ACWA CONFERENCE: The decade of water resilience: Developing solutions for our water future

Secretary of Natural Resouces Wade Crowfoot and DWR Director Karla Nemeth address the ACWA Spring Conference

Last week, the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) held their spring conference virtually.  Keynote speakers included Wade Crowfoot, Secretary of Natural Resources, and Karla Nemeth, Director of the Department of Water Resources.

Secretary  Crowfoot was the Friday afternoon keynote speaker.  In his speech, he discussed the Newsom Administration’s priorities, calling this the ‘decade of resilience’, and giving three principles for going forward.  He also discussed the Voluntary Agreements.  Director Karla Nemeth gave the Thursday morning keynote speech, touching on the Department’s response to drought, SGMA implementation, the Delta Conveyance Project, and the water use efficiency regulations.

SECRETARY WADE CROWFOOT: The decade of resilience

Wade Crowfoot was appointed as the Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency by Governor Gavin Newsom in January 2019. He oversees an agency of 19,000 employees charged with protecting and managing California’s diverse natural resources. Secretary Crowfoot has over two decades of public policy and environmental leadership experience serving as the chief executive officer of the Water Foundation, a deputy cabinet secretary and senior adviser to Governor Jerry Brown, and as the West Coast Regional Director for the Environmental Defense Fund.

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

Right now, I’m reminded of that old Charles Dickens quote, ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.’ The glass is half empty.  Clearly, our environment is challenged like never before in California.  We experienced the worst wildfire season by far in terms of acres burned last summer, amidst record-breaking, record-shattering temperatures across the state.  And then, as you all know better than me, we experienced a second dry winter, just a short time after our epic drought between 2012 and 2016.

It’s a remarkable hydrological situation that’s unfolding. And that is the snowpack that we did have did not result in the runoff that all of our modeling predicted because of warming spring temperatures and soils that are drier than ever.  So we have on the challenge side, all of that to contend with.

On the opportunity side, we have a federal dialogue that’s happening on infrastructure and integrating water infrastructure like I’ve never heard before.  It’s a real opportunity to reverse what has been decadal federal divestment in water infrastructure across the country. We have an economic recovery in California that generated a significant one-time surplus for the Governor and the Legislature to consider for generational investments, including water sustainability.

So it’s a really important moment in time, as I sit here talking to you about water management and water investment in the state. 

The decade of resilience

The way I see it, this decade for the water sector in California has to be the decade of resilience.  Whether you’re an urban water agency or an agricultural irrigation district or small, medium, large – you’ve made investments since the last drought in building your resilience to drought, flooding, building local reliability, diversifying supply, and deepening conservation and efficiency.  Simply put, we have to do more.

Last week, I was with the Governor at San Luis reservoir. I thought he talked fluidly and eloquently about our challenge, which is we are all utilizing 20th-century infrastructure to deal with 21st-century conditions.  So, let’s commit ourselves to a decade of resilience, to really spend the next nine years with an intense priority to build the resilience of our water systems and our water management to these changing conditions, and do what is necessary.

I want to touch on three principles and then go into updates in advancing those principles.

The first principle is the principle of collaboration.

We all know that our water system is a system of systems that is governed by terribly complex legal and regulatory frameworks.  A lot of our decision-making at the state has been shaped by this perpetual cycle of regulation and litigation. We find conditions are changing rapidly that require us to be much more adaptive and nimble than we have in the past.

So, simply put, the old model is a recipe for failure.

Collaboration is a motherhood and apple pie buzzword, but I think it’s really a principle that we have to require a focus on.  Right now, our colleagues at the Bureau of Reclamation, Department of Water Resources, State Water Board, Department of Fish and Wildlife, state water contractors, and federal water contractors are working on how to manage through this season’s hydrology in real-time.  

I can assure you that the best outcome will be achieved by collaboration across all of those entities. It’s a tough situation. There’s no panacea in terms of managing a situation like this, but certainly, collaboration will yield a more coordinated, focused, and ultimately effective outcome than the alternative. 

