Friday, July 25, 2014

Meeting Michelle Obama

Maybe I should clarify it as a very brief "meeting" with Michelle Obama - a handshake, someone told her my first name, she thanked us for what the Water District is doing, we posed for a picture, and then the Water District CEO and I were out the White House door. Interesting and fun experience though. I was honored to represent the Water District and very happy that the District's work has received this recognition.

I also got to wonder beforehand how one addresses the First Lady (as best I could tell in my brief phone googling, it's "Mrs. Obama"). I probably didn't use that knowledge - I have no recollection of what I said to her other than "thank you", hopefully whatever else I said wasn't too incoherent. She had a very warm and sincere demeanor about her though, both in a ten minute speech she gave beforehand about the importance of drinking water and in how she looked at you in the eye and smiled as we had the photo-op.

I've met just a handful of famous people very briefly - Al Gore, John Edwards before he imploded, a few senators - and she was the warmest of them. Interesting in that my remote impression of Barack is that he's not so warm.

OTOH, there are parts of Michelle's job that can't be that controversial, so maybe it's not that hard to be enthusiastic. Maybe she has a leg up expressing enthusiasm with us water people, and in being enthusiastic 20 minutes later when she did a water-focused event with kids out on the White House lawn.

As for why we were there, she's promoting the "Drink Up" campaign to get Americans to drink more water. The tricky part of the campaign is they're focusing solely on the positive message - they're not denigrating other drinks like soda and they're not distinguishing between bottled and tap water. OTOH, this approach lets them get the support of soda and bottled water companies. We were invited because we have joined the effort to encourage water consumption, and our voters taxed themselves two years ago in small part to fund hydration stations in schools so kids can easily refill water bottles. A very nice benefit for us was having the First Lady specifically mention "Santa Clara Valley Water District" and our work in a speech that's now on the White House website. She also made a valid point during her speech, that if we invested the same marketing effort for healthy food that we've been doing for decades for junk food, then we can really make progress.

Two other points - if you're ever invited for that photo-op, apparently it's very bad to try to use your own phone camera. It was fine to do so when she's making her speech, but 10 minutes later I was told extremely urgently to put the phone away when she was doing the photo-ops with others. Now you know.

The other funny thing was that after everything was done outside on the White House lawn, we couldn't figure out how to leave. I suggested the two of us make a run for the fences and jump them, but that didn't happen. Instead we milled around with everyone else until someone who knew what they were doing started to go, and we followed the herd.

I'm told the photos will take a while before release, but in the meantime we have her speech:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Stigma for fossil fuel companies, the reverse for the churches that dump them

Given that the Water District established a climate divestment policy last year following my memo urging it to happen, I'm gratified and very happy to see the faith community do much the same. We were the first water district in the country to enact climate divestment, and it's spreading and growing. The only way it works is by communities working together.

World Council of Churches, Unitarian Universalists, United Church of Christ, and many smaller/regional church denominations and affiliated organizations have established climate divestment policies. Others are percolating - the Methodists are studying their investment policy, the Presbyterians are first going to try to persuade the companies to give up their core business model (good luck with that!)* and then we'll see them and others consider this issue.

People involved in climate divestment and had also been involved in South Africa divestment a generation ago say that climate divestment is moving faster. An Oxford study backs that up (p. 11).

The same study acknowledges limited direct financial impacts of divestment except for coal industry, but then focuses on the stigma issue:

As with individuals, a stigma can produce negative consequences for an organisation. For example, firms heavily criticised in the media suffer from a bad image that scares away suppliers, subcontractors, potential employees, and customers. Governments and politicians prefer to engage with ‘clean’ firms to prevent adverse spill-overs that could taint their reputation  or jeopardise their re-election. Shareholders can demand changes in management or the composition of the board of directors of stigmatised companies. Stigmatised firms may be barred from competing for public tenders, acquiring licences or property rights for business expansion, or be weakened in negotiations with suppliers. Negative consequences of stigma also include cancellation of multibillion-dollar contracts or mergers/ acquisitions. Stigma attached to merely one small area of a large company may threaten sales across the board.
(p. 14, citations removed)

The stigmatization from divestment will have financial consequences. These companies will have to pay more for employees and for other businesses to work with them. Companies with a toe-hold in the fossil fuel sector will find it better for them to get out.

Most important is that stigmatized industries will find it tougher to manipulate the political sector. That's one reason why they disguise their funding, but the disguise is imperfect, and the difficulty gets worse with the stigma.

Two other points. The study acknowledges political restrictions resulting from the climate divestment effort could destroy the perceived value of reserves that end up staying in the ground. When the carbon bubble pops is hard to predict, but any downward pressure increases the possibility of it happening soon.

Second, when companies divested from South Africa they weren't required to physically blow up the businesses they left behind - they sold them. The argument that it had no financial impact was around then, but we see what happened in the end.


*I think there is a business case that fossil fuel companies should 1. stop wasting money exploring for new reserves, 2. sell the reserves they're not going to be allowed to develop before the carbon bubble bursts, 3. play out the remaining and cheapest reserves and 4. either distribute the profits and wind down their companies, or invest in another business model. Not likely to happen, though.

I'm ignoring the complications of when natural gas can substitute for coal. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Founder Effect


  • George Washington 
  • Nelson Mandela 
  • Nouri al Maliki
  • Hamid Karzai


Here following the conclusion of the Fourth of July weekend, I think we can see how crucial it is to have competent and ethical leaders at early stages of a country's history.

