Celeste Cantú talks about Integrated Watershed Management in California.

Celeste Cantú, General Manager, for the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority (SAWPA) has been working on the crest-to-coast, corner-to- corner Integrated Regional Watershed Management Plan called, One Water One Watershed (OWOW) that addresses all water-related issues, joins all entities and hundreds of stakeholders seeking to create a new vision of sustainability for the Santa Ana River Watershed. The SAWPA's integrated watershed management program and its pioneering activities on water conservation in response to drought have constantly been recognized and appreciated in California and rest of the world. Our water network research team had the pleasure to interview Ms. Cantu and learn more about  SAWPA's initiatives. 

Q1. Could you give us an overview of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority’s (SAWPA) Crest to Coast, Corner to Corner Integrated Regional Watershed Management Plan called One Water, One Watershed (OWOW)?

Answer. The Santa Ana River Watershed is the largest stream system in Southern California, home to almost 6 million people and

enjoys a Mediterranean climate.  The One Water One Watershed (OWOW) Plan was initiated by the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority (SAWPA) in Spring of 2007 as the next step in the Santa Ana River’s Watershed integrated water resources planning process ongoing since 1972.  With goal to focus the already sophisticated integrated planning strategy on improving the hydrologic system resilience as a whole and water supplies specifically. Instead of independently thinking about managed groundwater, surface water, storm water and waste water and starting from the different agencies in different jurisdictions we adopted nine guiding principles and are indebted to Peter Senge for this framework. 

  • The Santa Ana River Watershed is a hydrologic whole. 

Managing the water resources at the watershed scale, while difficult, offers the potential of balancing the many competing demands we place on water resources.  The watershed approach acknowledges linkages between uplands and downstream areas and between surface and ground water and reduces the chances that attempts to solve problems in one realm will cause problems in others.  

  • Working in concert with nature is cost effective. 

Particularly when we look at the water energy nexus, we realize the value of gravity flow, natural percolation and recharge, and flood attenuation. 

  • See each problem as interrelated, seek efficiencies and synergies. 

Watershed management integrates all the various human activities that occur on a given area of land that have effects on or affected by water.  We focus on all sources of pollution with in the watershed as a whole rather than on types of sources or on the arbitrary political boundaries of counties and municipalities.  With this perspective we can plan long term sustainable solutions to many natural resources problems.  We can find a better balance between meetings today’s needs and leaving a sound resource legacy for generation to come.  If we see each problem, drought, climate change, water quality, etc., as separate and approach each separately the solution we come up with will fall short or be opportunistic. Quick fixes do nothing to address deeper dysfunctions.

  • We collaborate across boundaries, as citizens of the watershed. 

We asked everyone to check their identity, affiliations, at the door.  We asked them to think of themselves only citizens of the Santa Ana River Watershed, and to suspend assumptions and balance advocacy and inquiry to foster a collective intelligence.   All other loyalties, agendas and priorities were to be secondary to those of the holistic view of the Santa Ana River Watershed.  This work is ultimately about relationships.  Building the capacity to collaborate is hard work and demands the best of people, particularly when it involves people from different organizations with different goals. 

  • Recognize that no one can do it alone. 

Individually no one has sufficient resources to address the challenges we face.  No one person has enough understanding, credibility or authority to connect the larger networks of people and organizations to do this work.  We have to do it together. 

  • Think big.  

Thinking big means stepping back and expanding the boundaries of our whole awareness. More and more people understand that the mounting sustainability crises are interconnected.  We must think big if we are to meet the challenges of the 21 century.

  • Create a new. 

Creating a new involves bringing something you care about into reality such as sustainability, water reliability and quality.  We are shifting the conversation from the familiar avoiding something bad to doing something positive and new.  We are shifting the conversation from problems to possibilities.

  • OWOW is a shared vison for the watershed  

We asked people who feel strongly to let go of cherished beliefs and views so that they can allow something bigger than themselves to develop. It all comes down to choice and the capacity to focus on a vision of what we truly desire instead of what we seek to avoid. 

  • Create a water ethic. 

We are working to create a Water Ethic where everyone knows where their water comes from, how much they use, what they put into it and where it goes after it is used.  

