August 28, 2015 - From the September, 2015 issue

Baylis: State's Fish & Game Commission and LA City/County Respond Wisely to Drought

Drawing on extensive experience working with water, California Fish & Game Commissioner Jack Baylis gives TPR his evaluation of efforts in the Los Angeles metro area and at the state level in response to the current drought. He lauds the City of LA's game-changing goal of reducing imported water to 50 percent and lays out ways to get there, including the "One Water" management approach. Baylis also updates readers on his commission's activities, from limiting fishing in impacted areas to utilizing genomic efforts with wildlife to track climate change's effects.


Jack Baylis

" "We need to [invest in] reuse and storm-water capture because it makes environmental sense, business sense (from a long-term perspective), and common sense. " -Jack Baylis

This year, TPR has published a large number of expert interviews focused on the public sector’s responses to drought—including with Adel Hagekhalil, Felicia Marcus, Barbara Romero, and Lewis MacAdams. You’ve been involved, Jack, in water engineering and policy your entire professional lifetime: as a chemical engineer, and as a global leader at CH2M Hill, AECOM, and Shaw. What’s your assessment of how well Los Angeles and California are responding to the current challenges brought on by drought?

Jack Baylis: The leadership you’ve just mentioned has initiated and carried through important efforts and are seeing successes that many of us in engineering have followed and supported for years. Your newsletter interviews with them were right on target.

LA Mayor Garcetti’s recent mandate to reduce the City of LA’s 90-percent imported water to 50 percent is most noteworthy and gutsy. It will—and has already—kick-started conservation and significant local-reliance initiatives that have statewide significance. It’s bigger in importance than the proposed Bay Delta tunnels and is one of the best, most exciting local water projects in California. Clearly it is going to require a lot of people with their oars in the water to make it work—as well as continuing cross-agency and department collaboration.

This goes back to the ’70s and ’80s, during the EPA enactment of the Clean Water Act, when we made a huge national effort to clean up our water. It required treatment that focused on the receiving waters improving in quality, and required a lot of investment, much of which was provided by the federal government. We went from primary treatment to secondary, or from secondary to tertiary.

Then, through a lawsuit by NRDC on the Clean Water Act, it began to focus on storm water, or non-point discharge, which EPA promulgated following that lawsuit. There was a huge effort to recognize the importance of receiving waters.

Why does this history matter to Los Angeles? Back in the ’70s and ’80s, California had treatment plants all over the place. For example, Sacramento had four or five of them. At that time, officials thought the best thing to do was to close the smaller upstream plants and construct or increase capacity of a bigger downstream plant.

In LA, downstream, we have Hyperion. Fortunately, we still have Tillman and Glendale upstream—because now, as we try to come up with solutions to reduce our imported water, storm-water capture, upstream treatment, and reuse are fundamental building blocks.

When the treatment plant is at the end of the pipe, how are we going to get that treated water back up to the user? Our big challenges in LA are conveyance and treatment works. We’ll probably see some upstream scalping plants or full treatment facilities. No longer will Engineering be designing pipelines to take stuff down to Hyperion. City leadership is already looking to change that by strategically locating smaller plants where they can distribute the reclaimed water. Thus, conveyance becomes a big deal.

When people have looked at reuse before, they have worried that we’ll have to re-pipe the city with purple pipe, which designates “reuse water.” I think installing new distributed piping is an okay thing to do and shouldn’t be such a big worry. It’s better, I believe, to distribute and reuse that highly-treated, reclaimed water, versus importing.

We should consider not only building new pipelines throughout the city, but also using existing conveyance. The LA River and Ballona Creek were engineered and constructed to efficiently rush water out. But, as many people have talked about—from the City, to the Army Corps of Engineers, to the County—there is also an opportunity to build inflatable dams on the river and on Ballona, which would hold back the water.

We have to think about distributing water in Los Angeles like the power industry is able to distribute power throughout a grid, so that water, as a default, doesn’t run down through the ocean except during significant storm events. It could back up Ballona and then be pumped over to the LA River, maybe through solar-generated pumping plants. That way, we can keep the river and Ballona full, except during significant storm events. Not only do we get that water benefit, but we also get great aesthetic value. This idea drives toward the mayor’s goals with the LA River plan. Combining the need to reduce imports and focus on the river can be a joint effort.

