ACWA CONFERENCE: Water Board Vice Chair Dorene D’Adamo on climate change, water supplies, conservation, safe and affordable drinking water

At the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) Fall Conference held last week, the keynote speaker at the luncheon was State Water Resources Control Board Vice Chair Dorene D’Adamo, who spoke of the Board’s efforts on water supplies, conservation, and safe and affordable drinking water. 

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


Climate change and drought drive much of the discussion on these topics. So let’s start there.

We all know that climate change brings us more frequent, longer-lasting droughts and that climate change is here. It’s our new normal; we’ve all been talking this way. But now we see that we have to prepare for the accelerated impacts of this new normal.

This last winter demonstrated just how accelerated those impacts could be. The extraordinarily warm temperatures and dry soils resulted in an almost total loss of the 70% snowpack, resulting in a significant reduction of the projected inflow to major reservoirs and stream systems. A further complication was an earlier than usual start to the irrigation season because of those extremely high temperatures and soil conditions.

We heard from modelers at our Board at one of our meetings. That was really the ‘aha’ moment for me when modelers at the Department of Water Resources said that these conditions were not expected to be seen until mid-century. It was really quite shocking, and I think, served as a flashpoint for all of us. 

Personally, I remember sitting there trying to process seeing conditions that weren’t expected to occur until my great-grandchildren’s time.

Water year 2021 ended up being the second driest year on record.  The back-to-back critically dry years of 2020 and 2021 were the driest two-year period on record. The situation was quite dire, with significant impacts on senior water rights holders, domestic wells, communities, fish and wildlife, and maintaining water quality in the Delta.  It was clear that the system had been stretched to its limits.

But on a positive note, the all hands on deck 24/7 collaboration and coordination between the administration, our Board, state and federal agencies, and stakeholders was really remarkable and vastly improved since the last drought that I also experienced on the Board.

This leadership and collaboration allowed our Board and staff to move expeditiously and also thoughtfully to process temporary urgency change petition requests to allow for the conservation of limited supplies, while also taking into account consideration the need to protect water quality and the environment; process transfers; provide for emergency relief to communities who were in danger of losing critical water supplies, and to adopt, for the first time ever, emergency curtailments in the Bay-Delta watershed and Russian River watershed based on water unavailability and also to protect critical salmon populations in the Scott and Shasta Rivers and Deer and Mill Creeks on the Sacramento River.

Water Users, communities, NGOs, and government agencies provided good constructive feedback and then, for the most part, stepped in to do their part during implementation. So I want to thank you all for your leadership and cooperation because it was really all of us working together.

But going forward – let’s just be honest about going forward.  With these accelerated impacts, these actions just won’t be enough as we continue with the dry conditions in this unprecedented territory that we’re in. Thankfully, the atmospheric river in late October and some precipitation events helped provide some relief. But with historically low reservoir storage and ongoing dry soil conditions, these precipitation events can’t reverse our surface and groundwater deficits.

The State Water Project just announced yesterday a 0% initial allocation for this coming water year except for critical health and safety needs. Climate change really has exposed the weaknesses in our system and challenges all of us to become more drought and more climate-resilient.


The administration has prioritized water management as crucial to the state’s economic, ecological and social well-being.  In 2019, the Newsom administration finalized a Water Resilience Portfolio that charts out a variety of state actions to equip all of us to cope with climate change and many other long-standing challenges. In this year’s budget, the Governor and legislature invested nearly $5 billion in water, keeping with the goals of the Water Resilience Portfolio, to maintain and diversify water supplies.  That includes all types of water supplies, off-stream storage, stormwater capture, groundwater recharge and banking, recycled water, desal facilities – all types with a focus on regional self-reliance, regional partnerships, and locally-driven projects. Just the thing that you all are very good at.

The state is supporting seven new water storage projects that together would hold nearly as much water as Lake Oroville, conditionally committing $2.5 billion to support public benefits of these projects, such as environmental benefits or flood control benefits. There’s $500 million in this year’s budget to support ready-to-go local drought projects to help local managers develop new projects.

