March 31, 2019 - From the March, 2019 issue

CalEPA Secretary Blumenfeld on Governor Newsom's Water & Climate Priorities

In January, Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Jared Blumenfeld to the helm of the California Environmental Protection Agency. As Secretary, Blumenfeld oversees the state's efforts to fight climate change, protect air and water quality, regulate pesticides and toxic substances, achieve the state’s recycling and waste reduction goals, and advance environmental justice. Previously Regional Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the Pacific Southwest under former President Barack Obama, as well as Director of San Francisco’s Department of Environment under former Mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom, Blumenfeld joined TPR for an exclusive interview to discuss the administration’s priorities for funding safe and affordable drinking water, defending California’s climate policies against the federal government, and addressing our addiction to plastic.


Jared Blumenfeld

"A top legislative priority for the Newsom administration is to get $140 million per year to pay for the operation and maintenance of water systems that can provide safe and affordable drinking water." —Jared Blumenfeld

Secretary Blumenfeld, as Governor Newsom’s appointee to lead California’s Environmental Protection Agency, you bring a wealth of federal and local experience to address one of the Governor’s highest priorities: clean water for all of State’s residents. How will you begin to do address the challenge?

Jared Blumenfeld: When most of us think about water for drinking or washing or cooking, we take for granted that out of our faucets comes water that both meets health standards and is affordable. Unfortunately, for 1 million Californians, that is not the case.

In 2019, having 1 million people without access to safe or affordable drinking water is something that needs to be changed. This is a high priority for both the Governor and CalEPA.

Let’s break down this problem. California has naturally occurring elements, such as arsenic. We also have manmade pollution, such as nitrates, and a variety of other types of contaminants, including pollutants from the aerospace industry.

Water contamination is seen throughout the state, and our goal is to help bring the state into compliance quickly. That will require funding for both infrastructure and operation and maintenance. We largely have the money to fund the infrastructure, but we do not have the funding for the operation and maintenance of these often-expensive systems.

Legislatively, one of our top priorities is to get $140 million per year to pay for that operation and maintenance. In addition, we are looking for political and technical solutions. For example, consolidating small water systems that are struggling with a larger system that is in compliance. How can we bring together small, disparate systems that do not have connections today? Can we create some form of cooperative between smaller and larger systems?

We are also looking at piloting new technologies, so we are not always putting in the old, large fixes. We are looking at point-of-use and point-of-entry devices that can improve water quality for smaller communities. It is an all-of-the-above strategy. Our goal is to create a plan, so when the money arrives we are able to quickly implement projects to improve lives.

Elaborate. Do you just need more funding for infrastructure?

It's a little more complicated than just needing the money. The funds we receive for infrastructure require that there is managerial and operational support in perpetuity. So when we build a water system, we need to show that those criteria are in place.

In smaller communities, the ability to rate-base both the technology and the operation and maintenance does not exist. Over 80 percent of the systems that are not in compliance have fewer than 500 connections. When you have fewer than 500 connections, you end up with the divided costs being significantly more than what users can afford.

Technology is not the problem. It's about implementing those technologies in a way that makes sense, and having a managerial overlay that responds to the needs of those communities.

Let’s turn to water supply. With issues around conveyance dominating the headlines in Southern California, can you provide insight into how the Governor’s team is approaching a one-tunnel conveyance solution in the Delta?

The Governor realizes that we do need conveyance, both in terms of protecting from rising sea levels along the coast and for seismic reliability issues in the Delta, among other reasons. We are working to find sustainable, reliable conveyance for Southern California.

The model of thinking we have ascribed to is this: We need conveyance, but it is not going to solve all of our problems. We also need conservation, efficiency, recycling, reuse, and to generally think more holistically about water. Southern California has been doing this for longer than those of us in the northern part of the state.

Taking a portfolio approach to designing a water system that is not just about moving water around is the first step. We are thinking about the best uses for recycled water in agriculture, and how to expand Mayor Garcetti’s vision for a zero-discharge future. The Governor plans to implement this holistic, portfolio approach to water management.

Switching gears to recycling: In 2011, the Legislature and Governor Brown set a goal of 75 percent recycling, composting, or source reduction of solid waste by 2020. What are your goals for recycling at CalEPA?