Likewise, broad collaboration and moving to a new model is why we have invested so much time and energy in the Newsom administration on the voluntary agreements. Many of you are participating in those discussions. Some of you have just heard secondhand or thirdhand how they have evolved. But just know this: we have spent an intense amount of time this spring sleeves rolled up with many public water agencies and other stakeholders to identify the path forward for voluntary agreements.

Now, when I talk about voluntary agreements, I’m talking about voluntary agreements as a program of implementation that would help the Water Board achieve its statutory obligation to update the water quality plan for the Sacramento and San Joaquin Bay-Delta. This is a long time in coming; I think some of you and some of us in state government have been working on this for upwards of four or five years.

The way I put it is we are close to the finish line. I’m optimistic. Those who we’re working with hear me use the football analogy that we’re at fourth and goal, the goal line is close, but we actually need to get this done.

We face worsening drought conditions that are going to consume more and more of our time. We’re already experiencing that, and this last weekend was a great example.  A weekend focus on the voluntary agreements toggled to a weekend focused on the emergency drought proclamation that we were developing. So we know it has to get done.

Some folks, certainly people in my world in the Newsom Administration, ask, why the heck does it take so long?  Hopefully, you all have an appreciation for the complexity of these two huge river systems and the Bay-Delta, the largest estuary in the Americas, the complexity of protecting beneficial uses, and specifically, under that, restoring conditions that are going to recover fish.   There are all sorts of scientific and biological complexity to unpack in terms of what is actually adequate for us to move forward on the voluntary agreements, and then a set of water users who are ceaselessly constructive, but also very diverse, and in different places, with different water rights, different needs, different assets, and opportunities.

What we’re working to do is bring together a voluntary agreement across literally dozens of water users and state, federal, and local agencies in a manner that can be submitted to the State Board for assessment as a program of implementation for its regulatory process. We need it to be scientifically adequate to withstand the gauntlet of review it will undertake, including a blind scientific peer review, where the voluntary agreements get shared with experts across the country that have no connection to our policy or political reality in California to assess it for its scientific adequacy in meeting the water board’s regulatory standard. It’s going to go through a CEQA review. And in that process, it’s going to go through public board hearings. And ultimately, it will likely be litigated by those that don’t believe this is an effective approach.

So for all of those reasons, we’ve had our sleeves rolled up around a virtual table for months now in the most recent tranche, really identifying what is adequate from the state perspective and then working with water users on how they can help us achieve that adequacy.  How can we put a voluntary agreement proposal together that provides certainty that water users need, given these uncertain conditions, maximizing certainty for them while meeting our adequacy?

For us, the value is very clear: we can get to work actually restoring these river systems in a manner that’s workable for water agencies right now. We don’t have to wait for a regulatory process, water rights adjudication, and inevitable litigation.  These improvements can be made now.  They can usher in a new era of true adaptive management, where we’re managing flows and habitat, addressing conditions, understanding science, and experimenting with what’s working.

We don’t have a regime right now that’s even remotely adaptive and certainly not on a timeframe that we need to be adaptive. So the value is not only making improvements soon; it’s actually working together to adaptively manage the assets under the voluntary agreement. And having governance where water users, who have the best understanding of their systems, are actually with us, focused on meeting our shared goals.

Our focus has never been more intense to get this done. Just to be completely candid, we’re not there yet. We want to focus in the coming days and weeks on actually getting there. If you’re watching this, and you’re somebody who’s spent countless hours with us in these discussions or supporting people who are with us in those discussions, a huge thank you. This is a remarkable process. I know we all want to get there.  And we all want to get there in a way that truly creates a durable approach for the next 15 years. So I’m glad to give you this update and let you know we’re making progress.  I hope we’re close. But we’re not quite there.

So principle number one collaboration. If this is the decade of resilience for our water sector, shifting toward greater deeper collaboration is essential.

The second principle is investment.

You have invested day in day out, year in year out in your water systems.  As we know, 85% of water investments are made locally. We believe there needs to be a new generation of investment from the state government and federal government.

