are looking at fallowing some part of less productive ground.  In some cases, those areas are actually near or adjacent to federal and state wildlife refuges and near areas that could benefit from groundwater recharge and benefit from a flood strategy perspective to enhance and widen floodplains for public health and safety purposes as well as the wildlife benefits that come with that.”

You think about those multi-benefit scenarios in which you’re solving for groundwater overdraft, you’re solving for what’s the predictable future for agriculture in this subregion, solving for flood risk in some measure, solving for what we know to be a deficient water supply for wildlife refuges, and if a piece of infrastructure, if a water pipe could be used to facilitate an exchange from an active ag water agency to the refuge where the refuge has a reliable surface water supply, that certainly contributes to a greater sense of resilience for that refuge.  But it has to be a multifaceted integrated strategy on both a subregional, regional, and ultimately statewide scale.”

Commissioner Makler asked Scott Hamilton if there was a demonstration system for the infiltration beds?  Has that been done, at what scale?  Is there much operating history with that approach?

The concept itself is not new,” he said.  “The idea of taking water out of the bottom of the water column is implemented in multiple places.  It has been used in California rivers in at least four rivers that I’m aware of.  It’s been thought of for diverting water for desal plants, so the concept itself is not new, it’s the application of it in the Delta that’s new.  We are looking to try and implement a pilot project this coming year in the Delta so we can actually see how it works.”

Commissioner Curtin commented that the real issue confronting the Commission is the issue of integration of systems, not just the water system but everything from the top of the mountains down into the groundwater basins.

It defies regions, it defies political entities, it defies all kinds of things,” he said.  “What we really need is a systems integration process that DWR should be thinking about.  The closest they’ve come is Integrated Regional Water Management and it’s great – it’s one of the best things that they’ve done.  But it’s complicated.  There are all kinds of things that could be connected.  Upper watershed management, forestry issues, those sorts of things that really matter to water.  To me, the fundamental question for the Commission is how to actually do what Jay and all the others were talking about more regionally.  They are getting more regional but they are grappling with in a way that’s local, so from my perspective, that’s the fundamental question.”

Commissioner Curtin suggested the Department of Water Resources create a system integration management team that goes beyond water issues and includes energy, forestry, and others. “All of it is competitive, and until we find a way to integrate, we’re not going to solve the problems,” he said.

Jay Ziegler agreed.  “The Commission should challenge the Department of Water Resources to really align its strategies and its work,” he said.  “What we’re seeing right now is there’s a Flood MAR group that is really digging in on a set of issues, there’s a SGMA group that is really digging in on a set of issues, and an ecosystem restoration group, but it’s a challenge to understand how those are aligned.  I think you as a public decision making authority could really have a helpful catalytic role in working with the Department across these areas.

Jennifer Pierre said in terms of integration, they are highly interested in figuring out ways to better manage for the environment.  “Whether you’re an environmentalist or not, there’s an inextricable link between water supply and environmental health and we recognize that and we want to part of that solution.  Likewise on the energy front, we do use a lot of energy to move water throughout the state. Still, we also have a lot of capability to integrate energy operations in a way that is helpful. In fact that happened during the rolling black outs in August where DWR was available to change up its operations in order to help that.  There’s a lot more that can be done and as a group, the SWP contractors are pretty progressive.  They are the public water agencies that are doing what you’re talking about at the local level.  I think scaling it up to the State Water Project is a challenge but I think it’s something that we’re very open to looking at.  To the specific question about Valley water balancing, that really is then at the more local, regional level.”

Commissioner Samantha Arthur asked from the perspective of state investment, regarding the subsidence issue, how do you invest state dollars and also ensure that some of the problems that have come up don’t happen again further down the line if possible?

Jennifer Pierre agreed that is important.  “Whether it’s the state making the investment or us or the feds of wherever the money comes from, when those repairs are made, they need to be protected.  We do not want to be in the same situation again in 10, 20 years.  We think there’s a lot of promise in SGMA of doing that, but again, the damage has already been done, so we’re going to have to get back to that neutral space and then hopefully SGMA ensures that that doesn’t continue to occur.”

Jay Ziegler added that it’s important to ensure we’re making the needed scientific investments to really understand groundwater and surface water more deeply.

The pace of investment at both the federal and state level is not really keeping pace with where it needs to be,” said Mr. Ziegler.  “I think it is important that the Commission maintains an active role in thinking about the implementation of science and data, water management to ensure that we’re managing more transparently from both the groundwater and surface water perspective and really using this level of science.“

Regarding upper watershed management conditions, Mr. Ziegler said it’s significant that the Newsom Administration this summer announced an effort with the USFS to actively treat a million acres of forestlands a year.  “We have to take that seriously.  We’ve just now seen on the cusp of 4.6 million acres burned in California in this past year.  This kind of effort is long overdue but that active use of ecological forest management, all the data is telling us that there are measurable water quality benefits, there are measurable habitat benefits, there are measurable flow benefits. We need to be considering that data, so I would also urge the Commission to be an active advocate with the Department to really spur the use of science to better understand the upper watershed conditions that provide 60% of the state’s water supply.”

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