March 7, 2014 - From the March, 2014 issue

SAWPA’s Celeste Cantú : ‘One Water One Watershed’

“One Water One Watershed”—an approach that advocates breaking down silos in water management and instead taking an integrated, regional view—is beginning to take hold across Southern California. Celeste Cantú discussed this shift with MIR, in the context of her General Manager role within the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority. Cantú explains the advantages of coming from a planning background when grappling with water issues and notes how the SAWPA began. She then draws the distinction between water management mindsets in the 20th and 21st centuries, exploring resistance among some in the water industry to adopt a management approach in line with nature.

Celeste Cantú

“Our SAWPA goals are that the entire [Santa Ana] watershed [San Bernardino County, Riverside County, the north part of Orange County, and a sliver of Los Angeles] will be salt-balanced and drought-proofed by 2030.” -Celest Cantú, SAWPA

Celeste, share how your background as a city planner has influenced your work and leadership of the Santa Ana River Watershed Project Authority. 

There was a transition in between being a planning director and working exclusively with water, and that was at USDA Rural Development. The three mission areas of Rural Development are water (both sanitary and drinking water), housing for rural California, and economic development. I went there with strengths in housing—that’s where I’d spent the previous 20 years—but, when I got there, water really captured my attention. I grew up with water policy being the dinnertime conversation, so I naturally became involved. Water in California is the most exciting topic there is. 

After the Clinton Administration came to an end, I was invited to go to the State Water Resources Control Board as their executive director. Then, I was immersed exclusively in water, with no breaks. I think that was important. When they contacted me, I said, “Can’t you find somebody who really knows more about water than I do?” They said “no”—they really wanted a different kind of person. They wanted a person with a multi-pronged background who could take a much more integrated approach. 

What allowed me to do that was my planning background. The training that planners get is entirely different than the training engineers get or the training that scientists get. The reality is, we need all of these components to make informed decisions about California water. We can’t do it with just the toolbox that engineers bring or scientists bring. I think the tools that planners bring—which include communication, making sure all voices are heard, taking great lengths to look at all different perspectives, and doing scenario planning—are the kinds of skill sets that are often lacking. However, we really see a trend moving in that direction in California, which is trying to catch up with the rest of the world.

That’s a great segue to ask about SAWPA’s One Water One Watershed 2.0 Plan. 

When I came to SAWPA, I was following a tradition of integration that started a long time before me, as SAWPA had started implementing integrated plans in the late ’70s. I just added to that. I was not the game changer at all. 

Our goal with One Water One Watershed is to look at the entire hydrologic system in the watershed. That’s San Bernardino County, Riverside County, the north part of Orange County, and a sliver of Los Angeles. Our primary orientation is the hydrologic system and the way Mother Nature has that system working—following the drops. 

The drop falls as snow in the mountains, where it’s stored. If everything works well, it’s slowly absorbed by meadows, and then it seeps into aquifers at the foot of the mountains. The aquifers store very sweet water for us, which is valuable because of its water quality. Then, the theory is that we pump it out, we use it, we clean it up, we put it back in the river, and it gets pumped out again at the next city. It’s used, it’s cleaned up, it goes back into the river, and this continues over and over again. As you follow that drop as it cascades from the headwaters to the ocean, our obligation is to clean it up, taking out salts and other things to make sure that when we return it back into the system, it is of a quality that the next person or the next community can use it. If you look at that entire system, you see solutions much more clearly than the way we traditionally look at things. 

Traditionally, we look at it district by district. That worked well in the 20th century. The 20th century, in my view, was characterized by the assembly line—dividing labor and dividing things into the smallest increment so that we could find efficiencies. We did that for education; we did that for everything; we really celebrated efficiency. We did that for water, also, and we found a lot of efficiencies. But, we also found, when we look back to the 20th century from the 21st century now, that science gives us more knowledge and that there were tremendous unintended consequences we did not account for. 

We are now paying the piper for that. Now is the time to step back and look at the entire system, including the unintended consequences, and ask how we can do a better job. That’s what our goal is today.

What are the goals of SAWPA’s 2.0 Plan? And what actions are necessary to meet these goals?