On the federal side, this infrastructure discussion and package that, cross fingers, we hope is moving, provides us a tremendous opportunity to get California’s fair share of funding for water infrastructure.  To me, that funding should be much positioned like we try to position our funding in state government, which is flowing into the regions to build your regional resilience based on the priorities you have in different parts of the state.

Shame on us and shame on the federal government if we cling to a one-size-fits-all solution. To me, we really set upon something with our water resilience portfolio in partnership with all of you – really frankly being educated by ACWA and all of you, to really have the state play the role of providing state cost-share in the projects of importance to all of you. 

Literally, as I speak, we are at a critical moment on state water investment. Earlier in the week, Governor Newsom announced over $5 billion of proposed investment in the budget that will be decided by our state legislature in the next month. If you’ve been following this, you know that last year when the pandemic hit, there were tough economic predictions for the state budget. But remarkably, coming out of the pandemic and returning to opening our economy, we’ve seen a tremendous economic recovery. We’ve seen the stock market continue to rise and with it capital gains.   If you are a total policy wonk, you may know that part of the state budget depends on capital gains tax – actually more than many other states’ budgets. So, as a result, when the stock market continues to climb, we have significant one-time funding. It’s one time in nature because we can’t expect it to continue. That mistake has been made in the past in state government. But it does provide us, along with federal stimulus that came into the state, a tremendous opportunity to invest.

In the January proposal that the Governor made for the budget, he proposed about $750 million of infrastructure investment. The May revision is essentially the updated budget proposal that the Governor is going to detail tomorrow. It calls for an additional $4.3 billion of investment into the water sector, bringing the total to $5.1 billion.  Keep in mind that in last year’s discussion about a climate resilience bond or what you might know as a water bond or water resilience bond, the Governor’s opening proposal was a $4.5 billion bond. So the Governor is effectively proposing for consideration and potential approval by the legislature next month more one-time funding for water resilience in this annual budget than the beginning of the conversation on climate resilience general obligation bond.

So this is your moment at ACWA, and as water agencies, if these are investments you think the state should be making, it’s really important to make your voice heard in the coming weeks as the Governor and the legislature crawl through the budget process.

Our legislative leaders deserve tremendous credit for stepping up and calling for significant water investments as well. You may know that the Senate Pro Tem detailed a multibillion-dollar proposal as well. So now, more than ever, I would encourage you to get engaged if you really feel like state funding can be a game-changer in your drive toward drought resilience and water resilience.

I won’t get too deep into how the $5 billion is spent. But the short of it is there’s a significant amount of funding for emergency drought response.  There is funding so we have emergency drinking water for communities that run out and closer monitoring of our fish population to understand when Fish and Wildlife has to go in there and take actions like trucking fish.  There is specific funding for small systems that our recent vulnerability analysis has identified our most vulnerable to drought, and funding that we want to get into shovel-ready projects that, when combined with the Governor’s emergency proclamation, can actually get projects on the ground really quick—but also not losing sight of this broader march toward long term resilience.

So there would be hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to local water agencies for resilience projects out of a number of different provisions:  A proposed half a billion dollars in voluntary land repurposing for communities and basins that are implementing SGMA and an additional $300 million for those basins with groundwater management agencies implementing SGMA for everything from technical support to shovel ready projects that can expand groundwater recharge

For the first time, the state is proposing a cost-share to rehabilitate regional conveyance, particularly in the Central Valley, given that the Central Valley is needing to implement SGMA so it can protect that water supply in the coming decades, needing to play its role in the voluntary agreements, and the need to protect beneficial uses and recover fish in our rivers and manage the drought.

So parenthetically, a lot of the focus of this infrastructure is toward the Central Valley given those stressors it has on its water future and the criticality of water in agriculture, and in turn agriculture and the regional economy, but likewise, a lot of funding, and support for continued water resilience in larger urban water agencies, including in Southern California and the Bay Area.

From my perspective, if this is the decade of resilience, and we’re driving on collaboration, we also need to back that up with major investments, and that’s federal and state. And the time to lock those state investments in, in a big way, is literally the next handful of weeks.

