July 1, 2004 - From the August, 2001 issue

Richard Katz On State Water Policy: There's Too Little Water For A Thirsty State

Richard Katz's experience with water issues can be recalled all the way back to his time in the Legislature and the landmark water wheeling legislation that bears his name. Two decades of experience later, Richard is now a member of the California Water Quality Control Board using that body of experience to his advantage as he keeps a mindful watch over the quality and supply of water throughout the state. MIR was pleased to catch up with Richard and have him talk about his new position and the possibility of California's return to the drought conditions it experienced in the 80s. He goes on to talk about why water wheeling and a balanced approach to development may help us deal with our dwindling water supply and how the media's coverage of water issues may in fact hurt the future of conservation.


Richard Katz

Richard, you've dealt with the issue of water since your days in the Legislature. Let's start with a simple question. Does California have enough water to provide a balance of uses now and into the future?

California is on the verge of another drought. We simply don't have the resources. It used to be that we had the resources, but they were in the wrong places, the water was in the North and the people in the South. Today we're looking at water delivery in the northern half of the State that's between 10-40% of what people's allotments are. If we don't increase storage, conserve and stop polluting the water we have, we'll be in a very serious crisis.

In an MIR interview last year, former DWP GM David Freeman criticized current water reform efforts as focusing too much on pricing and not enough on securing a reliable water supply for Southern California. We asked Ron Gastellum, GM of MWD to respond to Freeman's assertion. He gave the following response, "[T]he resource question has to be addressed as part of this rate structure, but focus is not misplaced. In the first 6 months of 2001, before we do anything to finalize our rate structure, we will review our integrated resources plan. We told our member agencies we have 2.1 million acre-feet of reliable supply, even in a dry year or series of years. That being the case, we're offering contracts to our member agencies at much higher level reliability than they've had in the past, up to 110% in their highest peak use over the next 10 years." It seems Gastellum believes there really isn't a water supply problem. What should our readers believe?

Both assertions have a modicum of truth. But ignoring price and focusing only on supply is part of our current energy crisis. Over the next 15 years, Southern California will have to reduce its use of Colorado River water. We're entitled to use 4.4 million-acre feet and we currently use 5.3 million-acre feet a year. That's a loss over 900,000 acre-feet annually. That's a long term supply problem.

When people were bringing alternative energy on line-solar, wind, geothermal, etc.-people said, "Don't worry about the price, it's very cheap. Do whatever you have to do to get the supply online." Because of that, somebody who has one of those facilities gets paid based on the price of gas even though they don't use gas to create power. It's a bizarre and expensive system. You can't separate price and supply, both must be examined together.

Your mission on the State Water Resources Control Board is to preserve and enhance California's water resources. How does your mission relate to the aforementioned supply issues? Give our readers some sense of what the SWRCB does.

The State Water Resources Control Board's main focus is water quality issues, but we are very active in disputes over water rights as well. Our recent decisions have dealt with requiring permitting, monitoring and scrutiny of pesticides applied to public waterways and monitoring logging operations effect on streams.

In Southern California, we have allocated $4 million from Prop. 12 to the Los Angeles area to help clean the beaches. While that is an enormous step in the right direction, the larger issue is our attempts to limit the amount of "junk" that goes into storm drains and then flows out to the ocean. If we can do that, we can address the elements causing the beaches to become unsafe instead of merely treating the resulting pollution.

You mention water quality and your regulation of it. We carried a piece by Gideon Kracov in June who said, "The chromium 6 controversy reminds Southern California yet again of the fragility of our water supply resource. It also illustrates the need for thoughtful regulatory reform and renewed commitment to a precautionary approach to water quality." Is that consistent with your efforts at the SWRCB?

Chromium 6 is found in our water supply as both a naturally occurring element and because of man made pollutants. There has been a lot of talk about chromium 6, and people running around proposing solutions, but not very much in the way of actual science to determine a safe level of chromium 6. Fortunately, earlier this year Cal EPA and the Dept. of Health Services began a scientific process that will lead to setting action levels and health levels to protect the public. The biggest detriment to the water supply in Southern California is contamination. The aerospace and defense industries, which sustained the Southern California economy for so long, heavily polluted our groundwater basins. Those polluted basins eliminate one of our supplies of drinking water, and as a result, make us more dependent on imported water from other parts of the state. Our ability to clean those groundwater basins and protect them from future contamination is paramount to our ability to have good drinking water.

The issue of importing water, whether it be from another state or from within California, is something that you've been dealing with from Day 1. Your name is in fact on one of the key Legislative bills re: water wheeling. Respond to another quote from Ron Gastellum from the January issue of MIR. "In the long run, it's absolutely in the interest of Southern California residents that there be a highly competitive market which water transfers are a part, so that we're not trapped into one or two sources. By opening our system and making it available to everyone at equal rate, we're facilitating that kind of competition." What has been the obstacle to water wheeling in California? What have been the strengths and weaknesses of MWD's approach to water wheeling?

Historically, wheeling is something that water districts talk about and point to in position papers, but don't engage in. When I crafted that water legislation some 20 years ago, we didn't think it would open up a market quickly because institutions like MWD and other good old boy water districts change very slowly.

