CVIndependent

Fri04032020

Last updateMon, 23 Mar 2020 12pm

After months of rain—and increased revenue from last year’s rate increases—both the western Coachella Valley’s Desert Water Agency and the eastern valley’s Coachella Valley Water District find themselves wading in more riches than they could have imagined just one short year ago.

However, that does not mean that all of the water-conservation mandates are a thing of the past.

“The drought is over, but conservation isn’t,” said Ashley Metzger, the DWA’s outreach and conservation manager. “That’s the big message.”

While Gov. Jerry Brown declared on April 7that the drought was officially over in most of the state—including Riverside County—many of the water-usage restrictions imposed during the drought may be with us for some time.

“We live in the desert, and we’re always in a drought,” said Heather Engel, the CVWD’s director of conservation and communication. “Even though there were many areas of the state that were facing unprecedented circumstances, for us, this is how it is all the time.”

Coachella Valley residents are continuing to conserve. According to the CVWD’s March conservation report, customers used 24.5 percent less potable water than compared to the same period in 2013, while the DWA reported a 23.6 percent decrease.

“There are still prohibitions on water waste, water runoff and watering during or soon after rainfall. These are all things for which the DWA will cite people,” Metzger said. “We see the drought as having been a good learning opportunity for our customers, and we want to keep that message going in terms of water use efficiency.”

However, some of the most onerous water restrictions may be eased.

“Any restrictions that local water agencies imposed above and beyond the state’s, according to my understanding, can be eliminated,” said Engel. “That’s where you see that some of the local time or day-of-the-week outdoor-irrigation usage restrictions are being lifted. But the state restrictions are pretty much common-sense restrictions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the governor and the State Water Resources Control Board make those kinds of restrictions permanent.”

Still, the local agencies are celebrating the results of all the recent precipitation.

“The big and good news is that, with the state getting plenty of rain and snowmelt runoff in Northern California, we are expecting to get 85 percent of our imported water allotment from the State Water Project this year,” Engel said. “That’s huge. If you’ve driven over that Whitewater Bridge lately, you’ve seen the water flowing down, and it’s going to be flowing all year. We’re thinking that we might be able to put about 300,000 acre feet of water into the aquifer, which is huge for all of us here in the Coachella Valley.”

The last year in which the valley received a noteworthy imported water allotment from the state was 2013.

“The only downside is that we have to be more diligent in our messaging concerning safety,” Metzger said. “You know during the summer when people want to get a reprieve from the heat out here that the river flow is alluring. But we want to point people to the reserve to experience the water resource—and not have them go into the river.”

The CVWD may also receive an unexpected revenue windfall. Last year, the CVWD board of directors approved aggressive incremental rate increases over five years. Engel explained: “When we pitched the need for these rate increases to the community, we said there were three key reasons: chromium 6 treatment (required by new state regulations); reduced revenue due to conservation; and the third had to do with a number of other capital-improvement projects, some of which had been deferred during the recession years.”

However, CVWD staff members last fall—after the rate increases were enacted—became aware of test results involving an alternative chromium 6 treatment program.

“We decided to take a timeout and do a pilot study of this alternative treatment method,” Engel said. “If this doesn’t work, we probably won’t meet the deadline to be in compliance with state-mandated chromium 6 levels by 2020. So there’s a bit of a risk there, but the savings to our customers would be so significant, and the positive impact on our communities and the environment so significant, that our board decided it was a risk worth taking. Since the report came, a handful of water districts in the state, and the city of Coachella, are looking into this other method.”

Could this new treatment option lead to—at least—lower rate increases for CVWD customers?

“The board could reduce rates back to 2010 levels if they wanted to do that,” she said. “Or they could say they don’t need any increase this year. Or they could increase any amount up to the total that was published.”

At 8 a.m., Monday, May 22, the CVWD Board is holding a public meeting to review a presentation on next year’s fiscal budget, effective July 1.

“Certainly, we did not spend the money in the last year on the chromium 6 treatment project that we had planned, but we’re uncertain about that future,” Engel said. “People are still conserving, and that’s good, and we do still have these additional projects that we need to do. For instance, we’re in the planning stages for the construction of a new aquifer-recharge facility in Palm Desert, where subsidence of the aquifer has become an issue. So there’s still a need to fund these other projects, but whether or not we can do it with or without a rate increase is still undecided. Based on what the board has said in recent public meetings, it’s clear they’re hoping that staff can come up with a plan (for the next fiscal year) that does not require an increase.”