The third principle that we need to continue to employ in the state in partnership with all of you is focus. 

We need to actually ensure that the investments and collaboration actually result in improved resilience for communities, agriculture, the economy, and the environment. And so I’ve been leading an effort called cutting green tape within our agency and in partnership with other agencies trying to figure out how do we reduce the barriers to actually getting good things done? How do we ensure that those Prop 1 storage investments actually turn into those seven projects? Where do we find opportunities, given the fact that we’re in a drought, to move recharge projects more quickly? Where can we reduce well-meaning steps that the state-imposed at different times among different agencies to actually supercharge your ability to strengthen your resilience in the regions?

So I’m excited about that. I’m also not terribly sophisticated nor creative on that. So, we’re working on some things on that front. To the extent that ACWA can really say, if you’re stepping up with investment, and if we achieve the voluntary agreements, we need to actually ensure this stuff gets optimized and spent and implemented effectively, and this is what it’s going to require.

I’m very open, and I know Governor Newsom is very open to understanding how we can help you do good things more quickly for the benefit of the communities and the water you provide, and all the economic activity that you support.

Last point, which is thank you. 

One thing that many of us, most of us, almost all of us in the state could take for granted during the pandemic was the ability for water to flow out of our taps in probably the most uncertain year of our lives, as it relates to health and safety and the future of the state and the economy and the world.  The water sector continues to demonstrate just how effective it is in providing that critical resource for us all. So it’s not been easy; you all have had to deal with arrearages and challenges with keeping water flowing for residents that weren’t able to pay. I’m glad to report the Governor is proposing a billion dollars to address water debt in a way that stabilizes systems that have had to assume that debt on their books essentially.

So thank you. These are not easy times. These are challenging times.  The season is going to continue to unfold in a challenging way as it relates to drought conditions. We’ll see what happens over the winter. But let’s not lose sight of our long-term focus on building resilience. Let’s keep our eye on the prize. Let’s get these voluntary agreements done. Let’s get significant investment in this budget. And let’s work together to manage our way through this drought.

QUESTIONS & ANSWERS

STEVE LAMAR, ACWA Board President: At ACWA, one of our highest priorities is the approval of the voluntary agreements. We have a number of our key members that are making very large commitments in terms of habitat restoration, funding, flows, etc. I’ve dealt with peer-reviewed scientific studies in the past, and they can take years, so I’m wondering does the administration have a timeframe to reach that adequacy, whatever is required?  What should we expect going forward?

Secretary Crowfoot:  We have to move forward in the process. The Water Board has to move forward on the process. From my perspective, it’s critically important to have the voluntary agreements as one way to implement what the Water Board has to do. And we have to get this done this spring.

At one point, we had talked about a Mother’s Day deadline, which, for those who are tracking, was last weekend.  This is not a situation where we’re just kicking this down the road or casually engaged; we’re intensely focused. Certainly, my colleague, Jared Blumenfeld, the Secretary of EPA, he and I have not spent more time on any single project or priority of the Governor’s than this over the last two years. And our focus is getting this done.

Now, what does done look like?  Obviously, this is complicated.  It’s a contractual agreement, in essence. And so we’re focused on getting a term sheet done that really lays out what is being contributed by all the parties. And Steve, you’re absolutely right, water users are stepping up in huge ways. So the term sheet would identify that and then really be going through a pretty focused period, in fleshing that out into a full proposal that the Water Board could evaluate. But certainly, we’re focused on doing that this spring.

STEVE LAMAR: So in the next month or so, hopefully.

“God willing, we would have done this by this point. I can just tell you, we’re working as fast as we can. And I’m hoping that the commitment will be validated by people who are around the table with us, just understanding how focused we are on this.

QUESTION: How are things going in terms of working with the federal government on the Voluntary Agreements? 