Metropolitan had given lip service to water trading, but their "postage stamp" approach to water pricing is not consistent with the law that I wrote. The price for wheeling water should be the incremental cost of the part of the system you use. You shouldn't factor the whole system cost into the wheeling rate because you're not using the whole system, just a piece of it . As a result you artificially inflate the wheeling cost and discourages water trades.

However, having said that, since Ron Gastellum has been the General Manager at Met, there's been a significant change in attitude and approach. While his Board may not move as quickly as it should, they've made great strides in moving towards wheeling. The deal between Met and Cadiz, Inc. exemplifies his desire to implement more innovative water trading approaches that give Southern California reliability and increased options for the future. Deals like that one will help Southern California avoid a crisis like we're seeing in energy.

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Another innovative deal meant to help manage California's water is CalFed. Give us your take on where CalFed sits in light of this quote from Environmental Defense's Tom Graff: "Was the 2000 CalFed Board Record of Decision and State Certification jointly signed by Secretary Babbitt the Nichols of a new cooperative comprehensive plan to meet California's water needs? Or was it merely a politically-inspired document that allows the Federal and State governments to proclaim progress in the State's water affairs as major litigation and other uncertainties about funding and financing lay just below the happy face surface?"

People thought that the Record of Decision was the document that people had agreed to live by. What you're seeing now in Senator Feinstein's and Congressman Calvert's bill is an attempt by some agricultural interests to gain a foothold they didn't get in the negotiation. This is typical in California, where people negotiate an agreement and then try to reposition themselves in another venue.

I'm hoping that the Legislation that comes out of Washington is going to respect the Record of Decision and recognizes that it was a negotiated compromise and that the recent activity is merely an attempt by special interests to give them things they didn't get at the bargaining table. If they couldn't get it there, they shouldn't be allowed to get it through the Congress. It's extremely important that the California Delegation show a united front on this issue to ensure that CalFed is funded at the Federal level. All the other states are looking for a reason not to fund a California issue.

Sen. Kuehl's bill is yet another attempt at balancing future growth and water consumption. What's your take on that approach? And in the absence of water wheeling, what is the viability of that approach given the phenomenal growth Southern California is experiencing?

The Kuehl approach makes a lot of sense. Developers and water agencies should be forced to show that they have the ability to deliver water to new development. The link between water and land use planning is a very important link that local governments need to make. This bill is a strong step in the right direction. We have to plan for water and we need to know realistically where it's coming from, who's going to use it and who's going to pay for it. The Kuehl bill implements a process that forces local government to show that if you're going to grow, you have to have the necessary resources.

This bill may also help end the ageless hostility between urban and agricultural users. The agriculture user's fear has always been that the growth of cities marks the end of their water supply. If there's a planned approach that shows how much water cities are going to need combined with the ability to wheel water, farmers will have the ability to make good economic decisions. That process seems to make it more likely that these two divergent groups will be able to resolve these issues in a constructive way, as opposed to winding up in the kind of water war that's going on up north with the Klamath River.

There are a couple other bills pending on water before the Legislature. Sen. Perata has a bill and Sen. Alpert has a bill. I'm wondering if you could give our readers an orientation to what the significance of those bills are, if anything.

San Diego is totally dependent on the Met system. So Sen. Alpert's bill is designed to force a reallocation of how Met deals with the taxes it collects from its constituency. They feel that they have been short-changed by that system for quite a while and now they're striking back. They initially tried to cut a deal with Imperial Irrigation District to buy water directly from them. They then attempted to build new water facilities on their own, examine desalinization and other alternatives. But, from my vantage point I don't see the Alpert bill going very far.

The Perata bill seeks to make water trading easier in California. Among other things it would give more authority to the Water Resources Control Board to resolve conflicts-which of course is something the Board supports. The Water Board is much better suited to deal with water trading since we deal with water rights issues full-time. Although the bill won't move this year, I think it's extremely important that California streamline the water trading process next year. Without a functioning wheeling system, California loses an important tool for dealing with the next drought.

Richard, let's tie these strands together. You've represented L.A. in the Legislature and are now seeing the State through the lens of a State Water Agency. What can you tell us about the L.A. media? Why are they so averse to covering issues that are integral to the lifeblood and sustainability of Southern California?

People in L.A. believe that if you turn your tap on and water comes out, we don't have a water crisis. And you can't really blame them when you see venues from the DWP headquarters to museums, office buildings, parks, golf courses, etc. with fountains sprouting water all over the place. That's one reason people don't find water that much fun to write about.

Another reason for the lack of reporting is the complexity of the subject. You can't fit a description of the current structure of water resources into one paragraph or a one column headline. And it certainly doesn't fit within the "if it bleeds, it leads" paradigm that dominates today's electronic media.

Despite the lack a media focus on the situation, the people of Los Angeles have shown a remarkable ability to conserve water. We have essentially gotten through the last 15 years because of it. But conservation alone can't save us any longer, we've got to find other ways. If we have another winter like this last one, let alone two, the water crisis will make the energy crisis will seem like the good old days.

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