ACWA CONFERENCE: Chair Joaquin Esquivel on drought, partnerships, affordable water, wildfires, and more …

At the recent ACWA Fall Conference, held in-person in Southern California, State Water Resources Control Board’s Joaquin Esquivel sat down with Cindy Tuck, Deputy, Executive Director of Government Relations, for a wide-ranging one-on-one conversation, followed by an audience Q&A.

Here are excerpts of what Chair Esquivel had to say.

On the drought …

Since the last drought, we’ve seen continued savings of 17% here in the urban sector. And it’s really a testament to the fact that these droughts do change the way Californians interact, engage, understand their water usage and their water systems in really critical ways in ways that we can measure.  And we can see that we’re building resiliency because those savings from this last drought are helping in this current one.  The Governor’s call for a 15% voluntary reduction has been important because we’ve seen how critical conservation is as just an adaptation strategy in the face of diminishing water supplies.

Reflecting on the Russian River watershed, what we’ve also learned is how to better administer the water rights system. This last summer, compared to 2015, we were curtailing off of water availability, and we did so on a scale and scope that was worse than 2015.  In the Delta watershed, the Russian River watershed, the Scott and the Shasta, Mill and Deer Creek – in those communities, we engaged with water users, and we transparently demonstrated our methodologies and our data or information that we were using to curtail. So critically, in the face of these dire circumstances, in the communities, there was a response.  I think ultimately, there is a desire from water rights holders to engage in the water rights system in a way that builds better confidence and trust. …

Here we are in November, and we’re below average now, and we’re heading into our critical winter months with a real question mark as to how severe this next summer will be, knowing that this last was incredibly stressful and hard in many of the communities in the state. So we need to prepare ourselves for the worst-case scenario going into next year. So it’s important for all of us to do our work collectively as state and local agencies, and to assess and understand our threat and vulnerability for continued dry conditions next year and act accordingly now so that we don’t have to respond as much in an emergency fashion, even though we know that we’ll continue to need to do so here in the months and years ahead.

On partnerships …

The movement around water issues and the challenges we have is because of partnerships that California and its agencies have been doing for decades now. The Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, these big national bills, and even Porter-Cologne; these are 50-year institutions; these are 50-year efforts. And I think it’s important that we remember and celebrate a bit that we have come a long way in 50 years.  The landscape, the quality of our waters, the ability to serve clean, affordable water and provide sanitation to our communities has exponentially grown in the last 50 years.

What we have is a moment to reflect and say, are we there yet? No, we know that we have a million Californians without access to water; we have continued challenges amongst all of our water systems. But here is our opportunity to say, what do the next 50 years look like? How do we see that reinvestment, especially with climate change and its threats? Because we still haven’t even achieved what we set out to do then, which is universal access to clean water and sanitation.   But there are opportunities …

My role is around decision-making and trying just to be the best decision-maker I can be.  To do that, I have to be open; I have to learn; I have to withhold my own biases that can hinder my ability to make good decisions. We try to at the state level, certainly, but it’s at that local level that all the best decisions and important ones are made. So for me, it’s a continuum of that decision-making from that local, state, and, importantly, federal level.  I don’t think I’ve seen as much alignment as we have here. And it’s not lost on me. I believe that it is wholly because of decades of work and advocacy amongst all the agencies here and throughout the state that have helped contribute to a real moment that we have to help advance many challenges out there.

Affordable water

The safe and affordable fund itself has a strong affordability component. We’re in the process of better defining affordability metrics, knowing that the flavor of different water systems that we have in the state –  whether it’s a private or a public water system, a mutual water company, a special service district, or municipality – makes it hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison on a benchmark for affordability for that system, given that nature of their constituents and the contaminants they have to treat for and the costs associated with that. 

When you look at the investments in the last five years that the State Water Board has invested in drinking water systems, wastewater systems, groundwater capture, stormwater, groundwater recharge, stormwater capture, and water recycling, that has huge benefits to affordability. So we see, especially from our Division of Financial Assistance, the ability to cobble together grant dollars that we have, along with a low-interest loan, and pull together a package that makes projects affordable.

