State Water Board’s Laurel Firestone on Water’s New Normal—Chronic Scarcity

Laurel Firestone

After the State Water Resources Control Board in August issued water curtailments to address the acute water shortages in Northern and Central California, Governor Newsom last month declared a statewide drought emergency urging Californians to conserve. VX News interviewed State Water Resources Control Board Member, Laurel Firestone, who provides insight on water managers across the state are working to adapt to the new normal of chronic water scarcity. Firestone, appointed to the board by Governor Newsom in February 2019, elaborates on state efforts to ensure, and the federal government’s role in funding, equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water.

Laurel, you were appointed by Governor Newsom to the State Water Resources Control Board in February of 2019. What have been and what will be your priorities as a board member of that important public agency?

Laurel Firestone: Governor Newsom ran on and in office has been really focused on a California for All, which has been a guiding force for me. Water is a driver of our personal health, our environment, and our economy, so making sure that our water systems enable that for all Californians is, at the core, what my priority is. I came into this work with an even more concrete goal of ensuring that we can live up to the human right to water that we have enacted as a policy of this state. The State has declared that all Californians have the right to access safe, clean, and affordable drinking water for their basic needs, and that it shouldn't just be a privilege for some.

I came in right as the legislature and the governor passed this landmark legislation creating $1.3 billion of funding over 10 years with the goal of achieving safe drinking water for all. As I started at the state board, we created the SAFER Program—the first of its kind in the country—to leverage not only these new resources, but all the other bonds, state and federal funding, technical assistance resources, and our regulatory and implementation tools to proactively identify who doesn't have safe drinking water now and who is one bad day away from losing access to safe drinking water. We want to make sure that we're investing in these communities—not just putting on a band-aid—but bringing transformative resiliency to these spaces.  So for me, my highest personal priority remains trying to ensure that every Californian can access safe and affordable drinking water.

The Water Board has a huge portfolio and mandate that goes far beyond drinking water. Making sure that we as a board are understanding where we've fallen short of serving those most vulnerable communities and the communities that have been ignored or sacrificed is key. Along with that, we want to make sure that we're flipping that pattern to prioritize our work and making sure that water protection, restoration, and supply is serving all Californians.

Lastly, we've seen now that climate change is very much here and exacerbates all those disparities, which gives us an urgency to focus our investments and regulatory programs to make sure that we're making a transition to a more sustainable, resilient, and equitable California.

Before diving deeper into your specific work on the water board, what was the career work you were doing before your appointment by the Governor?

My career prior to the board was working with communities, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley, around accessing safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. I was an attorney for boards trying to access funding and developing projects, and I supported advocacy with community groups working to get safe drinking water in their community. I moved up to Sacramento in 2012 when we passed the Human Right to Water Act and have been involved in looking at the root causes for why we don't have safe drinking water for a million Californians. Given that that is one of the top priorities for this governor, I think that was a big driver for why he appointed me. I can bring that on-the-ground perspective and those relationships into this work at the state board.

With record low reservoir levels and extreme drought conditions felt throughout the American West, how is water scarcity impacting the Water Board's agenda and priorities?

This drought is a fundamental change in hydrology for our state and much of the West. I don't think it's just about a bad year or two. We're seeing some of the highest temperatures, the lowest rainfall, and historic lows in our reservoirs. The climate has already changed and will continue to change, so we need to be looking at this as the new normal.

The context that we've done our work in has changed, so we need to be changing with that and managing for scarcity—knowing that what was average before is no longer what we can expect. At the Water Board, just this summer, we have been limiting some folks to just basic health and human safety needs because rivers are drying up. When we do have abundance, let's adapt and be ready for it, but we need to be expecting scarcity to be the norm and making conservation a way of life. That work really started in the last drought, and we are looking at adopting standards around water conservation and efficiency to make that a way of life for all Californians.

As well, we need to be leaning into capturing, reusing, or recycling water that we currently waste. We're working on direct potable reuse regulations and supporting stormwater capture projects to replenish water supplies.

And we're doing a ton right now in water rights, including adopting emergency regulations, issuing curtailments, and implementing and enforcing our water rights in ways that we haven't had to before.

Before I came to the board, I worked with communities like East Porterville that ran out of water entirely in the last drought. We're seeing communities again without water. We’re better prepared now because we have funding and systems in place to respond, but we're trying to make sure that before these emergencies occur, we're able to make those investments in resiliency, so that we don't have communities reliant on a single well that runs out of water entirely.

Lastly, one of the things that I've seen is harmful algal blooms and other changes to our water bodies that are becoming the new normal because of rising temperatures and lack of flow. These are things that are fundamentally changing the quality of life in California and that we're having to grapple with at the State Board. It means we have to start doing things in a new way. We need to look at how to adapt our own programs to meet these new challenges.

It's one thing to address water quality and equity challenges in the Central Valley when there's an abundance of water, but it's another to address those challenges when California is in a serious new-normal drought. Elaborate on the current challenges before you and the “tough” choices you and your board colleagues are having to make?

