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What Will It Take To Get San Diego Out Of This Water Crisis?


A discussion of the $11.14 billion general obligation bond proposal that would provide funding for California's aging water infrastructure and for projects and programs to address the ecosystem and water supply issues in California.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. While forecasters are still keeping their fingers crossed for El Nino rainfall this winter, it's likely California will be entering another year of drought in 2010. That is the bad news.

Some legislators and water agency officials say the good news about water in California is the passage of a comprehensive package of bills designed to protect the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta and create a stable water supply for California in the years to come. Voters will find themselves in the middle of these two water issues next November as they are asked to approve an $11 billion bond measure to finance the water projects. Here to tell us more about how San Diego might benefit from the new Delta Protection and Water Supply bill and about our ongoing drought are my guests. Lester Snow is director of the California Department of Water Resources. And Lester Snow, welcome to These Days.

LESTER SNOW (Director, California Department of Water Resources): Oh, thank you. Glad to be here today.

CAVANAUGH: Dennis Cushman is the assistant general manager for the San Diego County Water Authority. Dennis, welcome to the show.

DENNIS CUSHMAN (Assistant General Manager, San Diego County Water Authority): Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher represents California’s 75th District. Assemblyman Fletcher, good morning.

NATHAN FLETCHER (California State Assembly, 75th District): Good morning, Maureen, thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: We invite our listeners to join the conversation. Are you prepared to conserve water again next year? And how do you think you’ll be voting on this $11 billion water reform package? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Director Snow, if I could start with you. There was an article in the paper about this week, the California Department of Water Resources announced an initial allocation of 5% for next year, the lowest since the State Water Project started back in 1967. What does that actually mean?

SNOW: Well, it’s a couple of parts to it. One, to be clear that the first allocation we make every year is very preliminary. It obviously is happening before the snowpack arrives but it’s the first time we give an indication to our contractors throughout the state how much water we may have available. And when we look at the condition of reservoirs, the condition of the watershed, and the regulations that we face in the Delta, it’s not an optimistic outlook, and so it is the lowest allocation we’ve ever made this time of year.

CAVANAUGH: Now, allocation at 5%, what is allocated to whom? Where is this water coming from?

SNOW: Well, the State Water Project develops water in the Sacramento Valley at Lake Oroville. The water flows down through the Sacramento into the Delta and then is pumped south through a canal system to our 29 contractors. And they hold contracts for 4 million acre feet of water, and that’s what they have requested for next year, 2010. So when we say our preliminary allocation is 5%, we’re saying at this point all we can promise is 5% of what you have asked for.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So that’s – Now that you’ve explained it, that truly is alarming. Should we be concerned in San Diego and Southern California about our water supply next year?

SNOW: Well, there’s two parts to that. I mean, I think everybody in California should be concerned about the condition and the unreliability of the overall water system. Now in individual locations, and San Diego is a good example of that, there’s really been decades of investment in other supplies, waste water recycling conservation, water transfers from Imperial Valley, to try to buffer against this, so it has an impact but because of investment in the local scene, it doesn’t have as dramatic of an impact. But if we don’t address these issues for the long term, these conditions, conflict between the economy and the environment, climate changes, what reduces snowpack, this will get worse and worse over the years.

CAVANAUGH: Dennis Cushman, I want to move to you, if I may. You’re, of course, assistant general manager for San Diego County Water Authority. What is – what are we doing here to prepare for a significant water shortage?

CUSHMAN: Well, we’ve taken a number of important steps over the years, including earlier this year, on July first, entering a water supply shortage allocation under this region’s drought management plan. And under that, each one of the 24 water retail agencies and cities in San Diego that serve water implemented their drought management ordinances and put into place mandatory water use restrictions to go hand-in-hand with the ongoing voluntary conservation that our three million people in the county are participating in.

CAVANAUGH: Now, when you heard that you were getting a 5% allocation from the State Water Fund, what – does that make you concerned?

CUSHMAN: Well, certainly everyone should be concerned but as Director Snow mentioned, it’s only the first week of December.


CUSHMAN: Most of the winter is still ahead of us. And the initial allocation, I think, is a conservative one and appropriately so, given the set of circumstances the Department of Water Resources is looking at. So, yes, a 5% initial allocation is – should be alarming to everybody and underscores the absolute crisis we have in the Delta and the need to fix the Delta and that’s really the focus of that landmark legislation passed by the legislature four weeks ago.

CAVANAUGH: Right, and speaking of that landmark legislation, Assemblyman Fletcher, up in Sacramento, passed a package of bills. Now this reform package would overhaul the state’s water infrastructure. Tell us a little bit more about what’s involved in this water reform package.

