Droughts Require Imagination and Investment: Highlights from a VX2013 Panel on California’s Water Supply


Felicia Marcus:  The issue of water supply, water quantity, as well as water quality is about as broad a topic as you can imagine, but you rarely get a panel or conference where people talk about the span of issues around water. More often, people are targeted on a particular issue or set of players, so I’m glad we’re doing this overview today.  

Paul Helliker: California has 38 million people and 9 million acres of farmland. Of those people, about two-thirds of them are served by water that comes from the Delta in various quantities. Phil asked in the last conversation, “why would you build water infrastructure that brings water from so many hundreds of miles away?” Part of it is because most of the water falls hundreds of miles away, and water is heavy and takes a lot of energy to move. But it’s also necessary to people’s daily lives, so if you don’t have it in LA, you have to find it somewhere else. That somewhere includes local water supply systems, such as the water that’s brought in from the Mono Lake Basin and the Owens Lake Basin (the initial water project in the LA area). The Colorado River system was built in the 20s, and then the state project brought water from Lake Oroville, complementing that. As you can see, local projects are primarily the source of water throughout California, but there are some major systems that my department (the Department of Water Resources) and the US Bureau of Reclamation operate that supply water here in Southern California.

In the northern part of the state, a lot of precipitation goes to various places: the North Coast basin, the rivers, and ecosystem uses. As you move down through the state, more of the water is used for agriculture and comes from groundwater and other sources. For Southern California, most water is used in the urban area, and the water use varies year by year depending on what the water-year type is. 

One of the issues we have to worry about related to climate change in California is that the snow reservoir, which is about the same size as all of the other surface water reservoirs combined, is going to be diminishing over time. This doesn’t mean we will lose water overall, but that it will come in the form of rain rather than snow, so the system that’s been built to capture that snow as it runs off is not going to be sized to keep the amount of water into the summer. 

Another function of climate change that we’re facing in the Sacramento Delta is sea level rise. Endangered species are another issue we have to contend with. The whole ecosystem has changed over time; a number of the native species have declined; we have invasive species that have come in. 

Subsidence is another concern. “Subsidence” is the formal term, but what it actually means is that as agriculture has evolved in the Delta, a lot of the soil has evaporated into the atmosphere because of oxidation. So the levees that are holding the water back from the islands in the Delta, the islands themselves are actually declining in height. 

With sea levels rising (particularly the 60 feet down the road if Greenland melts), we’re going to be in a dire situation if those levees fail and we draw salt water from the bay. Now, most of the water falls in the northern part of the state, then comes though the central part of the Delta to the pump stations in the south, and that’s where the water is drawn and goes into the two aqueducts. The proposal is to not only restore a lot of the Delta acreage that’s changed to agriculture and urban encroachment, but to restore 100,000 acres of the tidal wetlands that have been there historically. 

In conjunction with that, we’re working on a different way of bringing water under, through, or around the Delta. There’s a proposal for the west side, a center version calling for tunnels, and on the east side, a possible canal. We’re looking at a range of alternatives in the Bay Delta conservation Plan and the EIR that’s about to be released, so if you’re looking for some light reading, we’ll have a 7,000-page BDP and an 18,000-page EIR/EIS for your pleasure.

Other stressors are water contaminants like ammonia, pesticides, and mercury. These are problems plaguing the whole ecosystem in the Central Valley, so though this conservation plan is focused on the delta, every water agency in the state is dealing with how to serve water to people without jeopardizing the environment. 

In 2009, the legislature helped us with our habitat restoration goals by adopting the 2009 Comprehensive Water Package, which has the twin goals of ecosystem restoration and water supply reliability. Delta governance was enhanced; Phil Isenberg’s Delta Stewardship Council is an umbrella agency that is focused on making sure we do something to solve these problems in the Delta. Last is funding, which is still pending with the bond measure slated for 2013. 

