Jerry Meral was recruited by Governor Brown to head the California Department of Natural Resources’ efforts to improve, update, and manage water infrastructure in the Delta. TPR spoke with Deputy Secretary Meral about his role in the Bay Delta conservation planning process, the challenges associated with creating a plan for the Delta, and what the future of water in California will look like. Meral holds that since the environmental battles over the Delta in the early 1980s when he was Deputy Director of the Department Water Resources, the stakeholders have changed, and oppsition and support have grown more nuanced.
"We have environmental groups, water contractors, Delta counties, and upstream water interests, and the challenge is to navigate all of their desires to come up with a plan that, as much as possible, satisfies them." -Jerry Meral
Governor Brown tapped you early in his term to be Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources in charge of Bay Delta conservation planning. What’s been your focus, and what have been your challenges?
The focus has been, of course, to complete the plan, which we want to do by next year. We want to get the permits that the plan contemplates.
The challenges come from the stakeholders all having different desired outcomes. We have environmental groups, water contractors, Delta counties, and upstream water interests, and the challenge is to navigate all of their desires to come up with a plan that, as much as possible, satisfies them. That is a challenge.
Share with our readers your extensive policy background and experience. What equips you to assume leadership on behalf of the Governor of this daunting political and state policy challenge?
I was the Deputy Director of the Department Water Resources from 1975 to 1983, in the first two Brown administrations. A huge part of our task then was to solve the delta problem. And we thought we did. We passed what I thought was a very good bill in the legislature, but unfortunately that bill was referended. The voters turned it down in a marked north-south split. I’ve had the opportunity to work in various other capacities on the Delta issue ever since, and when the Governor felt we had to finally get this done, he asked me to come back.
What are the Governor’s goals of the ‘preferred plan’ for the Delta?
The legislature created co-equal goals in the 2009 water package—ecosystem restoration and water supply reliability—and people forget that the Legislature also wanted to respect the Delta as an evolving place, and not ignore the fact that a lot of people live, work, and recreate in the Delta.
Those are important goals, and they were adopted by the legislature after the beginning of the Bay Delta Conservation planning effort. We’ve adopted those goals as part of BDCP and have successfully convinced the federal government, even though it’s not a part of federal law, that those goals should be respected by federal agencies as well. They’re referred to pretty uniformly by all the players.
Please elaborate on the elements of the ‘preferred plan’, including how it will be executed.
There are a lot of elements. This plan is an attempt to comply with the state and federal endangered species acts. Sometimes people forget that and think that it’s an overall water plan of some kind, but it’s very focused on compliance with those acts because they have a tremendous impact on the state and federal water projects. Compliance with those federal and state acts means you can more effectively operate the water projects.
In terms of actually achieving these goals, one of the elements is major habitat restoration in the Delta. We believe that the future of dozens of endangered and threatened species will be improved by the implementation of a major habitat restoration program, so that’s a critical element of this plan.
Another part of it is to change the way we move water across the delta. Right now it’s very inefficient because we extract water from the southern part of the delta, and that changes the direction of the current. It’s bad for the delta, fish, water quality, and for the exporters. A new facility would be built to divert water from the Sacramento River, just south of Sacramento, and to take that water to the state and federal pumps in the South Delta.
However, not all of the water would come through that facility. Some of the water would still be drawn from the south of the Delta because the project will operate better that way, more able to meet our water contract obligations. It’s a dual facility, and that fact should provide some comfort to those in the Delta. They will not be abandoned.
There is a lot of concern that this new facility will allow water to come out of the Sacramento River and therefore the state and federal government will lose interest in maintaining the levees in the delta. The fact is, we will continue to divert a substantial amount of water from the South Delta, in compliance with fish regulations, obviously, and that means the configuration of the delta islands has to be maintained and gives the state and federal governments and the water contractors motivation to maintain those levees.
Help our readers understand how the plan’s stakeholders have reacted.
There is a lot of support from the water contractors who buy water from the state and federal water projects. They think this is pretty vital to their future, and they’re very worried about a major alteration in the delta’s configuration due to an earthquake or a flood, in which case they might be unable to serve millions of people. They’re very supportive of the concept.
They are concerned about how affordable this is, and that’s a respectable concern given the cost. We’re examining their ability to pay for this, but so far they express confidence that they can pay for it.
The upstream water rights holders—people who have water rights on the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and the tributaries of those rivers—are concerned that they simply not be harmed by this project, and they don’t want to pay for it if it’s not benefiting them. They don’t want their obligations to release water from their reservoirs for environmental quality to be increased or changed just because we’re adopting our own plan in the Delta. We’ve had many compliments from those interest groups on the comments from the Governor and Secretary. They believe that the recognition of their water rights in the joint federal statement was very important, and so they continue to be supportive. They’re very important players and we spend a lot of time with them.
The Delta counties all have the same attitude, to some extent—they don’t want to be harmed by this, and they would like to be helped by it, if possible. Right now I would say it varies county by county. Some are more concerned than others about possible negative impacts; others see some real potential positives in the whole program. We’re working to show that we’re not going to harm them, and there’s a lot of interaction. This program will affect the whole Delta, and we’re trying to show them that, with the help of a water bond, there may be some elements that they really want that may be fundable with that bond. As you know, that bond was put on the ballot as part of the overall water package, , and the bond definitely helps BDCP and the Delta counties.
