November 14, 2017 - From the November, 2017 issue

Intentional Water Management & Long Term Funding Needed to Address Worsening Climate Challenges

Throughout California’s recent drought, one leader providing important guidance was Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. The Board gained public trust for balancing urban conservation mandates with agricultural efficiency measures, deftly responding to changing conditions, and encouraging the adoption of innovative new technologies and systems to meet water needs statewide. In this TPR interview, Marcus charts the significant progress California has made on integrated, “intentional” water management, but stresses the need for a long-term funding source to maintain critical water infrastructure throughout the state.


"In the urban context, we’re seeing a movement to do more recycling and stormwater capture, particularly in Los Angeles." - Felicia Marcus, Chair, SWRCB

The accomplishments of the State Water Resources Board during California’s drought are many; share with our readers what issues you are most proud of successfully addressing.

Felicia Marcus: The Water Board and staff most definitely rose to the occasion during the drought. We were on the front lines because we cover so many different issues, and we’re still learning lessons and implementing things that came out of that effort.

For example, urban water conservation management has been a tremendous success. I give a lot of credit to the public for stepping up and coming together as Californians to show what they could do. We also did a good job of connecting to the general public, as opposed to staying in the small expert public dialogue. I think that’s an important part of good government.

The drinking water program was moved to us a few years ago, and our staff worked with community groups and local government to get people water. Our most impressive feat was getting the county, the city, the Department of Water Resources and the Office of Emergency Services to pool resources with us in order to get a modern-day water system to East Porterville—a huge community dependent on domestic wells. With help from all of us, they are now connecting to the city of Porterville’s water system. We are making progress, but many more communities need help beyond bottled water or tanks on lawns, and still more need cleaner water to come out of their taps.

During the drought—the worst in modern history—we had to manage the scarcity of water while also navigating between water users and the environment. Despite rhetoric out there to the contrary, I think the environment got shorted. In an attempt to deal with all these competing uses, we cut it too close, particularly for salmon. That’s something we have to learn from in the future.

We also went long on recycling and stormwater capture: We streamlined permitting for indirect potable reuse for groundwater recharge and outdoor uses, and put more than $1 billion out in grants and loans to get projects into construction. That’s a paradigm shift, to be sure. We also consciously sought to enable stormwater quality management with multiple benefits, including water supply and urban greening. That’s complicated, but it’s a big deal for places like the L.A. area, which is trying to move to integrated water management of local sources.

What are the priority issues or challenges that lie immediately ahead for the Water Board? 

We’ve had to delay working on some big issues in order to focus on the drought. One is updating the Bay Delta Water Quality Standards, which define how much water needs to be left in the Bay Delta and its tributaries to create adequate conditions for fish and wildlife. They are seriously out of date, and the ecosystem is in serious trouble, in part due to how much water we’ve diverted—in some cases 80-90 percent of flow.

We’ve designed our proposals to create incentives and avenues for collaborative management of water, such as allowing more flow diversion in exchange for taking other steps to help fish and wildlife. That is a more ecological approach than simply requiring people to leave more water in streams. In the long run, it will be better for both water users and fish.

We’re trying to get a host other things done before the end of this administration—big decisions on the Salton Sea, updates to the Dredge and Fill rules for wetlands, and more.  We just completed new rules for cannabis ahead of its legalization in January and the tsunami of new cannabis growers we are expecting. That growth and that industry could have profound negative impacts on water diversion and water quality if it’s not managed well.

In light of the tragic human losses and sizable capital costs of increasingly common weather extremes, the Water Board and locally regulated water agencies are challenged to cope with public demand for uninterrupted service. Bring us up to date on how California is “intentionally” managing water.

The notion of intentional water management is gaining traction as we deal with climate change and weather extremes. From a flood control perspective, we’ve got to deal with those wetter wets, but from a water supply perspective, we’ve got to figure out how to get water into the ground as quickly as we can.

We’re seeing a host of experiments in agriculture. For example, folks are trying to flood fields in the winter without ruining the trees sitting in standing water. Other farmers are trying to reverse their groundwater pumps with a little extra filtration to get water in faster without harming the groundwater quality. This way, you’re ready to capture those flows in the winter, avoiding floods and getting more water into the ground. We’re also seeing conversations about setting back levees and exercising flood plains, both for flood control and to create habitat and food production for fish.