One of the big focuses of my department is statewide water conservation, meeting our 20-by-2020 goal (20-percent-per-capita reduction in water use by 2020). Additionally, in the agriculture sector, we have not only a specific target but plans regarding how they can use water more efficiently. In general, we focus on how to maximize investments in water supplies so that you can achieve multiple benefits in flood control, habitat restoration, species protection, and so on. 

Phil Isenberg: We have an entire recorded history of water in the State of California, going back to about 1885 when we started recording the volume of water that came into the state from all sources. The chart looks a little like the Matterhorn, which tells you that the water supply is highly variable year to year. But running across is the trend line, and it might surprise you to learn that the total average amount of water coming into the state has not changed too much in the entire recorded history of California. So I like to say that our water supply is static, and no, you can’t take and use 300 million acre-feet of water pre year because nature doesn’t work that way. 97 percent of water in the state comes from precipitation. 60 percent of that water disappears by evaporation or evapotranspiration into the soil. We deal with a generous supply of water, but it is not constantly increasing. In politics and government, the definition of success of anything is more. If you want a better education system, what do you want? More money. You want a better water system? More money. But we can’t provide more water unless there is a way to make adjustments. 

The second thing is that the use of water in California, overall, is increasing. One factoid that’s been floating around for years is the study of the Delta Watershed. They calculated that the total amount of legal claims to water exceed the average annual flow by a factor of eight and exceed the largest recorded flow in history by three. Now, efficiencies are happening, and people are reducing their use of water. But as we grow as a state, the demands for more water will be there. 

In the olden days of California, it was just “Go get it,” however much anybody wanted. That ethic competes today with a more modern, environmentally sensitive view that believes the word “reliability” actually means something. For me, the issue is not only water engineering but the need for public understanding of water supply, demand, and how to match demands up to the available supply.  

Last point: In the Bay Delta Conservation Plan—a Governor Schwarzenegger-started project carried on by Governor Brown focusing on the tunnels and ecosystem restoration—there is currently a statement that there will be no guarantees of water supply, at least at the present time, before the construction of the facility. It’s hard to visualize how water managers are easily going to overcome the reality that as the supply remains static and demands increase, the price will increase. An aging water system, whether it’s a federal reservoir or state pipe, needs to be repaired. I understand there’s no sex appeal in repairing infrastructure. Building freeways and tunnels is exciting, but repairing the damn things and keeping them up to date is boring, and nobody wants to pay for that. But add all those things together and you have the kind of foundational analysis and understanding that’s been going on. 

Jeff Kightlinger:  Around the turn of the century, Southern California started growing and outstripping its local water supply. In 1900, William Mulholland built the Owens Valley system, going a couple hundred miles, all gravity-fed, into the City of Los Angeles. The thinking at the time was that the region was probably good through the 1950s. But after WWI, Southern California began growing rapidly, and it became clear in the 1920s, just ten years after the completion of the Owens Valley system, that they had to develop a new supply for the growing population. It was Mulholland again who went out on horse buggy and sketched out a system that would go out to the Colorado River and bring in that supply. Then he went to the City Attorney’s office for the $150 million to build, but they didn’t have enough assessed valuation in the City of LA to build the aqueduct based on property taxes. So they said, “Bring in all the suburbs (Pasadena, Santa Monica, Glendale, Burbank, etc.) and we can do this.” They formed the Metropolitan Water District, the agency I work for, made up of 13 cities, and said, “Go build the Colorado River Aqueduct.” 

Remarkably, all of Southern California voted to fund this in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, and basically taxed themselves. They pledged 15-17 percent of the entire assessed valuation of Southern California for one single project, a remarkable show of optimism when realistically, many of them would probably never see it because the game plan was to start building in 1933 and finish in 1943. So they were going to tax themselves for a decade before a single drop of water appeared, and people said, “That makes sense, lets do it.”

