What is Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM)?

Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) is an initiative led by the Department of Water Resources that seeks to support collaborative efforts among agencies, NGOs, Tribes, and stakeholders within a region that identify and implement water management solutions to increase regional self-reliance, reduce conflict, and manage water to achieve multiple objectives. Integrated Regional Water Management has the potential to deliver higher value for investments by considering all interests, providing multiple benefits, and working across jurisdictional boundaries.

But what exactly is Integrated Regional Water Management (or IRWM)?  In September of 2020, a webinar hosted by the IRWM Roundtable of Regions and the Local Government Commission covered the basics of the program, how it works, the benefits, the implementation, and success stories from regions across the state.

The basics of Integrated Regional Water Management

Lynn Rodriguez describes herself as an enthusiastic water resource management professional since 1981.  She currently manages the Watersheds Coalition of the Ventura County IRWM program, and she serves as the co-chair of the IRWM Roundtable of Regions.  Mark Stadler is the principal water resource specialist at the San Diego County Water Authority, where he has managed the San Diego IRWM program since 2007.  He also serves as the co-chair of the IRWM Roundtable of Regions.  They opened up the webinar with a presentation on the basics of Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM).

We want to share with you the excitement that those of us that are involved in IRWM have about the value that it has, how the program works, and how you can get involved,” said Ms. Rodriguez. “Especially in this time of great challenge in our state with respect to climate change, water supply issues, and droughts, the IRWM program offers an amazing opportunity for collaboration.  The practice of IRWM and the funding that comes with it is vital to the future of regions across the state and to the state itself.”

IRWM covers almost the entire state in terms of population; 48 IRWM regions have been established. “It’s all about collaboration and the importance of working together across jurisdictional boundaries and political boundaries,” she said. “It’s working within watersheds, working at small scales and large scales – it varies across the state on how it’s implemented, but very importantly, it involves a lot of collaboration.  There are multiple agencies involved and all kinds of different stakeholders. More recently, we’re getting more involved with serving our underserved communities and engaging with Tribes, as well as water districts, sanitary districts, environmental groups, NGOs, federal and state agencies in our regions. We’re really focusing on multi-benefit projects and solutions and addressing different perspectives.  IRWM groups also try to address conflict because many regions have had a history of conflict among their different users, be it agricultural and urban, or environmental.  We try to bring everybody to the table to benefit and to work together.”

The graphic below shows the many elements of an IRWM program, and the work IRWM groups do involve working with various entities, people, and stakeholders in different realms.

So what do IRWM regions do?  First, they reach out to as many stakeholders from across the spectrum of entities involved in water management and water resources to address all the needs in those areas.  IRWM groups are especially mindful of engaging with Tribes and underserved communities in their regions.  IRWM groups set goals and priorities for water management and watershed protection within their area and develop a plan written to the California Department of Water Resources standards.  Ms. Rodriguez noted that many IRWM groups are on their third plan, updating as necessary when new standards and guidelines are issued.

Another essential part of what IRWM groups do is solicit and prioritize projects to implement in their regions and then look for funding for those projects.  Identifying and securing funding from multiple sources is important, as there are numerous possible funding sources: local nonprofits and foundations, state funding, federal funding, water districts, and other revenue sources.  Since 2006, the IRWM Roundtable of Regions serves as a forum to bring together all the different IRWM regions to network and share successful strategies.

Ms. Rodriguez emphasized that IRWM is more than just about the grants. “It’s a voluntary structure of stakeholders working together to solve regional water management issues and, importantly, achieving water and climate resilience.”

It’s all about relationships among the various stakeholders, she said.  Everything now is on Zoom, but before the pandemic, IRWM involved many meetings with stakeholders in the same room, working through issues and challenges, selecting projects, and building relationships.  It’s about people and stakeholders of all kinds, from students, farmers, disadvantaged communities, cities, counties, environmental groups, and Tribes – it’s about bringing all the stakeholders together to manage water.

First and foremost, IRWM is about engaging the people,” said Ms. Rodriguez.

The quote on the slide is from the 2013 California Water Plan, which emphasizes that an integrated, comprehensive, and collaborative approach is needed to manage water in a way that achieves social, environmental, and economic objectives collectively.