Our goals are that this entire watershed will be salt-balanced and drought-proofed by 2030. 

There is generally a salt problem throughout California. We import salt, people are very salty, and agriculture is very salty. Salt accumulation happens very slowly, and people don’t think of it as a toxic substance—they put it on their eggs. But, in fact, salt is white death. Salt killed civilizations historically. We really have to be on top of salt management. SAWPA and the Santa Ana Watershed have been at the forefront of this for decades. We have a huge de-salting process that is distributed throughout the watershed. We have a Brine Line that collects that brine and takes it down to the Orange County Sanitation District, where it’s treated and goes into the ocean, where salt belongs. We’re ahead of the game, but we’re still losing the battle. We still import more salt than we export, and we need to step that up. That’s the salt-balance part of what we’ll be doing. 

“Drought-proof” is kind of a misnomer because I personally don’t think “drought” is the right way to describe our circumstances. A drought means something bad has happened; it’s stopped raining; you have to tighten your belt; this will pass; it will rain again; and we’ll go back to normal. That’s really not the case in Southern California. We’re in a semi-arid area. We have to remind ourselves how our great-grandparents lived here. They did not waste water. They didn’t have sprinkler systems, either. They generally pumped their water. They knew where it came from, and they knew how much they used, they knew what they put into it, and they knew where it went when they were done with it. We call that the Water Ethic—knowing those four things. 

Part of our goal with One Water One Watershed is for anyone in this watershed to know the answer to where their water comes from, how much of it they use, what they put into it, and where it goes when they’re done with it. Everyone here understands that the drop is finite in itself, but it’s on a never-ending journey that is continuous. We have to be good stewards of that drop when we release it back to nature, until the next person gets it. That’s a whole different philosophy. 

We’ve come to understand water as a commodity—you pay for something, and you get a certain quantity and quality of water. In fact, that’s never been the reality. You never buy water—you only buy service.

Celeste, what triggered SAWPA’s creation, and how is it governed?

Unfortunately, SAWPA is pretty unique. It grew out of a decision by a judge in 1969 when four of our members had been suing each other. They said, “Judge, you got it wrong.” He said, “Why don’t you put some money together and hire your own professional staff to help you decide your issues?” That’s what they did. SAWPA was born out of a lawsuit. Its first mission was to find peace among its original four members. 

We now have five members, which are the largest wholesalers in the watershed. We are the venue where people come to work together, resolve their differences, and maximize the water that we have to work with. We now see, throughout California, entities trying to come together to do this. The state of California has said, “If you want Prop 84, Chapter 2 funds, you must come together and develop regional entities to govern your watershed as the system naturally happens—not by artificial political jurisdictions, but by the watershed.” That’s a mandate that California has. We’re catching up with the rest of the world in that regard. But, those relationships and those sensibilities do not happen overnight. There’s no cookbook. It is very situational and contextual. People are struggling to reproduce this dynamic in their own way, which is appropriate, throughout California. We’ve been practicing it now for 45 years. We’re still practicing.

Celeste, could one infer from your remarks that California’s water governance institutions, most specifically, the Metropolitan Water District—the largest regional governance body in North America—is wrongly designed? Ought it be designed around watersheds?

I believe everything should be designed around watersheds. Having said that, Metropolitan is kind of this mega-watershed. Metropolitan addresses the entire Colorado River watershed and the entire San Joaquin Sacramento Delta watershed. It’s many watersheds. Because of Met, we have infrastructure that we never would have had—infrastructure that we desperately need and will really rely on, now and through the 21st century.


But aren’t you really suggesting that MWD’s a 20th century institutional solution that exists because it treats water as a commodity, rather than a 21st century solution of the kind you advocate?

I think Met has evolved, and I think Met will continue to evolve. They have spent millions of dollars on planning. They recognize the value of looking at the system and watershed. They’ve been making transitions, and I’m glad about that. 

There is a 21st century structure that needs to be responsive to not just nature, but to the knowledge that science now gives us. Plus, our consumers—our rate payers, the people—are going to require that. The next generation is not going to be patient with the inefficiencies and the degradation that happen when you don’t consider these things.

I don’t know if that was diplomatic or substantive, but let me move on. We’ve carried a number of articles of late in our newsletters about the One Water movement, both at the national level and at the California and local level.