I’d like to call these goals ambitious, but in actuality, they might just get us back to where we were five years ago. We had a 56 percent recycling rate five years ago, and today we are at 42 percent. We are quickly moving in the wrong direction.

A number of factors contribute to this phenomenon. First is the ban on imports of waste into China and India. Until recently, the No. 1 export by volume on the West Coast was waste to China. We labored under the illusion that when we sent waste to China or India, it was getting recycled. We then claimed credit for recycling it—irrespective of whether it was actually recycled. In order to get back to basics, we need to start making sure products sold in California can be recycled in California.

Second, we need to make sure that products sold in California have recycled content within them. In the past 20 years, we have done a tremendous job of recycling. But we have done a very poor job of procuring recycled products or requiring buyers to focus on integrating recycled products into their purchasing decisions.

In terms of compost, SB 1383 expands composting of organic waste and reduces the amount that can be disposed of in landfills. We are looking at how municipalities will fund these programs. There are different ideas floating around the capital, such as increasing tipping fees to landfills.

The overarching question is how we can end our addiction to single-use plastics. Californians alone consumed 24 billion non-alcoholic beverages in bottles or cans. That is a startling number. If even a small fraction of that ends up as litter, it makes a terrible contribution to the Pacific Garbage Patch.

Finally, our state bottle bill is also failing. The number of convenience zones in the state has been cut in half over the past three years, and there has been a switch from aluminum and glass to plastic. This plastic has less scrap value, which makes it harder to sell.

Recycling is an important contributor to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, reducing litter in our oceans, and creating jobs in California. Investing in remanufacturing will help our economy and help Californians recycle more.

If you were running a municipality—as you did San Francisco’s Department of the Environment—what help would you be seeking from CalEPA?

San Francisco is lucky, in a sense, because it was early in adopting a number of these initiatives, and has funding in place for maintenance and improvements.

But the point is a good one, since my ability to recycle in San Francisco is better than in Sacramento. What you can put in your blue recycling bin varies from city to city. As I spend more time in Sacramento, I actually bring home my food scraps home to San Francisco (much to the chagrin of my wife) because they do not get composted in Sacramento. I feel terrible about not being able to recycle and compost in Sacramento.

Every community has its own process for deciding recycling standards, but I think we should have some level of harmonization so people can move around without having to relearn all of the recycling rules.

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In terms of San Francisco, we have been looking at very low-interest or near-zero loans for infrastructure and for developing construction and demolition debris recycling programs. CalEPA can also help cities find markets for some of the more difficult materials, such as Mylar, when those cities are showing leadership.

In contrast, we can provide support and guidance for many of the municipalities who need to build significant capacity to achieve SB 1383 organic waste goals.

This January, VerdeXchange 2019 included a high-level panel dealing with organic and food waste and how municipalities are using new technology to rethink recycling. How might CalEPA best assist a large jurisdiction, such as Los Angeles County, with sustainable waste management?

The key is to understand the different businesses and markets within the jurisdiction. Dealing with a large hotel is different than a school, which is different than a multi-family dwelling. Starting by segmenting the market will then allow us to determine how we can best help.

Financial incentives have to be profitable for businesses. We have to get the pricing signals right. CalRecycle has the ability to help jurisdiction with that. And as we start to see success with the pricing signals, that will unlock a number of other things.

For organic waste, we will better understand where food scraps are going to become compost, and where the compost is later sold. If the cost of moving the compost to a field is too expensive, then programs can break down.

In San Francisco, we solved this by telling farmers: “If you pay for the transport, we will give you the compost for free.” This worked on a small scale, but figuring out the ways to help each jurisdiction operate successfully takes time. CalEPA can bring the expertise and technical assistance to ensure that cities don’t make the same mistakes as we did in the past, and leapfrog toward successful models.

CalEPA also oversees the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) and Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR). Both have new leaders and an evolving mission. Speak to how you plan to work with DTSC and DPR, and the future of the green chemistry initiative.

I've started my tenure at CalEPA by spending a lot of time with DTSC. We are going back to basics, so we have a clear sense of their mission and how they should align their budget.