These experiments represent the beginning of a much more sophisticated conversation in an arena where, frankly, practices have been somewhat faith-based. You just crossed your fingers and hoped for the best—or worse, assumed that a single management strategy, whether a new dam, conservation, or recycling, would solve all of our challenges. In reality, it will require a portfolio of tools, used intentionally at the local level, to maximize the water we capture during wet and normal years to see us through the dry years to come.

As a regulatory agency, the Water Board wants to offer incentives for intentional water management, as well to encourage creative things. For example, toward the end of the drought, we took advantage of the rains we were expecting, and issued emergency water rights permits for the winter so that people could capture that water and get it into the ground.

In the urban context, particularly in Los Angeles, we’re seeing a movement to do more recycling and stormwater capture. In response, we created space in our urban regulatory program for a new incentive that encourages working across jurisdictional and professional silos to integrate flood control, water supply, and water quality, while also greening park-poor communities. That is a grand experiment, and we stand behind it, although it is definitely somewhat controversial to those who prefer a more command-and-control approach.

The San Gabriel Valley and Orange County have been doing this for years. Similarly, the Metropolitan Water District and L.A. County Sanitation Districts are preparing to launch the largest recycling to groundwater recharge project in the nation, inspired by Orange County Water District’s great example.

Compare and contrast how we fund innovation in water versus in energy today, both in California and nationally. What still needs to be done to accelerate technological innovation that would make water supply and quality more cost-effective? 

There is a fundamental difference in how energy and water are managed in California. About 80 percent of our energy utilities are private companies regulated by the state Public Utilities Commission, and about 20 percent are smaller private entities that are not regulated generally other than for water quality and for basic reporting and things like planning. It’s the reverse or worse in the water world. We have thousands of small water agencies. Of the 400+ that are considered large—i.e., serving 3,000 people—which collectively cover over 90 percent of Californians, just 17 percent are regulated by the PUC.

The energy sector has for 30 years had the ability to think collectively, to create funding sources, and to develop requirements for how utilities spend money that don’t hurt their bottom lines. But in the water world, it’s still very local. This is understandable, and has its benefits, but it also has kept us from thinking collectively, except in cases of specific legislation or emergencies.

In water, we don’t have any centralized funding source, or even central authority, to promote innovative technology. The Air Board and CEC, by contrast, have all kinds of funding sources that help with the research and development of promising technologies. In addition to the stick—regulating the vehicle industry and stationary sources of pollution—they also have a carrot: the ability to help fleet owners, individual truck owners, and individual businesses transition to clean practices. Governor Brown did a great thing by putting cap-and-trade dollars into water/energy nexus issues, like leak reduction, over the last few years.

Our state needs to be more intentional in promoting and disseminating new technologies that make water supply and quality more cost-effective—particularly when we have so many small utilities that can’t replicate those successes on their own. To me, that’s the next frontier of thinking as we work to bring California water management into the 21st century.

The public credibility built up by the Water Board’s successes during the drought, coupled with the governor’s leadership, provide leverage for the water bond on the 2018 statewide ballot. Relative to the need for state investment in housing, transportation, and health, how important is new water infrastructure? 

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Our water infrastructure is outdated, and needs to be updated and should also include our green infrastructure. We need to update, rebuild, and transform it. Bonds are good down payments on that, and I think we have spent the last state bond wisely.

During the drought, we used bond money, leveraged with our loan funds, to make extraordinary leaps in recycled water. We wrote, and are writing, all kinds of regulations to make indirect potable reuse and even direct potable reuse easier. We’ve gotten more than $1 billion in grants and loans out the door to help pay for recycled water infrastructure, and now we’re going back out to the bond market to do even more.

There’s always a need for bond funding, but we also need to figure out more durable, reliable, and progressive funding sources. We can’t simply rely on sporadic bond issues, because it’s not just about making investments in infrastructure; we also have to finance long-term operations and maintenance. We have to operate and better what we build.

For example, Prop 218 reform definitely needs to be on the agenda. As well intended as it is, it has frustrated many local water authorities from even trying to get the funding to update their water systems or do any innovations that would be in the clear interest of their communities.

A year ago, in VerdeXchange News, you addressed the importance of water data as a means to aid in conservation efforts. Has California made progress on gathering and using that data?

Our new measurement and reporting regulations—which require all water rights holders to measure and report the surface water they divert—are in full swing.