FLETCHER: Sure. There’s a number of things that are in it. I mean, the centerpiece and the piece that’ll be discussed the most is going to be the bond and – because the bond is going to have to go before the voters to get approval, hopefully approval in a lot of our minds. But then there are other pieces. There was a piece of legislation that dealt with governance, there was one that dealt with groundwater monitoring, there was one that dealt with conservation, and then there was a clean-up bill that kind of had a handful of different issues in it in addition to the bond. And the belief is, I think, I think out of the legislature is while the public has every right to be very frustrated with the legislature’s inability to tackle big problems on a number of issues, water would be the one exception where you saw a legislative body come together in a bipartisan fashion and really tackle a lot of the problems we face, conservation, water supply, water delivery, overall health of the ecosystem of the Bay Delta, hopefully in an effort to fix this problem so that generations down the road they won’t be having these discussions about these drastic consequences of our inability to deliver water.

CAVANAUGH: Assemblyman Fletcher, I said before that this package, the voters are going to be asked to approve…


CAVANAUGH: …a bond measure for more than $11 billion.


CAVANAUGH: That’s a pretty high price tag. What do we get for that?

FLETCHER: Well, you’re going to get a number of things. And as you go through, we can walk through the various break-up but I think for the first time—and I think Lester and Dennis can chime in on this, too, but, you know, for one of the first times, you’re going to see actual water infrastructure. You know, 70% of the rain and precipitation that fall in California flow right out into the ocean. I always talked about our water problems. California doesn’t have a water shortage problem. I lived in Africa for a year; I know why Africa has a water shortage, there’s no water. California doesn’t have a water shortage problem, we have a water storage and a water transportation problem. And I think that this bond will get to the heart of storing water in the wet years and helping deliver water from where it’s in excess to where it’s needed more and, ultimately, that’ll deal with the underlying structural problems. And, Maureen, I’m confident the voters will pass it because water’s on their minds right now. I mean, I had farmers come into my office. They say, well, our farm’s been in our family for 100 years and we’re stumping our almond trees. I mean, this is an issue that’s hitting people directly. They’re seeing their rates go up, they’re seeing water rationing and so I think in that context, the voters will be willing to say we want to invest in the future of California and we want to invest in a steady supply of reliable, clean water.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Lester Snow, as director of the California Department of Water Resources, you have spent the last few days here in Mission Valley at the Association of California Water Agencies. They’re having their annual conference here. What sense have you gotten about the reaction to this water legislation?

SNOW: Well, there’s, I think, probably two broad categories of reaction. One is, I guess I’d call it excitement that – as Assembly member Fletcher just articulated, the legislature, over the last year or so hasn’t been able to deal with some of the critical issues in the state and this is a notable exception. And so after decades of neglect in the state on water infrastructure, we’re seeing the legislature step up in a bipartisan way and pass a number of policy bills and a major bond to put on the ballot and so I think there’s optimism about that. The other side, though, is this means a lot of change and change makes people nervous. And so I think there’s those that are concerned about specifically how the policy bills affect them, and so there’s a lot of discussion going on over the last couple days and through tomorrow on exactly what does this mean, how does it affect my water rights? How might I get access to bond funds, should the bond pass, so they’re spending a lot of time on what I would call education and understanding people’s concern and perspective water matters.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking listener calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Christine is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Christine. Welcome to These Days.

CHRISTINE (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Thank you. Good morning. I was just calling to comment that I think that we don’t need to consider if we can handle conserving water in California next year. It shouldn’t be a question of that, it should be we conserve water in California every year and I would definitely vote for the measure to preserve our water supply and keep it going for future generations. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. Thank you for the call, Christine. That was short and sweet. Assemblyman Fletcher, I wonder, I think a lot of people have in their minds what – okay, this bill might be great for the Sacramento Delta and so forth but where does San Diego come into this?

FLETCHER: Well, San Diego – And I’ll just tell you, when I was a candidate, Maureen, and I was out talking to leaders in the region and I said, if I’m fortunate to win, what’s the most important thing I can work on and be a part of for San Diego, and I’ll never forget a conversation with Mayor Jerry Sanders where I said, if I were to win, what’s the one thing I could do for the City of San Diego? He said, water. And I said, water? And he said, water. And as I made my way around different groups, they said this is the most important thing. Business groups, agriculture groups, all of them said the same thing because California’s at the end of the spigot. And Dennis and the folks at the Water Authority deserve a lot of credit. They’ve done everything they can within their control. They had a canal lining deal, historic deal with Imperial Valley, they spent money raising the San Vicente Dam, they’ve built the Olivenhain Dam, they did the water treatment in Lake Hodges. We’ve done desalinzation. San Diego’s conserved perhaps more than any region of the state. And so San Diego’s done everything within its power and it was time for the rest of the state, and in my opinion, to step up and build water infrastructure and provide for a system that supplies the economic needs of our entire state. And so I really think – I think San Diego’s going to benefit, A, from having a healthy system because we’re at the end of the spigot. And then there’s some specific things in there. There’s some money for the San Vicente Dam, there’s a number of pots of money that San Diego will be able to compete for. But ultimately, what we need is, we need a system that more effectively stores water in the wet years and more effectively brings it from the north where it’s in excess down to the south where it’s needed. And so I feel like for San Diego citizens to say you – we did a great thing and we did everything within our power and this now gets the rest of the state going and I think it will have a tremendous benefit to our economy and to our agriculture and to our environment.

