Missing from this year’s water debate: Celeste Cantú knows a cheaper, better way

150 150 Justin Ewers

Santa Ana River in Redlands, CA (Photo Credit: cyclotourist/Flickr)

Celeste Cantú thought it would be settled by now—especially with the drought revealing just how much a bold gamble on a new, collaborative approach to managing water has paid off in some parts of the state. But more than a decade after California made its first successful investment in integrating water-related projects—encouraging water districts in the Santa Ana River watershed to pool resources to better manage their projects, an effort that has protected 5.9 million people from the prospect of water shortages—lawmakers are still wrestling with how to make this straightforward approach work in other regions.

This year’s drought has injected new urgency into the debate over how to build a sustainable water system in California—with the expanding water crisis inspiring a range of proposals, from emergency legislation to a half dozen huge new water bonds. For Cantú, though, a former executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, the most effective response to today’s crisis may lie in the past—almost 14 years ago, when the state first handed California’s diverse regions the authority to take on the state’s water challenges.

When voters approved a $2 billion water bond in 2000, most of the funds were distributed in the traditional way—scattered among water projects all over California. But for a group of five Orange County and Inland Empire water districts, the measure tried a new approach. The water managers of the Santa Ana River watershed—collectively known as the Santa Ana River Watershed Authority (SAWPA)—were authorized to spend $235 million on “integrated” projects along the entire river, from forest programs in the mountains around Big Bear to conservation and flood control programs in the valleys below.

This bold gamble—handing state resources over to a regional authority to accomplish a state goal—had its skeptics at the time, but it has paid off handsomely. The SAWPA collaboration—which has invested billions of dollars in water storage, groundwater cleanup, water recycling, and stormwater management—has allowed the region to store and conserve so much water that cities from San Bernardino to Newport Beach have hardly been impacted at all by this year’s drought.

The challenge: Making it work elsewhere

Applying the lessons learned by SAWPA—and encouraging the rest of the state’s more than 600 water and irrigation districts to adopt an approach now known as “integrated regional water management”—has proved harder than Cantú expected.

“We faced the same challenge then as we face now,” says Cantú, who became general manager of SAWPA in 2006. “If we’re going to grow, to accommodate all of these new people and feed them and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and do all the things we want to do, we have to take a more integrated, holistic view. We need to deal with our problems from the headwaters, where the water comes from, all the way down the valleys where the people and capital are. Pooling resources is cheaper, the transaction costs are less, and we’ve had huge success doing it. It’s just a better way to go.”

Over the last decade, though, the state has found it surprisingly difficult to replicate this approach—though not for lack of trying. Two years after the passage of the 2000 bond, another measure, Proposition 50, attempted to institutionalize the SAWPA concept—making $500 million available for regional water projects. In 2006, yet another measure, Proposition 84, raised the bar even higher with a $1 billion pot of grant funds for integrated regional water management.

The problem then—and the problem now, says Cantú—was the state’s inability to define exactly what it means by “integration.” “When Prop 84 passed, everybody wanted that money and there were mini-SAWPA’s created all over the place,” says Cantú. “But they didn’t form like they should have: The law said the projects should be organized by ‘watersheds.’ They should be hydrologically based and we envisioned maybe 13 or 15 groups on the scale and scope of SAWPA.  But those relationships just didn’t exist in most regions. The flood control and drinking water people didn’t hang out together. The state [Department of Water Resources] tried…They said ‘it can’t just be you and two friends.’ But eventually the pressure got to be too much and California saw a proliferation of groups.”

This tug of war led to the creation of dozens of “regional” water management efforts that sliced watersheds into pieces—interrupting the natural hydrology and hampering efforts at integration. Today, a decade after SAWPA first received state funding for regional watershed projects, California still has hundreds of water and irrigation districts, each with their own water supply or water quality projects, all of whom act largely independently.

This, then, is one of the central challenges this year’s water legislation must sort out. “Now we need to figure out how to push these groups together and allow larger, more effective watershed-based groups to emerge,” says Cantú. “The question is: How do we get back to the original idea—to get all of the water managers in a watershed to work together on projects that involve the same drops of water?”

