June 5, 2013 - From the June, 2013 issue

Tim Brick, Retired Chair of MWD, Opines on Met's Priorities & Options

This month, TPR spoke with Tim Brick, recently-retired chair of Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, the nation’s largest regional water agency. Brick walks readers through the history, significance, and myriad factors delaying the accomplishment of what he sees as Met’s greatest priority: The Bay Delta Conservation Plan. With a statewide Delta Fix still in the balance, Brick stresses the importance of also developing a Plan B that continues Southern California’s focus on small-scale, local, water management projects, and weighs in on the industry restructuring that future projects may necessitate.  


Tim Brick

"Metropolitan has realized that without solving the environmental problems in the Bay Delta Estuary, we're not going to have a reliable supply for the future." -Tim Brick

Tim, with the benefit of more than 25 years of service on the board of the Metropolitan Water District, what today is MWD’s chief priority with regards to water supply for Southern California?

Tim Brick: I think the major priority for many years has been the Bay Delta Conservation Program and fixing the issues that are involved with the state’s water system. Metropolitan has worked on developing an integrated resources plan that puts a greater emphasis on local supply, recycling, conservation, efficiency, stormwater, and other approaches, but I don’t think that’s really gelled as a “Plan B.”

I think it’s not clear at this point whether there’s going to be progress on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan or what will be in the bond issue that has been discussed and has been lurking on the ballot for the last five years. I think there’s a lot of uncertainty about what is going to be occurring with regard to Metropolitan’s strategy and resource plan in the next few years.

Elaborate on the importance of a Bay Delta fix to Southern California and all of California?

Tim Brick: Well, the State Water Project is a critical component of the supply mix for Southern California, and I think that Metropolitan has realized that without solving the environmental problems in the Bay Delta Estuary, we’re not going to have a reliable supply for the future. We’re going to be constantly faced with the threat of earthquakes or floods in the Delta system that can destroy the reliability of that system for a long period of time, and we need to have the high-quality water that comes from the Bay Delta system as a base supply for Southern California.

I think MWD isn’t looking for an expansion of supply from the State Water Project but rather a reliable supply, and there’s been a perception that it’s achievable and that we’re on the verge of getting that done. I’d say it’s still problematic as to whether the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, even with the governor’s strong support, can get the kind of support that it needs to really be achieved

Governor Brown enlisted Jerry Meral, now Deputy Secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency, and Felicia Marcus, now the Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, to assist with state water infrastructure policy and investment. Have they and others helped craft a good and sustainable plan for fixing the Delta?

Tim Brick: I hope they are. I think it’s basically a good plan, but a lot of the regional antagonism and concern about the environmental issues hasn’t been resolved. The same forces still exist. I don’t think they are as strong as they were in 1982, when the opposition to the peripheral canal was much stronger. This is a much better proposal than the 1982 peripheral canal, and I think there is less opposition to it at this time, but if you put everything together, including the escalation of costs on the project itself and the related environmental improvements necessary to make the Bay Delta Plan really work, there’s a lot of uncertainty. 

You stepped away after more than two decades of service on the Met Board, having chaired it for a number of years. What’s Met’s proposed role in the Bay Delta fix? What should it be, and what is it as presently conceived?

Tim Brick: Met is the largest member of the state water contractors, so we’ll be paying for a large part of the plumbing facilities that will be part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Metropolitan has played an active role in supporting the science, research, and planning that has gone into the development of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The state and federal government will pursue the facilities and improvements, and we’ll pay for it as a contractor to the State Water Project. Met’s hope is that it will pay a quarter of the cost of the facilities that are estimated from $14 to $20 billion—so that’s a significant part. Whether some of the other entities involved in the Bay Delta Solution, particularly the agricultural entities in the Central Valley, are ready to pay their share proportionate to the water and benefits they’ll received from the project, is still uncertain. So whether Metropolitan is going to end up paying for more than a quarter is an important question that needs to be resolved.