After the Colorado River system was completed 1941, the thinking was: “We’re done, this will handle all reasonable growth for generations to come.” But about every 30 years we are wrong on this assumption. Sure enough, in the 1960 post-war boom, Southern California needed more water. Governor Pat Brown decided to solve the issue with the state water project, delivering water to both the Central Valley State Water Project and Southern California Metropolitan, and taking care of all of those regional supplies in one fell swoop. It was a pretty controversial issue at the time and barely passed—Governor Brown barnstormed the state but the vote was something like 51 to 49, so these controversies aren’t anything new. Again that was supposed to solve our water supply for 50 years, but now we realize about every 30 years there’s an issue. 

From 1987 to about 1991 we had a terrific drought throughout Southern California. Sure enough, it was about 20 years after the State Water Project was completed that Southern California, for the first time in recent modern history—since Metropolitan was created anyway—had to ration water. In the 1977 drought, we had enough supply that we gave Marin County water and said, “You can have it, we can rely on the Colorado River and our Owens Valley supply. We’ll back off take of our State Water Project and Marin County, and other areas that are really hurting can have our water supply.” We couldn’t do that in the 1990s. We had to implement rationing throughout, and it became clear that it was time for another major water project. 

The difference is that the 90s were very different from the 60s and 30s. We actually had a few ideas on tap, such as going to the Klamath or Columbia Rivers. One series had six nuclear power plants and a chain of desalination plants. But most of these were deemed unfeasible, cost prohibitive. There were new environmental laws; we weren’t going to rebuild the Columbia River and move it down to the Colorado. So we came up with a whole new approach in the 90s for the next generation of water supply, and it was pretty novel and radical. Metropolitan came up with what we called an Integrated Resources Plan with a few main components. One: Hold on to our current, existing supplies of imported water and stabilize them. Two: Develop conservation as an actual water supply—fund conservation aggressively throughout Southern California to grow our water supply that way, from inside. Three: Invest in local supplies. It’s very expensive, but there’s quite a bit you can do with groundwater recovery, and ocean and brackish water desalination. 

We began doing that in the 1990s and we actually implemented a public goods charge (we call it a water stewardship fee) that puts a fee on top of every drop of imported water so we can fund conservation, recycled water, reclamation—and it’s been remarkably successful. In 1990, California imported 2.4 million-acre feet of water for delivery throughout Southern California. Last year, we delivered 1.7 million acre-feet; about 30 percent less than we did in 1990. In 1990 we had 14 million people. In 2010, last time we checked, we had about 19 million people. So we’ve added 5 million people to Southern California and we use less imported water today than we did a generation ago. This Integrated Resources Plan has become the hallmark of all of California water planning. Basically what you’re seeing now is everyone committed to living within our means and growing new supplies through conservation, recycling, and reclamation. It can be done, but one of the keys to it has been the stabilizing of that imported water supply, which was the whole point of that previous panel because it’s clearly under threat from earthquakes and climate change. So that is why we need to do those in conjunction with each other, and it takes a lot of education of the public as well because they have to pay to maintain a system, to make it more resilient and reliable, and then they have to pay for new supplies and conservation as well, and that gets a bit frustrating. Every year you use less water and your bill seems to go up a bit and you ask, “What am I doing?” Well, you’re paying for all four of those things. It’s a much more modern and robust system, but also a little more expensive.

Felicia Marcus: There’s a lot going on in the water world that deals with the kind of integrated water management that Paul talked about, and that’s obviously an arena for the future that is as much a part of water security as how we convey water through the Delta which provides, just to remind you, 30 percent of Southern California’s water, but not 100 percent. So there’s a lot going on in a lot of different places, in Southern California perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, that we have to be mindful of. So I’m wondering if you could each quickly talk about anything happening in the world of water-use efficiency, water recycling, storm water capture, treatment, and storage, etc. that you see on the horizon that gives you hope. What’s your favorite of the interesting, novel projects happening in California? 