We have incredible regional partners, the Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA Fisheries – they’ve been focused on working with us.  I think they see the value in the voluntary agreements. I believe we are both desirous of settling litigation on many fronts, which is a precondition of voluntary agreements moving forward. We have sharp leadership in DC within these agencies.  As you know, they understand California Water; they want to help us turn the page and build a new paradigm. So I would just say that I think the partnership is really strong, and frankly, with the new administration, never stronger.

KARLA NEMETH: Developing solutions for our water future

Karla Nemeth was appointed Director of the Department of Water Resources by Governor Brown in January of 2018.  At the Department,  she oversees the operations, including maintaining the California State Water Project, managing floodwaters, monitoring dam safety, conducting habitat restoration, and providing technical assistance and funding for projects for local water needs. Prior to her appointment, Ms. Nemeth was Deputy Secretary and Senior Advisor of Water Policy at the California Natural Resource Agency under Governor Brown.

Here’s what she had to say, in her own words, edited only for clarity.

“I’m calling in today from Sacramento, and I want to acknowledge this area is the ancestral, traditional, and contemporary lands of the Nisenan, Maidu, Miwok, and Patwin peoples.  This land acknowledgment is representative of the Department’s commitment to integrate and respect indigenous culture and thought leadership on much of the Department’s work.

When I last gave a keynote speech at ACWA, it was November of 2018.  I very much remember a different scene that I miss. I miss the echoing voices, the clinking of the coffee mugs, and all the activities where we celebrate our successes and come together to articulate and learn from each other about the challenges moving forward.  At that time, I was calling for action in the face of rising climate pressures and extreme hydrology. And I was challenging all of you together with the Department of Water Resources to invest in people, to invest in new technologies, and new partnerships.

We were very hopeful; we are still very hopeful. But 2020 happened, and that was a game-changer. Many of us, including me, worked from home for the first time in my career. And others, more importantly, continued to report to their workplaces to ensure that critical infrastructure operated for us at the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Project. Folks continued to report to their workplaces to ensure that water kept flowing, and we continued to serve the needs of Californians. So I want to thank all of you and your dedicated staff who kept that water flowing through the pandemic. And it’s really is a testament to the professionalism, sophistication, and ability to keep all of our employees safe and meet the needs of Californians.

As if that weren’t enough, amidst this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, we also experienced catastrophic wildfires, record-shattering heat waves, and rolling blackouts. 2020 was the single hottest year ever measured, and Death Valley reached possibly the highest temperature ever recorded at 130 degrees. And we also experienced devastating wildfires that left 4.2 million acres burned. In the US alone, we had $95 billion of damages from climate-related events last year, and these costs are likely to accelerate.

Given all of that, context is everything for us as we begin to develop solutions for our water future. Each of these events will have a lasting impact on our mental and physical health. And it is important to keep ourselves grounded in that reality. Our world is changing rapidly, and we as leaders must continue to change with it.

Responding to drought

In the past, I have discussed and promoted integrated solutions as a path to progress. And that’s something that you all as local water agencies are very versed in: partnerships with other water agencies and with your local governments, and it’s what’s helping California weather the drought we’re now starting to experience.

But today, I would like to acknowledge one other complexity on that path, and these are layers of complexity that have existed for a long time. As policy leaders in the water arena, we must acknowledge that intersectionality is present in all the work that we do. And when I say the word ‘intersectionality,’ what I mean is the multiple layers of advantage or disadvantage we may experience based on race, gender, class, or any combination of those.  Marginalized communities experience uniquely different realities compared to their more affluent counterparts, and these inequalities are only exacerbated during times of crisis. And here we are, finding ourselves in another tough time, and that time is drought. And this will be no different unless we all bear these new realities in mind and use those new realities to chart a path forward.

Past droughts have taught us that small water systems and rural communities are the ones who experienced the most significant drinking water shortages. Many of these vulnerable communities cannot afford the necessary measures to improve their water supply reliability. We all know this year has been extraordinarily dry.  Right now, it’s ranking as the third or fourth driest on record.  Storage in the largest Central Valley Water Project and State Water Project reservoirs is only about half the average. And even more importantly, we saw a dramatic drop off in the late spring runoff as compared to what we forecasted earlier this year. I can’t emphasize enough what a dramatic acceleration that has been and a new challenge as we plan and prepare for extreme hydrologies.