“One Water One Watershed” an integral view encompassing all political jurisdictions, water agencies and non-governmental stakeholders (private sector, environmental groups, and the public at large) in the watershed; and one in which all types of water (imported, local surface and groundwater, storm water, and wastewater effluent) are viewed as components of a single water resource, inextricably linked to land use and habitat, and that tries to limit impacts to natural hydrology.

The OWOW Plan advances a paradigm change from water supply to an integral water management mentality: moving from a mission of providing abundant high-quality water at the lowest cost possible, to one in which water resources are managed in a sustainable manner creating resiliency with regard for the needs of the environment and those downstream. Rather than investing more or working harder on the ways of the 20th century, OWOW seeks a new approach that is lighter on the land, protects habitat and a sustainable future for a robust economy and healthy environment. 

Recognizing that the Santa Ana River Watershed has multiple interrelated parts, a holistic approach to solving issues of supply, quality, flood, and ecosystem management is necessary. This approach recognizes that in order to achieve a healthy productive watershed, improvements starting at the top of the watershed with a healthy and managed forest effectively support downstream storm water attenuation and runoff capture and water quality improvement. Implementation actions under this priority include forest management, pollution prevention, low impact development, storm water capture and flood management. Cooperative agreements that result in water transfers, exchanges, and banking have resulted in better use of water resources.  With the rich groundwater storage opportunities available in our Watershed, expanding the groundwater storage with a variety of available water sources can be more much more cost effective than new surface storage. Such agreements will result in our ability to stretch available supplies and replace the storage lost by a shrinking snowpack. Projects under this category occur by collaboration and cooperation among the many agencies in the watershed, expanding on the many past successful water agreements within the SAR Watershed.  New banking agreements can represent both habitat mitigation banking as well as groundwater banking. These agreements only can occur by entities working together and opening doors to improved efficiency and increased water supply reliance.

From an energy and financial cost consideration, we have already invested a lot of money to treat wastewater before it goes to the ocean.  Connect the “waste water” system to the supply system capitalizes on that investment. 

Improving coordination between land use planning and water management. 

 

Q2. Why do you think integrated watershed management is the need of the hour? Do you think there is a large divide between authorities working on regional/state scale while problems lie on a catchment/watershed scale in many countries? 

 

Answer. OWOW plans for the Six Horsemen of the Apocalypses! Each represents a significate challenge to our water resource systems.

The first horseman is population growth and development with emphasis on development.  Population forecasts indicate that our watershed will see the addition of 1.4 million people reaching 7.4million by 2025. With all this growth we will still have the same amount of water as we have today in our most optimistic projections. It is not so much that we will develop but how we develop that will make the difference.  If we continue a 20th Century model, which is usually sprawl, we will hardscape and interrupt natural hydrology that currently recharges ground water while increasing water needs. 

Decisions we are making now, how efficiently we use water and where we build our new communities will dictate how much flexibility we will have in the future and what the quality of life will be for the next generation of Californians.  The increase in hardscaping and flood control over decades of land use practices has changed storm water runoff pattern resulting in a threat to the sustainability of regional groundwater basins losing historical recharge capacity.

 Higher density development that is compact, mixed use, walkable and transit oriented not only preserves open lands that absorb water to the maximum extent possible but minimizes  urban runoff pollutants that degrade both surface and ground water quality. 

The second horseman is the water energy nexus.  Almost 20% of all the energy used in California is related to water, to transport it, treat it and heat it.  And the hydroelectric power generated by water for California is significant and all of it is at risk due to reduced river flows and dam levels. On the flip side power plants that generate energy use water for cooling. The synergic effects are endless.

Our conservation efforts, even the tiniest ones, have a second overlooked benefit: they also save energy. Water is essentially liquid energy. In fact, approximately 80% of the operating costs of a typical water utility are energy-related.

The third horseman is the Great Recession. Historically we financed water projects with 1/3 for the federal government, 1/3 from the State Government and 1/3 from the rate payers themselves.  It seems clear that going forward we will be depending on our ratepayer more and more as the state and federal sources have not been able to keep up.  Earlier this year the Public Policy Institute of California identified the overall funding gap in five water related areas at $2 billion to $3 billion annually. Filling this gap would require a spending increase of 7–10 percent—or $150 to $230 per household—for a water system with annual spending of more than $30 billion.

