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These Districts Are Taking a 'Big Table' Approach to Permits - and it May Benefit Everyone in the Long Run

By Kristin Withrow posted 10-07-2022 12:40 PM

Grey table made from puzzle pieces with empty matching chairsBy Kristin Withrow, CSDA Communications Specialist

California is the third largest state, covering 163,696 square miles. Within its borders, it holds prairies, woodlands, deserts, mountains, valleys, rivers, streams, wetlands, borders the Pacific Ocean and is home to some of the tallest and oldest trees on the planet. Our geographic diversity and natural beauty position California at the forefront of the effects of climate change.

Special districts throughout the state are assessing the changes anticipated from climate experts and taking proactive measures to enhance, defend and protect California’s land and its people. Many of the projects undertaken involve large swaths of land, multiple regulatory agencies, special districts, and municipalities, plus contractors that must coalesce to complete the needed work.

Identify the Challenges and Provide Recommended Solutions

The large-scale environmental projects needed to move projects from their status quo to an adapted version in preparation for climate change posts a gauntlet of complexity for agencies as they define project scopes that run through multiple jurisdictions. Enter the Little Hoover Commission, created in 1962 with a focus on the California State Government and Economy, and a mission to provide independent state oversight. According to their website, the Little Hoover Commission is tasked with making “recommendations to the Governor and Legislature to promote economy, efficiency and improved service in state operations.” In its February 2017 report, they tackled the state’s permit processes. It noted layers of complexity between agencies that were effectively derailing or stalling important progress. In the report, the “Big Table” approach noted the wide pool of regulators and the lack of meetings to bring them into alignment on their requirements.

Commission chair Pedro Nava is quoted in the report, summing up the lack of coordination and communication between agencies.

When I read through your material one of the things that jumped out at me, and I’m not sure everybody appreciates this, is that not only do you have regional authorities, but you also have state authorities and federal, who all have permitting requirements. So it isn’t that you just have three. You have within each of those entities different branches of departments that are going to have permitting requirements. And I’m assuming within those different branches, there are deadlines that impact when things are supposed to be done.

The Commission noted “no formal process or routine expectations” of agencies coming together in regular meetings to coordinate efficiency into the cross-agency permit process. In the report, the Commission made four recommendations that can be summed up:

  1. Formalize a big table approach to bring agencies together
  2. State permitting agencies should provide a “cookbook” with expectations and requirements upfront
  3. Formalize a dispute resolution process
  4. Allow some flexibility in endowments to finance climate mitigation land projects


East Bay Recreational and Park District’s Experience

The East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) is the largest landowner in the east bay with 125 acres, including 55 miles of shoreline along the San Francisco Bay. Among their many projects and responsibilities, they’ve encountered significant permit challenges with their Wetland Mitigation project and their Vegetation Management Program. The wetland mitigation project involves the restoration of habitat along the bay to create a natural “horizontal levee” of habitat. EBRPD deputy general manager Dr. @Ana Alvarez noted, “the restored habitat can resolve issues of rising bay waters, attenuate king tides and mitigate flooding” along the bay. The benefit of the restoration will be enjoyed by the public with access to the bay trail, but also provide protection to agencies such as the Bay Area Regional Transit (BART) with a station in the flood zone, as well as a water utility agency that could incur damage in rising floodwater.

Marsh pier at sunset
EBRPD is one of the only agencies to successfully complete the permit gauntlet, after more than a decade of effort and millions of dollars, to reduce wildfire fuel vegetation in the region. Dr. Alvarez pointed out, “the CalVTP (California Vegetation Treatment Program) has not only reduced wildfire fuel vegetation, it has also improved habitat and made our open spaces better by letting in sunlight.” The University of California Berkeley, City of Oakland, and East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) have all sought similar permits that were denied; yet will all benefit in the case of a wildfire that is slower and less intense and therefore more able to be extinguished. As a result of the vegetation program and the growing concern of intense fires, EBMUD and others in the area have come to the table to contract for satellite imagery that will allow EBRPD to leverage their permit to benefit the entire region.


Despite the cost, slow pace and challenge of bringing agencies together, Dr. Alvarez credits recent progress to Governor Newsom for his leadership and orders directing the government to clearly, and with urgency, move forward to place nature-based solutions at the forefront of its climate adaptation efforts. This signal resulted in the California Natural Resources Agency’s “Cutting the Green Tape” initiative to “increase the pace and scale of ecological restoration and stewardship by amending and streamlining various government processes.”  In short, the state has shifted away from individual permits for each agency involved in a project and toward a more streamlined process of rendering one permit based on a biological opinion inclusive of the natural resource the project is based upon.


Valley Water’s Experience

Santa Clara Valley Water District (“Valley Water”) is in the midst of a 10-year project necessitating multiple phases across agencies that will stretch the limits of urgency. The Anderson Dam Seismic Retrofit project that began as a dam expansion in 2012 evolved into a full replacement project in 2016 when a fault line was discovered directly beneath the dam. A large earthquake had the potential to cause a failure which would result in flooding of a large section of the community downstream. The situation was made more intricate with the 2017 Oroville spillway failure and subsequent standards adjustment by the state. Valley Water district manager @John Bourgeois put the project into perspective, “We have 10 reservoirs in our jurisdiction and 9 of them could fit inside the Anderson Reservoir.” The reservoir was drained for the complete removal of the original dam built in 1950. While under construction, the removal of the dam means the downstream inhabitants (both human and animal) are at risk of flooding in the rainy season. Valley Water is managing the permit process for the interim flood control mechanisms while also juggling the permit process for the larger dam project. Bourgeois stated, “The project necessitated the big table approach with monthly working group meetings of regulators and partners, meetings with state executives, and ad hoc meetings of subcommittees to keep everyone together toward the end goal.”

Construction crew at bottom of spillway

Projects of this scope can’t be expected to move swiftly; however, one thing Bourgeois from Valley Water and Alvarez from EBRPD agree on is the need for increased staffing at the permit processing agencies. Both districts provide funding for staff at regulatory agencies to ensure their climate resilience projects receive dedicated attention in the permit process. In line with the Little Hoover Commission recommendations, as well as the “Cutting the Green Tape” initiative, flexibility in process to allow special district proposed climate adaptation and mitigation projects to have a different “lane” than residential or commercial projects intent on an endgame of profit would be largely beneficial to the public.

One thing is clear: The historical buildup of layers of regulation and agency complexities is impinging the needed climate adaptation momentum. Special district leaders in the state are driving needed change through inclusivity. Bringing everyone to the table; big and little districts, municipalities, contractors, regulatory agencies, and state executives, to break down barriers and build California’s climate resilience will ensure we all continue to live in a state filled with biological diversity and beauty