Meanwhile, the DWA and other local water agencies have found a way to lessen the impact of rate increases on some customers. Partnering with the United Way, the DWA formed the Help2Others program, which provides financial aid to help lower-income residents pay their water bills.

“We have a lot of seniors and some lower-income neighborhoods. … it was really important to get a program like that set up, and we did,” Metzger said. “… Now all five public water agencies in the valley have this program in conjunction with the United Way.

This valuable assistance is funded differently through each of the participating agencies. “Here at the DWA,” Metzger said, “our vendors and our employees have contributed funds to make our program possible, which I’m super-proud of. I think we all realize what we do wouldn’t be possible without the residents paying our rates, and if you need help, we understand water is one of the most fundamental things you need.”

Published in Local Issues

Last summer, as California was struggling through its most severe year of the recent drought, two California members of Congress unveiled legislation meant to ease the pain.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Rep. David Valadao introduced, separately and respectively, the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2015 and the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015. Though both are aimed primarily at their home state, the bills’ scope is West-wide.

Both seek more federal money for new water storage and infrastructure projects. Both would expedite environmental review of those projects, and maximize water supply for farms and communities. And both “contain provisions that could alter the implementation of the Endangered Species Act and, in some cases, potentially set a precedent for how federal agencies address endangered and threatened species,” according to the Congressional Research Service. Those precedents include limiting federal agencies’ ability to manage stream flows for endangered fish. 

Beyond these similarities, the bills take wildly different paths. Feinstein’s bill (preferred by environmentalists) focuses on water recycling and desalination; Valadao’s focuses on squeezing more from rivers. Still, as summer stretched into fall with little relief for sun-blasted California, there was hope the two could find common ground. More than 100 farm groups and water authorities signed a letter in October asking Congress to compromise. Environmental groups—despite their opposition to the endangered species implications—agreed something needed to be done.

Yet the year ended without any progress.

Not only were Feinstein and Valadao’s bills caught up in political bickering; Congress also failed to pass any of the six or so other drought relief bills introduced by Western lawmakers. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, never introduced the comprehensive drought package at which she’d hinted.

On Jan. 11, the U.S. Senate reconvened. Despite El Niño’s recent snow and rain, the drought will march on. Lawmakers in 2016 will be faced with the same challenges they failed to address in 2015: securing water for agriculture and communities. Planning for a drier, more-populous future. Protecting water-dependent fish and wildlife. Will they do any better?

Jimmy Hague, director of the Center for Water Resources with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, is skeptical. If Congress wasn’t able to reach a compromise in 2015, why would 2016 be any different?

“It is really difficult to get consensus on water legislation,” Hague says. “All the controversy between those two bills still exists, and now we’ve added a presidential election year on top of it.”

Nonetheless, Hague thinks that Western water woes will get a helping hand from the feds in 2016. That’s because there are at least 20 measures that agencies can implement without congressional action. Many were detailed in a list of recommendations that the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy submitted to the White House last summer—around the same time Feinstein and Valadao were unveiling their bills. 

Compared to the controversial congressional legislation, the list didn’t exactly grab headlines. While legislation calls for desalination plants and dam-building, the conservation groups’ ideas include things like allowing the Internal Revenue Service to include “water donations” as a tax write-off, and encouraging the Bureau of Reclamation to fill and draw down reservoirs based on actual conditions rather than set-in-stone calendar dates.

Still, while Congress’ plans have stalled, these smaller administrative solutions may be gaining traction. Several were implemented in 2015, including an expansion of the Bureau of Reclamation’s “WaterSMART” program. Among other things, WaterSMART grants have been used to reduce leakage in aging irrigation canals. That keeps more water in rivers for fish and wildlife. A project on Montana’s Sun River saved 10,000 acre-feet of water annually.

Hague believes that the Obama administration will keep quietly plugging away at similar drought resilience projects in 2016 — stuff that doesn’t get much attention, but could have big impacts. And lawmakers, for their part, say they’re committed to doing better. Nine Western senators, both Democrat and Republican, wrote a letter asking Murkowski (who chairs the committee though which all drought bills must pass) not to give up on drought negotiations. Murkowski’s spokesman, Michael Tadeo, wrote that the senator has no plans to do so: Drought is among her top priorities for the year. 