We’re looking to find higher value for investments and a more cost-effective approach to solving our individual issues, pulling ourselves out of the silos in managing water, bringing the issues together, and dissolving the barriers between them to work across boundaries,” Ms. Rodriguez said.

The geographic scales to operate in differ by region. Some regions, such as the North Coast, are very large with 7 or 8 counties, while others are much smaller; different sizes work for the stakeholders involved.

IRWM groups work primarily to ensure reliable water supplies, enhanced ecosystems, better food, water quality, and restoring the state’s resources.  The graphic on the slide outlines the benefits of IRWM; it shows the individual benefits accrued from working together collaboratively instead of independently and separately.

The quote on the right emphasizes that it takes a lot of time and a lot of people working together, but the values are tremendous and their intrinsic and they are not always quantifiable, but they are very real,” said Ms. Rodriguez.

Mark Stadler is the co-chair of the Roundtable of Regions; he works for the San Diego County Water Authority and spends a lot of time managing the San Diego IRWM program.  “When talking about IRWM, I emphasize that ideally, it strikes a balance,” he said.  “You hear mostly about grant dollars because it’s flashy and easy to say, $100 million in grant funding.  But first comes the planning, first comes the bringing of people who often don’t normally talk to each other and getting them to collaborate.  After the plans are produced, an IRWM will seek out project funding, often from grants but not always.  The grant funding is to support projects that achieve the goals that are established in the planning.”

IRWM is about collaboration amongst many different interests and folks who might not typically work together, so it’s essential to balance those interests when you’re making decisions, said Mr. Stadler.  “That’s all part of dissolving the silos.  We think that a lot of the silos and talking to each other and working together – it’s not quite as simple as this graphic.  It would be really nice if we just move this one dial, press this button, and everything is in alignment, but that’s not necessarily the case.  But this does demonstrate the balancing that occurs.  And if you are wondering where the people are, there are those little houses next to the skyscrapers.”

In terms of funding, the state to date has invested $1.45 billion in funds from three voter-approved bond measures.  Those funds have been matched with $5.6 billion in local funds and funds from other grants to do hundreds of valuable projects – many of which would not have occurred without IRWM, he said.

The slide lists the various projects that IRWM groups have brought to fruition.  They include water reuse projects, seawater desalination, watershed management, wetlands protection and restoration, and groundwater management.  In some cases, IRWM regions are working with the new GSAs.

Mr. Stadler then closed with some pictures of projects that have resulted from IRWM grant programs.  “What I like about these pictures is it shows the results,” he said.  “At one point, it’s abstract.  Then there’s a project proposal, some grant funding, and then voila, invasive species are being removed, or wastewater reuse and desalination are taking place in Santa Barbara County, or groundwater is being extracted and remediation is going on … “

Q&A highlights

What if IRWM groups can’t come to a consensus?

QUESTION: What happens when there is a conflict?  I understand that this is a collaborative, inclusive approach, which is great, but are there rules, guidelines, and power vested for decision making authority?  Who gets to make the decision that breaks the conflict?  Or is it simply that grants won’t be available if the group can’t work out their differences?

We have a process with a charter that very clearly identifies how decisions are made and what happens when there is a challenge with what might seem to be an unresolvable conflict,” said Lynn Rodriguez.  “We’ve been fortunate not to have any of those, but we do have guidelines set up to help us navigate through that, should it occur.  One of the watershed groups that is part of our IRWM region has a detailed charter to help guide their decision-making. Even with a consensus-based process, you can run into issues where folks just have difficulty reaching an agreement.  Every region has a slightly different way of addressing that.  DWR and the state agencies don’t have a role in reducing conflict in our regions; that’s something that we have to do on our own.  I suppose there would be some regions if they couldn’t reach an agreement and might struggle to get an application together, but I think charters work well to help with that.”

Upcoming milestones for IRWM

QUESTION: Could you provide a general timeline of the major milestones coming up for the IRWMP process?  What dates or actions should we be on the lookout for?

There is a second round of Prop 1 funding expected in late 2021 or early 2022, said Lynn Rodriguez.  “They are still completing their final awards for the first round of funding, so there needs to be a bit of gap in between.  We need to complete the Disadvantaged Community involvement process so that we have projects ready for that funding.  IRWM processes in every region can have various timelines for different things they are doing.