Does the State Water Bond ballot measure, as currently written, include an allocation of project benefits that assures its passage?

Tim Brick: The water bond was a big package of projects put together in 2009—$11 billion of projects to apply all over the state. I think most people feel that the package really should be reviewed and scaled down to essential water facilities.

When you say “most,” that means “not all…” What proposed bond-funded projects could be eliminated from a new ballot version without undermining necessary political support for its passage?

Tim Brick: Well, the water bond grew as the attempt to build a legislative consensus for it developed. The bill’s authors added on other water projects to get votes, so by the time it was over, it was pretty much a strong bipartisan consensus. But now you start taking pieces of it away and you’re going to find that the support from various constituencies could also disappear as well.

After having been fully engaged in public life for four decades, in your opinion is California, with almost 40 million people, still capable of dreaming big and investing in projects like a Delta fix?

Tim Brick: The Delta has been a challenge since the beginning of the State Water Project. The original state water plan from 1960 had outlined a Delta facility of some sort. It wasn’t built as part of the original series of facilities because they wanted to keep the initial bond issue of $1.7 billion under $2 billion dollars. When they actually put together what the facilities would look like in the 70s and it went to the referendum in 1982, that program was rejected by a very strong vote from Northern California and a 60 percent overall vote by the people of the state.

I think this program is attempting to be more environmentally responsible and sustainable, to set the dual goal of Bay Delta ecosystem restoration as well as water system reliability, and to make those goals truly coequal. I believe it’s a much better approach and that there’s been some good leadership from some of the legislators. In 2009 it looked like everything was sailing and ready to go, but finalizing the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and the deferral of the bond issue has dragged this out. There is a law in politics of inertia or momentum, and it’s hard to maintain momentum over a long period of time. So I think that if we don’t see some resolution of the issues soon—and I’m talking within the next year—then we need to pay a lot more attention to Plan B, which is a greater reliance on local water resources.

How do we best understand and appreciate why San Diego, a Met jurisdiction, now opposes the governor’s Delta plan? Is San Diego not a beneficiary?

Tim Brick: I’m puzzled by San Diego’s recent reluctance to move ahead with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan because I remember five years ago San Diego was basically taking the position that that is the main, legitimate function in which Metropolitan should be engaged: resolving state water issues and the Bay Delta Conversation Plan. I’m puzzled by why they’ve now stepped back and are in what I guess they would describe as a more diversified approach, but it’s also a much smaller and less adequate approach in terms of ensuring reliability for Southern California. I can only think that that kind of position is basically a sad consequence of the deterioration of relations between San Diego and Metropolitan Water District.

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Given your support for a Plan A Delta fix, what motivates your interest in having a Plan B evolve?

Tim Brick: A good friend of mine said to me 30 years ago that Southern California is never going to get the peripheral canal until it can prove it doesn’t need it. I think that Plan B not only has many benefits in it, many of which should be implemented not just instead of BDCP, but in addition to it. Plan B includes things like better ground water management; dramatic reductions in per capita consumption; increases in water efficiency and conservation programs; capturing storm water and putting it to beneficial use and thereby cleaning up our rivers, which we’re going to have to do anyway as part of the Clean Water Act implementation. There’s a lot of programs like that that can be put into place, most of which will be less expensive than some of the other alternatives that have been discussed.

I think that Plan B has a lot of good elements in it that are just smart water management, but also, Plan B strengthens the case of Southern California by demonstrating that we are taking reasonable steps to make sure that we are using the water we get wisely.

Hasn’t Southern California been adopting water conservation policies and investing accordingly for decades?

Tim Brick: It’s definitely true that Southern California in the last ten years has done a pretty good job of reducing per capita consumption. We know that Southern California, which now has five million more people than it had 20 years ago, is basically using about the same amount of water that it did two decades ago. So there have been important steps forward in terms of improving water efficiency, but there’s still a lot more that can be done in terms of California-friendly landscaping, ground water management, storm water capture, etc.

