Water solutions are all around us

May 10, 2013

By Adan Ortega Jr.

Adan Ortega Jr. of Fullerton, a water expert, was a keynote speaker at the April 18 meeting of the Association of Water Agencies 21st Annual Symposium held in Oxnard.  The symposium title was “Triumph or Tragedy? How Will We Shape Our Water Future?” It was held in partnership with Calleguas Municipal Water District, city of Oxnard Water Resources Division, Southern California Edison, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and United Water Conservation District. The symposium included two keynote speakers and a panel of water experts.

Ventura County is full of innovators and risk-takers, who, over the years, I have had the privilege to work with and observe. From the farmers and their representatives in the Ventura Agricultural Association and my fellow graduates of the Ag Leadership Program, to the Nature Conservancy’s efforts at Ormond Beach and Calleguas Municipal Water District’s brine line project.

Listening to the speakers today, I realized that they had been asked to explain systemic conflicts, in one way or another, between: 

* Priorities of water quality and supplies.

*  Centralized control vs. local interests.

*  North and south.

*  Regulations vs. needed projects.

*  California’s agricultural might, as it avoids becoming a “legacy industry.”

*  The unavoidable conflict of raising water rates. 

These debates are institutionalized and part of our culture as agency officials, environmentalists and farm advocates. A thought occurred to me: “The complexity of our problems is the measure of our blessings.”

Yet, we don’t all count the same blessings or value the same facts in the complexity. My summary of today’s discussion and a hopeful note is not based on a rosy prediction of the future, but in how we might build a robust water system that can withstand uncertainty through greater inclusion of present-day realities we may not be acknowledging.

We have these challenges because we have the good fortune of having an array of water resources that is unparalleled in modern history. It’s our “engineered system.” In a way, our quandary in Southern California is made of the cornucopia of plenty.

No matter where one is from California, we share a similar water story: When earlier generations of Californians ran into the quality and supply limits of local rivers and groundwater basins, they turned to imported water. They leveraged public debt to manageable levels. As the earlier generation developed imported water, the population was initially small, so they priced water cheaply in order to generate enough revenues to also pay for the operation and maintenance of aqueducts, dams, power-generating facilities to move the water and treatment plants. This has enabled the development of an economy with economic sectors most could hardly imagine a generation before -- and which we scarcely believe today.

The advent of the Owens Valley and Colorado River aqueducts gave rise to an agricultural sector in Los Angeles, for a time, unrivaled in California and the United States. Up until the 1950s, Los Angeles County was the No. 1 agricultural-income-generating county in the nation. Ventura County, Orange County and, later, San Diego County were right behind. Even today, San Diego County has the largest number of small farms in California.

Just imagine explaining to the miners and oilmen in the 1890s the coming microchip boom in the Silicon Valley and local economies built around just building houses in Riverside, the high desert and other previously sparsely inhabited areas -- all made possible by the availability of cheap water.

My point is that when you have the luxury of institutionalized debates, it is easy to forget the bounty that begets the questions. How do we keep water cheap, which is the undertone of many water debates, is not the same as how do we keep reliable water supplies for everyone. These factors also obscure and overlook what is changing in our midst. Please bear with me as I go into this.

The debate we heard today is essentially about what we have in terms of water and who gets it and at what price in the spectrum of cost and competing values. The spectrum of cost and values is based upon nearly 100-year-old assumptions about everything from hydrological patterns, impacts on the natural environment, population growth and the means of finance.

The quandaries arise from new technology and changes in our societal values that point to the fact that we may be outgrowing the conventional assumptions. We simply know more. Some prefer to embody it in a debate about climate change, which approaches religious fervor on both sides. Others dive into the details, and we all run ourselves in circles avoiding the hard answers and failure.

And as Sarah Owsowitz (panel speaker and attorney) told us, we have the California Environmental Quality Act that has introduced chaos and uncertainty into everything we plan. But that’s designed chaos. We also must deal with real chaos factors such as public and other opinion leaders who don’t understand or seem to care.

