CA IRRIGATION INSTITUTE: Secretary Crowfoot on the Newsom Administration’s water priorities

At the 2021 California Irrigation Institute Conference, the keynote speaker was Wade Crowfoot, the Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency.  For the last two years, Secretary Crowfoot has overseen California’s forests and natural lands, rivers and waterways, coast and ocean, fish and wildlife, and energy development. As a member of the Governor’s cabinet, he advises the Governor on natural resources and environmental issues. Before leading the Natural Resources Agency, he served as the Chief Executive Officer for the Water Foundation, a nonprofit that builds shared water solutions across the American West.

Here’s what Secretary Crowfoot had to say, in his own words, edited only for clarity.

There many important topics to discuss on all things water.  The timing is appropriate, given the recent intense rain and snow while at the same time, the state is in a period of prolonged dry conditions. So the work you will do, whether you’re in an urban water agency, an urban community, an agriculture producer, or an agricultural irrigation district, is really critical.

Water resilience portfolio

As many of you know, under Governor Newsom, we established a Water Resilience Portfolio that is really guiding our state agencies’ work.  The goal of this portfolio is to take a holistic approach across our various agencies. The California Natural Resources Agency includes the Department of Water Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Our sister agency, Cal EPA, includes the State Water Board.  So the Water Resilience Portfolio is the Newsom’s administration playbook or roadmap to build our state’s resilience to drought and flooding.

Now we know that both of those phenomena are naturally occurring in our ecology. But we also know that climate change is creating more pervasive, hurtful droughts and potentially more dangerous flooding. So we think we have to do more as state agencies to support all of your work to build resilience.

We recognize that strengthening water reliability, restoring natural environments, and building this climate resilience in the water sector differs across the state. What works on the North Coast is very different than what works in the Inland Empire. So our focus is really trained on doing what we can to support regional leadership in building resilience. That includes supporting diversifying water supplies, identifying how to store more water underground or in surface storage, expanding recycling of water, capturing stormwater for use again, and preventing harmful runoff.

So we think that there’s a lot of work that can happen across the state to better diversify our water supplies. And we’re going to need to do that, given the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and less reliable water supplies from our natural cycle due to climate change.

Improving efficiency

We also think there’s a critical role in increasing and improving efficiency in all sectors of water delivery. On the urban side, we think that urban communities can do more to squeeze out that water waste. Often, it gets used on outdoor irrigation for ornamental landscapes and yards. So as you know, we’re actively implementing legislation that requires more focus among urban water agencies to improve water efficiency.

Likewise, we think in the agricultural parts of California, there’s great opportunity to get more pop for the drop. That includes improving the efficiency of irrigation systems and improving the quality and the organic content in the soil, so-called healthy soils, to maximize water retention for the benefit of producing crops. So we think that there’s a lot that can be done to improve our efficiency and help our water go further.

The state has a role in that, whether that’s increasing funding for the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (or SWEEP) administered through the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which also administers the healthy soils program. Governor Newsom’s most recent proposed budget outlined earlier this month calls for increased funding for both SWEEP and the healthy soils program.

Supporting implementation of SGMA

Likewise, we need to do more to support the local implementation of SGMA. So governor Newsom’s proposed budget currently being considered by the legislature also calls for an additional $60 million in funding to be distributed by the Department of Water Resources to local groundwater management agencies. So there’s a lot that can be done through these state and local regional partnerships to improve efficiency.

The role of technology

We’re also really bullish on the role of technology in improving how we use and manage water. And we have recognized the power of technology both in the urban and the rural context.

In the urban context, the example I always like to give are these water-smart programs.  It is essentially a software service that some urban agencies have used that allows consumers to understand their water use, compared to folks in their neighborhood with comparable yards and comparable homes. I can still remember vividly living in Oakland during the last drought and having our East Bay MUD send emails that would give me a smiley face or a frown depending on how my water usage compares to my neighbors. And in one instance, we actually had a leak that we weren’t aware of. And the smile went to a frown and helped us identify the leak and get it repaired. So that’s emblematic of the way that we can apply technology in the urban context.

And then, of course, in the agricultural context, or the rural context, I’m really excited about the work on remote sensing for evapotranspiration, or ET. There have been some really interesting partnerships between agricultural producers, NASA, and other nonprofit groups to help understand how evapotranspiration in agricultural production can be measured remotely from satellites that can help farmers and ranchers manage their water usage more effectively.

Likewise, earlier this fall, we announced a partnership with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory that is part of NASA based in Pasadena, which launches many satellites into space. And those satellites explore the solar system and the universe, but they also actually can measure many aspects of our planetary health, including groundwater levels and evapotranspiration.  They can tell us where vegetation in our forests is overly dense, and they can also help us understand the conditions in our oceans.

So Governor Newsom called for this partnership with NASA JPL, and we’re going to be bringing more of these technologies and data collected through JPL satellites into state government. We’ll also soon be announcing a new data platform that we’ll be establishing across our state agencies called California Nature that is being developed in a partnership with ESRI, which you may know is a California company that is really the foremost GIS data company in the world.  What we’re doing through the development of that platform is aggregating or bringing together all sorts of data that are presented geospatially. So we’ll be able to show a map at a very high resolution of the entire state that can be zoomed in, that identifies environmental values of our land and water. This will advance an effort, which we are undertaking, called 30, by 30, to conserve 30% of California by 2030. And that California Nature geospatial platform with environmental data is going to be open source and available publicly. So we’re hoping it actually is a piece of technology that you all may be able to use or at least consult with, to manage water and your own lands.