There isn’t another bond measure on the horizon right now to support IRWM specifically,” pointed out Mark Stadler.  “There have been three approved by the voters.  The last was Prop 1 in 2014.  We had hoped to have something on the ballot in November before the pandemic took all the energy out of the room and put all the attention on more important things, so now we’re working toward a bond measure that would include funding for IRWM in 2022.

IRWM Success Stories

REGINA HOUCHIN: Disadvantaged communities an integral part of IRWM

Regina Houchin is a long time Kern County resident who owns and operates a small accounting office in Buttonwillow.  She works with small family farms and five community water systems, ranging from 46 to 400 connections.  She serves as the Disadvantaged Community Representative to the Kern County IRWM and the Tulare-Kern Project Advisory Committee.

I’m a bookkeeper by day and a board member and community advocate by night,” said Ms. Houchin.  “I was brought up to believe in hard work and the rewards of serving, so I spend my time in service.  I feel my connection is to the disadvantaged communities (DACs) within Kern County, especially because that’s the region I work with.”

Ms. Houchin pointed out that disadvantaged communities aren’t usually connected to large districts; they struggle with managing their day to day operations, let alone finding time to participate in the IRWMP.  She said it’s essential to listen and understand DACs needs first and avoid making decisions on their needs without their input.

Ms. Houchin became involved with the Buttonwillow County Water District as a client in the 1980s.  The water district provides water and sewer services to 425 residences located within their boundaries.  The water district didn’t have an engineer, a general manager, or an attorney on staff and few resources.  As with most disadvantaged communities and small water systems, funding is always an issue, with improvements and repairs often exceeding what’s available in the budget.

This lone tree, which gave the town of Buttonwillow its name, served as a landmark on an old trans-valley trail. An ancient Yokuts Indian meeting place, it later became the site of settlers’ stock rodeos. Miller and Lux established their headquarters and store here about 1885.

Before Ms. Houchin’s involvement with the IRWMP, the water district had worked with Self Help Enterprises and was awarded a $1.9 million cleanup and abatement grant from the State Water Board to replace an old existing storage tank.  They completed that project in 2013 with a low-interest loan obtained from the USDA Rural Development.

When Ms. Houchin first heard about the IRWM program and that grants and funding would be generated by way of an IRWMP and no longer initiated individually, she was worried that without the advantage of a district manager, legal and engineering staff, they wouldn’t be able to compete for the funds.

It was obvious to me at that time that large cities and irrigation districts would have the means to provide shovel-ready projects and would receive each round of funding, leaving DACs unfunded,” said Ms. Houchin.  “Little did I know.  I decided to participate in a Kern County IRWMP project meeting, and I found out that disadvantaged communities were an integral component of the process and not to be excluded.  It was through that first introduction that I was elected to the executive committee of the Kern IRWMP as a DAC representative.

In the Kern County IRWMP, there are many small communities with infrastructure needs; three have been issued state/regional water quality compliance orders for exceeding either the arsenic or nitrate MCLs, and all but one is classified as severely disadvantaged community.

Working with the representative of the nine regions that make up Kern IRWMP and being part of a team allowed me to work through the process and see the benefits of working together,” she said.  “Funding was a major concern.  I was wondering what it was going to cost us to participate, and only then did we find out that we were able to participate and give our voice at no cost, which was a blessing to all of the districts I represent.”

After prioritizing the project submissions and eventually including them in the grant funding request, Buttonwillow was awarded $3.8 million to replace their 60-year old mainlines and install meters to achieve water conservation, reduce annual groundwater pumping, and improve water system reliability.  That grant included funds to complete a Prop 218 hearing to establish meter rates.  Since then, Ms. Houchin has helped other small communities receive grants through the IRWM process.

Ms. Houchin pointed out that most small communities do not always have access to reliable internet, and many residents have jobs that prevent them from attending meetings.   They need to be engaged at times that are convenient to them and in their community.  It’s essential to listen to their needs and offer resources and support.  It can be challenging, but it’s imperative to have disadvantaged communities represented as they are integral parts of the process.

Ms. Houchin said the ability to assist small communities through her work with the IRWM group has been rewarding.  “I believe in volunteering and investing in what you believe in,” she said.  “I am fortunate through the IRWMP and the activities related to them to build strong relationships with advisors at the local level and the state level.   So I wanted to make sure I shared the importance of the IRWMP and the DAC involvement.  If nothing else comes from my story, I want to challenge that each person to reach out to those lacking in local support.”