And as a state, we’re really rethinking how we store water using recharge as both a flood control and water supply management strategy. Whether through wetlands, meadow restoration, or flood manage aquifer recharge on agricultural and working lands – it’s really quite exciting.

Since 2014, the Department of Water Resources and our Board have been able to invest nearly $300 million in grants to local agencies to plan for and implement groundwater projects. And with an additional 300 million over the next several years, this will help local agencies bring groundwater supplies into sustainable conditions, preserving that crucial water supply buffer for drought.

It’s important to understand, though, that a lot of these groundwater recharge projects are, in fact, projects, and most will need to secure a new water right. So we really want to encourage all of you to consult with our staff in the early stages of project development. Our Board has made this a top priority and is prioritizing the processing of these permits.

We’ve also provided for several different permit pathways: a temporary 180 Day permit, a five-year permit, and most importantly, a streamlined permanent permit, which is really what you need to secure the reliability of those projects and those supplies. We’ve also have a reduced fee schedule to further assist.

Another area where we’ve seen advances in the diversification of water supplies is water reuse. Again, there are just really exciting things going on there, with over 728,000 acre-feet of recycled water produced statewide in 2020. We received an update on that at our Board a few months ago. And projects coming online such as the Regional Recycled Water Program in Los Angeles County, Pure Water San Diego, and the West Side Enhanced Water Recycling Project in San Francisco – all underway with the support from our Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

And we’re starting to see projects in agricultural communities and even for wildlife refuges – Recharge Fresno and a project in my own backyard, the North Valley Regional Recycled Water Project in Stanislaus County.

An infusion of additional state funds from the budget and a significant portion of the $400 million is targeted for both water reuse and groundwater cleanup, as well as we expect a significant portion of the $1 billion dedicated to water reuse in the federal infrastructure package.  It comes at just the right time.  These funds, along with our indirect potable reuse regulation, our updated streamlined general order, and then hopefully some further progress on the development of direct potable reuse draft criteria will all help us to get closer to our statewide goal of 2.5 million acre-feet of recycled water within the next decade. And that’s the goal in the water resilience portfolio.

As we focus on expanded and diversified water supply opportunities, it’s also important to consider how climate change directs us to rethink how we manage and maintain our existing systems. Last month, I had the opportunity to join our staff and also staff from the regional Central Valley Regional Board and the Department of Water Resources on a tour of areas in the Feather River watershed that have been impacted by the Dixie fire to see firsthand how debris flow and other impacts at Oroville reservoir can place water supply and water quality at tremendous risk.

Our discussion underscored the importance of broadening the scope of actions to manage and maintain existing systems to include modeling and monitoring post-fire for runoff, debris flow, and mudslides to protect dam safety and protect water supplies and water quality.

Also, we’re working on improving the management of our headwaters to reduce fuel load and improve snowpack conditions – and I just really want to compliment ACWA for its good work in this area, and also restoring meadows to provide flood protection and augment water supply and then investing in improved forecasting and modeling for more strategic reservoir operations.

Then I will add to the list, complying with our water use and diversion reporting requirements and working closely with our Board to help us modernize our water rights data infrastructure system, allowing us to exercise greater precision in the administration and enforcement of our water rights system. It’s important to make it work.

One of the goals of the Water Resilience Portfolio is to protect and enhance natural systems. We know that when ecosystems are in decline, it’s not just bad for fish and wildlife, but it also creates regulatory uncertainty and challenges with water supply reliability. Early in his administration, Governor Newsom tasked Secretaries Crowfoot and Blumenfeld to assist with the development of voluntary agreements to bring to our Board for the possible inclusion in the update of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. A comprehensive approach for the Bay-Delta watershed does have the potential to improve conditions for native fish through a suite of actions that, taken together, could restore ecosystem health with less of an impact on water supply.

