Executive Summary for January 14th

Nearly two years after announcing $687 million for drought relief projects, the state of California this week finally awarded the last of that money — raising questions about whether it will bring any relief. Plus, water conservation in Riverside creates another kind of money problem.

Published on Jan. 14, 2016 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

State Finally Allocates Drought Emergency Funds

The California Department of Water Resources this week allocated $232 million in emergency drought relief funds — nearly two years after the fund was originally established by Gov. Jerry Brown.

“It takes a frustratingly long period of time for the Department of Water Resources to process funds, to make sure our projects are built,” Celeste Cantú, general manager of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority in Orange County, told Capital Public Radio.

Cantú’s agency received a total of $64.2 million from the new grant pool for watershed protection and groundwater conjunctive use projects.

In March 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown announced he was setting aside $680 million to pay for projects that would ease the drought. The money comes from Proposition 84, approved by California voters in 2006.

Time went by, and he was criticized for not spreading the money around faster so it could actually help while the drought was under way. A year later, only half of the money had been spent.

The action this week closes the circle by awarding the rest of the money. A total of 26 proposals got money, including:

  • Association of Bay Area Governments: $41.3 million for 10 projects including dam seismic retrofit, groundwater infrastructure and watershed protection and other purposes
  • San Diego County Water Authority: $31.1 million for 14 projects including urban water conservation, turf removal rebates and water treatment facility upgrades
  • Los Angeles County Flood Control District: $27.7 million for 26 projects including meter installation, storm water management and water conveyance infrastructure
  • Humboldt County: $11 million for 25 projects including water and wastewater conveyance and treatment infrastructure, watershed protection and restoration and agricultural efficiency

All the projects must serve the goal of “integrated regional water management,” or IRWM, a buzz phrase that describes efforts to link local water systems and watersheds so they can better share resources and become more regionally self-sufficient. That’s why many of the proposals were floated by coalitions of water agencies, and why many involve projects to building plumbing interties and other ways to exchange water.

“The award of these funds represents a significant milestone in advancing Integrated Regional Water Management, which continues to be a key initiative in managing water resources throughout California,” DWR director Mark Cowin said in a statement.

Needless to say, many of these projects won’t get built in time to provide any drought relief. But Cantú said it’s misleading to call any response to a water shortage “emergency relief.”

“Because if we want to do good work, it’s not under the terms of an emergency,“ she says. “You have to be much more thoughtful about it.”

No Rebates in Riverside

It’s an unusual situation in the ongoing California drought: You conserve water as ordered by the state and your local water utility. As a result, your utility has extra water on hand. It sells that water to a neighboring utility — enough to rake in $761,000. Who should get the money?

This is the conundrum faced by the city of Riverside, which sold the excess water to Western Municipal Water District. Some Riverside officials thought the money should go back to ratepayers in the form of “rebates.”

Sounding as though Riverside residents had been forced to live in a refugee camp for a year, city council Mike Soubirous said, according to the Riverside Press-Enterprise: “Our ratepayers have had to deal with a lot. Give them back a token amount of money.”

It’s fair to say that very few water agencies found themselves with excess water last year, so the situation is unique.

Riverside had the extra water because customers conserved, as required by the state. The water came from the Bunker Hill groundwater basin. That basin is governed by a court-adjudicated settlement which, oddly, does not allow Riverside to carry over unused water into future years. So why not make some money off it?

In a meeting Tuesday, the city council voted 5-2 to forego rebates to customers because it would be too complicated and costly to figure out how to dole out the money fairly.

Instead, the city will sit on the money in hopes of using it to ease future rate increases, which will be necessary to keep up with aging infrastructure.

That’s a wise move.

“I think our ratepayers are better served by using this money within the utility on infrastructure,” said councilman Mike Gardner.

Top image: On Feb. 19, 2014, California Gov. Jerry Brown, center, stood with then-State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, left, and Assembly Speaker John Perez to announce emergency drought legislation along with plans to spend $687 million on drought relief projects. The state finally awarded the last chunk of that money this week. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

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