CRAIG BRADFORD: Small water system gets big help

Craig Bradford is the transition coordinator for Big Rock Community Services District, located in Del Norte County, which provides water for the community of Hiouchi, the Jedidiah Smith Redwood State Park, and Redwood National Park.   The District serves approximately 650 customers during the winter months each year and an average of 2,150 more during the tourism and recreation season.

Starting in 2005, Big Rock Community Services District’s Board of Directors initiated a planning process to replace its wooden water storage tank system, which was nearing the end of its expected life cycle, with a bolted steel tank.  When the engineers informed them that the wooden tank and complicated pipeline array would potentially slide off the steep mountainside in a strong earthquake, the objective became mitigating the potential for disaster.  The secondary purposes were to fulfill the two parks’ request for potable water and replace the aging water storage tank.

The existing 100,000-gallon storage tank was insufficient to satisfy the increased water demand required to serve both parks, so they had to plan for a 200,000 bolted steel tank, swelling the price to $4.2 million.  However, the town of Hiouchi is an extremely disadvantaged community, and it would not be possible to increase water rates sufficiently to accommodate the cost of the new tank.  So Big Rock Community Services District became involved with the local IRWM group, which began the process.

Working with their IRWM group, the community was able to receive five grants and one loan to ultimately fund the project:

  • DWR through the Integrated Regional Water Management Program
  • The State Water Board’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund
  • Cal OES FEMA 4120 grant
  • FEMA DR-1952 plus 2 Supplements
  • RCAC grant
  • RCAC Loan to cover the cost of the delays

Mr. Bradford noted that they utilized 14 contractors for the Hillside Stabilization Project.  The RCAC loan made it possible for them to pay each contractor within 30 days of performing work, which he noted typically increases the likelihood of quality contractors bidding on a given agency’s projects.

The project delivered multiple benefits over the 15-year project for the area.  One of those was placing the Hiouchi Mountain Radio Station (HMRS) into operation, which provides emergency communications capability for first responders and direct communication capability with California’s Emergency Command Center at Mather to facilitate disaster relief support if needed.

The project was completed in August of 2020.  “We have a 60-year future.  We have key emergency communications for Del Norte County, Curry County in Oregon, and Josephine County in Oregon.  By the way, that radio station is taking the place of the Red Mountain debacle, which has handicapped Northern California for a long time.  The solution is with Hiouchi.

These are the benefits now enjoyed by the township of Hauiche that came from all those years of careful planning, engineering, and construction, and they speak for themselves,” he continued.  “Please let me be clear as I finish this.  If it had not been for IRWMP’s capabilities and its unique working relationship with DWR, we would not have been able to acquire a 25% grant in the first place that would qualify us to achieve our initial 75% FEMA grant requirement.  The hillside stabilization project and the Hiouchi Mountain radio station would have been nothing more than an old man’s dream, and the township of Hiouchi would be a much less desirable place for both residents and visitors than it is today.”

SHERRI NORRIS: Engaging with Tribes brings multiple benefits

Sherri Norris is the Executive Director of the California Indian Environmental Alliance (or CIEA), an environmental health organization. She has had 12 years of experience working as a Tribal health and environmental advocate.  Since 2014, Ms. Norris has been the tribal engagement coordinator for the North Coast Resource Partnership.

The North Coast Resource Partnership region covers over 19,000 square miles – 12% of the California landscape – and includes the Tribal lands and the counties of Del Norte, Humboldt, Trinity, Siskiyou, Modoc, Mendocino, and Sonoma.

She noted that she wasn’t the original tribal engagement coordinator, but they are blessed and very fortunate to have the leadership of Tribes.  The Tribes have been a big part of the North Coast Regional Partnership from early on.  When the Tribes became aware of the local IRWM group working in the area, they came to the regional water management group meeting, asked to be involved, and were welcomed with open arms.  Through the years, the Partnership has built a robust tribal engagement program.

In the North Coast Resource Partnership, the Tribes participate in the governance structure and committees.  There is an understanding that Tribes are governments with a constituency; tribal representatives can speak with their constituents and come back with decisions as the local agencies would do.