See that list above. The American Founding Fathers were not gods - John Adams made that clear in his later years - but truly rotten apples like Aaron Burr were the exception. And while South African democracy is somewhat rocky, it's still a democracy over 20 years later, and Mandela's leadership helped make that happen.

America had rocky initial years like South Africa, ultimately culminating in the Civil War to free the slaves and preserve the Union. Good initial leadership is no guarantee of stability, but it sure helps.

Contrast our experiences to Iraq's and Afghanistan's. While Maliki wasn't the first Iraqi leader after Saddam, he's been the most crucial and most unfortunate one, and Karzai is hardly better.

We Americans are fortunate in our Founder Effect, and can work hard to have good leadership still. Hopefully the same will happen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Guiding water conservation during a drought

Need to catch up here, so I thought I should post the most important memo I wrote this year on how the Water District should confront our drought. Here it is (Director Lezotte joined my memo as well):



TO:
Board of Directors and Staff
FROM:
Director Brian Schmidt
Director Linda J. LeZotte

SUBJECT:
A proactive response to the current drought
DATE:
January 23, 2014


 


Introduction – the need to act.

The statewide drought emergency raises alarms for our region. We have done a far better job than most of California to diversify our water supply between local and out-of-county sources, to store large amounts of water for dry years, to transform wastewater into useable water and to individually conserve tremendous amounts compared to previous usage per person. None of that, however, eliminates the seriousness of the current situation with a record-breaking dry period following two dry winters, a low-rain forecast for the remainder of the rainy season and no idea if next winter or subsequent ones will likewise be dry.

While the drought presents difficulties, it is also a time of opportunity to rise to the challenge. We must take action that ensures we have adequate water, that preserves the way of life here in Silicon Valley, and promotes water sustainability to better position us for future years without droughts and even more so when there are droughts.

History shows that challenge breeds opportunity. The response to the 1987 through 1992 drought created many of the conservation and water supply programs we have today. However difficult those years were, we are now better off facing this drought than we would have been had that drought not occurred and inspired the current programs. We can do the same again – or do it even better this time.


Acting at the societal level, local government level, and at the District itself.

Our region should be proactive in the face of this drought, doing the things that we need to do (and maybe should have done anyway) at the general societal level, at local government levels, and at the level of the District’s water supply. We can help lead at each level.

1.    What everyone should do to conserve water, and how the Water District can help
At the general societal level, everyone – individuals, families, businesses, farms –should be doing what they can to conserve water for no reason other than it’s the right thing to do. To help this, we recommend investigating a doubling of every water conservation rebate given by the District. A doubling, or similar large increase, should be backdated to the publication of this proposal so as to not deter anyone from conserving water immediately. The increase should not exceed the actual cost of the item or service rebated.

Staff should investigate the cost to the District of this proposal. We are well aware of large capital costs in future years and large increases in water rates that are “baked in” to a significant degree. Generally those increases are at the upper edge of what is politically acceptable, but there is one exception. A drought rebate surcharge, for revenues that only pass through the District to provide conservation rebates to the public (minus a small administrative cost), is something that we believe the public could support if it is financially necessary.

These rebates will help families and businesses respond to the drought. In addition, we should pay special attention to farming, which uses about 10% of the water in our County. Our farmers pay far less than farmers elsewhere for water, a benefit intended to help stop sprawl. We can’t, however, ignore conservation. The District should investigate restarting previous cooperation with the Farm Bureau on special water conservation training programs for farmers. If participation in the program is inadequate, we can consider other incentives such as whether the agricultural water price rate should be tied to conservation.

2.    How local governments can lead with our assistance
On the level of local governments, they should act on their own as stewards of the public’s environment, but the Water District can help identify and promote the best water conservation ordinances and practices to raise every local government to a “best in class” standard on conservation. For example, one of us (Director Schmidt) had the opportunity to attend a public workshop in Mountain View to develop a “Precise Plan” for the El Camino Real corridor. These plans and associated ordinances ought to recognize that lawns on commercial business property landscapes, at least for new development, should be a thing of the past. New multi-family development should only have high-water-use landscaping on intensively-used areas, and single family homes should be incentivized to make lawns no more than part of the yard, and not the majority of it.

Other steps like graywater recycling and low-water usage fixtures should be standard construction. Ordinances dealing with rationing, which we have no expectation of needing this year but might in some future year, should account for whether the properties are already using little water instead of imposing the same percentage reduction on water conservers and water wasters. Other savings may also be possible.

These steps need not be mandatory – if landowners and businesses can demonstrate an alternative water supply, they should be able to use it flexibly. The community-provided water supply, on the other hand, should be used in recognition of the environment where we live.

The Water District can help anyone – city staff, concerned citizens, Parks and Planning Commissions, City Councils and council candidates – understand what is available out there, what other cities have done and what possibilities they have. Rather than every city being the same, each city can investigate what others have done well and then innovate in their own way.