Knowing this, we face the projected demographic trends where we see the baby boomers who pay the largest share of taxes retire and leave the market place with far fewer tax payers left to foot the bill. Also as family budgets grew tighter, people are less willing to pay increased water rates and we see taxpayer rebellion. The Public Policy Institute of California recently published their study showing that Ca water infrastructure is short by billions of dollars a year.

The fourth horseman is the Colorado River drought. California enjoys 4.4 MAF of water a year from the Colorado River which runs through the Grand Canyon. However the Colorado is in drought and is oversubscribed. Researchers analyzed satellite measurements of the Earth's mass and found that the region's aquifers had undergone a much larger than expected drawdown over the past decade. The region's farms and municipalities responded to drought-reduced flows from the Colorado River by dropping wells and tapping almost 65 cubic kilometers of underground water between December 2004 and November 2013.  This makes up about 15% of our water budget in the Santa Ana River. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued The Colorado River Basin Water Demand and Supply Study recently and it contains an ominous prediction about the future of the river. In 2060, it said, the average demand for water was likely to outstrip the supply by roughly eight times the current usage of Las Vegas.  

The fifth horseman is the Sacramento San Joaquin Rivers Delta’s vulnerability.  2/3 of California’s water falls in the North yet 2/3 of the population lives in the South. This water serves that population in the South and irrigates millions of acres of farmland where our food is grown.  This conveyance system was built before fish and the environment had much consideration.  Money was available; California was growing in population and in farm land cultivated.  Now in the 21 century, we must rethink our strategies.

The levies that protect the islands from sea water intrusion are subject to earthquake. Islands in the delta are formed by land that has subsided as much as 30 meters below sea level because of the construction of levees around their perimeter and reclamation of delta land for agricultural use. Levee construction began about 150 years ago by dredging soil from adjacent channels, and placing it in an ad hoc manner. Accordingly, simultaneous flooding of multiple islands would draw in saline water from San Francisco Bay, contaminating the fresh water supply for California's water projects. With insufficient fresh water reserves to flush the salt out of the delta during our historic drought, delta water could remain salty for years.

Climate change is the 6th horseman. California is not alone of course and this does not bring comfort to us.  Drier conditions throughout the West severely affect our ability to manage our water resources. A new study by Cornell University, the University of Arizona, and the US Geological Survey researchers looked at the deep historical record (tree rings, etc.) and the latest climate change models to estimate the likelihood of major droughts in the Southwest over the next century. The researchers concluded that odds of a decade long drought are "at least 80 percent." The chances of a "megadrought," one lasting 35 or more years, stands at somewhere between 20 percent and 50 percent, depending on how severe climate change turns out to be. And the prospects for an "unprecedented 50-year megadrought"—one "worse than anything seen during the last 2000 years"—checks in at a nontrivial 5 to 10 percent.  

These six challenges are not unique to our watershed, to California or even the West. These are not unlike the challenges facing much of the world.  With the confluence of so many and diverse stresses we must step back and assess what we have been doing and what we need to do in the future.  The promise of the integrated approach I believe is our best chance to create the resilience we will need in an uncertain future.

Having addressed water issues from the Federal, State and now regional level, it is clear to me that the catchment or watershed is the most effective scale but we learn from integration that nothing stands alone and of course the watershed is no exception. We must see the watershed in the political, financial, environmental context of larger systems.

Q3.  What are the major challenges when people from different disciplines and different aspects of public administration like water supply, flood management etc. come together to work on a watershed scale? 

Answer. Successful professionals take pride in their work, their training and their perspective.  This commitment to their paradigm creates what can simply be called turf problems.  It is understandable when we ask people to check their identity at the door we are asking a lot. Really we ask them almost to forsake their specific training at times, to share governance, and to have faith in another’s perspective.  They must almost go through a grieving that their orientation may not be the one true one and in fact the correct orientation is one that springs up from the many. 

Q4. What are the hurdles in policy or law that hinders a watershed wide management approach in California in particular and the United States of America in general? 

Answer. Major hurdles fall into three systems: political jurisdictional boundaries, professional silos and lack of regulatory alignment. 