In this symposium, we have been told that public agencies, environmental groups and farming organizations have fed a cottage industry of businesses, including engineering firms, lobbyists (and, yes, lawyers), evolving debates on the basis of the old assumptions. With the money and power at stake, the conventional wisdom and established values are hard to give up. Yet, the debates that we have are in the face of the obvious, which is hard to see, as I will explain next.

In essence, our real choice is whether to wait for crisis to spur change or begin building a robust water system that can in fact be strengthened by any crisis that hits.

Nassim Taleb, author of “Anti-Fragile” and “The Black Swan,” argues that most successful living and organizational systems gain from disorder. It’s a form of natural selection where the variables of doom and success appear to literally come from nowhere -- nowhere that the collective intelligence of people can accurately sense or predict. Taleb calls the “doom out of nowhere” scenario “Black Swans.” According to Taleb, those who succeed in the midst of doom are “Anti-Fragile.” His point is that the “Anti-Fragile” are not only robust in withstanding chaos brought by “Black Swan” events, the “Anti- Fragile” actually feed on the chaos.

According to Taleb, in most cases, we are inching toward adaptation (and doom) without even noticing it. While obscured, we experience adaptation (and doom) from our vantage points as today’s winners and losers, all being driven by fear of losing what we have or wish to get. In the face of a “Black Swan” event and its immediate aftermath, we are surprised when the winners are those we least expected, just as we are shocked by who the ultimate losers are. Just think of all the stock-market bubbles that burst since the 1990s: Silicon Valley, housing, banking.

In water, we’ve had droughts and we’ve coped. To various degrees, we have become stronger through the development and finance of more supply sources, such as recycled water, more storm-water capture and, now, desalination. Our system has been resilient, but not robust, to Taleb’s standards.

So we talk about the doom we all fear -- the “black hole of water,” described by Dr. Jeffrey Mount (water consultant and panel speaker) -- the highly probable failure of the Delta levees. Without water from the Delta, the reality is that our recycled water would be too salty to be of much use, which is why we blend it. Storm water will not make up the difference and you can’t conserve when you have little water to begin with. But this doom scenario obscures other factors that may prevent us from addressing it, if not heeded.

I would like to take a little risk of my own and suggest where some of the variables may rest in water that could be pathways to solutions or failure. I don’t want to predict the future, but will suggest how we might build robustness -- or “anti-fragility.” To achieve this, we must not only convince the public about the Delta’s doom scenario and our own agency’s challenges, we must see beyond to other shared risks with people who don’t concern themselves with our affairs.

Let’s look at what has happened since the 1950s. California’s population has grown from 10 million to almost 40 million today. The backbone of our regional and local water systems was built from the 1920s to the 1970s. According to the American Water Works Association, in a report issued last year, the life span of our key regional and local water facilities is coming to an end, stretched by the quadrupling population and a financial model for maintaining and modernizing it that is unsustainable.

In other words, the system itself is fragile because of a financial model and political system that can’t keep water rates on pace with the needs of maintaining and improving all parts of the system.

Please consider that in most places in Southern California, real water-system efficiency is unaffordable. Let’s be frank. Conservation is a prerationing tool when supplies are beginning to run scarce. Conservation and efficiency are impractical in normal times because, in order for water utilities -- especially public water systems -- to meet the expense of operations and management requirements, they must sell water.

With the wholesale price of water increasing from sources such as Metropolitan Water District, and regional agencies trying to improve local water reliability, all require increases, new fees and assessments to finance. To absorb those costs with reduced water sales, utilities must either raise rates or borrow from the Capital Improvement Budget to absorb the higher price of water -- which has been the preferred option for many local water departments, even after Proposition 218 passed and required that fees and rates reflect the cost of service.

In my city -- Fullerton, in Orange County -- borrowing (some would say “stealing”) from our CIB has resulted in a pipe-replacement program that will take 600 years to accomplish, and talk of water rate increases is fodder for City Council recall elections.

The looming failure of local water systems is diffused -- spread around -- rarely getting our attention. Perhaps they are adding up to something big, like a scenario where local crumbling infrastructure overshadows much-needed improvements to the State Water Project because city councils can’t afford to pass through additional water-rate increases to finance state solutions.