3.    Accelerating Water District programs for drought resiliency
Finally, at the level of the Water District itself, everything we have been doing and planning for the future helps our resiliency to drought. The steps described above at the societal and local government level will have the effect of accelerating our currently planned conservation program. The other major step we can take is to accelerate our potable reuse timetable. We should work toward direct potable reuse of recycled wastewater within five years. There is no technological or public health barrier to this goal, it is merely a matter of gaining public acceptance. Silicon Valley has a sophisticated, well-educated, and environmentally-conscious public that can understand why this is the right step. If, and it is an important “if”, we can get the acceptance and support of our partner government agencies and community leaders, we can then obtain a brand new water source to provide drought resilience.


Conclusion


Some might object that these steps (and other conservations steps that others may suggest) could take too long to address our current drought problem. The sad fact is that this current drought could continue for multiple years. Even if we escape future dry years, the probability is there will be others. We can be ready for them – we have the will, the technology, and the resources to be ready, and the steps outlined above can make us ready. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Notes from the Seattle Divestment Forum today and yesterday

(Yet another cross-post from Rabett Run.)

I got my five minutes at the press conference, starting about 10 minutes into the video below:


(Link here for Oct. 17 video - no idea why the freeze frame is on my blathering mug instead the mayor's....)


The main takeaway from the conference - two thirds of fossil fuel reserves represented on world capital stock exchanges have to stay in the ground to stay within the 2C temp rise goal. The valuation of the rest is a carbon bubble.
     My note - I suppose it could be that the carbon returns to the ground instead of the fossil fuel stays, although CCS hasn't done well.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn:  we're the first generation to experience climate change, and the last to be able to stop it.
     My note - a bit of an overstatement and understatement - we can't stop it, and even a business as usual scenario for X years in the future would be disastrous but not a reason to do nothing starting X years in the future.

A contract-and-grow strategy works for fossil fuel companies - e.g., an oil company that stops throwing away profits on finding new fossil reserves and increases dividends instead will be worth more and serve its owners better than a typical oil company that spends money finding reserves it will never burn.

Lots of discussion on fiduciary duty, something used as an excuse to not divest. Bob Massie calls it a Harry Potter spell - "Fiduciarydutyparalyis!" Given the risks from companies that say they don't care about the future, the fiduciary duty could actually support divestment - what does that say about the quality of the management?

One speaker presented two portfolios, one with fossil fuel companies and one without. The one without had a larger carbon footprint. Climate divestment can get tricky.
       My note - I expect that most of the time, this would not be the usual outcome. Perfect v good issue.

Talking to financial people, it sounds like the recognition of financial exposure that you see in the insurance sector is starting to happen in the financial sector.

A number of professionals showed backcast simulations of divested portfolios v. typical portfolios. Overall it seemed to not diverge all that much.

One person asked a question I had - would recognizing the carbon bubble create a race by companies to get the fuel burnt first, before we hit the ceiling? Response said no, projects are currently being cancelled. YMMV.

Investor engagement/shareholder activism - speakers acknowledged this can be a viable alternative in some circumstances, but argued that if a problem with a business is its core business strategy, then shareholder activism won't work. One speaker made a slightly contrary argument - they're going to engage directly with fossil fuel companies to get them to drop the $100b most expensive new fossil fuel projects in planning stages, setting the stage for shareholder lawsuits if they don't drop them and then the projects crash and burn metaphorically.

Someone raised the slippery slope issue that climate divestment is only one issue and that it opens the door to still other ways to reduce the investment universe. I can understand the reasoning - I think a reasonable response might be that you can consider multiple causes, up to whatever line you choose to draw on restricting your investment universe. Then cage match the causes against each other. The speaker said you also have to look at the investor's mission and the cost of a screen - e.g., divesting from Russia-investing companies would be much more difficult than divesting from top 200 fossil fuels.

On a personal note, I ran into a guy who I used to work with on Burma human-rights issues 18 years ago, and saw him today for the first time since then. Small world.

We did our divestment

(Another cross-post from Rabett Run in August.)

The Water District board voted 7-0 last night to enact our climate divestment policy - no new investments in the top 200 fossil fuel companies, get rid of what we currently have by 2016, and send letters to the state agency managing our pension funds, a state water agency association, and our local government counterparts encouraging them to do the same. Also yesterday, we cut our own compensation by just under 10%, reverting it back to what the board received in 2008.

There was some reasonable discussion of whether we should distinguish the best fossil fuel companies from the rest. We decided to go ahead with the simple divestment from all of them, and consider at a future time whether we should amend the policy in favor of the better companies.

Like I said earlier, this should make us the first water district and third government agency of any kind to complete this step. 350.org has a press release here. The San Jose Mercury News published an article, and to make it interesting I'll just copy below mostly just the critical parts:


In the 1980s, hundreds of American cities, states and universities sold their investments in South African companies as part of a protest against that country's former apartheid government.

Now, environmental groups are trying to duplicate that effort, but with global warming polluters in the role of villain. And, just as with South African divestment a generation ago, the Bay Area is at the head of the parade again, prompting cheers from environmentalists and jeers from skeptics who say the whole effort amounts to little more than empty symbolism.... 
"It is unfortunate some people seem to feel supplying consumers with reliable and affordable energy is somehow comparable to apartheid," said Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, in Sacramento.

"Petroleum energy provides billions of people worldwide with mobility, comfort, security and economic prosperity, he said."

Hull said that many oil companies "understand the desire to develop new alternative energy sources and reduce our collective carbon footprint" and that many fossil fuel companies are working on renewable energy projects.