So as we see this influx of federal dollars, and as we continue to see greater support for systems, it is really critical that we understand its impact on affordability.  And as we adopt new MCLs. And the pressures on conservation also have on rates to best make sure that we are fully accounting for and being best sensitive to what we know.  It’s a complex landscape out there for our water systems.

SB 222, water rate assistance

SB 222, authored by Senator Dodd, would create a Low-Income Water Rate Assistance Program in California that could provide assistance for at least a third of the households in California. The bill doesn’t identify a funding source.  Senator Dodd put the bill on hold, so there may be more work on it in the coming year.

AB 401 was a bill that directed the Water Board to develop a report on a Low Income Rate Assistance Program, so we’re really thinking of what a program might look like, especially because we have a billion-dollar arrearage program that we’re in the middle of implementing.  Many of the features of a rate assistance program, such as how might the dollars might be delivered to systems, should it be at the system level, should it be at the customer level – All those things are being informed by the work that the Board is able to do now with water systems on this arrearage program. And I feel strongly we’ll be able to inform and help better show what a long-term statewide program might potentially look like and how best to administer it.

Importantly, though, without a source of funding, I’ll just be candid, that I’m sometimes a little apprehensive of thinking that we might spend a lot of time creating a program, but then still leave off where the funding comes from, and then not find it and then have to do all that work again. But, you know the nature of program development, especially in our bureaucracies, is if you just leave it on the shelf for a few years, it’s going to have to be redone anyway in some way.

Wildfires, forest management, and water quality

It’s drought. It’s wildfires. The impacts and challenges, especially within climate change, are there. When it comes to water quality issues from these catastrophic wildfires, it’s something that our Regional Water Quality Control Boards particularly have been taking the lead; we at the state have been providing support and work. But these catastrophic wildfires do lead to debris flows and real significant water quality impacts and challenges.  The depth at which those intense temperatures just completely carbonize those top layers creates real significant and different water quality challenges.

So we’ve been doing a lot of modeling work actually with our partners at the resources agency CalFire and others to make sure that there is a continuum of understanding on the water quality impacts as you do restoration and recover from fire, using mapping so that you can see where the most anticipated water quality impacts and get funding channeled to those places.

We also recently adopted a general order for vegetation treatment for post and pre-fire activities. So we’re trying to streamline any permitting to ensure that we’re helping to get at scale when it comes to the forest management work. We know we need to be doing the thinning and how we can make our watersheds healthier, so glad to say we have a great and active role in a lot of that work and continue to look to make sure that we are best understanding how we can contribute to the incredible good work going on at the local level.


QUESTION: Conservation is a cost-effective drought response. My view has been that water use efficiency is antagonistic to resilience unless it’s coupled with education or guidelines for land use development to make sure that saved water isn’t taken up by growth, and putting us in a position as droughts come in the future that there’s no fat to trim. Is there something the state board is working on that we can hear about?

CHAIR ESQUIVEL:I know of nothing specific as a project, but it is an area that’s really important. There is often a disconnect between land planning and use and development and water availability. You look at the county plans and general plans and the various tools and the accounting that’s supposed to happen. And I think that there’s a real need to make sure that the math is all adding up and get a handle so that we’re making investments in housing and growth that is sustainable in the face of the reality of climate change.  

To my mind, the Board has no real direct authority in the moment around it other than to help highlight an important discussion that needs to happen. It’s at that local planning level. Ultimately, it’s about having a more uniform base for accounting of resiliency of water supplies, knowing that there are all sorts of obvious tensions in discussions around housing now. And there is a direct nexus and need to be informed as we have that housing discussion around incorporating water and resiliency, or ensuring the resiliency of the supplies for communities that we’re going to be investing in, or at least knowing if not, knowing that supplies will have to be developed, so you don’t find yourself in emergency response mode in the next drought. And it is important to start to continue to get ahead of that. But no specific project that I know of right now.”