We’ve featured a number of interviews in our newsletters surrounding the concept of “One Water,” of water reuse as a way of being less reliant on imported water and more intelligently managing the water resources available. What was the experience of MWD with that notion of One Water and using its research incentive money to encourage it?

Tim Brick: I think the One Water notion makes a lot of sense. A lot of what’s driving it is the need to deal with the Clean Water Act and the implementation of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination Survey and the total maximum daily load standards for our lakes and rivers, which cities are going to have to do. So let’s say it isn’t directly for drinking water and water resources but it’s certainly related to the overall water and environment picture—so a lot of the motivation for One Water is coming from that.

I think another key aspect of it is the potential of recycled water’s use for multiple purposes, even re-use for drinking water eventually. I think that that’s a really fertile ground for improving efficiency at a reasonable cost.

The division of responsibility in Southern California between some of the critical functions with regard to water doesn’t create the synergy that should exist with regard to water management. So for instance, there are flood agencies that don’t talk to sanitation agencies, that don’t talk to drinking water agencies, that don’t talk to land use planning agencies. Trying to meld those together with more direction in the One Water program is a very important step to better water management for the future. But that’s going to require some kind of transformation of the structure of the water industry, which I think is important as we move forward.

Is there any evidence that restructuring is happening in the water industry? 

Tim Brick: There are certain agencies that I think are doing a better job. I would say on a state level the California Integrated Regional Water Management Program is trying to put that kind of an overlay of an integrated approach to water development that looks at the multiple uses and aspects of water development. It emphasizes progress in areas that include water quality, supply and reliability, habitat, and even recreation benefits. I would say we’re still in the beginning phase of that program, trying to transform water planning in California in a more integrated way. On one level, that program has a lot of One Water aspects.

California also has a watershed management and watershed coordination program that has been under development for the past ten years with some success, although it really needs to be more comprehensive and expanded. There are some agencies doing a good job with this. You’ve interviewed people from the Inland Empire utility agency, and I think they’ve done a particularly good job of integrating multiple aspects of water and even energy together. Orange County has done a terrific job in terms of expanding the use of recycled water, although I don’t think they’ve wrapped it all together in the same kind of integrated, comprehensive way. But certainly their contribution with regard to recycled water is monumental and recognized throughout the world as being a leading approach to that. 

There’s been some interest expressed (recognizing that the politics do not align for this at the moment) in the City of LA for creating a new entity that would include the water division of DWP and the public works division of sanitation and storm, etc. Is that idea worth exploring? Are there any jurisdictions around the country that have created that kind of One Water agency?

Tim Brick: There are a significant number of water agencies that do sanitation and drinking water—Las Virgenes and others. But there are others in Northern California that do flood, drinking water, run off, and stream water quality. So there are some models; I think it’s an interesting idea.

I recently wrote a history of 100 years of Pasadena water. The Pasadena Water Department was established in 1912, and in 1967 it was consolidated with the Light and Power Department to form the Pasadena Water and Power Department. To me it was fairly inescapable that there was a significantly lessened focus on water after they united the two agencies together, and since then.

It lead me to start considering very seriously how important it is to have that focus on water. It isn’t just that all of the functions aren’t contained together, but that sometimes the power function is so large that it sucks all the political energy from decision-making. Furthermore, the financial elements are so much greater; my guess roughly is that the revenues coming from power are ten times greater, so there tends to be a lot more attention focused on that, sometimes to the detriment of water and the broad overview that needs to occur on water issues.

In closing, as a past Chair of the Metropolitan Water District Board, if you were to advise the new Mayor of Los Angeles on his new appointments to the MWD, what professional and personal attributes of would you suggest are most valued in boardmembers?

Tim Brick: A passion for water and better management of natural resources is important. A firm grounding in public policy because that really needs to be the base from which decisions get made. Some sorts of technical expertise would be valuable in some of the cases, but I don’t think everyone needs to be an engineer. Lastly, they need to be able to articulate the values of sustainability and have a real sense of consciousness about their role in shaping the future of Southern California.

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