A lot of tribal projects have been funded through their IRWMP.  “The pilot projects are guided by Tribes to show what can be managed differently in the watershed,” she said.  “We try to leave money in our budgets for those types of projects that are funded and guided by our tribal representatives.  And the Tribes are consistently engaged.”

34 Tribes participate in the North Coast Resource Partnership.  Each Tribe is a separate government and speaks on its own behalf.  So for tribal representation, they split the 34 Tribes into north, central, and south regions where Tribes in each region would nominate and vote for the Tribal representatives that would sit alongside the local governments and make the decisions of the regional water management group.

The NCRP governance framework consists of two committees:

The Policy Review Panel is the governing body for the NCRP.  It consists of two Board of Supervisors’ appointees and alternates from each of the seven counties and three Tribal representatives and alternates selected by the Tribes.

The Technical Peer Review Committee is an advisory body to the PRP that provides scientific and technical expertise to the NCRP.  The committee is comprised of technical and scientific staff appointed by Policy Review Panel members or Board of Supervisors from each county and Tribal representatives (and alternates) selected by the North Coast Tribes.  This committee looks at the proposals; it includes fisheries, tribal environmental directors, and others knowledgeable about traditional ecological knowledge (TEK).  There are also ad hoc committees that provide advice as the program moves forward.

The IRWMP group changed its name to the North Coast Resource Partnership because they wanted to include funding sources from other sources besides IRWM funds.  Since 2004, the Partnership has succeeded in investing over $85 million in hundreds of projects to benefit the North Coast Region’s communities and watersheds.  Recently, the North Coast Resource Partnership received a block grant to work with Tribes and local decision-makers to develop the North Coast Fires and Forest Plan that will be more resilient.

Ms. Norris then gave some recommendations for engaging with Tribes.

She recommends regional water management groups have a tribal engagement coordinator chosen by the Tribes to ensure consistency in the engagement.  Tribes have elections, and the leadership might change, so it’s essential to stay in communication.

Have a clear path for how Tribes and other participants can become engaged on the website by listing upcoming meeting dates, locations, and contact information.  Publish the full meeting calendar if dates are scheduled a long time in advance, and recognize that Tribes have other commitments and meetings that cannot be rescheduled.  “For example, one of the individuals in our governance structure has a council meeting every Thursday, so we moved some of our meetings around to accommodate them because we want them there,” said Ms. Norris.  “We know it’s not always possible, but to do everything you can is really helpful.”

Educate participants about how to engage with Tribes.  There are complexities to engaging with Tribes as sovereign nations, so to develop an understanding, the Partnership received presentations from Tribes and the National Indian Justice Center.

Let the Tribes know if there is a time and a financial commitment.  Understand that not all Tribes have the resources, particularly the smaller Tribes.  Funding may need to be provided to get them to the table.  “Tribes still have the responsibility of the land to manage that’s been given for thousands of years, but to manage those lands, the tribal resources themselves may be very small,” said Ms. Norris.  “However, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have the skills or the information, but when one person that has seven jobs, how do you make that happen.”

Tribes need the opportunity to speak Tribe to Tribe to develop and maintain that representative structure.  If you can do one vote for each Tribe, that’s great, but if not, then there needs to be support for developing that kind of a structure.

Tribally-led programs and solutions are essential.  If you can get tribal criteria in your IRWM criteria so that when projects are put forward, they are being captured as fundable, that is helpful.

Some requirements of the IRWM program can sometimes be challenging for Tribes, such as signing on to plans and MOUs.  There can also be issues with labor code compliance because Tribes have their own governments.

Tribes on federal lands have to comply with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). There is a CEQA-NEPA hybrid that needs to occur with some projects, and not every IRWMP region has been able to allocate funding for support and technical assistance to develop those documents. Still, it is helpful if you can because it’s a big lift for Tribes to overcome some of these hurdles.

Ms. Norris is thankful that the Department of Water Resources has removed the limited waiver of sovereign immunity from the guidelines. That enables the local governments that are involved in regional water management groups to negotiate with Tribes on consultation government to government relationship in order to complete these MOUs and the agreements you need to do in order to put the projects forward.  For some Tribes, for example, to sign a limited waiver of sovereign immunity, they have to have their entire membership sign off on it …  it’s the equivalent of their constitution, so that would prohibit them from engaging unless there’s a way to work through that.”

