Local governments, tribes, water districts, fishermen, environmentalists, and a diverse group of citizens got a chance to explain North Coast perspectives on water resources to members of the California State Assembly's Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee at an informational hearing in Eureka last Friday, Feb. 7.
Members of the committee included chair Anthony Rendon, who represents the geographically tiny but population-dense 63rd district in southeast Los Angeles, and assemblypersons Brian Dahle from the 1st district in northeastern California and Mariko Yamada from the 4th district in north central California.
Second district assemblyperson Wes Chesbro is not a member of the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee but joined the panel as the representative of the North Coast counties, including Humboldt, Del Norte, Trinity, Mendocino, and Sonoma.
The assembly committee is gathering comment from stakeholder groups and residents around the state for the latest version of a comprehensive water bond bill that will provide funding to meet California's water needs.
California's previous water bond bill was passed in 1984. Money raised by those bonds will be gone by next year, Rendon said. The state water system serves 30 million people with domestic water and provides irrigation water for six million acres of farmland.
[Note: North Coast counties are not part of the California State Water Project, which stores and delivers water to water suppliers in the Bay Area, Southern California, the central coast, and the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, according to its website at http://www.water.ca.gov/swp/.]
In addition to aging infrastructure and a growing population, California faces a water supply crisis because of climate change. The current historic drought, which has prompted the state to stop all water deliveries to agriculture for the first time in state history, may be only the beginning of the crisis.
The Department of Water Resources estimates that if current climate trends continue, the annual snow pack, which is the principal source of water for most of the state, will average one-half of today's levels, Rendon said.
The proposed bill, AB 1331, would allow the state to issue bonds totaling $6.5 billion. That amount includes $1 billion for drinking water improvement projects, $1.5 billion for protection of rivers and watersheds, $1.5 billion for integrated regional water management, $1 billion to protect the California Delta (where the state's two major rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, meet and empty into Suisun Bay east of San Francisco), and $1.5 billion for water storage, including increasing capacity of existing dams and building new ones.
Chesbro provided background on North Coast issues and the unique perspective of this large but sparsely populated region where "water is not just the commodity that comes out of the tap."
"If the fish could speak, they would be on this panel," he said. Salmon are an iconic species to North Coast residents, the keystone of tribal cultures, an indicator of the health of ecosystems, and of vital importance to the economy.
"We have a healthy dose of skepticism" regarding the effects of the proposed water bond bill, Chesbro added.
For the next three and a half hours, the committee members heard plenty of that skepticism, as well as numerous requests and ideas for using bond funds to help North Coast watersheds, from two stakeholder panels and over two dozen individual members of the public, many of them speaking for specific interest groups.
The first panel, made up of representatives of the Hoopa, Karuk, and Yurok tribes, focused on Klamath River issues, agreeing that the water bond bill should not only support the Klamath River Basin Agreement (KRBA), but also should explicitly support the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA).
The key provision of the KHSA is removal of four dams on the Klamath River that impede fish passage and encourage toxic algae blooms. Tribal representatives -- and many other members of the public -- asked that AB1331 provide money for California's share of the cost of dam removal.
The second panel included representatives of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District (HBMWD), the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisheries Association, the California Water Impact Network, and two coalitions of county governments that advocate for protection of salmon and watersheds, the Five Counties Salmonid Conservation Program and the North Coast Resource Partnership. Humboldt County is a member of both of the latter groups.
Points raised by this panel, as well as the tribal panel, were echoed by many of the individual speakers during the last two hours of testimony.
Many speakers referred to the fact that although the North Coast's population is small and scattered, the region provides a significant amount of the state's water from rivers that are home to some of the last and best habitat for endangered and threatened salmon species.
"The state gets a high rate of return on investment in the North Coast," said John Driscoll, representing U.S. Congressman Jared Huffman.
Third district supervisor Mark Lovelace, speaking on behalf the Humboldt Count board of supervisors, pointed out that while the North Coast comprises 12 percent of California's landmass, its population density is too low to fund the infrastructure needed to provide for human needs and protect its ecosystems.
Humboldt County supports AB1331 but asks that it increase the North Coast's share of the $1 billion earmarked for drinking water infrastructure be increased from $45 million, or 4.5 percent of the funds to something more reflective of its size.
Furthermore, Humboldt requests that required matching costs for recipients of the funds be reduced from 50 percent to 25 percent in economically disadvantaged communities, with further consideration being given to very small water districts, Lovelace added.
Barb Kennedy, chairperson of the Weott Community Services District, echoed this point, describing Weott's water system as "desperate." WCSD has 145 ratepayers, who each must pay $90 a month for water, although Weott is an economically disadvantaged community.
Twenty dollars of that $90 water bill goes for debt service for obsolete and failing infrastructure that must now be replaced, Kennedy said. Therefore, she asked for a provision to forgive districts for the principals on these "legacy loans," as she called them.
Second district supervisor Estelle Fennell, explaining that she was not authorized to represent the entire board but was speaking as the representative of her district in Southern Humboldt, called for incentives for water storage by individual landowners to reduce pumping water from streams during the dry season, as well as for funding for innovative groundwater recharging projects.
Speaking for the Salmonid Restoration Foundation and Sanctuary Forest, Dana Stolzman also emphasized the need for support for these programs, especially for tax incentives for "investment in storage."
The North Coast has the most rainfall in the state but has the least amount of storage, she noted, adding that community-scale storage efforts are the most effective in encouraging landowners to store water.
Most of the speakers asked for the bill to emphasize conservation and recycling of water rather than building more dams and reservoirs or increasing the capacity of existing ones, particularly Shasta Dam.
Trinity and Klamath River advocates were particularly concerned about raising Shasta Dam, as well as the Delta Bay project, because half the water in the Trinity River, which is the largest tributary of the Klamath, is diverted to the Central Valley Project, a federal water system that parallels the State Water Project.
Increasing reservoir capacity will lead to greater demand for water from the Trinity at the same time snow packs and rainfall are declining, several speakers said, so conservation and water recycling throughout the state are a better long term investment.
Likewise, a number of speakers support integrated regional water management, Local governments within a region collaborate on projects and strategies. Members may "agree to disagree" on some issues, but when they agree, they work together. This approach has been effective in the North Coast region.
Many people also asked for provisions to provide funding for the Watershed Stewards Project, "a comprehensive, community-based restoration and education program," associated with the California Conservation Corps, as described on their website, www.ccc.ca.gov/work/programs/AmeriCorpsPrograms/wsp/Pages/wsp1.aspx.
The Watershed Stewards Project educates the next generation of natural resources professionals, WSP director Carrie Lewis told the board. This statement was enthusiastically seconded by a number of people who responded when she asked former members to stand up.
The chairperson of the California Young Democrats asked the assembly members not to fund projects with bonds because this puts the responsibility of paying for the bonds on young people.
The hearing was scheduled to close at 2 p.m., and the three visiting committee members all had to leave in time to meet other commitments. Renton, the committee chair, left to catch his flight back to Los Angeles just as the last speaker was finishing.
Chesbro, the last assemblyperson at the dais, then asked if anyone else wished to speak, and seeing no response, adjourned the hearing.
The Eureka hearing was one of several being held around the state. When the hearings are completed, the committee will revise AB1331 and present it to the assembly for action.
For more information, including text of the most recent version of the bill, completed in January, and public comment on the bill, go to www.ccc.ca.gov/work/programs/AmeriCorpsPrograms/wsp/Pages/wsp1.aspx.