QUESTION: Attendee from Solano Irrigation District in Solano County.  We have ag and also M&I.   We operate about 18 water systems, and of those 18, nine are public water systems.  One is large and is a long way from the others. But we have many public water systems and non-public water systems in one valley. We want to consolidate those and provide drinking water to everybody. The difference between a public water system and a non-public water system is that non-public water system customers get bottled water. We deliver surface water to their properties, but they’re required to have bottled water.  Right now, we don’t qualify for any of the potential funds for consolidation because a lot of the properties are above the minimum value required in the different grant programs. But just because there the property value may be higher doesn’t make it any easier to consolidate.  Also, many of these properties are on A40 zoning, so that you might have 70 potential customers in five miles.  It’s just a conundrum that we’ve been in. We want to get them all in compliance. But we’re just stuck, so I don’t know if there’s any potential to open some of those programs to other types of properties rather than just low income.

CHAIR ESQUIVEL:  “It’s a tool that we have and in our Safe and Affordable toolbox for disadvantaged and at-risk systems there, but it’s an activity that needs to be going on writ large. I know that population thresholds or income qualifications can sometimes create barriers to at least some of our programmatic dollars. But with the $1.3 billion that we just received, we’re looking at removing those sorts of caps with the increased federal dollars.  We have them because of oversubscription in some of those programs, but now we are talking about changing some of those. So make sure to engage with the Division of Financial Assistance.  Also, the Office of Sustainable Water Solutions could be a place to start.”

QUESTION:  There has been somewhat of a mystery about regulations concerning exfiltration from wastewater collection systems. Do you have a position on what the current or future state of exfiltration regulations is going to be?

CHAIR ESQUIVEL:  “We’re in the middle of updating our sanitary sewer order, and in there, evaluating updates to spill incidents reports and at what thresholds they need to be. And to your point, getting a better understanding of what is exfiltration. We have a question mark. As I understand where the general order is headed, there will be provisions to help better understand the incidence of exfiltration and what amount is acceptable.  We still haven’t settled on an acceptable amount of loss from sewer systems.  I think that what we’re envisioning is just additional data gathering, not setting an actual limit at this point, but allowing us to better understand things like aging infrastructure and the water quality impacts of a leaky sewer system in a watershed.”

FOLLOW-UP: How do you measure it? And you look for parallels or things like that? Is there any decision made at all on metrics or measurement type?

CHAIR ESQUIVEL:  “I don’t think so. We’re still at the very front around that and are open because, unlike drinking water systems that are pressurized where you can then figure out that loss, wastewater is a different system and animal, really, so we don’t know yet how to uniformly measure.”

QUESTION:  Almost all the climate modeling we’re seeing is pretty much in agreement that sometime in the future, potentially sooner than we think, we’re going to lose that snowpack. It seems we’re headed to a situation where if all the modeling is correct, we’re going to have maybe the same amount of precipitation that changed from snow to rain, and we have a system based on a completely different climate. What are your thoughts on what climate change and losing that snowpack is going to do to water quality statewide?

CHAIR ESQUIVEL:   “The reality is that we have systems built for a 20th-century climate, we have a 21st-century environment, and we need to transition them.  We need to make investments that acknowledge that there will be a future that won’t have a snowpack or at least will be so incredibly diminished. It will mean we need to continue to be serious about groundwater recharge and reconnecting floodplains.  In the 20th century, a lot of development was based on hydrology that we know isn’t here anymore and maybe necessarily wasn’t there before. So it might have been a little optimistic to think that the yield amounts would be there in perpetuity for some of these projects.

We’re going to have to gird for longer, drier periods in our systems and have reserves then and take advantage of those moments when it does start to fall.  So we need to be making investments that move water in ways that recharge our groundwater, take bigger gulps when it’s there, and then pull off the systems in those dry times so that we don’t extirpate all of our species in the state. So it is going to be something that we’ve certainly been struggling for here in the state. And we’ll continue to. 

All the local communities and agencies should think about their needs.  It is so much a local and community-based discussion because its specifics are too unique to each of those communities and basins.  Yes, the state discussion is helpful; these 35,000-foot overview of policies and thoughts is good. But it’s really about how those implement and come to roost at the local level that makes the difference. So just know that we’re here, know that we’re ready and excited for what is going to be and nervous, candidly for what is going to be the year ahead, but excited for the relationships and opportunities that we have here in quite the state that we’re fortunate to live.

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