When it comes to higher profile cleanup sites, such as Exide and Santa Susana in Southern California and Treasure Island in Northern California, I am working on creating better oversight mechanisms and better tracking of how our mission is being implemented. The main focus of DTSC is enforcement, permitting, and cleanup.

The Safer Consumer Products (SCP) program at DTSC is a unique and successful initiative. SCP works with the business community to reduce toxic chemicals in the products that consumers buy and use. DTSC has been successful by asking manufacturers whether the harmful chemical is necessary or whether there is a safer alternative. This has led to addressing brominated flame-retardants and paint stripper, and this year, the focus is on toluene.

Toluene is in nail polish, and there are literally tens of thousands of nail salon technicians in California who are exposed to these chemicals every day. Toluene exposure has been linked to health effects including adverse nervous system effects. 

There are between 40,000 and 80,000 chemicals in production in the United States. Only a small fraction have been analyzed for their health impacts on humans or the environment. Our SCP program is a response to the federal government’s very slow movement on addressing these risks. We hope to add to the body of knowledge and evaluate alternatives to protect Californians. The program rewards innovation and individuals who make the switch to safer products. If you have a safer alternative, get in contact with DTSC. 

As the former Region 9 Administrator for the U.S. EPA under President Obama, what is your hope for working with the federal government? Are there any opportunities for collaboration?

Luckily, there are a number of activities that continue to happen at EPA regardless of who is in the White House. For example, there is consistent funding from Congress for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure under the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. The funding levels have remained similar to what they were in the last administration, and we continue to do a lot of good work implementing those projects.

Another is the Superfund program. We have more than 110 Superfund sites in California, and our goal is to make sure that the federal funding is sufficient to get their cleanup done in a thorough manner and on time. The current administration in Washington seems to be aligned with those goals.

We come into conflict on more complex issues, such as the Clean Air Act, because California had a state Air Pollution Control Act before the federal 1970 Clean Air Act. Because our legislation preceded the federal legislation, we were given the ability to adopt more stringent measures than those of the federal government. We will continue to pursue those measures and to defend ourselves to the extent necessary on regulations such as the Advanced Clean Cars Rule.

Speak to how your strong relationship with Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot will assist on such issues as the Salton Sea, Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan, or building resilient energy infrastructure.

Literally on day one, the Governor directed Wade and I to take over the negotiations around the voluntary settlement agreements between water users and water agencies. These agreements align with the goals of the San Joaquin and Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan Updates. We have been engaged every week, and started by bringing in the environmental community. Then, we brought in a facilitator to frame out what those voluntary agreements could look like.

The State Water Resources Control Board has set flow criteria for these water systems. The water users are proposing to add new water into the system, as well as providing new habitat. With both of those activities, they believe that the beneficial uses would be a net positive for both habitat and water. Wade and I have been in communication every day, and are meeting with that group every week to hash this out.

The Natural Resources Agency and CalEPA are working closely on the Salton Sea. At the time of this interview, the Resources Agency is currently briefing the State Water Board on the latest restoration plan. Wade is working diligently with all of the stakeholders to move the projects forward, many of which have been stuck in red tape for the last year or 18 months. Working on the Salton Sea is a major priority. Additionally, we are working together on the Klamath Dam removal and the Healthy Soils initiative. 

Wade, myself, and California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross have all been tasked with implementing the Governor's portfolio approach to water management. We will be working together on improving our natural and working lands programs.

Finally, before joining CalEPA, you hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail—a 2,600-mile trek from the U.S.-Mexico border to the U.S.-Canada border. What were you thinking about? 

You think that you will think about missing family, and I certainly thought a lot about my two kids (who are currently at Occidental and Scripps College). But really, most days I thought about food, water, and staying out of the sun.

The first 700 miles of the PCT are desert, before you get to the Sierras. Those first 700 miles were really hot and brutal. My sun-brella allowed me to hike most of the day. About 1,600 miles of the trail is in California, which is much longer than the state itself; the trail meanders and goes back and forth, which in theory gives you time to enjoy California. In actuality, I was just hoping to get to Oregon faster.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.