Jeremy Carl, an energy expert and research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution who has been critical of the tactics of the environmental movement, said that climate change is occurring and is a problem. But rather than divestment, activists should work with companies and governments to promote issues like tax credits to encourage renewable energy research, or a carbon tax that would be offset by tax refunds to the public.

"We've seen people saying the fossil fuel companies are awful, and then driving home in their car and turning on their natural gas-powered electricity," he said. "I find it totally a distasteful and hypocritical way of looking at a serious situation. It trivializes an important issue."

I don't find that very persuasive, somehow. I have no interest in the flack from WSPA but I wonder if it's worth talking to Jeremy Carl, who's only a 15 minute drive away from me in my fossil-fueled car.

Per my previous post, I think the primary effect of these actions are cultural/political and not directly economic. OTOH, there's an economic cost to cultural disfavor - I bet tobacco companies have to pay a premium to hire and retain employees who might otherwise prefer to not kill people for a living. Could work the same way here as another form of cultural tax on carbon.

Video below of every fascinating moment of the discussion, assuming the video works (discussion begins about a minute into the video). It's Item 9.1 if you want to read it as well.


Good chance we'll be the first water district in the country to divest from fossil fuels, starting August 27th

(Cross-posted from Rabett Run post in August.)

I'm guessing we're first on the planet too, but who knows. I previously wrote a memo suggesting we drop investments in fossil fuel companies (the big push by 350.org), and we directed staff to return to us with a proposal. It's now available (to RTFD, click here for the policy and scroll to Attachment 5 to get to the memo and discussion). It's pretty simple - no investments in the top 200 fossil fuel companies, relying primarily but not exclusively on third-party documentation of what constitutes the top 200 companies. Our district doesn't control pension funds, so I'll ask that we also include a letter to the state CalPERS board urging them to take the same step that we're doing.

Along with being the first water district in the solar system to have a climate divestment policy after the August 27 meeting (assuming I'm not counting my chickens too early), I think we might also be the third government agency to do it. Reading through the 350.org list of twenty cities, Seattle and Santa Monica are the only cities with a controlling policy in place. A handful of others have passed advisory measures but don't mandate the change, some aren't currently invested in fossil fuel companies but don't have a policy, and the rest are still investigating the idea.

I think there are a fair number of water districts like ours with significant climate awareness and political responsiveness, so I hope this will spread. As for its actual impact on those companies, even if it spreads widely, that's less clear. The pool of money available to be invested in those companies would have to shrink a lot before the companies are forced to pay a premium in dividends or interest rates in order to get investments. I suppose it could happen, but I think the primary effect is cultural, creating an awareness that they are basically little different from tobacco companies and the apartheid-era South African investments.

There is a difference from South Africa in that it wouldn't be good if we halted all fossil fuel use immediately, but somehow I'm not too worried about that outcome.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Comments from the recent Bay Delta Conservation Plan Workshop, part 1

We had a workshop recently about the economic impact of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan on our residents, and compared it to not doing the project.  This is only tentative analysis so far, but it's still helpful. Here's one comment I left on the State Water Project property tax (to see the whole thing, go here, scroll to December 9, and it's about 3 hours into the video):

Get Microsoft Silverlight

Obviously we'll need to deal with this issue in the future.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Opposition to logging legislation AB 904 that could be bad for the Bay Area

I'm glad to see that staff are recommending an "Oppose Unless Amended" position on AB 904, a piece of logging legislation that might be okay for large rural areas but not in the more urbanized Bay Area (to see the staff report, click here, scroll to July 23 2013 and look for Item 6.1).

Staff's taken a similar position to the one I suggested a month ago in the memo below. I plan to copy all my memos to this blog and am behind right now, but will catch up. Here's one of the latest:



TO:
Board of Directors and Staff
FROM:
Brian Schmidt

SUBJECT:
Item 6.1, recommendation to adopt “Oppose Unless Amended” position on AB 904
DATE:
June 23, 2013



 


Summary

In addition to the legislative positions proposed by staff, I encourage the District Board to adopt an “Oppose Unless Amended” position on AB 904 (Chesbro), a bill for a proposed new logging designation that environmental groups generally consider detrimental to our area. The District should communicate to the Legislature that it should be amended to exclude our area of the state, which is different from more undeveloped areas and has much more logging on a rural-urban interface.

AB 904 creates a new logging designation similar to the existing Non-Industrial Timber Management Plan (NTMP) process for a permanent authorization to log property in perpetuity. NTMPs are limited to 2500 acres but the new designation expands the size of the property eligible for similar logging authorization by 600%, to 15000 acres. NTMPs have been very controversial in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and San Mateo Counties in part because of their permanence. In its favor, AB 904 includes certain environmental safeguards not present statewide but these are already present in our area, designated the Southern Subdistrict (SSD). The potential exists for poorly-supervised logging to increase sedimentation, decrease water quality and harm watersheds, as well as to increase a fire risk that the logging is ostensibly supposed to reduce.

I have communicated my concern about AB 904 to staff.

In addition to the discussion below, I refer the Board to the attached Op-Ed from the Sunday San Jose Mercury News.