A 19th Century western water exploring John Wesley Powell said that all political jurisdictional boundaries should be made along watershed boundaries as water is so important in the West, but unfortunately that did not happen. We have water districts, water wholesalers, irrigation districts, waste water districts, flood districts, cities, counties, and in our case a watershed authority.  Each has boundaries, areas of responsibility and authorities that often overlap.

Professional silos such as wastewater treatment, flood management and water supplier are products of the 20th Century when every problem was deconstructed to it smallest element in the hopes that it could then be managed and controlled. This is not unique to water resources but was employed in education, manufacturing etc. The result in water resource management was unintended consequences and inefficiencies.  Customers pay their water supplier to import water from far away at great carbon footprint, their wastewater district to take the water when they are finished with it, treat it and release it to the river and flood managers to channelize the water nature brings and get it out of the community as fast as possible to protect people and property. The customers would like to pay once and says “get your act together”.  And it is changing, in our watershed the flood managers also do water conservation and the waste water managers are not resource recovery managers. Water suppliers help with flood management as they attenuate flood water by slowing it down and sinking it for groundwater replenishment. But there is work to be done in aligning who pays and who benefits.

Regulatory alignment is a work in progress. Among Federal, State and local governments there are hundreds of offices, departments, bureaus and agencies each with a specific regulatory framework to implement. It will take years yet but the conversations are underway. 

Q5. What are the major positive outcomes of the SAWPA integrated watershed management approach? 

Answer. Most important outcome is people working together to implement a common vision. In the OWOW plan water resource managers have come together to create a shared space and work together to create resilience in water resources in this watershed by seeing water supply, waste water treatment and storm water management as components of one water. We enjoy today a robust salinity management system that removes salt from groundwater and pipes it to the ocean thus protecting downstream communities from salt contamination in the drinking water and creates a drinking water supply for the upper watershed.  This also allows for industries who need ultra clean water or which create brine to operate without harming the environment. There will be more in the future as large system projects take time to develop. We see continued large scale management of groundwater, projects that manage water on the watershed scale that put more water in the river for fish and downstream communities. 

Q6. There are several initiatives taken in California for drought management by applying effective water conservation methods. One of them has been the replacement of grass in the gardens of people’s homes with drought resistant crops. Could you explain to us more about this project? 

Answer. The overarching goal is to re-create a relationship between water and the water customer. Historically Californians knew where their water come from, how much of it they used, what they put into it and where it whet after they were finished with it.  But in the last century, water suppliers were so successful in providing affordable high quality reliable water people became to take it for granted like a dysfunctional relationship, water was no longer seen as precious and something to value. Clearly this is a First World problem. The most effective strategy we have seen and this has been studied by the University of California Riverside is a pricing system that sets water budgets for each residential customer based on household size and area to be irrigated.  The pricing structure costs the indoor or personal water use such as bathing, cooking, washing etc. at the least expensive cost. The next tier is priced higher and is a calculation of the appropriate amount of water needed for effective irrigation of the landscaped area of the customer’s home.  The next tier is more expensive and represents water used over and above what is necessary to irrigate the landscape and is more expensive. A forth tier represents wasted water and is significantly more expensive and a fifth tier may be as even ten time more and represent the cost of the most expensive water used in the area usually imported from outside the watershed and the cost of remediating downstream pollution that was mobilized by the water running off of the property carrying fertilizers, pet waste etc. in a toxic slug hitting a receiving water such as a river, lake or ocean. This pricing structure has proven to be effective by the University of California at Riverside in reducing water waste as it create a relationship between water used and cost by sending a dramatic price signal as excess water is used.

The second strategy is helping people landscape their homes using a plant palate suited to our semi-arid climate in California. Many Californians come to our State from wetter climates and brought with them the landscaping patterns from those wetter climates.  It is now clear that our Mediterranean climate really can’t afford to support a lot of ornamental nonfunctional turf or grass. The turf we habitually use in around our homes needs depending on where in California you live up to 5 times more water than other flowering lush plants.  Residents routinely water that grass 10 times more water than other plants because automatic sprinklers systems are set to irrigate during the hottest and driest time or not well calibrated for an efficient or effective water distribution. Families all over California particularly in the Southern California are replacing nonfunctional turf, which is grass that only person who steps on it is the person who mows it on a weekly basis, with flowering plants who are beautiful and feed birds and bees and the result is a water savings of 35% of total water used for residential uses.  