What’s to be done? The Economic Summit approach

With the drought worsening earlier this year, the California Economic Summit sent a letter to the governor and Legislative leaders outlining 11 actions the state could take to encourage regions to craft effective strategies for addressing the water crisis.

Cantú believes three Summit proposals, in particular, aimed at encouraging integrated water management will be vital to the state’s long-term sustainability:

1. Give cities guidance on conservation: To encourage cities to incorporate water conservation into their long-term plans, the Summit recommended that the Office of Planning and Research include specific guidance on water-use efficiency in its soon-to-be-updated General Plan Guidelines. “There’s a real opportunity to use general plans to hardwire cities to think about how land-use actions affect water quality and quantity,” says Cantú. “Currently there is no coordination between a city’s General Plan and the Urban Water Management Plan prepared by water retailers. There’s actually a deterrent: The first thing water districts will tell you is that they don’t want to step on cities’ land-use toes.”

For regions like the Inland Empire, for example, where 60 percent of the water comes from underground—from groundwater banks filled by water percolating from the surface—this disconnect could have devastating impacts. “The more you hardscape, the more you stop that hydrology,” says Cantú. “We can’t wake up 20 years from now and say, well, we paved everything over and now there’s no water. We have to plan better, starting now.”

2. Allow for flexible funding to support integrated projects: Cantú believes the Summit effort to provide more flexible funding for regional water projects will bump up against one major obstacle: Proposition 218, a measure approved by voters in 1996 that restricts the ability of local authorities to raise fees to invest in new types of water infrastructure.

In her view, broadening the definition of “water service” under the law—something the governor is reportedly considering for stormwater, flood control, and groundwater projects—would not only open the door to a new wave of investment in infrastructure. It would also finally give water districts a financial incentive to integrate their efforts. “Right now we treat water like an assembly line and we manage water like we’re building cars,” says Cantú. “Water managers who deliver freshwater or drinking water—that’s all they do. They don’t think about stormwater or downstream water pollution because that’s somebody else’s job. Changing Prop 218 could give us a chance to get to one big silo I call ‘water management.’ That’s where we need to be.”

3. Use water bond to encourage integration: Cantú believes this year’s water bond, with a price tag between $6 billion and $12 billion, will probably be the biggest single investment the state will make in its water infrastructure for the next decade—with roughly a third of these resources going to watershed projects, from ecosystem protection to integrated regional water management.

Cantú sees two opportunities in the bond to avoid repeating the mistakes the state has made over the last decade—most of them in the implementation of efforts to improve the way regions manage watersheds.

“We need to have a very high standard as to what qualifies as integration,” she says. “It can’t just be ‘I tell you and you tell me what you’re doing.’” Cantú is skeptical, for example, of bond proposals to allocate watershed protection funds to state conservancies—an approach that differs from the SAWPA model. “I don’t think conservancies are necessarily what’s proven most successful,” she says. “You can understand why: They have an institutional design where they’re restricted like a public agency—they don’t have the flexibility of a private business.” Cantú believes some regions may have entities better equipped to encourage collaboration among water stakeholders. (One bond proposal authored by Asm. Anthony Rendon is experimenting with this approach.)

Cantú also believes the word “regions” should be downplayed in the bond—perhaps with “watershed” taking its place. “I’ve always lobbied against having ‘regional’ in there. I think funding should be purely hydrological,” she says. “‘Regional’ opens the door to a cultural, political, and social definition. I don’t have a problem lumping together tiny coastal watersheds into one for economies of scale. But you can’t bifurcate a watershed—you can’t cut one in half—and manage it well. All through the Central Valley, where it’s important to link headwaters with valleys, every single one of them is cut. We need to get to the point where we manage water by the drop: The drop comes first, and we manage it the way the drop rolls.”

In Cantú’s view, the time has come for the state to relearn the lesson of a decade ago—and to give California’s watershed managers the authority they need to solve their share of the state’s water challenges.


Justin Ewers

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