When we think about this in the context of the last century, where more than half of the water years have been dry or drought years, this year is only deepening the deficit of our hydrologic system. That said, we have been through deep droughts before; it’s part of what it means to be a Californian. And we know what we need to do to move our systems forward. At the height of the last drought, we reduced water usage by 25%. And in the urban world, we’ve maintained a 16% reduction in water use below pre-drought levels. This is huge. This is an enormous success that we should all be very proud of. Right now, the state is starting to revamp our Save Our Water campaign because we know that every drop conserved is a hedge against a dry year next year.

I do want to touch briefly on Governor Newsom’s recent drought emergency declaration because there are now more tools available to us to help weather this drought. The state has authorized water rights curtailments, modification of reservoir release requirements, the construction of temporary emergency salinity barriers in the Delta, and ways to improve the speed and efficiency of water transfers.

On Monday, the Governor also unveiled a $5.1 billion water infrastructure and drought relief package. It includes $1.3 billion for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure with a focus on small and disadvantaged communities. It has half a billion dollars for multi-benefit land repurposing and to provide long-term, flexible support for agricultural water users. It provides $300 million for Sustainable Groundwater Management Act implementation and another $1 billion for residents’ past due water bills related to the COVID pandemic. This is one of the most extensive budget proposals put forth for water resilience and drought preparedness in California’s history. I’m very excited to get to work.

Our goal as a water user community is, frankly, to get out of emergency management when it comes to droughts.  We know that we will be in a drought again. So we’re focused on long-term drought resilience and, ultimately, delivering to all communities in California, the water security they deserve.

I want to talk about three key features of the Department’s efforts. They are both in a certain way, elephants in the room in their own right, so maybe it’s a herd of elephants. And as we know, elephants have long memories, and so some of these projects and programs have a storied history here in California. So I want to talk about sustainable groundwater management implementation, Delta conveyance, and water use efficiency.

Sustainable Groundwater Management Act implementation

As we all know, during periods of drought, we have continued to turn to groundwater. And that reliance has only increased with each successive drought event.

I want to take a moment to commend all of our local water leadership in these newly formed sustainable groundwater agencies. You all are getting it done on the ground. I’m learning more about your groundwater basins, putting together difficult plans that are balancing across a whole variety of interests. Through the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and its implementation at the local level, I’m very hopeful that our communities will be able to deploy the strategies that we all need so that over the next 20 years, we can make our groundwater more reliable and make sure that it’s there in times of drought.

The next steps for our Department under SGMA are going to be very important. It includes both the state’s role in assessing the first plans and the locals’ role to review those assessments once they’re issued. Locals will be asked to take quick action to address potential deficiencies and initiate community-driven solutions. The Department right now is prioritizing the review of 42 plans covering 20 critically overdrafted groundwater basins.  We also expect another 70 to 90 plans to be submitted to the Department before the January 2022 deadline.

Many of these plans will necessarily be a work in progress. We do not expect perfection. Our SGMA team is working hard to release a handful of plan assessments before an upcoming deadline next January that will allow communities to iterate on solutions faster. DWR in our role can recommend or require actions to be taken over specified timelines to address any plan deficiencies.  Actions may include reducing demand on groundwater and maximizing available surface water for groundwater recharge in our next wet years to come.

If DWR finds that a plan is unlikely to achieve sustainability, as you all know, the State Water Board may step in temporarily to manage a basin. Our overall state goal is to be sure that basins are managed at the local level. So should that occur with a state board intervention, our goal will be to transfer local management back to communities as quickly as possible.

So we encourage you to continue engaging with your communities, a diverse set of stakeholders so that these plans are durable into the future. Because ultimately, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is about implementation.   To implement successfully, we have to have the broadest amount of trust within communities, the broadest amount of faith in transparent decision making, and an understanding about how we’re balancing across multiple needs.