You have long championed the concept of “One Water.” What does the term encompass? 

“One Water” includes an effort toward better partnerships between implementing agencies, which can work together on solutions for the rate-payer. Users are frustrated that they have to deal with different departments when trying to resolve an issue, because they see it all as “government.” The water spill in Orange County is a recent example. Then, when departments over-explain, it’s confusing.

We drink the same water that the Egyptians, Saxons, and Mongols drank. There’s no new water. We used to think that, as long as nature or God touched the water, it became new. In reality, some water just needs to be better treated than other water.

“One Water” recognizes that, and the fact that water is precious. Whenever we flush, open our tap, or spill on the street when washing a car, that same water is going to end up back in our faucets down the line. 

You highlighted above the promise of the City of LA’s visionary water agenda. To compare and contrast, how is it that the Republicans in Orange County are credited with doing a much better job than Los Angeles does regarding water reuse and “One Water”? 

That’s a fair question. My personal opinion is that some conservatives who didn’t like the culture in LA started Orange County. They created their own enclave, which came with a lot of negative issues—except that they were very environmentally progressive. At the time they started Orange County, the leadership—including Don Bren and the Irvine Company—recognized how important environmental issues were and did some smart things.

In LA, unfortunately, we had a councilmember who didn’t like the idea of reuse and coined the phrase “toilet to tap.” At that time, our agencies had been culturally sheltered by the ratepayer and the user, so they weren’t as quick to adapt. But that’s all in the past.

Today, LA City Sanitation, Water & Power, the Metropolitan Water District, the LA County Department of Public Works, and the LA County San Districts all get it. Their leadership and staff throughout their organizations understand the “One Water” approach. They’re ready to go significantly further into reuse, stormwater capture and use, and more. Even MWD, one of the major water distributors, is now doing a project with LA County San, just like LA City San continues to work with Water & Power on “One Water,” as covered in your interviews with Adel Hagekhalil. What was wrong yesterday is no longer there. Now we just have to move forward on the “One Water” Program jointly managed by LA City Sanitation and LADWP.

What are the appropriate roles for both MWD and the state regarding rethinking water self-reliance and addressing California’s drought? 

The general public better understands water use at a state level. We used to blame LA City. While LA could be smarter about our water, we now truly recognize that a large percentage of water goes to environmental needs—ecosystems and our wildlife (trout, salmon, etc). When it comes to human water usage, generally 80 percent goes to agricultural needs and 20 percent to urban use.

There was a time when we thought water and energy were plentiful. As our communities moved west, the federal government distributed water to farmers at a low cost by subsidizing it, whether in southern Oregon or the Central Valley. Water was “managed” and provided to farmers because agriculture was and is so vitally important to our economy.

But the practices that may have worked 50 years ago, when energy was cheap and water was plentiful, are not appropriate today. Also, 50-plus years ago, most of our grandparents and great-grandparents were farmers. There was a reluctance to put a negative critical focus on the farmer, because farmers are one of the strengths of the US.

Today, for farmers to pay $15-50 an acre-foot, but an urban user to pay $500-2,000 an acre-foot, is just too far out of whack. Yesterday, you could turn the pumps on for the Delta conveyance and the energy use was relatively inexpensive. Today, every time those pumps turn on, they’re the largest energy user in California.

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We have to rethink all of this. The governor’s office and state have been working better at balancing the environmental and eco-system needs with the agriculture community and urban cities.

Back to the mayor’s insightful approach on imported water: Even if LA is not the biggest user, it is still shameful to think that we import over 90 percent of our water in LA. We need to do the reuse and storm-water capture because it makes environmental sense, business sense (from a long-term perspective), and common sense. We used to efficiently get water out of the city quickly, because we were worried about floods. Today, we can still solve the flood issues, capture those four-to-six-year rainstorms, and use it for reuse.

Back up at the Delta, I think it’s going to take more time to ensure local concerns are met—whether it’s agricultural concerns, the fishing community’s concerns, and/or concerns about fragile ecosystems. A lot of attention has to be placed there before we stick in the tunnels.

Recognizing your water and resource expertise, you’ve now been an appointee of two California governorsSchwarzenegger and Brownto two different commissions: State Parks and Fish & Game. How do these two appointments compliment your professional and civic work?

I’ve been honored to serve. I was on Parks at the state level, where it was wonderful to be part of designating the Sinkyone Forest as a Designated Wilderness.