In March, in Los Angeles County, failure to approve a county storm-water-parcel fee everyone assumed as a given, was such a “Black Swan” event. In the past, when groundwater came up full of salty brine, ruining crops, everyone knew it. Farmers and their suppliers in the nearby towns knew economic hardship and fallowed land when they saw it and invested to avert the day of reckoning.

Despite the complexity of water, our population trends and the economy, I would like to suggest that this diffused doom in local systems is also adding up to a common recognition of the challenge before us.

Al Brandt’s (water expert for the state Assembly and panel speaker) comments about expanding our reach to other officials and the public lead me to share that, a month ago, there was a water conference that attracted one in four of California’s Latino elected mayors and council members. Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lynwood, participated in the organizing meetings early before the primaries last year.

Organized under the title of Water Education for Latino Leaders, or WELL, these leaders gathered in Sherman Oaks to learn the basics of California’s water history, infrastructure and finance. Who are these “Latino leaders”? Most are of Latino ancestry, but many are white, African-American and Asian- American. With the demographics in California, it’s hard not to be a Latino leader, whether you are Latino or not.

In considering WELL, let’s compare the people who built our original water infrastructure with our population today. University of Southern California professors Julie Park and Dowell Myers studied this in their 2010 study on “Intergenerational Mobility in the Post-1965 Immigration Era.”

They compare socioeconomic attainment of second-generation immigrant groups -- those before and after 1965 -- using the lifetime mobility and intergenerational progress of second-generation white immigrants as the reference for gauging the progress of other immigrant groups. They found that intergenerational mobility, in terms of educational attainment and income, share a strong overall pattern.

According to Park and Myers: “Overall, Latinos, since 1965, have experienced substantial mobility across all socioeconomic outcomes, from the first to the second generation. They have more than doubled their share completing a high school diploma. Latino progress with respect to rising above poverty and entering homeownership is even more substantial because the Latino second generation not only achieved intergenerational mobility but also converged with the mainstream.” A similar story can be said of Asian immigrants in California.

What this is telling us is that the generation of people from the 1920s to the 1960s, who built California’s infrastructure backbone, is not that different from the current generation of Californians when it comes to their shared interests as workers, consumers and homeowners.

Expanding on Richard Katz’s (water adviser, former assemblyman and panel speaker) observation about consensus being overrated, it’s true, in the absence of self-evident general consensus.

At the WELL Conference, Katz also observed, in his summary of a panel discussion, that the water issues the Latino leaders were most concerned about were driven by the wish for local control in determining water reliability. While the generation before worried about briny groundwater, today’s leaders are worried about crumbling local infrastructure, unreliable imported water and basic access to safe drinking water in our smaller communities.

What is driving today’s local leaders is also the means to providing for our economic engine through reliable water supplies and water systems. In the mid-1900s, it was agriculture. Today, this also means having adequate water pressure and good quality and supply to meet manufacturing and commercial needs.

In the weeks after the WELL Conference, we’ve had mayors and council members around the state reaching back to find ways to support water-rate increases some of them previously opposed, admitting that they had not understood the nature of the need.

I would like to end with this: No matter where you stand on issues of water, climate change and related fields, we know the fundamentals. We know that today’s knowledge of the natural dynamics driving water supplies is greater than what was available to California’s pioneers. We also know that our population has greatly increased and changed. As we grow, we are more sensitive to the risk that some years our water supplies will come up short and that our local infrastructure will fail as well.

Our solutions are all around us. There does not need to be a bust in the water bubble. The question is whether we will let those with potential answers we might not expect join us at the table. Even if we don’t mutually agree, we must begin asking: Who are the advocates of “eco reconciliation” and who would be interested if we began talking about water as a public commodity?

Failure is relative, and if we don’t invite fresh faces to expand the context of our debates, someone else might, and our doom as water professionals and agency officials will be someone else’s success.

- Adan Ortega Jr. of Fullerton is the managing partner of Water Conservation Partners Inc. in Fullerton, which is introducing private funding and investment for water-conservation projects and strategies for making water available for new development, off-setting lost access to contaminated local supplies and helping inventors market new conservation devices. He is a former vice president of external affairs for Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and California’s deputy secretary of state, under Secretary of State Bill Jones. He was also assistant general manager of the West Basin and Central Basin municipal water districts in Los Angeles County.

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