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Cooperation Among Water Agencies Brings Wave of Success: How Can Your Agency Ride the Wave?

By Kristin Withrow posted 11-30-2021 10:58 AM

Pond with water pump building
You don’t have to live in California long before someone brings up water.  The topic is nearly as ubiquitous as commenting on the weather when making small talk. The history of California’s water struggles, particularly the “north vs south” mentality of it, runs far, far back.  The perpetuation of dogmatic opinions began in the early 1900’s and is, perhaps, even more entrenched today.  Yet the statewide political battles over water that plague our state don’t seem to bring us any closer to more cohesive management of this shared resource.

As a brief history and overview, there are two main water management systems in California.  The oldest is the Central Valley Project (CVP), which was dithered over and fought about for 80 years before its inception in 1933.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was what ultimately enabled the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to put the project in forward motion.  It is a series of water management systems, dams, lakes, canals, rivers and pipelines that today provide irrigation water for over 3 million acres of farmland.  It includes the Shasta, Trinity River and American River divisions in the Sacramento Valley and the Delta and canal systems, San Joaquin and Stanislaus Rivers and offstream storage and aqueducts in the San Joaquin Valley. 

The other primary management system is the California State Water Project (SWP) operated by the California Department of Water Resources, which was established in 1960.  The SWP provides drinking water for over 23 million people.  The portion of water drawn into the system is allocated 70% to southern California and the bay area and 30% to the central valley for irrigation.  It begins with the Feather River and Oroville Dam and flows into the Sacramento river, Delta, the north and bay aqueducts and into the California aqueduct which in turn branches into Coastal, West and East sections.

Creek with mountains in background
These main systems all work with surface water to capture and store rain and snow in the wet seasons, mitigate flooding while the rains come down, then provide a critical water source in the dry season.  It would be nice to think California could rely on its nearly 1,500 reservoirs to store enough water to satisfy its needs all year long; but California also has nearly 39.5 million residents (up from a mere 5.9 million when the CVP was planned in 1933), and provides more than 400 commodity crops to supply a significant portion of all fruits, nuts and vegetables to the entire United States, not to mention what we send to other countries.

California added to its water management systems requirements in 2014 with the Sustainable Groundwater Act of 2014.  It turns out much of the central valley and parts of southern California have vast aquifers beneath them.  These aquifers have capacity to store water without losing it to evaporation as lakes do.  Naturally, the aquifers also support the structure and habitats of California.  In some regions where groundwater has been overpumped, towns are literally sinking into the vacant spaces left by the missing water.

pond with  mountain in backgroundThis is a high-level view of the vastly complex water systems of our state; yet it provides a snapshot of the need for collaboration statewide. Strategies must be employed to replenish groundwater that has been used over dry months (this is called a “recharge” of the groundwater), outgoing rates of flow and temperatures of natural waterways must be monitored, and endangered species must have their habitats protected to ensure the proper function of the natural spaces around us.  People need drinking water and farmers and ranchers need irrigation.

It’s a lot of moving parts.

While the hard feelings and entrenched notions persist, one region in the state has made tremendous effort to bring neighboring districts into a wide partnership that has been paying off in more ways than one.
The Upper Santa Ana River flows through San Bernardino and Riverside Counties in southern California.  About 15 years ago, the agencies that are all dependent on the river as a water source began to understand their common need for collaboration.  Despite years of fighting amongst themselves, as is the more common tactic used in the state when it comes to the issue of water, they realized the flowing water didn’t recognize district boundaries, the groundwater aquifer didn’t store water in neat pools under each district, and the species they were tasked with protecting we not interested in living within a prescribed jurisdictional boundary.  The natural resources they manage were uncooperative at staying within each district’s purview and therefore required collaboration in a regional manner to pull the tasks together.

Heather Dyer, general manager of San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District (SBVMWD), has been a pivotal collaborative force. She began her career as a fish biologist and has risen to the task of bringing the human species together in their common quest for water security and biodiversity. Dyer came to realize, “we are connected in a shared resource,” and the agencies she collaborated with needed to figure out “how to use the resources we have to cohabitate.”

Several entities have formed, all on the shared value of collaboration.  The San Bernardino Groundwater Council with its dozen members comprised of water districts, conservation districts, Loma Linda University, and several cities have coalesced behind a common goal: long term viability and sustainability of the region’s groundwater supplies.   The Upper Santa Ana River Sustainable Resources Alliance supports a fully integrated environmental compliance program, including a Habitat Conservation Plan, tributaries restoration, mitigation banking of water and environmental permitting efforts in the region to ensure a secure source of water for residents and businesses alike.

Large water pump valves in a row
Dyer is betting on this cohesiveness to score their next big win. This spring, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a low-cost financing program’s call for projects unexpectedly early.  Dyer and her team got to work, pulling in the neighboring agencies to bring together a comprehensive regional projects package.  Separately, each entity may have a shot at winning project funding; collectively, they are betting they will receive a higher rating with the projects encompassing a whole-of-resource approach.  Their regional package includes projects for recycled water, stormwater capture, snow and lake level management, groundwater and habitat.  In 6 short weeks, they’d created a joint powers agency (JPA) and submitted the entire bundle for consideration. The broad demographic includes consideration for other high priority areas that are scored in the application process, including areas with solar spaces and disadvantaged communities.

Regional special districts can use the San Bernardino Valley shared water cooperation model to break the inertia and get a spirit of cooperation moving. This whole-of-resource approach provides a more comprehensive outcome of efficiency and water security for the people the districts serve.

Dyer said step one is “facing the reality of your situation.”  Whether you agree or disagree with the state water infrastructure in place, agencies are not going to be able to undo more than 8 decades of state water policy to go their own way.  Your personal feelings about the protection of endangered species will not topple the Endangered Species Act that has been in place for 48 years.  The reality of the situation is that our state has a certain infrastructure, regulations and requirements that agencies are bound by.  The reality is also that when we pull together, we move in the same direction and each individual effort becomes more streamlined.  “Our connectedness builds our resilience,” said Dyer.

Step two is to bring agencies together.  Gather in person when possible with the goal of finding commonalities and defining the challenges each agency faces.  Define, for each entity involved, what a “win” looks like.   Determine what each entity needs, and what resources it can contribute.  Be mindful that a Board of Directors is looking for initiatives from a value perspective.  Define the ancillary benefits, added efficiencies and broader benefits that come with new collaboration. 

Step three: Be Patient.  When you get frustrated or fall into old habits of competitiveness, add more patience.  Everyone who works in local government knows new ideas, projects and partnerships take time.

Finally, look for your champion.  As you work through the first few steps, be aware of those individuals who are rising to the top.  They’re the ones who maintain the composure of the group, who keep the various players on task and amenable to the cooperative effort being asked of them.  Your champion will be organized, energetic and able to rally people to the call for cooperation. Every Californian, in every water agency, city and resource conservation district, will ultimately have one goal: the commitment to a resilient, long-term water supply for 39.5 million people who call California home.