Last month, the Secretaries indicated that they would focus their efforts on a voluntary agreement for the parties in the Sacramento Basin, while our Board moves forward with the implementation of the plan for the Lower San Joaquin that was adopted in 2018.  We have an informational item at our board meeting next week, on Wednesday, December 8, and I encourage you all to tune into that, and we’ll get an update on the process going forward for the Bay-Delta Plan.

But I do want to stress that the plan adopted by our Board in 2018 for the Lower San Joaquin includes a compliance pathway where the voluntary approaches can be further developed and built upon. It’s my strong belief that discussions with the voluntary agreement parties, including on the San Joaquin, was time well spent and that a compliance path that achieves benefits for native fish populations and provides for water supply reliability is possible through our regulatory process.


Turning now to conservation and water use efficiency, many of you had the opportunity to participate in yesterday’s panel discussion on urban water conservation. Board member Shawn McGuire did a really good job setting the tone in the discussions that what the state is seeking is to work in partnership with local agencies toward achieving greater water use efficiency and resilience.

The administration is taking an incremental approach on these issues, adjusting actions as conditions warrant. In July, the Governor issued an executive order calling upon all of us to cut back on water usage by 15% over 2020 levels. Many areas of the state that met their water their mandatory conservation targets from the last drought continued to conserve and are really taking water use efficiency to the next level.

But it’s important for all of us to step up and conserve as we prepare for this third dry year. On Tuesday, our staff released a draft emergency regulation authorized by the Governor’s October 19 Executive Order on prohibited uses. This regulation really would help to supplement the voluntary efforts by prohibiting certain uses such as excessive irrigation causing runoff, using potable water for hosing off sidewalks, and other things that are really just unreasonable during periods of drought. The regulation is similar to that that our Board adopted in the last drought.  Our Board will consider adopting the draft regulations at our January 4 meeting.

But we’re really counting on the good partnership we have with ACWA and its member agencies, Save Our Water, and others to help educate the public on voluntary conservation and these prohibited uses, amplifying the message of making conservation a way of life, encouraging local actions to incentivize water use efficiency, and even requiring conservation measures, as the administration continues to utilize more of an incremental approach at the state level.

In the meantime, though, our staff and the Department of Water Resources have been really busy working on the development of a new framework for the efficient use of water for urban water suppliers.  This framework includes three key components: water loss performance standards for leaks from distribution systems, new urban efficiency standards for indoor residential use, and then outdoor standards for residential use and commercial industrial and institutional landscape irrigation.

Under this approach, urban retail water suppliers will annually be calculating their own budget representing the aggregate efficient water use based on the indoor and outdoor standards. Urban water suppliers would be required to meet an overall budget, not any one standard. So, for example, if greater investment in residential indoor water use efficiency programs is too costly for an agency, it may choose instead to focus on further reductions on outdoor use.

Our Board will be initially focusing on the water loss performance standard. That’s a little further along, and we do expect to receive recommendations from the Department of Water Resources for outdoor use by the end of the year. And then, we’ll begin the rulemaking process on the broader standards.

But note though, it is likely that the legislature will be considering adjusting the indoor standard. Legislation has already been introduced by Assemblymember Friedman.  On Tuesday, our Board and the Department of Water Resources just submitted a report to the legislature that includes indoor residential water use study findings, and that indoor use is already below the standard set by the legislature, which is great. But the report surmises that we can go further and includes recommendations to adjust to standard to provide for even greater efficiencies.

Efficient water use of existing supplies is one of the most cost-effective ways of achieving resilience.  As we move forward, though, it’ll be really important for our Board to strike a balance between maximizing these efficiencies as much as possible, determining what’s achievable and feasible, and also to be considering a lot of things like impacts to disadvantaged communities, protection of urban trees, community spaces and parks, and any unintended impacts on wastewater collection, treatment, and reuse. We’ll also be looking at variances to address unique circumstances and possible incentives for such things as potable water reuse.