Everyone is hurting in the drought. Whether it's in agriculture or folks’ livelihoods, the environment has really been decimated the last couple years in areas like Northern California. With drinking water, we are having to be a lot more aggressive in our requirements for monitoring systems and getting backup systems in place. We are using our new authorities around mandating interconnections when that's the only feasible alternative. Transforming the fragmented and fragile drinking water system in our state is going to require us to be a lot more aggressive, which is a big focus of investments that we have now.

And then, look at the pandemic’s impact on communities and individual households in terms of affordability. We just received $1 billion to provide debt relief to folks that couldn't pay their water bill during the pandemic so that they don't get their water shut off. These are very extreme times, and it's not an easy time to be making decisions.

What do the petitioners before the Water Board typically fail to understand about your role and the role of the board re the policy challenges raised by climate change?

Well, it's certainly not a position any of us want to be in. No matter what we do, whether we act, but especially if we don't act, there's going to be a lot of pain to go around. How we really see our role is making sure that there's a framework within which we all work as a society. We have to administer our water rights system, we have to make sure there are basic health and human safety needs being met, and we have to make sure that we're not allowing species to go extinct. Trying to balance all of those things creates existential questions. When there's just not enough water to go around, there's no easy way to answer them.

What are some current examples of state investments in safe and affordable drinking water that have already had an impact on water quality in the state and the Central Valley?

Just in the last two years, we have invested, hundreds of millions of dollars in safe and affordable drinking water. That’s 81 communities that have long-term drinking water solutions that didn't before. There are over 60 communities, and hundreds of individual well owners without a centralized water system, that now have emergency interim solutions to access safe drinking water that didn't have that two years ago. In nearly all of the more than 300 communities in California that we regulate that aren't able to supply a safe drinking water reliably right now, pretty much all of them are at least in planning for that more permanent solution.

We have a huge amount of planning investment right now. When we see the kind of money that we're able to put into this problem as a state, especially in this big budget year, we need to make sure that communities that need it most have those projects ready to go, so they can take advantage of that funding to be able to see projects to fruition and get safe drinking water from their tap. A lot of what we've been doing is investing in that planning.

We have a legacy of extreme fragmentation in our drinking water service across the state. We have close to 3,000 different community water systems. A vast majority of these water suppliers are really small, so a lot of this investment is in integrating those systems that never were connected and transforming into a more resilient water system that doesn’t leave out the most vulnerable. Developing sources that can be resilient to drought and that are more diversified as we're transitioning into this new normal of climate change is really important.

What are the state's water infrastructure priorities that hopefully are currently being addressed in Congress in the bipartisan infrastructure plan? Note: there have been concerns raised in Congress that local jurisdictions don’t have the technical capacity to implement and wisely leverage infrastructure spending at the scale necessary to tackle these challenges. Do you share those concerns?

The State Water Board is the largest water infrastructure financing source in the state. We provide billions of dollars in grants and loans each year, and we have essentially a waiting list of projects, particularly for drinking water, wastewater, water recycling, and groundwater cleanup projects that have been put together and are waiting for funding. We've really been limited by the amount of funding that the state and federal government can make available.

There's a recognition that our state funding needs to help address this unmet infrastructure need, and CA just allocated an additional $1.3 billion for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in this year’s budget. But the state can only do so much. Historically, federal funding for water infrastructure was the primary source of funding for infrastructure improvements, but over the last few decades, that has just fallen exponentially. The brunt of the costs of any infrastructure improvements have fallen on ratepayers, which is a regressive and inadequate way to maintain the infrastructure that we have, and also to build new systems.

The state is certainly stepping up to do what we can, but it's not going to happen without significant federal investment, and these are really basic needs. It is even more urgent and clear how much of a priority this is in the current drought.

Lastly, historically there has been a bifurcation between water managers and sanitation directors; but now, One Water seems to be eliminating the silos. How is that shift reflected in your work and what becomes before you on the board?

I think all of us in the water sector, whether at the state board or at local agencies, are really having to finally break down those silos. We all know that water is interconnected and that it really is one water in one watershed, but that's becoming much more real.

An example is that we are working on direct potable reuse regulations. Trying to figure out how we protect public health, enable efficient use of water, and enable better water quality in preventing wastewater discharges and impacts is absolutely interdisciplinary. Looking at these multiple-benefit and interdisciplinary projects, we see this interconnectedness throughout all of our work. In the water sector, there's been a group that's been talking about this for a long time, but it does feel like it's now permeating everywhere. Especially with climate change, it's unavoidable and I think that we certainly see that evolution within the state.

“Water is a driver of our personal health, our environment, and our economy, so making sure that our water systems are enabling that for all Californians is at the core what my priority is.”
“This is a West-wide drought, and it is a fundamental change in hydrology for our state and much of the West. I don't think it's just about a bad year or two. We need to be looking at this as the new normal.”