There are many benefits to having the Tribes involved, said Ms. Norris.  Tribes have knowledge and responsibilities to their traditional territory, but some Tribes have been left out for so long, we’re in a situation where we’re out of balance.  “So for the Tribes to be participating alongside you to help make management decisions is going to be very important as we navigate through climate change.”

In the North Coast region, Tribes are an important part of the decision making process.  If local government officials go to a meeting and don’t see the Tribes there, they want to postpone decisions until the Tribes are in the room.  “We really have developed trust,” she said.  “When we’re dealing with fire, knowing who to call and being comfortable with each other is one benefit that hasn’t been quantified through these programs, but it is invaluable.  To walk in the room and have people already know each other, where before that wasn’t there.”

More on tribal engagement

For the second part of the webinar, DWR Tribal Advisor Anecita Agustinez led a discussion that focused on Tribal engagement practices.

The distinction between federally recognized and non-federally recognized Tribes

Regarding the distinction between non-federally recognized Tribes and federally recognized Tribes, Anecita Agustinez said there is no distinction in the Prop 1 grant eligibility for Tribes in California.  “We at the Department of Water Resources recognize that California Native American Tribes is inclusive of all tribal governments in California.  We take that language from Executive Order B-10-11 established by Governor Brown that was also reacknowledged in Governor Newsom’s Executive Order N-10-19.”

I can just say that having Tribes participate as part of the structure is extremely important, regardless of whether they are federally recognized or not,” said Sherri Norris.

IRWM and tribal participation

Question: What is the actual effect on IRWM of a Tribe being a government rather than just a stakeholder, or is this just a note that Tribes have the ability to confer on a government to government relationship?

Anecita Agustinez noted that a Tribal member is not only a citizen of their government; they are also a citizen within that community, so they are both a Tribal citizen and a stakeholder.  She also noted that both state and local government agencies have a responsibility to acknowledge the tribal consultation process.

There are benefits to Tribal involvement.  “You need to deal with all beneficial users within your area of jurisdiction, and Tribal governments are composed of many different statuses,” Ms. Agustinez said.  “Federally recognized versus non federally recognized, and non-governmental organizations or NGOs, and tribal GOs representing smaller communities.  In some instances, there may be a delegated authority from Tribal governments to represent ancestral lands and land stewardship issues.  You do want to make sure as an agency or regional water management organization that your constituency does represent your full beneficial users within that jurisdictional area.”

Sherri Norris noted that there are other funding sources that Tribes can tap into, as well as support networks through federal EPA.  “Tribes can share resources, and if there are tribal lands within your jurisdictions, and to be able to align your water management strategies with those Tribes who many times have a water management or a land management policy is important.

Anecita Agustinez noted that the North Coast Resource Partnership has a great engagement strategy for tribal Partnership. Still, it took ten years or more to get to that level of engagement.  Ms. Norris said it’s still a work in progress.  New leadership comes in from time to time that hasn’t worked with Tribes before, so they have to re-do the orientations periodically.

Ms. Norris mentioned that the Upper Feather River IRWMP has an interesting way of including Tribes.  Any proposal that is put forward goes to their tribal advisory committee, and the Tribes can choose if they just want to be informed, if they want to engage as a partner, or if they just want to have an advisory role.  So the Tribes have an opportunity to review all the projects before they go through the decision process on which projects will be funded.

Allow for tribal caucuses or tribal-only discussions

Anecita Agustinez noted that sometimes, there will be meetings for tribal representatives only or a tribal caucus.  This is part of recognizing that tribal governments are sovereigns and not stakeholders, so be sure to allow for that type of discussion. It gives tribal communities who may not be familiar with one another or the process itself, the ability to have that discussion amongst themselves, take it back to their communities, and then return to the regional organization with information.