In conclusion …

So we’re really excited about all that’s happening, and we’re deeply thankful for the work that all of you do. I think we can all agree these last several months have been a challenging and uncertain time. But amidst that, what we have been able to take for granted, frankly, is the continued availability of food produced by our farmers and ranchers in California.  And what we have been able to take for granted is the delivery of clean and safe water for the vast majority of Californians, thanks to our water agencies. So the work you do is central to continuing to allow prosperity across our state, and we’re really thankful.

Lastly, I’ll say we’re interested in better understanding what else we need to do as state agencies to support your work. As the conversation unfolds today and over this convening, we’ll be interested in following up with the Institute to understand better what state agencies and departments can do to support your work building more efficiency in our water usage and, ultimately, more resilience in our water systems. So huge thanks again for the opportunity to be here today. Thanks so much.


Question: How is the Governor’s office planning to engage local communities to implement the water resilience portfolio?

If you care about what we’re doing, or you either think it could be helpful or hurtful, actually take time to check out the Water Resilience Portfolio. We’ve tried to make the document understandable, clear, and focused.  We have several specific actions that are called for under three or four main categories. So just understand what we’re working to hold ourselves accountable for.

Secondly, we have a key member of our team in the resource agency that spends her time coordinating the agency’s implementation of this. When I say agencies, I mean Cal EPA, Food and Agriculture, Natural Resources, and others.  Her name is Nancy Vogel, and she is always reachable, so if you identify an action that we have in the Water Resilience Portfolio and want to better understand actually how we’re implementing it.

Then we’re planning to provide an annual update on our implementation of these various actions and periodic convenings. And so for example, we gave an update to the Association of California Water Agencies or ACWA at the most recent convening that they had across the state. So we’ll be organizing the Resources Agency periodic updates. If you want those periodic updates, we have a listserv that you can join for our agency to better understand when those happen. And then lastly, if your district or set of districts or stakeholders want to have a meeting or are holding a similar convening to today and want an update, we welcome the opportunity to provide an update or go deep on certain topics.

Question: How do you suggest agricultural irrigators coordinate with local GSA to improve water use efficiency while still promoting groundwater recharge?

“One is we’re working to support groundwater management agencies to find ways to improve irrigation efficiency. That can be very helpful if a local community faces reduced use of groundwater on an annual basis to bring a groundwater basin into sustainability over the next 20 years.  More efficient use of agricultural irrigation can be really important. That’s why the Governor doubled or tripled that proposed budget for our SWEEP program to get grants to locals. And I think there may be interest in targeting the SWEEP funding to groundwater basins that are in greatest need because of SGMA.

Then secondly, we’re working with the local groundwater management agencies to make flood recharge or aquifer recharge easier within the flood season. The water board has been working to improve its processes to make it a lot easier to get those recharge projects going. And I saw on social media just this weekend that there were a number of recently initiated groundwater recharge projects that are actually happening.

As it relates to how irrigators interact with the local groundwater management agencies, I’m not sure if there’s any one template for that.  Very much the spirit of SGMA is this sort of localized leadership.  It probably differs by districts. But I would say that if you’re an Irrigation District, and you have a suggestion around how the state can support expanded irrigation efficiency or better integration of irrigation efficiency into groundwater management, let us know.  We want to avoid a heavy-handed approach and let locals lead the implementation of their groundwater sustainability plans. Still, we’re always interested in how the state can actually support those efforts to bring groundwater basins into sustainable use.

Question: You mentioned the 30% by 2030. Can you expand on this? And will it be at odds with the water use targets that are currently being developed?

To be clear, the so-called 30 by 30 goal that Governor has established and President Biden established last week for the country is to conserve 30% of California’s land and coastal waters by 2030. That’s not only protecting wilderness areas but improving conservation on land across the state.  That may have some impact on water districts, not from a regulatory perspective. Still, it might provide some opportunities to ensure that, for example, protected watersheds are conserved in a way that’s beneficial to the environment. And there may be incentives to do that. That’s really on the land conservation side.

What I was referring to as it relates to urban water efficiency are the bills that passed about five years ago that require urban water agencies to develop these plans to reduce water waste. And I know that implementation is happening through the Department of Water Resources. And I think the biggest challenge for locals will be to meet those standards, and specifically to reduce water waste, for example, for outdoor ornamental vegetation, but to meet those standards in the law, but in ways that maintain flexibility. We recognize that it can’t be a one size fits all.  Different urban districts have different opportunities and different needs, different areas of flexibility and rigidity. So we’re working to implement that law in a manner that encourages urban agencies to squeeze out that water waste, but in a way that works for their communities.”

Question: What do you see as the greatest challenge for municipalities in implementing the new water use efficiency regulations that you just mentioned?

It’s just really working with the Department of Water Resources to ensure that the regulations to implement the law are workable. State legislators and Governor Brown, who signed the law, were clear that there is more efficiency to be achieved from urban water agencies. And we want to make conservation a way of life. So really, that’s the North Star of the legislation. But obviously, there are important details in those in those regulations that DWR is developing, and local water agencies will need to ensure that the standards that DWR sets, and frankly, the rules that DWR sets actually are workable. So I think that there’s been good progress that’s been made. I’m optimistic, but obviously, we just have to work together, the local agencies and state agencies, to ensure those urban efficiency standards are workable.

Final thoughts …

I think the key takeaway of all the work we did on the Water Resilience Portfolio and all the input that we received was that improving water resilience across the state is not a one size fits all solution from Sacramento; it’s achieved on a local and regional basis. The opportunities and challenges are different across the state. So we’re working at the state level to have the discipline within our agencies to understand the role we play, as a funder, as a standard setter, as a developer of projects that are greater than any local or regional agency, and to really, ultimately be proactive partners. Our success is your success. And across California, achieving water reliability on the local and regional level.”


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