Paul Helliker: I think Orange County is one of the places that has been doing some excellent work on new water management techniques, which is actually old water management techniques relying on recycling the water that’s used already. Many years ago, they built a system to take waste water and treat it highly and inject it into the ground to keep the salt water from coming in. Now they’re adding to that system, taking it to other parts of the basin where it can be used again. In my years in Marin County, I was always rather envious of the Southern California groundwater basins because if we’d only had something like that in Marin I would have been advocating that instead of desalination, and maybe then I’d still have a job there.  

Jeff Kightlinger: To build on Paul’s comment, we are seeing a lot of good work in recycled water. 20 years ago, all our recycled water activities were, when you clean up wastewater, to use it on golf courses, commentaries, parks, and other large water users. Now we’re seeing small-scale projects where we can use it locally on smaller areas of land, and in Orange County’s case, actually reintroduce it into the groundwater basin for human consumption after it has percolated through the ground.

Another place where we’re seeing a lot of good work is in clean up of our groundwater basins. Our groundwater basins in Southern California are massive, a huge source of water in San Fernando, San Gabriel Valley, Orange County. But we’ve done a lot of industrial development over the last 50-60 years and we have a lot of clean up of contamination in those basins to do. We’re seeing the technology getting better and better at cleaning up that water and using it more with wellhead treatment. Those are two areas where I think you’re going to see a lot of good work in the San Fernando Valley, probably over the next decade or so, really restoring a lot of that ground water to beneficial use again. 

Phil Isenberg: Felicia, I am not a fan of projects per say. I’m more interested in the changes that have happened on policy that will change behavior in the distant future. For example, for the first time in the history of California, in the 2009 bill package, the legislature passed and the governor adopted a mandatory urban water conservation reduction figure of 20 percent reduced use by 2020. Put aside the fact that the bill could have been and was satisfied by every water district within about three seconds of becoming law, because it was so week in starting. The principle of setting a goal and letting local agencies figure out how to deal with it is however, fundamentally important in my mind, and a really significant change in attitude. I predict that what we’re going to need is a judicious blend of carrots and sticks to make everyone move. 

Up in Northern California, we use far more water than the statewide average, that isn’t going to change even if, as we all now say, we’ve reduced our use by 20 percent. The fact is, a water system that is reliable for the entire State of California is only possible over the long run if everyone conserves, everyone has as efficient water system as they can, and everyone participates in making reasonable demands on the supply. That’s the political problem of the issue. This is not the military, we can’t give orders and expect them to be followed, so it’s a complicated series of conversations that go on. 

I like the 20 percent goal and leaving it to the local agencies to choose approaches. I think that’s the way we get through the future. The state’s going to have to put up some money, but I think the limits of general obligation bonds have been exceeded for a while, and the one that’s on the ballot for 2014 is about all the voters could swallow at this particular time. 

Felicia Marcus: Interesting thing in the dialogue about water over the years, there are trends in how much people can absorb. For example, in the 90s with the Bay Delta Accord and the CALFED era of multi-stakeholder engagement and federal and state engagement happened, the peripheral canal was not on the table. I will cop to being one of the people who took it off the table, feeling that if we could make progress on all the other issues then we would end up building the confidence that would allow us to talk about the peripheral canal, which at the time was radioactive. Now there’s an atmosphere to talk about it on all sides of the issue. But oddly enough, in the dialogue, there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about storage, which in the 90s was the hot issue that we dared to talk about. Today we’re not talking about storage, particularly as you look at the climate change models that talk about the decline in snow pack, which constitutes 50 percent of our storage now, that soon won’t be there. We have a problem of massive proportions. So my question for you is, what do you think about where storage fits in? 