Ms. Norris noted that providing a forum for Tribes to talk amongst themselves can be very useful.  “Prior to the NCRP quarterly meeting, we have a tribal meeting the day before.  The Tribes go through the agenda and can have wide conversations about what’s on there and talk about management strategies.  When you are talking with the Tribes, each has a different piece of expertise.  It seems that when we come together and put together a suite of solutions to an issue, it’s more robust, and it encompasses more pieces.  It’s like the adage of getting a group together, and you’ll come up with more solutions.  For Tribes, we actually function very well that way and building collaboration and building consensus, that then we can share so that the regional water management groups don’t have to sift through them to decide what the policy that the Tribes want to include in a proposal, so there’s a benefit to having a Tribe to Tribe conversation.”

Helping tribal members become familiar with IRWM

Tribes themselves are the best advocates, so one of the best practices in terms of engagement is to have a Tribal member who learns about and understands the IRWM process.  Ms. Agustinez noted that there are many ways to do this.  One is the stakeholder perspective document, noting that the tribal advisory group made recommendations, which are reflected in that document.  She also noted there are good recommendations on tribal practices in the California Water Plan, which is updated every five years.

She noted that the Department hosts a tribal water summit periodically, which is a deep dive on tribal issues dealing with water planning and statewide water management.  The summit is also a great resource for tribal communities to learn about these water issues from a state perspective and for folks at water agencies to learn about tribal issues.

Help with resolving conflicts between Tribes and local agencies

Anecita Agustinez noted that there can be conflicts with tribal governments with IRWM groups and GSAs.  “Oftentimes, if a tribal interest or participant is involved, most likely I will get a call on behalf of the Department.  I serve in that advisory capacity to advocate for that engagement process, so it’s not unusual that I may get a call and hopefully put parties together and assist with facilitation.  We’ve done that successfully with some of the GSAs and SGMA issues where Tribes felt they were not being addressed appropriately or invited, or there wasn’t a true engagement process.  So there is technical assistance available, and I really want to provide those opportunities.”

Technical assistance issues

Sherri Norris noted that she works in several Northern California regions, and there are some common tribal issues.

One issue that affects not only Tribes but also disadvantaged and small systems is the difficulty in obtaining and keeping operations and maintenance staff, who are often attracted to the better-paying jobs in the larger cities in the region, said Ms. Norris.  Tribes have been having collaborative conversations about training community members and sharing those across the Tribes.

In the Bay Area, Tribes need assistance in capacity building to get their programs up and running.  On the North Coast, they are doing a needs assessment and hiring providers with the Tribes’ approval.   In the North Coast and the San Francisco Bay, they have been able to find funding for needed capacity building.

Tribes are stuck with these kinds of conditions where a long time ago, federal agencies came out and set up some of the pipes that are used for the water, so when you come out to fight fires, they don’t fit with the modern pipes,” said Ms. Norris.  “Or, the Tribe does have access to the hydrant, but it takes people way too long to get out there, or they are at the end of the line, so all the users in the water system receive the water before it gets to them, so when the drought gets there, they are the first ones to feel it.  In some tribal communities, they just do not have a water source, and water has to be trucked in all the time. These are some of the issues we’re seeing.”

Tribes are often located in floodplains as a result of being pushed out of their traditional territories and moved into smaller locations, so there may be flooding issues or problems with septic tanks.  Ms. Norris says the Partnership is considering hiring an engineer so the Tribes can talk about the issue together.

Consultation with Tribes

When it comes to protocols and considerations around consultation, especially with CEQA, oftentimes,  consultation happens at the end, even after potential permits are allowed, the design is nearly complete; then the organization finally decides to consult with native peoples.

Most of the time, we are in the position of saying that the project is near a sacred site or where cultural resources have been discovered in the past, so tribes either have to comply or try and stop the project,” said a participant from the Ohlone territory.  “When it comes to legalities, just a simple consult is the bare minimum of what certain agencies need to do.  Ideally, there should be a way to consider indigenous representation at the beginning of the process by encouraging organizations and agencies to involve native people closer to the beginning when impacting their territory and cultural resources.  That could be part of applications processes, but just general education about letting people know how they are impacting that territory so earlier in the process, rather than at the tail end as a last-minute consideration.”

Anecita Agustinez noted that in addition to the state policies for consultation she has already mentioned, there is also AB 52 consultation, a CEQA amendment process that applies to state agencies and local agencies.  “AB 52 requires that Tribes proactively send a letter of notification to a potential lead agency of a project, so it’s about the proactive engagement.”