CAVANAUGH: And, Dennis Cushman, as assistant general manager here in San Diego County Water Authority, we do actually important 80% of the water that we use down here. I think many people are familiar with that statistic. As Assemblyman Fletcher noted that we do have some money in this package of reform bills to increase the size of the San Vicente Dam to store water for San Diego, how important is it to increase the storage, our storage capacity?

CUSHMAN: Well, it’s a critical and vital component of this region’s overall long term water supply reliability plan. The San Vicente Dam raise, the largest dam raise project in U.S. history, will add 152,000 acre feet of additional water storage right here in the San Diego region. 100,000 of that will be set aside for carryover storage so in wet years, as Assembly member Fletcher mentioned, where a lot of water’s available, we’ll sock that away, consider that our savings account. For what? For future years that we know we’ll have single dry years or multiple dry years like we’re in right now where we’ll be able to draw upon that supply to help sustain our $171 billion economy in San Diego County and the quality of life of three million people here.

CAVANAUGH: Now construction on that expansion is already underway, is that right?

CUSHMAN: Yes, the initial phases of construction started a short while ago but the main part of the construction, the dam raising itself, will start in about midpoint to latter point of next year and will continue for several years thereafter.

CAVANAUGH: Now let me talk, Mr. Cushman, if I may, about cost because this reform package lends, I think, about $100 million to the construction of that expansion for the San Vicente Dam. But it’s going to cost a lot more than $100 million, isn’t it?

CUSHMAN: Yes, the overall dam project is estimated to be at $568 million for the overall project. So this is one portion, an important portion of the funding necessary to finance that project.

CAVANAUGH: The City of San Diego just got another water rate increase I just – either earlier this week or last week, I don’t remember. Is that likely to continue then in order to pay for this project?

CUSHMAN: Well, yes, water rates are forecast to go up over the next several years to pay for this region’s investments not only in major infrastructure like the San Vicente Dam raise project but also in the new and additional water supplies that we’re bringing into the region through those historic agreements from the Imperial Valley, the canal lining project, all of those are rolled up into what we as water ratepayers invest in our region for a reliable water supply.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Caesar is on the line from San Diego. Good morning, Caesar. Welcome to These Days.

CAESAR (Caller, San Diego): Good morning, everyone. I’m an energy consultant. I’ve been an energy consultant for over 20 years and I can’t help but find the correlation between the two. I did a long project with SDG&E and the California Water Agency and MWD, all of the water agencies where we went out and we helped customers conserve water businesswise and residential, water and electricity. Every single customer was more concerned with electricity, trying to get them down to the lowest rate. They – We had a real tough time trying to convince them to save water. We would put in devices to help them and they didn’t care even if it was for free, they really didn’t care because most of them commented that water was dirt cheap. I think for us to consider this measure, I think we need to do demand side and supply side combined. You need to do both because you’ve got to give the right incentives, like a tiered rate structure. I think it’s time that we in San Diego notice that there are homes that use a lot more than the average and they pay the same rate per 100 cubic foot as I do and I only use 600 cubic foot in a month or in a bimonthly fee.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Caesar, we’ve got your point and Dennis Cushman is saying, no, that’s not correct.

CUSHMAN: Yes, virtually all of the water districts in San Diego County have long held – had tiered rate structures in place that keep the first tier, the lowest amount of water use at the lowest rate and then incrementally higher rates as a consumer uses more, a household uses more. That’s been in place, you know, for a very long time in San Diego County. The caller raises a point about the public embracing conservation and I’ve got some good statistics on that. We have invested, as a region, hundreds of millions of dollars in Southern California over the past two decades in the demand-side side of the equation with fixtures and incentives for people to conserve, as well as outreach and communication programs. And they’re paying handsome dividends for our region. Last year this region conserved 90,000 acre feet of water supply just through conservation measures alone. That amount of water is enough to supply 180,000 households their entire water supply for an entire year. So this region, I think, as Assembly member Fletcher mentioned earlier, is basically a world leader on urban water conservation. And in fact, right now, as we’ve asked the public to conserve water under our shortage allocation, they’ve done more than what we’ve asked for. So the public here in San Diego County, they get it. They understand our water supply situation, they are participating in the conservation, they are doing their part, pulling their weight and understand then that we not only live at the end of the pipeline, we live in a semi-arid region, that we all have to do our part and the public is responding and responding well.