Discussion

AB 904 (Chesbro) Forest Practices:  working forest management plans
Position Recommendation:  Oppose unless amended
Priority:  1 or 2

(The following information in this paragraph was provided by staff.) The bill creates a Working Forest Management Plan, which is a long-term forest management plan for nonindustrial landowners with less than 15,000 acres of timberlands if the landowner commits to uneven aged management and sustained yield.  Specifically, this newly amended bill now (1) creates a modified WFMP for very small nonindustrial landowners with 160 or fewer acres of timberlands in the Central Forest District and 320 acres of timberlands in the Northern Forest District or Southern Forest District; and (2) Allows landowners with Nonindustrial Timber Management Plans (NTMP) to expand total timberland ownership to 2,500 acres or more and transition into an expanded WFMP through an amendment to the plan; and (3) Requires the Board of Forestry to adopt regulations to tailor the modified WFMP to incentivize small landowners to develop to develop modified small working forest management plans; and (4) Precludes denial of a restoration grant application submitted by a WFMP or NTMP landowner on the sole grounds that the restoration work is a condition of an approved harvesting plan.




Importance to the District

The expansion of from NTMPs to WFMPs would allow landowners with much larger properties in the County, previously only allowed to log via temporary Timber Harvest Plans, to have permanent authorization to log.

Pros in favor of AB 904

·         Clear-cutting, which is allowed in other parts of California but not here, could happen less often in those parts of the state and be replaced by uneven aged management.

Cons in opposition to AB 904

·         The District in past years has expressed significant concerns about the environmental and water quality impact in past years regarding the use of the NTMP process in our local area, and this legislation increases the possibility of more logging authorized in a similar matter to the NTMP process that had raised concerns.

·         Environmental benefits to other parts of the state do not apply locally.

·         Decreases local land use control with potential effects on water quality and watersheds.





Attachment:  Guest Op-Ed from San Jose Mercury News

Monday, July 8, 2013

Water and climate, Obama edition

Climate change is a huge issue for us locally, so I'm glad to see Obama reacting to it and have written so elsewhere. A climate denialist commentator, Charles Krauthammer has never had much anything useful to say about climate change, so I responded to his column with this letter in the San Jose Mercury News:
Obama's climate policy is good for region

Charles Krauthammer's diatribe (Opinion, July 5) against President Obama for confronting climate change is a disingenuous insult to our region, where we face tremendous problems from warming.

Krauthammer misleads on the Pew survey, where 28 percent of respondents made climate change a top priority -- not bad for a problem whose worst effects are yet to come. His cherry-picked information leads to wrong or misleading conclusions.

China and India have both committed to never have the same per-capita emission levels as the United States -- Obama should be applauded for trying to accelerate their commitments on climate.

As a director of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, I'm keenly aware of the millions that we are spending and will spend to adjust to new flooding, new water demand, and reduced water supplies in the Sierra snowpack. What Obama is doing is good for us locally, but I believe that what Krauthammer wrote is anything but good.

Brian A. Schmidt
Director, District 7 Santa Clara Valley Water District

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Hoping to get signs announcing the creek name at every residential street crossing in the County

A memo that we submitted for the Board meeting this Tuesday:

TO:
Board of Directors and Staff
FROM:
Brian Schmidt, Richard Santos, Nai Hsueh

SUBJECT:
Directing research to place creek signs on all residential street crossings in the County
DATE:
June 7, 2013



 


Using the model of the well-known and popular signage for storm drains, “Don’t dump – drains to Bay,” we request that the Board direct staff to research and return with a proposal to put into place either plastic sign, metal sign, or painted stencil-style identification of the creek name, for every residential street creek crossing in Santa Clara County, with the goal of completing the entire program Countywide by end of Fiscal Year 2015.

Creek and watershed identification are critical to community support for District initiatives to enhance our local watersheds. Many residents don’t know that even a trapezoid, concrete channel in their neighborhood could be a once and future living creek ecosystem. Identifying the creeks by name will help people realize what they have now, help them understand the upstream and downstream connections, and motivate them to support enhancing their watershed.

Plastic and metal signs are clearly preferable to stencils and may be appropriate for more prominent crossings than residential street crossings. While we consider plastic and metal signs preferable to stencils, we suggest that all three be researched for identifying creek crossings for cost-comparison purposes.

Many prominent, beautiful, and more expensive alternatives exist compared to stenciling creek names on crossings. We suggest stenciling only for residential streets, not bigger arterial roads that deserve more prominent signage. Staff research on this should consider offering cities and the County a chance to provide matching funding if they wish to enhance the signage in their jurisdiction – for example, funding covering the cost differential between stenciling and metal signs, or between metal signs and other signage proposed by a city or the County.

Staff research should consider signage being either just the creek name, creek and watershed name, or a short additional message – for example “Don’t litter, this is AAA Creek”. Research should determine the program’s cost for either stenciling or metal signs. Research should consider the process of obtaining permission from cities and the County to place signage on the bridge structures, or consider signage adjacent to the bridges on District-owned access gates.

This proposal follows upon Director Santos’ Board Member Request on the issue. The Board and the District has a longstanding interest in signage and community awareness, and we urge the Board to begin the research that can make this happen.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

I guess I'll accept the compliment

The Mercury News reported in it's "offbeat" column about the Water District Board decision to adopt my motion to switch to night meetings, something that I've advocated for since I first ran for the office:
Looking for something to do at night, now that "American Idol" is over for the year? Fear not! There's new evening entertainment coming soon to Silicon Valley. Board members of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, in an uncharacteristically close 4-3 vote earlier this month, decided to move the agency's twice-monthly board meeting times from 9 o'clock every other Tuesday morning to 6 o'clock every other Tuesday evening. 
The goal? Copy most city councils in the area to try to get more people to attend meetings and encourage people with day jobs to run for board seats. James Madison cheers!