I do want to acknowledge that there is significant support from the state needed to achieve sustainable groundwater basins. To date, my Department has administered $115 million for planning efforts and recently released $26 million for the construction of groundwater projects. In that $26 million, we have set aside $5 million for projects located within and or solely benefit an underrepresented community.

We are also looking to continue our efforts to eliminate cost burdens where we know we have communities struggling with local matches. Ultimately, we look forward to working with the California Legislature to pass a budget that includes significant amounts of funding that we can distribute as quickly as possible to these critically overdrafted groundwater basins to get those projects underway.

Delta Conveyance Project

The next project I want to talk about is Delta conveyance. I’ve been before ACWA, many times now talking about this project that probably has the most extensive and freighted historical legacy in California, and that is what to do about conveyance needs in the Delta.

As many of you are aware, approximately 27 million Californians in the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, the Central Coast, and Southern California receive clean, affordable water from the State Water Project.  But this resource is again vulnerable to an increasing number of risks. By 2043, there’s a 72% chance of an earthquake occurring in the Bay Area that could cause levees in the Delta to fail, and that would just fundamentally cripple the state’s ability to deliver fresh water. In addition, as sea level rise accelerates, the Delta will be faced with increasing saltwater intrusion that will also create threats to freshwater supplies flowing through the Delta. All of these challenges are only accelerated by climate change in this increasingly extreme hydrology that threatens our Delta levee system over time.

So with the proposed Delta project, the Department is more committed than ever under the guidance and direction of Governor Newsom to move a project forward. As you may recall, Governor Newsom described a single tunnel project in 2020.  The Department put out a new project description for a 6000 cubic feet per second project as a way to divert water from the northern part of the Delta and to enhance the flexibility of State Water Project operations.

DWR is now engaging with historically burdened and vulnerable populations as part of the project’s ongoing environmental analysis. And last fall, the Department conducted an environmental justice community survey to help further understand the potential project-related impacts.

We are also very proud as a Department to be working with our State Water contractor partners in a community benefits program that may include a dedicated fund for projects or economic development opportunities associated with the Delta Conveyance Project. All of this community input collected during this initial phase will be used to create a community benefits program framework for inclusion into the draft environmental document.

I wanted to raise those issues because it is yet another way, in combination with our partnership with the State Water Project contractors, where we are learning from our past efforts, and we are establishing the best partnership to deliver a project that can be responsive to the very real concerns for folks who live and work in the Delta.

Water use efficiency

Lastly, I want to talk about conservation as a way of life. As you all recall, that legislation passed in 2018. It called for a new approach to how water suppliers prepare for a future defined in part by tremendous challenges to our water supply systems. That legislation took a long view approach. 

I want to thank ACWA and all the member agencies who are active in improving that legislation and supporting what I think is a good package that came out of the California legislature. It did set in motion a process that DWR, together with the Water Resources Control Board, is very much steeped in at the moment that sets various standards for urban water uses, anchored by the most stringent standards, that would potentially take effect in 2030.

Our next period of extreme precipitation and supply challenges, as you know – they are already here. And the long view is no longer a glimpse at the horizon; it’s the situation we’re starting to face today. Thus, with the greater importance of the work of the Department and the water board, we are collaboratively setting forth three specific aspects of conservation as a way of life.

Earlier this year, DWR posted a public draft of the indoor residential current use study and recommendations for updating those indoor use standards that came out just a couple of days ago. Later this year, we will deliver to the water board our recommendations for addressing residential landscape water efficiency. And then finally, we are also working on standardized approaches to calculating water losses, commercial sector efficiency, and any variances that may be necessary to account for extraordinary circumstances.

I want to thank all the water agencies that have been working with DWR over the course of the last year, helping us understand outdoor water use and helping us understand the realm of possibility for indoor water use efficiency. Ultimately, this entire package is meant to come together to provide important flexibility to individual water agencies, and additionally, a critical avenue to seek variances should water budgets need to be adjusted to address on the ground, very local circumstances.