CAVANAUGH: Director Snow, I know that you’re going to be addressing the water conference that’s going on here in Mission Valley and I believe that your talk is going to be directly about the State of California and the federal government, how they part – how they’re going to make a partnership as it relates to the Delta legislative package. How is the federal government involved?

SNOW: Well, in several regards. One, they operate an extremely large project in the state. It’s called the Central Valley Project. And they supply water primarily but not exclusively to agricultural areas in the San Joaquin Valley. They’re a major operator of the water system. They probably affect us more though in their regulatory role of protecting endangered species, especially fish that affects the way we divert water, as well as permitting and environmental review of projects that we may wish to do. And one of the problems that we have had is, I would say, a lack of high level policy engagement on the part of the feds. That has changed with the Obama administration where Secretary Ken Salazar has been out to the state a number of times and communicated with Governor Schwarzenegger and has made a commitment to be a full partner on fixing the water problems. And that is probably our biggest focus right now, is we have a major conflict between the environment and the economy in the Delta. We want to proceed with historic levels of habitat restoration, changing infrastructure in the Delta, building facilities. We need the federal government’s full commitment to work with us and essentially hold them accountable as much as local ratepayers hold their water districts accountable for making sure they have a reliable supply.


SNOW: And if I could add another…

CAVANAUGH: I’m sorry. Yes, please, go ahead.

SNOW: …another point just on the conservation front, one of the bills that Assembly member Fletcher mentioned is a conservation bill that has – it’s the first time the state has required conservation on a statewide basis. It has as an objective a 20% reduction in per capita use in the state and to connect that to energy, when you reduce per capita use by 20%, you actually also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from energy production by 1.4 million acre – million metric tons per year. And so all those things tie together, increased conservation reduces the amount of water that we need, reduces the energy load that we have, and is a pivotal part of our future water supply.

CAVANAUGH: Assemblyman Fletcher, since you are the overt politician here, I want to address this question to you. How likely do you think it is that this really huge and expensive bond measure will be passed by voters next year? We are in a recession now. We hope we won’t be in a recession by then but it’s possible. What do you think the chances are?

FLETCHER: Well, I’m optimistic about it and I would put it somewhere between, you know, the glass half full, glass half empty, optimist/pessimist. The realist knows at the end of the day someone has to wash the glass, and so I’m somewhere between the realist and the optimist. And the reason I think it’ll pass is because as I’m out – You know, Maureen, a year ago when I was a candidate, I was out, I never got asked about water, and it was somewhat frustrating because I wanted to work on it and I wanted to be on the water committee when elected and do these things. Never once in a year and a half of campaigning did I get asked about it. In this one year in office, there’s not a single public event I’ve done where I didn’t get asked about water. And so it’s on the minds of the voters and they’re aware. As Dennis mentioned, they’re aware of it, they’re in tune with it and I think when you put the question before the voters that says what should the state spend its money on, should it invest in critical infrastructure that’s vital to our environment, our agriculture and our economy? I think the people will come back and say yes. There were also a couple of things that were done in there, I mean, there’s a phasing in of bonds where, you know, it prohibits the sale of more than about $5 billion in bonds until 2015, which will have a smoothing effect. So as we pay off some bonds that’ll be new bonds that are sold and so it won’t have this drastic hit to the general fund like we’ve seen. But at the end of the day, in my opinion, there is no new government spending. The state has the money it has. The question is, are we going to invest in infrastructure or are we going to spend that money on other state bureaucracy. And I think when given that question, the people will say we want to have you invest in infrastructure for the long term good of our state. And so I’m optimistic. I think it’ll pass. It’ll be a difficult environment. It’s a tough fiscal time. This year’s going to be very, very bad from a budget standpoint but I think at the end of the day, the people of California want a safe, reliable, affordable supply of water and I think that’s what this package offers.

CAVANAUGH: And, Lester Snow, you have the last word. What if the bond doesn’t pass?

SNOW: Well, I share the optimism of Assembly member Fletcher but if it doesn’t pass in November 2010, then we’ll try it again. And the reason I say that with absolute certainty is the investment in our water infrastructure is not an option. In the worst case, we won’t invest and we will have a crisis and communities will be without water and the cost will be an order of magnitude greater than trying to invest ahead of time. So, hopefully, we pass it next year. If not, we will try again and, hopefully, be able to do it before we have an absolute disaster on our hands.

CAVANAUGH: Lester Snow, Dennis Cushman and Assemblyman Fletcher, thank you all for speaking with us about this today.

FLETCHER: Thank you, Maureen.


SNOW: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you all. And stay with us. These Days continues with the Weekend Preview in just a few moments.

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