Usually, the audience is nearly empty, despite the fact that the water district, which provides water and flood control to 1.8 million people in Santa Clara County, is one of the county's largest government agencies and votes on everything from water rates to dam safety to trails to cleaning up after vagrants who trash Silicon Valley's creeks.

Yet as an attraction, "The Golden Spigot" hardly has lacked for drama. After all, it's the San Jose agency that has drawn attention and ridicule from the county grand jury, state lawmakers and the press in recent years for questionable spending, lavish staff salaries, gerrymandering schemes and other shenanigans.

But the agency's fortunes may be slowly turning around. In November, voters approved a $543 million parcel tax extension for the district by a landslide 74-26 percent. The tax currently costs $54 a home and funds dam upgrades, water treatment, trails and other projects. Millions in construction projects are already being planned.

And a new board is flexing its muscle. On the night meetings issue, the four votes came from reformers, all elected or appointed in the past three years: Linda LeZotte, Brian Schmidt, Barbara Keegan and chairwoman Nai Hsueh.
While I definitely support reform as needed, I think some criticisms are overblown. Still this column was about as close as the Merc could come to sincerely encouraging people to attend our meetings, so thanks!

The vote on the motion is below. If the video doesn't load, click here, find the May 14 2013 meeting, and scroll down to Item 9.3
Get Microsoft Silverlight

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Seven generations is a shared perspective with emergency planning

As part of my Water District work, I've started expanding my policy focus to emergency/disaster planning, or "resilience" as the current buzzword goes. Taking the long view seems as necessary in disaster planning as it does for the environment - planning for a 100 year flood means many areas will go 200 years or longer before the event you've planned for finally happens. I sure wish we could do climate planning in anticipation of what things could be like in the year 2213.

What got me started on this post is a presentation I saw yesterday - I'm the Water District rep to a regional planning organization for emergencies, and the presentation was on the role of local ham radio. We have over 7000 licensed radio operators in our county of nearly 2 million, and about 700 have taken additional training in emergency communication. Another 100 or so maintain emergency kits so they can travel to a site and start communication even if all power, phone, cellular, and internet access is down. They have a separate non-profit and work closely with government emergency services, and it's all volunteer with minimal (but some) governmental funding. It's a great backup system.

Resilience in response to changes is an emergency planning concept as well as environmental concept - a healthy ecosystem and climate can absorb challenges and still function. If we push things to the edge, then maybe not.


UPDATE:  forgot to note an important psychological difference. Emergency planning is all about training so that much of what you do is rote and you only improvise as little as needed. The quasi-military, hierarchical culture is obviously a different world.

(Note:  this is a repost from one of my other blogs.)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Memo on disclosure of compensation to directors

I contacted Directors Lezotte and Estremera and got their support for the memo below.  It will be considered later this month, with action (if any) sometime to follow.

TO:
Board of Directors and Staff
FROM:
Directors Estremera, Lezotte, and Schmidt

SUBJECT:
Item 10.1, Future Agenda Item for a Proposed New Policy on Disclosures
DATE:
February 7, 2013


 

The Water District has a stellar record on disclosure and openness, something we know from direct experience and from feedback we have received from the press.  Still, we look for opportunities to make that openness even better.  We suggest that an appropriate point in the near future, that the Board consider a discussion of a variety of options for a new Ends Policy regarding potential disclosure of agreements between the District and Directors, including former Directors, when the agreements involve monetary payments or benefits conferred upon the Directors by the District.  One option is listed below to begin the discussion, which we suggest staff consider and report on how other agencies handle disclosure of similar agreements.

As a general matter, confidentiality in settlements of disputes with employees may often be necessary and in the public’s best interest, but dealings with Directors are a special situation where the public has a special interest in understanding what has happened.  We emphasize that the potential disclosure under discussion here is regarding the special case only of Directors and former Directors.

Even in the case of dealing with Directors, the negotiation process often needs to proceed in a confidential manner, but upon finalization, the public’s interest in knowing the outcome that occurred between the District and the Directors that the public elected should be considered.

In lieu of drafting specific language, we suggest the principles below and look to staff to develop them further and to the Board for potential modification and adoption:

Alternative requiring disclosure (new policy would include all of the following):
1.    Agreements regarding monetary compensation or benefits for Directors shall be disclosed in the same manner as other compensation to Directors.
2.    Agreements regarding monetary compensation or benefits for Directors shall not include confidentiality provisions binding upon the District.
3.    Copies of agreements regarding monetary compensation or benefits for Directors shall be provided to all upon request.
4.    Notice of agreements regarding monetary compensation or benefits for Directors shall be provided to all who have requested notice of such agreements in general, and not require specific request of the specific agreement in order to be given notice.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Documenting the passage of Safe Clean Water Measure B

I should have done this a while back, but on November 20th of last year the Board reviewed the successful passage of Safe Clean Water Measure B, with 74% of the vote representing a possible new record for approval.

