California’s New Water Boss: States Must Set Own Course on Resources

Eileen Sobeck was recently hired as executive director of California’s powerful State Water Resources Control Board after decades in federal service. Politics in Washington, she says, make this an important time for states to lead on water and climate issues.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A helicopter drops water on a fire burning July 19, 2016, at Hollywood Reservoir, a key water supply for the city of Los Angeles. The long drought was later declared over in California. But deadly fires and dry conditions have returned to the state, adding to the list of challenges juggled by the State Water Resources Control Board.AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Until California’s latest drought really took hold in around 2012, few residents of the Golden State had ever heard of the State Water Resources Control Board. But it very quickly became a major force in their lives.

As the five-year drought worsened, the board would go on to order water use limits on every water agency in the state, which led to rationing requirements in households across California. It also imposed severe water-right curtailments, requiring rural residents who draw water from streams to immediately stop doing so.

And that was just the beginning of what Californians would learn about the state water board, as it is informally known. During the drought, among other things, the board also began long and complicated processes to permanently restrict diversions from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds to protect aquatic habitat; to review diversion permits for a complicated water tunnel proposal in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta; and to adopt water-related regulations governing legalized marijuana cultivation.

The state water board is led by a five-member board appointed by the governor. But carrying out all these programs, and many more, is ultimately in the hands of the board’s executive director, who oversees nearly 2,200 employees. Eileen Sobeck recently took over that position, replacing Tom Howard, who held the job for seven years. Sobeck, who grew up in Davis, California, and obtained her law degree from Stanford University, has spent most of her career at federal agencies in Washington, D.C.

Most recently, Sobeck oversaw the National Marine Fisheries Service as assistant administrator at the Department of Commerce. Prior to that, she held high-ranking deputy administrator positions at the Department of the Interior, and at the Department of Justice she was deputy assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources.

Water Deeply recently talked to Sobeck about her new job as head of California’s top water regulatory agency.

Water Deeply: Why did you want this job?

Eileen Sobeck: For me, it’s been sort of a natural progression. I’m from California, but I was really interested in public policy after I graduated law school. So I headed out to D.C. The whole time I was in D.C., I was one of those people who thought I would be there for just a few years, and a few years turned into a couple of decades. I always wanted to come back to California. So when my federal job came to an end in January, it just seemed like the right time to come back. I was still interested in public policy and the natural resources and environment field, and California is still doing big, important things. So it seemed perfect.

Water Deeply: After many years in federal service, how do you view the present climate in Washington in regard to California water?

Sobeck: I actually think it just makes what we do here in California – and at the state level in every state – a lot more important. I don’t see a lot of positive progress being likely to come out of the federal level in the area of natural resources and environmental policy or leadership. So I think that’s got to come from states and, I think, especially big progressive states like California. People are going to be looking to our state and our state leaders for leadership on these issues. Whether it’s climate change or dealing with water scarcity – an area that’s common in a lot of western states – I think it just makes what we do at the state level even more important.

Water Deeply: You’ve spent much of your federal career working on fisheries issues. How will you apply that at the water board?

Sobeck: I’ve worked on fisheries issues off and on. I don’t see myself as being a fisheries expert per se. Obviously, in the last chapter of my career when I was head of the National Marine Fisheries Service, fish were back in the limelight for me.

Fish need water, and so, having to figure out how to allocate a scarce resource like water has been an issue that I’ve been involved in from a lot of different angles – from the litigation angle at the Justice Department, Department of the Interior and then at [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] again for anadramous fish like salmon. All of the fisheries issues involve competing priorities and goals, including agriculture and other kinds of development, and often tribal rights. So it’s just been a good way to get into the whole question of natural resources and how to protect them, how to allocate them and how to plan for their use in the future along with climate change and increasing population.

Water Deeply: What are your priorities for the next year?

Sobeck: My professional priorities are the board’s priorities. The board is going to go through a more formal public process of setting its priorities for the upcoming year at one of its January meetings. So I will have a better idea what direction the board is going to give to me and the rest of the staff.

I think there are some obvious big issues that the board has already invested a lot of time in, and we’ll clearly be working on those. That includes the updating of the two phases of the water quality control plan for the Bay-Delta. It includes working to finalize our state board process for discharge of dredge or fill material into waters of the state; establishing statewide provisions for water toxicity; and continuing to pursue state priorities regarding the human right to water. Those are issues the board had already invested substantial time and effort in.

Water Deeply: How about the next decade?

Sobeck: I have been thinking about that. But at the three-month mark, I’m unwilling to say I have a lot of grand thoughts about what the priorities are for the next 10 years. But I do think it’s important to be looking at that time frame.

Based on what we’re hearing about what the likely weather patterns will be given climate change, we do need to be thinking about how to prepare our state for those kinds of conditions – both drought and extreme wet conditions – and the fact that we’re going to continue to have a need for clean, safe, affordable drinking water and water to power the important sector that’s agriculture here in California, and how we’re going to do that with a perhaps overall less predictable water pattern in the state. I can’t say that I have a vision for that at this point. The board members are the big-picture policy people. Just planning for that future and the board’s role in it is going to be the guiding principle in setting those types of priorities.

Water Deeply: This winter has started out dry. Are you worried about the drought rearing its head again?

Sobeck: I hope it’s too early to say whether there’s going to be another drought. One thing we’ve been hearing from climate experts is that we’re less likely in the future to have average years, and more likely to have drought years or extremely wet years. I think the board has a growing awareness of the need to be prepared for both of those.

The board does have some draft regulations out, currently, regarding whether some of the major conservation measures that were in place during the drought should be permanently extended. To that extent, we take very seriously the need for continued conservation. So we’re looking at conservation both during normal periods, and during drought periods. We’re still adapting some of the lessons learned during the drought and trying to figure out the best way to be prepared.

Water Deeply: Meanwhile, the board has a new duty to regulate water use by legalized marijuana growers. How is that going?

Sobeck: We have one part in a larger program for the regulation of cannabis here in the state. Our job has been to establish a regulatory program to address potential water quality and quantity issues related to cannabis cultivation. We don’t permit or approve cultivation, use, sale or other activities. Our job was to make sure that the use of water and potential discharge of pollutants into water is regulated. Our board did pass those relevant orders last month. We’re in the process of making sure that folks who need to register and get a license for cannabis cultivation are able to do that.

This was a big regulatory lift for us over the last year. We really had some pretty short timelines for coming up with a grand new regulatory program, and I think we did a good job of doing that. This next year we’re going to be in the implementation phase of that. We really want this to be successful.

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