Ms. Agustinez noted that it’s essential to understand who the Tribes are within an agency’s jurisdictional area.  Not all Tribes are federally-recognized; there are a lot of non-federally recognized Tribes throughout California.   The Native American Heritage maintains a consultation list, but that consultation list is not fully inclusive, as some Tribes have elected not to be on that state consultation list to protect sacred sites.

Jurisdictional issues

One interesting challenge that many Tribes face is that the jurisdictions of a particular region may not coincide directly with the tribal territory or traditional tribal territory, so it takes a lot of effort to engage across these different processes and stakeholders.

One participant working in the Bay Area said it’s important to reach out to the tribal communities in the areas in which IRWM groups are working because often, the Tribes themselves may be dispersed outside of the traditional territories.  “Tribes may not have the kinds of resources necessary to seek out this engagement on their own, but they certainly want to be a part of these processes and to engage in the management and stewardship of water and land-based resources, so I think the IRWM platform provides great opportunities for that.  It’s really important that it’s a two-way process in that the agencies and the regional stakeholders see Tribes as an important part of this community and do all they can to support their involvement.”

Ms. Norris noted that there are areas in the IRWM regions where tribal territories overlap more than one region due to the way traditional territories work and how the IRWMP was formed.

In the North Coast, there is one Tribe that we know in the upper right-hand corner that’s in four IRWMP regions, and they were able to participate in one of the other IRWMPs but were having difficulty finding the staff time to participate in all of them,” said Ms. Norris.  “There’s also one Tribe that we spoke to that said that they tried to participate in one IRWMP region, and that region pointed to the IRWMP region next to them and said, no you should be participating over here instead when really they should have been participating in both of them.”

She noted they have been having conversations about the potential of having interregional funding for Tribes to participate in multiple IRWM groups.  She said they haven’t come up with a solution yet, but it’s important to be mindful of the problem and try to help Tribes participate in multiple IRWMPs.

Tribal participation in the IRWM Roundtable of Regions

Ms. Norris said there have been some conversations about potentially having a tribal caucus as part of the Roundtable of Regions so that Tribes can have conversations across the IRWMPs.

Ms. Agustinez said one of her goals is to have tribal participation in the Roundtable of Regions.  “As Tribes get more familiar with the IRWM process, I’m hoping that they can see the value of the roundtable of regions and how to partner within that roundtable, either in an advisory capacity or in a formal capacity.  It’s really open to how Tribes want to be involved in the future.”

As one of the co-chairs of the roundtable, we have had several discussions about this, and we are very open to improving that engagement and welcome anybody representing a Tribe, or anybody, to join the roundtable if they are interested,” said Lynn Rodriguez.  “We haven’t figured out what the structure would look like and how that would exactly work, but we certainly would welcome the participation.”

Mark Stadler echoed Ms. Rodriguez’s remarks, noting that the Roundtable of Regions is open to any IRWM practitioner or someone interested in IRWM.  “It remains to be seen whether maybe we have a separate tribal caucus or if we have a separate Tribal equivalent to the roundtable, or we’re open to other alternatives as well.  We just want to make it happen in the best way possible.”

Tribal participation in the IRWM Tuolumne-Stanislaus region

A tribal representative from the IRWM for the Tuolumne-Stanislaus region noted that it has been an ongoing educational process for both the Tribe and the stakeholders for their group.  “I think there have been phenomenal opportunities to look at solutions and cross-jurisdictional benefits of some of the projects that we have for the local stakeholders and general public in our region,” she said.  “They have been very open to understanding Tribal projects, appreciating tribal history, and the importance of water to us as a tribal community, both currently as a government that has to provide for its people but also just historically, so it’s been a really good experience.  I think it serves as a great model for how other IRWMs can work with their tribal groups.”

Participation challenges

A participant noted that it’s very challenging for many tribal governments to dedicate staff to be a continuous participant in that IRWM and make that commitment to be at the meetings and bring those solutions.  “A lot of Tribes struggle with continuous participation in their IRWMs, so it’s a mix of leadership supporting our participation and then also our staff willingness to say, hey, I think this is important for us to be a part of, so yes, it’s definitely something that all IRWMs have to understand and respect.  It might not be a lack of interest to participate; it just may be having staff to dedicate the time to be a regular participant in the IRWM process.”

For more information on Tribal engagement ...

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