The whole discussion was 20 minutes long, watchable here (click through to November 20th, 2012, and then click to Item 9.3.)  I did want to pull out a place where my colleagues congratulated my work of bringing the environmental groups together with business support for the voter initiative:
Get Microsoft Silverlight
Everyone involved can share the credit for its passage, of course.  And as I said earlier in the video, the challenge is now to make sure we deliver.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The two views on Permanente flood control project

The Water District decided today to keep working on the Permanente Creek flood control project together with Mountain View, despite the disagreement last December about what should be done with McKelvey Park.  Below I tried to lay out what I think may be the perspectives of the City Council and the perspectives of the District Board, why they differ and how we can move forward to reach a common perspective.  It's the first two and a half minutes of the video:

Get Microsoft Silverlight

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Comments on Permanente on January 8

I had trouble posting this video earlier, I'm hoping it will work better as a separate blog post:

Challenges with Permanente flood control project

Just putting this in for future reference:  a brief discussion between Director Estremera and myself about the future of the Permanente flood control project, which has run into many delays and now most recently faced some concerns from Mountain View City Council about one aspect of it, the McKelvey Park flood detention basin:

(UPDATE:  if the first video below isn't loading well, try clicking here or at the link below.)
Get Microsoft Silverlight
Video here, Click on January 8 2013, Item 5.1, starting at 2:24:00


This is the follow-up I did, speaking to the Mountain View City Council:
Get Microsoft Silverlight
Video here, January 15th, Item 5, starting at 00:05:00

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Brian's mid-term report

Dear friends,

This month marks the half-way point in my term as the District 7 Director, so I wanted to report out to you all on what has and hasn't happened, both on a general level and in terms of fulfillment of my campaign promises.


General News

Measure B.  The most important news on the general level comes from the wonderful success of Measure B, the Safe Clean Water Measure, winning a stunning 74% of the vote on last November's ballot.  This approval level becomes either the highest or one of the highest ever for a Santa Clara County property tax.  Measure B will help accelerate our efforts to prepare our reservoirs for earthquakes, to provide resiliency against flooding, and to kickstart significant increases in the District's environmental restoration programs.  I became heavily involved in increasing environmental funding and accountability in the measure as well as supporting it to the public, and several of my colleagues thanked me for all my work.

The vast majority of environmentalists who took positions on Measure B ended up supporting it, while a few opposed it.  Opposition came from disappointment in how funding was handled in prior years.  I believe those problems are fixed in the new Safe Clean Water program as well as getting more funding, and I look forward to working with the environmental community in getting funding happening right away.

Turnover in the Board of Directors.  For a board that had the same directors during such a long time, the past few years resulted in tremendous turnover.  Of the seven directors who served prior to the November 2010 election, five will soon be replaced.  While experience is valuable, so is turnover.  I think we as new members of the Board will bring a great deal of benefit to the District, as well as a "reset" opportunity where needed for some parts of community relations.  I welcome incoming Board Directors Nai Hsueh and Barbara Keegan, and salute all of the directors who left or will soon be leaving for their years of service.

In related news, Director Gage was just elected mayor of Gilroy and will be leaving us.  I expect we will accept applications for a replacement in early January and appoint someone by the end of the month.  Obviously this will be an important decision, and I believe there are wide opportunities for anyone with strong connections to District 1 and with water-related experience.


My campaign 

My campaign promised to work on three major changes:  more public involvement, greater emphasis on the environment, and increased action on mercury contamination of our watershed.

More public involvement.  We made significant progress in public involvement and public trust, as can be seen by competitive elections and widespread support for Measure B.  More specifically, I chaired a special committee of Board directors to revamp the rules for citizen advisory committees, giving them greater flexibility to operate and to set their own agendas.  We held more evening meetings in 2011, and I hope to do even more in upcoming years.

More environmental emphasis.  We see this in the passage of Measure B, where I successfully lobbied my colleagues to increase funding for Shoreline protection from sea level rise and more money for fish habitat improvements.  The District also adopted a policy of becoming carbon-neutral by 2020, an ambitious target that I plan to do all I can to make happen.  I've been involved in many other environmental efforts at the District as well - you can see some of them in the 70-plus blog posts and Facebook updates that I've done, also part of getting more public involvement and transparency.

Increased action on mercury.  A lot has happened in this area, with the District continuing mercury remediation efforts in reservoirs and wrapping up removal of mercury contaminated mine tailings in the Jacques Gulch area.  The District has also started planning on how to separate Alamitos Creek from Almaden Lake, a crucial issue in dealing with mercury, and Measure B includes more funding to address this issue.

I still want to see legislative action on getting mercury producers to pay for cleanups or participate in taking mercury out of the environment, but meanwhile I think we've made some significant progress.


Looking ahead

I expect we'll have a lot to do with implementing Measure B, renovating the biggest of our three water treatment plants, dealing with old dams, managing water imports from the Sacramento Delta, and revising the state-level enabling legislation for the District.  I remain interested in reducing the total number of directors from seven to five, in making the Board more like a typical city council in terms of pay and time commitment, and in improving the election process.

I also plan to keep my commitment of no more than two terms on the Board.  Sometime about a year from now, I will start to think about whether I should run for re-election, and if I do, then I can guarantee you'll be hearing from me!

In the meantime, I wish everyone a Happy Holiday season as we look forward to 2013.

Cheers,
Brian

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Water District action next year


In response to questions, I wanted to give some updates on three expected Water District actions next year.