Paul Helliker: Well I’d say it’s critical. The Bay Delta Conservation plan is focused strictly on the Delta, and there are some proposals for storage in the Delta. The Delta Wetlands Group has talked about taking some of the islands and converting them into storage basins. There are some problems there with water quality but that’s one concept. But the only way to move water through, under, around the Delta in a way that’s going to meet the needs, take it when its not needed by the ecosystem which has always been the concept, is to have somewhere to put it. So I know down here in Southern California there have been some incredible investments made in surface storage, groundwater basins are locations where we’ve had banking; we can expand that. I think it’s a critical piece of the puzzle. We’re all talking right now about the transportation system in the Delta, but another critical component is storage, and I think that needs to be part of the picture as well. 

Jeff Kightlinger: One of the lessons for Metropolitan from the 1990s drought was that we didn’t have local storage. We relied sort of on a “just in time” philosophy because we had such diverse supplies—Colorado River Basin, Northern California, Owens Valley, local—that it just felt hydrologically like we were immune to drought. When we were wrong on that, one of the lessons we learned was that we need local storage so that when we have plentiful water we capture it and have it here in Southern California for use. So we have invested a fair amount of money into that in the last 20 years, almost 4 billion dollars in storage-related facilities. The largest is a reservoir out in Diamond Valley near the City of Hemet. That’s a remarkable 800,000-acre feet reservoir that remarkably, can gravity feed everywhere from Los Angeles all the way down to San Diego because of where it’s situated. So one of our key goals was to build storage, and we increased California’s storage by 15 fold over that 30-year period, and we’re relatively robust now for most severe droughts. 

We just went through a fairly severe drought in 2006-10 that would have been similar to the 1987-90 drought, but we basically called for a 10 percent voluntary cutback for people to use less water because we didn’t have to implement all the rationing because we have the storage. I think one of the reason you’re not seeing a lot of focus on it now is because the real challenge is the convenience—we can’t move water. 

This month alone, 700,000-acre feet of water are not being delivered because Delta smelt conditions right now. So we are emptying it from reservoirs and pushing it out to the ocean because we cant turn the pumps on. It’s not even helping the flow for the fish, it’s just something we can’t turn the pumps on. So we have lost a huge amount of water and it’s February. In the last five weeks we’ve lost a third of what Southern California would take in the course of a whole year from the Delta. So if we can’t move the water we have in storage now, the focus isn’t on building it. I think once we’re done with conveyance, we will get back to storage, because California is continuing to grow and we will need more reserve. 

Phil Isenberg: I agree with most of that. The storage problem is complicated by the fact that everyone wants it and no one wants to pay for it, and that’s logical if you believe that all these water contracts that are out there somehow give people a right to the highest amount of water possible, even exceeding what’s available in nature. Here’s the dilemma with storage: do you wish to have storage for droughts or do you wish to use it as part of your regular old supply? If the latter is the case (and I believe it is for a lot of people) if you don’t decide early on what it’s for, that water gets used on a regular basis. Reservoirs in California are operated not just for water supply, but also for flood control, recreation, fisheries, etc. That means all the interests have to be balanced, and the demand for water is always an every-day-of-the-year demand. Sure it goes up and down in summer or winter, but the fact is, the demand is always there. It’s balancing all of those things, changing the operational rules. Some of the operational rules in some of the big federal facilities haven’t been changed in 50 to 70 years (at least on paper) because there’s so much at stake for individuals who have made their investment decisions, whether for agriculture or business, or individuals who have become used to water that it’s hard to make modifications and changes. I’m all in favor of storage, but I suspect that more and more of it will be underground storage, which raises the question: what do you do with an underground storage basin that is also being over drafted by the people above it, isn’t being replenished on a regular basis, and by the way, there may be salt, Selenium, and other unpleasantries seeping into it? How do you handle that, when as a state we’ve simply refused to do what most states have done which is require active state management of underground basins? That’s a real problem. 

Felicia Marcus: That’s right, we’re in a tie with Texas for the worst, from the statewide perspective, though it’s done very well in some local areas as Jeff has referred to.•••