We are continuing to work with Government Operations on open data platforms where we can put all our data online in an accessible format. Our competitions and hack-a-thons are important parts of this process because they allow people to tell us what we could learn from the data in our systems that we may not have even thought about, and make it accessible to fertile minds and agile fingers.

Recent state legislation (SB 1755) requires the state to create a better platform for all its water data. The Department of Water Resources is tasked with leading that effort, and we’re participating fully. I have high hopes that the DWR program is going to take off, in part because the new director of DWR, Grant Davis, is a devoted practitioner of using data intelligently.

As chair of the State Water Resources Board, how collaborative is your relationship with the leaders of the Legislature? How have you been working with the chair of the State Senate’s Water Resources Committee, Senator Bob Hertzberg from Los Angeles?

Working with Senator Hertzberg is always a great pleasure. He has a giant mind and an even bigger heart, and he’s interested in making things happen. This past year, we worked hard to get long-term legislation passed that would help us integrate efficiency into our long-term strategy for California urban and agricultural water management. It didn’t make it in the first year of this two-year session, but we’ll all be back to work on it with the environmental community and water agencies.

Senator Hertzberg’s efforts to fund water infrastructure are also very important. The Governor has signed his legislation to put stormwater utility efforts on the same level as sewer utility efforts, which from a funding perspective should help with the Prop 218 challenge that stormwater agencies have faced. This has flood control, water supply, and water quality benefits. It is the kind of intelligent water management practice that a regular Californian would think we’re already doing—and would certainly want us to be doing—but that we are sometimes hamstrung from doing.

Hopefully, this legislation will make it easier for stormwater utilities to raise the funds to do projects that get the most bang for the public’s buck—or more “pop per drop,” in this case—in flood control, water supply, water quality, and even urban greening opportunities, as we aim to capture the hundreds of thousands of gallons of stormwater that are now wasted.

How collaboratively do you work with the new leader of the Department of Water Resources, Grant Davis? 

The state is lucky to have Grant Davis as the new head of DWR, and the governor was brilliant to appoint him. Grant has a long history of reaching across traditional divides in the water world and the environmental community.

Grant previously ran the Sonoma County Water Agency, one of the most progressive water agencies in the state. Sonoma has a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions goal. They’re as cutting-edge as can be in the use of innovative technology, and they’re great at partnering across the spectrum. That’s phenomenal experience for someone stepping into such a huge job—running the State Water Project as well as hundreds, if not thousands, of flood control facilities, and overseeing the state Integrated Water Management Program.

DWR has a champion in Grant, because he has a big vision alongside a pragmatic sense and a drive to actually get stuff done. He gets along with folks and has boundless energy for whatever task is at hand. I think we’re in good hands.

What are California’s water stewards learning from other countries grappling with the challenges of weather events, climate change, and demand for more efficient management of their water resources?

We’ve built some good friendships with folks in a number of places. We’ve spent time with Australia, Israel, Denmark, and some states in Brazil, where our staff recently traveled. I’d like to start talking to South Africa, as well.

Israel shows what can be achieved in a relatively short time with advanced technology and a can-do spirit, albeit in a small country. We don’t need to conserve anywhere near as much as they do, so it’s comforting to have their experience as an envelope, or menu of options of the art of the possible. They’ve been so successful that they are essentially exporting water as a tool of diplomacy. It's certainly inspiring.

Australia’s situation is more similar to ours. Their water rights system, although it was reformed more than 100 years ago, is similar in principle. They’re ahead of us in terms of how they use water markets, and they’ve done amazing things with technology and management, as well as with conservation and efficiency, stormwater capture, and integrating recycled water with stormwater capture. We have a friendship based upon similar challenges of balancing environmental and human use of water—what we refer to in California as the co-equal goals. That is really helpful to us.

We often talk about the danger of losing our snowpack to warming temperatures, because that snowpack accounts for a third of our water storage in an average year. Well, Denmark doesn’t have any snowpack—they just have groundwater. As a result, they do a phenomenal job of mapping, regulating, and managing their groundwater basins. We can learn a lot from that.

Governor Brown signed an MOU with Denmark in September, and we had an exciting symposium dealing with everything from the water/energy nexus to groundwater monitoring and management, innovative technology, and other issues. They have an infectious enthusiasm for solving water problems, and they’re welcome company as we try to move California water fully into the 21st century.

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© 2018 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.