The last major interest group, the NGOs and the environmental interest groups, cover a range of interests and concerns. It’s important to not categorize all the environmental groups as either for or against it since there’s quite an array. Some of them sent a letter out before the announcement, which I view as quite moderate, and the major groups continue to interact with us. We spend a lot of time with them. There are a lot of environmental groups that are just opposed to this. We’ll do the best we can to work with them, but they have taken a position already.
What is the projected cost of the ‘preferred plan’, and whom does the governor anticipate will pay for it?
The cost of the facility is expected to be $14 billion and the habitat improvement $3-4 billion. The costs are still being refined, so those are our current estimates. As we hire engineering companies we’ll have better estimates.
The facility and the mitigation for the facility will be paid for by the water users, the state, and federal water contractors. The habitat is expected to be paid for by the state and federal governments out of non-contractor funds, and the bond on the 2014 ballot contains a billion and a half dollars to get started on that habitat work.
This is part of the new tradition for Governor Brown, which is to think big and act boldly, but we’ve really depreciated the human and capital assets of the state over the last 20 years. I’m wondering what the capacity of the state is to execute a huge project like this.
It’s a really good question, and the answer is this will be more of a partnership in the water area than we’ve had before with the water contractors. While the state has struggled with budget and personnel issues, the contractors have built up their engineering and hydrologic capacities. The state is planning on partnering with agencies like the Metropolitan Water District to make use of their staff and consulting resources. It would be very hard for the state to do all this by itself.
How would such a partnership be managed? Would there be an authority created?
Possibly. That’s in the very initial stages of discussion. These are agencies that the state has worked with for decades, so we don’t think it will be hard for some kind of structure to make use of all our capacities. But we don’t have anything near even a draft of what that would look like.
A draft environmental impact report is reportedly due out soon. Could you address the challenges involved and the time line for comments?
We hope to issue the draft environmental impact report and statement and also the actual draft of the plan soon. It’s a challenge, of course, because this is a joint state and federal document with five lead agencies. Under CEQA we can only have one—that’s DWR—but the Department of Fish and Game is playing a vital role. It’s a very complicated process. We are looking at ten or eleven alternatives and the need to treat them all equally. We have put on our website 10,000 pages of working documents, and we’ve had a more transparent process than I think other folks have had. We’ve put up an administrative draft for people to comment on. That’s normally not done, but we’ve gotten a lot of useful comments from virtually every interest group. I think it will make for a better document.
Our goal is to put these documents out in an official draft form for public comment this fall, take those comments and carefully consider them, and then release a final EIRS and plan sometime in the spring.
You bring extensive experience to this effort, specifically from the first time around on the Delta plan. Have the state’s politics changed much? Are the coalitions different? Is the timing such that some of the groups once opposing Delta fixes now think it is important to support the Governor?
Yes, I think so, and it’s true in virtually every sector. The upstream water users’ vote in 1982 was against the canal, virtually everywhere north of Fresno. Now some of the upstream water users can see the advantages of improving these species and increasing water supply efficiency, so we’re getting more support there than we did in 1982.
Many environmental groups have now recognized that there is a need to do something in the Delta that involves facilities. Certainly there are groups that don’t agree, but many of the major groups will tell you that there is a need for a facility. Their accepting the need for some kind of facility is a big step forward from where we were in 1982.
I think in the Delta some of the counties now see a way that this project could benefit them, and in 1982 it was just unanimous opposition. Part of this is that we recognize the problems in the Delta are more serious now than they were then. We have a bigger threat of an earthquake, climate change, and people are realizing that something really needs to be done. It’s refreshing to see that change.
We’re doing a companion interview with Met Water’s Jeff Kightlinger, and he speaks of self-sufficiency and ‘One Water’ in Southern California. Will his evidence of what MWD has accomplished dispel the Northern Californian notion that a Delta fix is just about more water?
When you read the editorials and news coverage in Northern California, they’re increasingly aware of how much has been done in Southern California to accommodate growth without increased water use. We are getting more out of an acre-foot of water than we used to. It used to be that the average family needs an acre-foot a year—now it’s down to half an acre-foot a year. In many urban areas we’ve doubled the efficiency, and that’s due to indoor plumbing changes, landscaping, those sorts of things.
If you go to a meeting with people who know things about water in Northern California, you’ll hear the recognition of increasing Southern California water use efficiency. That does not make exporting water a lot more acceptable, necessarily, but at least the knowledge is spreading. Efficiency is a state-wide mantra now.
I think the phrase Jeff Kightlinger used is, “our goal is reliability, not increased water supply.”
This project is really about ecological restoration and reliable water supply, and reliability is not just important to MWD but also to farmers. What’s more important than getting more water is the reliability of what they’re going to get. They can make planning decisions; their banks will feel more comfortable; their workers will have more of a reliable sense of livelihood.
We export between five and six million acre-feet of water from the Delta; we have for 25 years. It’s not going to change, and we’ll still be in that range. We need to make it more reliable so people can run their businesses and lives in a way that is much more predictable.
Lastly, what is your assessment of how committed the Governor is to the preferred plan and this agenda for the balance of his term?
The Governor and Secretary of Interior were very careful in not saying this is the final project. Under CEQA and NEPA we are a long way from picking any projects, and we have to consider many alternatives. We are allowed to have a preferred alternative, and that is what the Governor and Secretary have said.
My sense is that the Governor is extremely committed to this. I think this is a very high priority for him and that he recognizes the statewide need and that this affects the economy and the environment.