We were first!

I’ll grant you that. But it doesn’t seem to resonate among all the water stakeholders that our readers are composed of. Talk a little bit about the barriers to this concept taking hold. 

There’s a fundamental difference between a One Water concept and the way we have been organized. We have been organized from the perspective of institutions and people, and then we impose artificial boundaries and governance structures on nature. 

The concept of One Water comes from a natural perspective. It’s the way the natural system works, and then we see how we fit into that. We take our lead from nature. It really reverses the control mechanism. A lot of people are very uncomfortable with that. They are unwilling to say, “Yes, I’ll work in a consistent fashion with nature.” I personally think nature’s going to win most of the time and will ultimately always win. It just seems more effective to look at that system and respect it, as opposed to imposing our configurations on nature. But, that’s the rub. People are not comfortable doing that. 

We have seen Australia get there, and we have seen Europe get there. The next generation in the United States is much more demanding in terms of protecting and respecting nature. They see the natural value that we in the 20th century were somewhat blind to.

But, just to push back a bit for the benefit of our readers, as you said, that’s certainly not the history of water in California in the 20th century, whether in Northern California, in the Central Valley, or in Southern California. Are you Pollyannaish, or do you have some data points that suggest nature always wins?

I am somewhat Pollyannaish—I admit to that. Otherwise, the future’s just too gloomy. We’re confronted with climate change. Now, some people still debate that. 98 percent of scientists say the climate is changing and we need to be prepared for this. One or two percent are saying “no.” I always like to think of Governor Schwarzenegger when he said that if 98 percent of doctors said your son needed an appendectomy, he’d get the appendectomy. I think we have enough evidence for climate change. It seems to me we need to wake up and smell the coffee. Nature is prevailing on that issue.

Another example would be the Delta. We reconfigured the Delta to export water, made rivers run backward, the smelt crashed (they are our canary in the mine in this case), and now we are faced with making it right. If we want Nature to be productive, and we need it to be, we must   help to keep it working. An impaired watershed is not productive for people or anything.

If a water bond in California finally gets to the ballot, do you anticipate the DNA of that water bond will reflect nature or the 20th century institutional needs that have always been the hallmark of these bonds?

The bond that’s currently slated to go to the ballot in November—we don’t know if it will—is really a mix. It addresses both issues, and it has plenty in there for people who are respectful of the system and who are looking to work within a natural system. There is also plenty in there that mimics a 20th century approach of “capture, exploit, control, and utilize water.” It’s got both sides. 

Now, different groups are saying the bond is too big—“let’s carve it out.” People’s definition of pork is “everything that’s not mine.” We have all these different versions now that are being considered. All of them have strengths and weaknesses, and what will prevail, or if anything will prevail, is yet to be known. 

How would you summarize SAWPA’s position in regards to what should be in a water bond?

SAWPA does not have such a position at this time. We are in wait-look-and-listen mode. 

You offered a nuanced response to the word “drought” at the opening of this interview. How should the public and our readers consider and act on this hot button issue?

This should be a wake up call. People should pay attention and realize that our water’s not plentiful. We have just enough, but not enough to waste. People need to come to terms with what their individual water consumption is. If you ask anybody if they waste water, they all say, “No! I’m a good steward of the environment. I recycle and I don’t waste water.” Generally, everybody wastes water. Generally, everybody who has grass puts in twice as much water as that grass needs. If we didn’t have grass, and had anything else—beautifully landscaped, I’m not talking rocks—you would use half as much water as grass needs. By changing our landscape palate, we could save 75 percent of all the water we use outside, which ranges between 60 and 80 percent of all treated water. That in itself is huge. 

I would like people to change the style—changing the plant palate is just like a hemline—and go back to something more like what our grandparents and great-grandparents landscaped in this area, rather than this monolithic grass. Grass is the largest crop grown in the United States, it uses a tremendous amount of fertilizer and it feeds no one, including birds or bees. I would love for this drought to cause people to really come to terms with their yards. If they won’t take out all the grass, that’s okay—but, start chipping away at it, putting in flowering bushes or anything else. I think they’ll be happy that they did.


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