Yet in a Congress where snowballs are held up to disprove global warming, there are fears that this winter’s rain and snow might derail progress on drought negotiations.

“There’s been this pattern,” Hague says. “There’s a drought, and people freak out about it and work on solutions, and then it rains, and they forget about it. And then the cycle repeats itself.”

Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

Last fall, when California voters were about to go to the polls to weigh in on a complex proposition to improve the state’s water situation, some environmental groups balked. Though the bill—Proposition 1, to authorize the raising of $7.5 billion on the bond market—promised money for better parks, more wildlife habitat and the restoration of urbanized rivers (like maybe the one that runs through Los Angeles), it also set aside $2.7 billion for “water storage projects” that have a “public benefit.”

It was never quite clear what those words meant. Would the $2.7 billion become seed money for two new dams on the state agricultural industry’s wish list? Or would it go toward groundwater storage projects that keep water closer to home? The bill was written to be “tunnel neutral,” meaning it wouldn’t automatically pay for a pair of canals that Gov. Jerry Brown wants to build, to draw water from the Sacramento River and ostensibly reduce pumping from the ecologically stressed California Delta. But it wasn’t “tunnel negative,” either.

“It’s mystery meat,” said Adam Scow, California director of the activist nonprofit group Food and Water Watch, about that $2.7 billion pot.

Nevertheless, with Brown’s juggernaut of support lined up behind it, the water bill passed easily, with 67 percent of the vote. So now Prop 1’s opponents have a new cause: Riding herd on the nine governor-appointed members of the California Water Commission, the people who will decide how the money gets spent.

Formed in 1913 to referee water-rights wars in the state, the California Water Commission now exists to advise the Department of Water Resources and supervise the State Water Project. In its current incarnation, it includes at least one bona fide environmental leader of a conservationist bent, Kim Delfino, of Defenders of Wildlife, but also one passionate advocate for Central Valley farmers and their water rights, grower Joe Del Bosque, who last year got President Obama to visit his farm with a tweeted invitation. Also on the commission are a Silicon Valley contractor, an engineer, a water-district manager, an educator and a consultant. Joseph Byrne, a Los Angeles attorney specializing in California environmental law, was appointed in 2010 and serves as its current chair.

The commission has just begun to deliberate on that $2.7 billion; much of the January 21 meeting was spent setting rules for that process. Members of the public who showed up to speak weighed in heavily on the conservationist side, warning against big water-storage projects that will exacerbate California’s already unkeepable promises to farmers. Such endeavors “have a long history of claimed environmental benefits that didn’t come to pass,” said Barry Nelson, of Western Water Strategies, formerly of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Tim Stroshane, of the Environmental Water Caucus, pushed for expanding the use of existing groundwater basins, such as the one in north Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley; “investing in them will lead to less demand for imported water,” he told the commission. “Real water reliability would result.”

The commission has a deadline to finish its Prop 1 work by the end of December 2016, at which point—assuming they meet that deadline—California may have moved a tiny bit toward a more sustainable water system. Or the state will have continued farther along its current path, in which no storm, no matter how big, can make a dent in the grindingly persistent drought. Already, agricultural interests are circling the wagons around their share, accusing Brown of reneging on his promises by allocating $532 million in Prop 1 funds for stream restoration, recycling projects, aquifer cleanup and other environmentally friendly ideas. Never mind that such projects were in the bill from the start—they are, after all, what got environmentalists on board—and don’t cut into the water storage funds.

No doubt the water commissioners, too, will anger some segment of the state’s population, no matter what they decide “water storage” means for California’s future. But they also have a chance to set the state on a course toward fewer crises, and hence fewer water conflicts. As Department of Water Resources director Mark Cowin said at the commission’s January meeting, the “new responsibilities that come with Prop 1 make these probably the most important years in the California Water Commission’s history.”

The commission may not, as the Pacific Institute’s chief water wonk, Peter Gleick, rightly argued last November, be able to solve all of California’s problems with Prop 1 funds. But their work might just mark the start of asking the right questions.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment