Delta Watermaster Charged with Balancing Water Reliability and Ecosystem Restoration

Michael George

VX News: Michael, what are the California Delta watermaster’s primary responsibilities?

Michael George: The primary responsibility of the watermaster is administration of water rights in the legal Delta—the 700,000-acre area where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers come together and drain the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. About 60 percent of the state’s land mass drains through the Delta.

VX News: Blessed with a four-year appointment, who does the Delta watermaster report to?

Michael George: The position reports jointly to the State Water Resources Control Board and to the Delta Stewardship Council. The watermaster assists those two agencies in managing the Delta Water Quality Control Plan and the broader Delta Plan, making sure that state water-rights administration proceeds in the Delta on a basis consistent with state law. It’s essentially a regulatory role, but it’s also advisory to those two boards on policy and management of overall Delta affairs.

VX News: That makes the watermaster job sound simple! What’s the challenge?

Michael George: Were it simple, the state wouldn’t need a Delta watermaster, a position created in 2009 Delta reform legislation.

What’s complicated about it is the implementation of the state’s policies: co-equal goals of improving and restoring the reliability of the state’s water system and also restoring the ecosystem in the Delta. If those two co-equal goals were not difficult enough to accomplish, they are also, according to state policy, to be accomplished in a way that respects and protects the unique setting of the Delta and its evolution as a place.

VX News: We know from earlier VX News interviews that the governor has broken his Delta restoration initiative into two co-equal parts, reflecting two different goals. Address California’s water reliability challenge for our readers.

Michael George: There is a limited amount of water—particularly in drought periods like the last four years. The critical issue is how to distribute and put to beneficial use the limited supply that is available in a way that’s consistent with the state’s water laws. Because there is more demand on our water system than there is water to fulfill all the demand, we have to be very careful and circumspect about how we allocate that scarce resource.

Of course, the allocation of water in California is a matter of significant complexity, law, lore, and regulation. California’s water laws are based on a priority system. When there’s a shortage, we allocate by seniority. More junior water rights get curtailed—cut off—in order to protect the more senior water users. The law of priority is often described by the shorthand phrase: “First in time, first in right.”  The law of priority essentially says that the person who first puts water to reasonable and beneficial use has the right to be protected against those who come later and would otherwise compromise the water right of the senior.

VX News: How have the state’s historic water rights been challenged and managed by the state, given the four-year drought?

Michael George: This year, for the first time in many years, the State Board analyzed demands for water versus the available supply and sent notices to more junior holders that there was no water available to meet their demands.

Technically, notices sent by the State Board indicated that, based on analysis of natural stream flow as well as demands on those streams, there simply wasn’t enough water to meet all needs. By priority, the more junior water rights holders were informed that they should cease diverting water because there wasn’t enough water in the system, and seniors had priority.

That process has been controversial and has raised a number of issues, which we’re now working through. We’ll do some of that in hearings before the State Board. Some will undoubtedly go to litigation. It is probably going to result in additional policy directives by the administrative and executive branch of the government, and possibly more refinement by the legislature, as with the 2009 Delta reform legislation and the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. It may be that out of the administration of the current system, you’ll get additional clarification through regulation, litigation, or legislation.

VX News: You personally have extensive experience with water rights in the Central Valley. Elaborate on ag’s interests regarding management of the Delta given the drought, so that our urban readers better understand these interests.

Michael George: Ag users, particularly those in the San Joaquin Valley who depend on through-Delta conveyance for a large part of their irrigation supply, have been hit hard by the water shortages from this drought.

For instance, the Federal Central Valley Project has made zero allocations of water to its service contractors south of the Delta for two straight years. That means that vast areas of the Central Valley have gotten zero surface water supply through their CVP contracts. Many of them have had to fallow fields, to sow different crops, and to undertake pretty heroic management of their permanent crops—often by pumping groundwater, which is the way we typically manage relatively short-term droughts.

But this drought has been so prolonged and so severe that we’ve about reached the limit of how much groundwater we can efficiently recover and still expect to have resilient groundwater available to us.

The water managers and the agricultural interests in the Central Valley use a great deal of water. But let’s remember that they use that water to grow the food we put on our tables and export to tables around the world. While some decry those exports, it is important to acknowledge that they help our state’s trade balance with the rest of the nation and the world.

In this fourth year of the drought, we’re seeing creative management of the drought itself to ameliorate its devastating impacts. But all the rabbits have been pulled out of the hat. We have used up most of the resiliency in the system. We’re hoping that 2016 brings us a much wetter year and some relief.

VX News: As Delta watermaster, you’ve been engaged in many of the collaborative negotiations over ag’s use of water. In the urban areas, many continue to critique the lack of advanced water technologies presently employed by agriculture, as well as the selection of crops planted. Could you address their concerns?

Michael George: I think those critiques are largely misplaced.

Over the last 20 years, because water has become so scarce, agriculture has been forced to adapt and develop ways of using water much more efficiently. The mantra is “get more crop per drop.”

In California agriculture, we’ve done a really good job of improving overall water efficiency. We have gotten much more crop per drop.

However, one of the reasons that the urban sector doesn’t relate to that improvement in efficiency is because that efficiency has been reinvested in greater yields and lower prices for farm commodities—not in reduced ag demand for water. Just as in the manufacturing sector, farmers continue to push for more efficiency.

I won’t say that we’ve reached the water efficiency limits in California agriculture, but we have certainly applied a great deal of technology. We’ve moved a lot of flood irrigation to precision underground drip irrigation. We have improved our irrigation techniques. We’ve gotten a lot more efficient in growing the food that we Californians like to eat.

VX News: Are you suggesting that there’s been no reduction in demand for product, and that’s why water use remains relatively unchanged?

Michael George: That’s correct. Demand overall in California has gone up, notwithstanding significant gains in efficient use of our precious and limited water resources in every sector—ag, urban, environment, and industry. That’s because we’re feeding more mouths, we’re bringing more people to California, we’re trying to protect our ecosystem, and we’re exporting more food to hungry people around the world.

VX News: Regarding financing new Delta plumbing for better water reliability, there appear to be two points of view: 1) the status quo interests, and 2) others who claim the status quo is untenable. Who’s more right?

Michael George: It is more and more widely understood that the status quo, particularly in respect to the Delta, is unsustainable. This is due to the effects of climate change, sea-level rise, the fragility of the Delta dikes, urban encroachment, and environmental decline.

Our challenge is to figure out how to manage the change that is coming. We can either manage it intelligently, or we’re going to have to respond when nature (or some other outside event) thrusts change upon us.

Our politics, economics, and social policies are all challenged to figure out: What is the best way forward? Not: What is the best way to maintain the unsustainable system that we’ve got today?

VX News: The Southland—especially LA, Orange County, and San Diego—have moved toward greater self-sufficiency with One Water policies. They have invested in integration of wastewater, storm water, and groundwater. Even given this transition, will there not still be substantial demand for imported water?

Michael George: Certainly the Southland will continue to need imported surface water.

As a result of limited water availability and the challenge of improving California water policy, there’s been an attempt to create greater resiliency through more intelligent reuse of the limited supply. All of that is to be strongly commended. It has been very helpful, for instance, in getting us through the drought so far, and will contribute even more to future drought responses.

On the other hand, it is not possible to take that to ultimate resiliency or complete independence. Even if you recycle water intelligently and make it stretch as far as it can go through conservation, you still need to bring imported water into the Southland’s system to replenish groundwater from time to time.

Southern California, and indeed most of California, relies to a great extent on at least periodic, if not regular, refreshment of the water supply through imports from distant watersheds. It is accurate to say that Southern California has done a great job of reducing its instantaneous demand on the Delta and other imported water sources. But it is impossible to imagine sustaining our Southern California economy without a reliable supply of imported water.

That’s one of the reasons I like to say that the people of Southern California, who rely to a certain extent on imports from the Delta, are involved in an unbreakable symbiotic relationship with the agricultural interests there. Then I say the same thing, on a reciprocal basis, to my friends in the agricultural community in the Delta.

We need sustainable, profitable agriculture in the Delta to manage that highly engineered landmass, and we need to make the Delta a reliable place for managing water supply. Both need to work together. It’s impossible for me to imagine a sustainable Delta without the investment of the water interests in Southern California who rely on it. It’s equally impossible for me to conceive of a sustainable economy in Southern California without a Delta water supply, and therefore without agriculture managing the landmass, helping maintain the levees, and assisting with feeding the state, the nation, and the world.

VX News: Let’s pivot to the other co-equal goal of ecosystem restoration. How much progress is being made, and how serious is the challenge?

Michael George: The challenges are huge because we are misusing the Delta as a conveyance facility. That intentional misuse was conceived when the State Water Project was designed, as a temporary expedient. Our forbearers always anticipated that there would be an alternate conveyance. First it was conceived as a canal around the Delta, and now it is conceived as twin tunnels beneath the Delta. The twin tunnels would not only protect the conveyance infrastructure from risks associated with earthquakes, floods, and sea-level rise, but could also allow conjunctive use of diversions from either the north Delta or south Delta, depending on ecosystem needs.

For instance, when fish are migrating in and out or through the Delta, you can take some volume of water safely out of the southern Delta, where we take it from now. There are other times when, because of fish migration or other cyclical or seasonal demand, it’s detrimental to the ecology of the Delta to suck water through it and take it out of the southern part.

It would be useful to have a second way of conveying water, so as to take it from the northern part of the Delta and move it through the tunnels at times when that works with the ecology. At still other times, we can’t take water out of the Delta at all without damaging the ecosystem.

The idea here is to create additional infrastructure to manage the same amount of Delta water export, but to do so in a way that is both more reliable and more fish-friendly—more capable of mimicking the natural water cycle. That’s the idea behind the California Water Fix, which is the name for the twin tunnels project, coupled with California Eco Restore, which is the process of mitigating the impacts of the tunnel project and managing ecosystem reconciliation to the highly engineered system that we’ve got today.

VX News: Lastly, as a featured participant in VerdeXchange’s VX2016—January 24-26, 2016—what might you be able to report as progress on the challenges discussed above?

Michael George: By the middle of January, we will have had our pre-hearing conference on the petition now before the State Water Resources Control Board to add the points of diversion at the northern part of the Delta. We will have framed the issues around managing new infrastructure and facilities that we might develop over the next decade, so that they operate in harmony and begin to reconcile the need for reliable water with the need for a viable ecosystem. That process will be in the pre-hearing stage, and hearings are currently scheduled to take place in April.

In addition, we’ll know by the middle of January whether we’ve started to have a wet winter or another dry one. By the end of January, we’ll be about a third of the way through the wet part of the water year, and we’ll know whether it’s really wet or not. Therefore, we’ll know what kind of a resource we’ve got to work with.

Everyone is hoping that we get a wet winter—not because we think it will solve all the problems, and not even because we think it will solve the drought. We think it might give us a respite to consolidate what we’ve learned and begin to replenish some of our stressed resources so that we can continue the very long-term process of reconciling our demands on our water system with the limits and capabilities of that system.

“Even if you recycle water intelligently and make it stretch as far as it can go through conservation, you still need to bring imported water into the Southland’s system to replenish groundwater from time to time.” -Michael George