I want to acknowledge that there are a lot of concerns about the information that DWR, together with the Board, is putting forward. We are absolutely looking to engage in input from the water user community. I want to acknowledge Dave Eggerton and Cindy Tuck, and others who have reached out to us and the ACWA committee that’s been very engaged in that process.  

My ask of you today is to think about what are the policies and needs that all of you would have in implementing water use efficiency standards.  We know implementation is going to generate challenges. Let’s do that. Let’s understand what these standards actually mean for implementation. But absolutely, let’s put on our thinking caps and figure out what some of the solution sets are to those implementation challenges while we have a very rigorous discussion about the appropriateness of standards, their flexibility, and implementation.

In conclusion …

So I want to thank you in advance for providing that feedback. We’ve got a lot of work to do.  It is absolutely going to be front and center in the water community. It always is when we experience a drought. So the timing is right to get it right. And we’re not going to be able to do it without you.

I want to close by saying we all know California is blessed with abundance. And it’s our responsibility not only to address the causes of climate change but also to continually revisit how we consume, use, and manage our water for all Californians moving forward.  

As we embark on what I think are the most significant state and federal reinvestment in water infrastructure in decades, I want to leave you with an exercise that someone shared with me that I thought was very provocative. And I do that with a very humble heart. I want you all to imagine your five closest friends, and these are the people that you go to for advice. You share your most honest thoughts and emotions. And when you think about that, what is their gender? What is their race? What is their age? What’s their education level? And what’s their income level?

I think it’s really an important way for us to define how we are in the world. We are all leaders in our communities. So let’s continue to challenge ourselves. Our world view is just one view. And that is simply not enough to tackle the challenges before us. So let’s be curious in both our understanding of the problem, and in the development of solutions.

QUESTIONS & ANSWERS

Question: ACWA appreciates the Governor’s plan for water infrastructure and funding. It proposes $500 million for multi-benefit land repurposing to support growers. What’s the thinking behind that proposal?

Director Nemeth: “It is a pretty landmark sum of money.  The thinking behind that proposal, AB 252, is proposed legislation that is thinking about how we transition in the Valley where we have acute challenges with agricultural lands.  We know those challenges are going to intensify with SGMA. And the idea there is to really get a jumpstart on how we plan for that.  In this drought, we know how much it’s going to challenge the Valley. I have certainly heard from many folks that a game-changer for this drought is SGMA.  There was absolutely an increase in groundwater pumping happening during the last drought. It created tension around what was happening in our groundwater basins, and that gave rise to the law; we are now implementing the law. I think if we all had our druthers, we would have had a little more time before Mother Nature came in with a subsequent drought.

So the Newsom Administration wanted to put real dollars on the table that could support those communities in the Central Valley in flexibly addressing how they might move into land retirement or following that support some of the long-term vision laid out in these groundwater management plans. There will be a lot of conversation with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, ways in which we can connect this funding with USDA funding that also supports Valley farmers. And there will be a lot more to come on that I’m sure.

Question: The state budget talks regarding water infrastructure funding – Is the administration open to talking about funding for dam safety projects in high hazard dams?

Director Nemeth: “Yes, we are. What we really need is a joint state-federal approach. So we have high hazard dams. There is a small amount of money coming out of FEMA right now. Some of it was prompted by acute challenges that the federal government was having with federal dams.  If you’ll recall, there’s a Corps of Engineers dam in Southern California that has some real challenges with it. So this is definitely a moment to do that. Absolutely. We want to engage in that conversation.

This is a poster child opportunity for joint state-federal funding and to talk about the next generation of dam safety. And we know that in California, lessons learned from Oroville has really shined a light on funding issues that we have with dam safety. In 2006. we transitioned away from a general fund. We were back in a real budgetary challenge, and we eliminated general fund support for dam safety.  We transitioned entirely to a user fee program. That user fee program is not going to be enough to address the challenges that we now have, that we now understand better with climate change. And it is a moment to pursue state and federal infrastructure safety funding for these kinds of facilities.”

 

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