Our former administration and this administration asked me to serve on the Fish & Game Commission, in part to ensure that Marine Protected Areas are implemented, as enacted through legislation. That’s moving forward.

Today, Fish & Wildlife, under our competent new director Chuck Bonham, recognizes how critically important water is to wildlife. We’ve had to shut down fishing in some areas to help those fisheries come back.

 Humans’ critical relationship with water and wildlife is an indication of how things are going and how we’re treating our ecosystems. Ten or 20 years ago, the department was known for science—from good population data to predictive modeling. They track wildlife and manage humans’ interaction with it. With today’s tools, we can move forward on new scientific frontiers. For example, the department is using genomic efforts (i.e. DNA sequencing) to a limited degree. It’s exciting that folks are talking about taking that further: starting to track carbon in the atmosphere and the effects of climate change by doing genomic assessments of wildlife. That’s one area where I think Fish & Game is headed. 

The Fish & Game Commission took special measures recently to protect at-risk fisheries due to the drought. Can you elaborate on these state actions?

We closed some streams and rivers for fishing. Generally, the responsible people who fish understand it. They see the water dropping and see the need for our actions. Just like sometimes you shut down a hunting area so that wildlife can come back, we shut down streams to enable fisheries to be healthier as we get through this together. We set aside Marine Protected Areas in the oceans for the same reasons.

People who predicted climate change were correct in that it was happening, but they were incorrect when they predicted that the surface of the Earth would rise a tenth of a percent every year for 10 years. In fact, the temperature on the surface of the Earth did not rise. Did we get extra heat? Yes. Where did that heat go? It went into the oceans and messed with ecosystems there. Our large squid and crab populations off the coast are impacted. We’re just trying to get a handle. People that work in oceans today are talking about the different temperature variants and the changes for fisheries, mammals, or forage species.

When there’s a contested vote at the Fish & Game Commission—for example to protect at-risk fisheries or to accept proposals for restoration projects that further the objectives of the California Water Action Plan—what economic and environmental interests compete for your support?

Traditionally, the mission, has been—and will be—to manage humans’ interaction with wildlife, particularly hunters and people who fish. These are called “consumptive” users.

However, in the last 10 years, we’ve seen a larger effort by “non-consumptive” users to get involved. For example, the commission determines if a wildlife species is a candidate for listing as an endangered or threatened species. If we do determine it’s a candidate, the department does a science-based study and provides that information. We then determine—per CESA, the Endangered Species Act—if that species is endangered or threatened.

Today, California has some very assertive non-consumptive users, and that’s sometimes in conflict with traditional hunting and fishing. We’re going through a cultural change to not lose the good hunters or the good people who fish—versus, in my personal opinion, the party-boat fishermen or those hunting for the thrill rather than eating their game. There’s a clear difference.

As I mentioned, I see the department as a key player in using tools like genomic assessments as an indicator for global climate changes. You can measure the impacts through wildlife, because of their direct interaction with ecosystems. There are opportunities to work further with the state at that level.

When TPR last interviewed you in 2013, you had just formed the Baylis Group. Bring us up to date on its focus and your work.

I have three private-sector confidential clients for whom I provide strategic and management technical consultation on issues. I’m also working with two public agencies: the San Francisco Public Utility Commission and the LA City Bureau of Sanitation.

Lastly, you also serve on NIAC, President Obama’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council. Could you elaborate on NIAC’s work and its significance to California’s challenges? 

NIAC was formed after 9/11 by Bush and then continued on by Obama as an advisory board to the White House, issuing studies that look at resiliency of different industrial sectors.

NIAC is comprised of many members who come from certain industries, whether it be oil and gas, nuclear, or the lifeline sectors—transportation, communication, energy, and water. We just finished a study on resiliency of transportation. We look at how regions and areas can absorb, adapt, and fix whatever happens during a man-made event or natural disaster. It’s pretty exciting.

NIAC is about to launch a study on water, which I’ve been asked to chair. That’s going to be our main effort for the remainder of 2015 and 2016. We’ll bring in experts—including LA City’s Adel Hagekhalil, who has has been asked to participate. NIAC has also committed to having one of its meetings next year on the West Coast, because we realize, even though these are national-oriented studies, it’s not just a Washington-based effort.

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