These two strategies alone, water pricing and adopting a plant palate suitable to California is climate a climate appropriate plant palate are the first and second moves in achieving a resilience water future.  Stop wasting and landscape like we live in California. 

One of the most cost effective and efficient method for dealing with tight water supplies is through increased water use efficiency. This is reflected through a reduced per capita water use as well as potentially reduced commercial and industrial water use. Although significant progress is anticipated with mandated reductions through 20% by 2020 legislation, more can be done. 

Q7. Funding has been a major problem to apply an integrated watershed management approach for many watersheds around the world. How have you managed this problem at the Santa Ana watershed?

Answer. Because integrated watershed management falls outside of the traditional silos of drinking water, wastewater treatment and flood management it has not been funded directly.  

The Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority has established a special niche in California in that it is a joint powers authority which enjoys the authorities of the five water and wastewater districts that created it in 1968.  SAWPA is funded through grants, fee for service and the five member agencies.   This has allowed a legacy of working together to develop projects and solutions that are larger than any one district. It has allowed for risk sharing and for innovative solutions that address system wide dysfunctions. 

The State of California has been a leader in funding integrated water management since 1999 with it first investment in integrated water management grant to SAWPA. Since then the State has made billions of dollars available to regions who wish to adopt integrated water management throughout the state. 

Q8.  Do you have plans to restore the Santa Ana river? If so what are the main goals for the restoration program and how extensive has been the pre–restoration monitoring of the river?

Answer. Working with the US forest Service, we are crafting a strategy that protects water quality and quantity at the head waters. As home to the Santa Ana River headwaters, the San Bernardino and Cleveland national forests encompass approximately 33% of the Santa Ana watershed’s land mass. These forest areas also receive 90% of annual precipitation. Water agencies and the US Forest Service are working together to fund the following:

More groundwater storage capacity

Better wildlife & fish habitat & forage

Protection of recharge areas

Sediment control – water quality

Reduced flood hazards

Removal of invasive species

Recreational opportunities

Savings in avoided infrastructure

The Santa Ana Watershed is very fortunate that most of the Santa Ana River is soft bottomed and provides many ecological benefits. Only the river reaches near the Pacific Ocean have been hardscaped for flood protection near the ocean. 

Nevertheless there are many activities ongoing to keep the river in good condition.  The remediation of exotic plant species Arundo Donax is an ongoing effort whose management continues to restore habitat particularly for listed endangered species such as the Santa Ana sucker fish and the Lest Bell Vireo bird.  

Our communities’ relationship with the river has gone through much iteration in the last 200 years. The first communities located on the rivers as it was their life blood and later the river because the repository of waste first untreated and now highly treated. But before waste was treated, our communities now cities turned their backs on the river and developed away from it.  Today we see a river renaissance where cities have become to face and celebrate the river again.  Plans for parks, trails and comminutes activities focused on the river have become prevalent in recent years.  The Santa Ana River trail is a Crest to Coast trail the follows the river.  The trail brings people to the river to help establish a relationship again. 

Q9. What is your advice for watershed planners around the world? What lessons can they learn from the SAWPA example?

Answer. My advice is to step back to see the whole hydrology.  I think this works for both developed and developing communities.  Do not get lost in the traps of the 20th Century silos.  Leap forward to a system approach that integrates every kind of water drop, waste water, drinking water and storm water.  Follow the drop as nature would have it fall in order to work within nature’s rules.  Work to restore natural processes so that nature can do your work for you. See the ecological values that we take for granted.  Start at the headwaters and manage as the water flows to the ocean.  Make investments at the highest point where the benefits will continue to cascade down to benefits many. 

Water managers need a skill set that is not usually presented in their training, and that is the ability to collaborate, negotiate and resolve conflicts. I believe that this skill set is as important as if not more so than traditional engineering, and science. 

Copyright: Water Network research, AquaSPE 2015

Comments

Elisa Colom
An example, practical, why applying integrated water resources management, is key to respond XXI challenges; and at the same time, explain the complexity of mankind problem/opportunity. Congratulations, I did enjoy reading.
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