I really want to thank ACWA’s water efficiency workgroup for their engagement in the many pre-rulemaking discussions and workshops that we’ve been having over at the Board and helping us and the Department of Water Resources to better understand some of the more technical and practical implications of various approaches. We look forward to continuing the productive discussions as the formal rulemaking process is launched.


Lastly, turning to one of the most crucial and compelling issues of our time, the human right to water.  In 2019, the Governor signed SB 200, establishing a $130 million per year fund for the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. Our Board created the SAFER program, which allows us to use this new funding source, along with some additional new authorities that we have regarding system consolidation, the appointment of administrators, and other tools to advance the human right to water.

We adopt a fund expenditure plan annually informed by an annual needs assessment to establish priorities. And our needs assessment that was released earlier this year in the spring shows that we have 326 systems that have been identified as unable to reliably provide safe drinking water and 617 systems identified at risk of being unable to provide safe drinking water. Over $3.4 billion will be required to address these very important needs. So we have a long way to go.

But the program really is off to a good start. I’m pleased to announce between January 1 of 2019 through July 31 of this year, 150 water systems serving almost 700,000 people were removed from the Human Right to Water list. Interim solutions have been put into place, including bottled water, hauled water, repairs, point of use, point of entry treatments systems for drinking water, benefiting 67,000 people.

Since 2016, our Board has facilitated 178 Water System consolidations and is currently busy at work on an additional 175 consolidation projects. In the last two years, we’ve invested $650 million in safe and affordable drinking water, and an infusion of funds from both state and federal governments will allow us to make even more strides. The Governor’s drought package includes $1.3 billion for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects coming from the American Rescue Plan Act funds and up to $1 billion that was referenced earlier for water arrearage assistance to help households and water systems pay off debt that accrued during the pandemic.

We should see a sizable portion of the $3.5 billion in the federal infrastructure package to address PFAS, emerging contaminants, and lead service line replacements. All of this is a game-changer for the program and, more importantly, for the lives of people that have been suffering for far too long from a lack of access to safe and affordable drinking water.

This just really gets to what we’re all about in public service. And this has been such a challenging issue for decades. And so I’m just really honored to have a small piece in seeing us finally address this issue.

On a parallel path, our Board with our Division of Drinking Water is moving forward with our regulatory program and will soon start the formal regulatory process for chromium six maximum contaminant level. We’re establishing monitoring standards and plans for microplastics to further evaluate what harm there may be to drinking water. And the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has released a public health goal for PFAS, with the final expected to be released this coming summer. Once finalized, we will be able to begin our regulatory process to establish a maximum contaminant level.

So thank you again for the opportunity to join you today.


There was only one question from the audience:  “As you noted, we have accelerating climate change. So much of the bedrock of endangered species and water quality is based on historical baselines and trying to maintain historical baselines into the future. With climate change changing that future and putting the system on a different trajectory, could you explain how the state board will have a forward-looking adaptation plan to protect environmental functions and values?

D’ADAMO: I just really want to underscore that as long as we have unhealthy ecosystems, we’re going to continue to have water supply reliable reliability challenges. And so it’s important for us to be in this together.  And as we go forward with further development of the Bay-Delta Plan, we are going to be looking at climate change. That’s part of our analysis; it’s a CEQA document, so we will be looking at that.

But it’s also important to note that, as we consider those impacts, we’re also considering those impacts across the Board with respect to water supply. So we’ll be looking at climate change across the Board. And I don’t think anybody’s ready yet to give up on the species, just like we’re not ready yet to give up on water supply.

So I’m really hopeful that with some of the good discussions that the secretaries have been having with the voluntary agreement parties, there’s a lot of really good ideas out there. And we need to give those ideas a shot and not say that it can’t be done. I think it’s incumbent upon us at the Board to make sure that we provide a pathway for some of these more creative approaches so that we can be looking at flow and other things like environmental restoration, improved science, and all those things that that I think can give us more of a fighting chance.

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