First, the Water District plans to go back to the state legislature for several revisions to the District Act that authorizes the District's existence.  The last effort several years ago bogged down in conflict, so the proposed approach now is to split it up and only try for relatively non-controversial parts first.

Video of the staff summary below (if it doesn't work, click here and then on October 23 2012, and finally advance to 1:32:00 through 1:35:00 in Item 6.1)

Get Microsoft Silverlight

I had some comments that first went to the issue of CEQA "reform" being proposed in the legislature, and then on the District Act legislation (same link as above, from 1:39:00 to 1:44:00):
Get Microsoft Silverlight


The specific short term goals are here:

Summary of Near-Term Legislative Needs 

Following are near-term legislative needs that are least likely to raise controversy or generate stakeholder opposition

• Remove obsolete language associated with the transition from a Board consisting of five elected and two appointed at-large members, to a Board consisting of seven elected members.

• Update the Act to reflect that Board Members are compensated and reimbursed pursuant to Chapter 2 (commencing with Section 20200) of Division 10 of the Water Code and Sections 53232.2 and 53232.3 of the Government Code.

• Revise the Act to provide the Board greater flexibility with respect to the appointment of advisory committees by deleting references to specific committees and committee membership.

• Delete the requirement to prepare and hold hearings on Engineers Reports, as that process has been superseded by the CEQA process and the Capital Improvement Plan process undertaken as part of the annual budget development and review process.

For my part, I'm considering the following long-term possibilities for reform of the District Act (just possibilities I'm considering at this point):

Elections:
From seven to five directors to match County Supervisor Districts, legislative authorization to rely on County redistricting results for subsequent changes to district boundaries
  Alternative A: Districts 6 and 7 terminate in 2014
  Alternative B: Districts 6 and 7 terminate in 2016 (final term is for two years, 2014-2016, instead of four)
  Alternative C: Districts 6 and 7 terminate in 2018
Note that the change to the District Act would choose one of the above alternatives

Cap on individual donations to campaigns – choose best practice found in elections to local office like county supervisor elections

Loans by candidate to campaign committee must be forgiven if not repaid within one month after the election

Voluntary cap on overall campaign budget

Match funds for small individual donors to a campaign up to a TBD level for each campaign committee and a TBD level for a campaign cycle, whichever is reached first

Authorization of District to establish instant runoff/ranked choice voting if such authorization is needed
  Alternatively, authorization of District to establish instant runoff/ranked choice voting if the County Board of Supervisors switches to that type of voting system.

Other:
Watershed restoration – District is authorized to undertake activities to protect, enhance, and restore Santa Clara County watersheds
  Clarification that this measure not meant to affect District’s authorization to issue permits


Okay, so all that is just the first update.  I'll be more concise on the other two.

The District has begun preliminary work on community involvement over separating Alamitos Creek from Almaden Lake, an important issue both for reducing the problem of mercury contamination and protecting our native fish from unnaturally warm temperatures and predatory invasive fish.  Solutions could create new riparian zones, new wetlands (as mitigation for wetland losses elsewhere) and/or new parkland, at the expense of a diminished or eliminated Lake Almaden.  Anyone who wants to contribute to the discussion should start to get involved, with the next public effort in February.  Info on potential alternatives is here.

Finally, we have the very welcome problem of figuring out how to implement Safe Clean Water funding!  I hope that we can reinitiate grant funding for wildlife habitat and trail proposals as soon as possible, maybe beginning the process this winter and awarding grants in August.

A very busy year in the making, and I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Great news on Safe Clean Water for Santa Clara County

Below is my statement regarding the Water District election results:

All I can say is thank you. 
Okay, I can say more. 
The biggest (and gratifying!) surprise for me was the margin: 72.65% in favor, almost 6% higher than needed. This is far better than any prior poll of the measure that I've seen or heard about. The original year 2000 measure just barely received the 66.7% needed to pass, although that was a new tax and this is a continuation of an existing one. 
Also surprising is that at the same time, voters elected a challenger over an incumbent Water District director running for re-election. This suggests to me the voters' willingness to distinguish between their choice of the elected directors and their evaluation of the work of the organization as a whole, a subtle distinction by the voters for a down-ballot issue. I have already sent my congratulations to newly-elected Nai Hsueh and Barbara Keegan and look forward to working with them 
As for Director Kwok who is being replaced by Ms Hsueh, I thank him for his years of service, especially at the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority.  At the JPA he helped moved forward the flood control projects that had otherwise faced significant delays.  Thanks likewise to Director Judge, who is retiring, for all his work.
Director Don Gage was successful in his bid for mayor of Gilroy and so will be leaving us. We'll miss him and will have to work hard to find a worthy successor to appoint and fill out the rest of Don's term, which will happen near the beginning of 2013. 
Safe Clean Water Measure B is a continuation of crucial changes at the District. Clean Safe Creeks 2000 was the start of that change with the first outcome measures dedicated for environmental restoration. Safe Clean Water 2012 took that estimated funding level and easily tripled it or more, along with greater transparency and better guarantees that the money will be spent for what the voters intended. 
This series of changes can't end - the future of water agencies throughout the state and the nation is to be environmental agencies. Safe Clean Water sends us in that direction, but it's nowhere near enough. We still need some reforms at how we do things on the District Board level and on better efficiency at staff level. These changes must happen, and I look forward to working with everyone to continue them. 
Thank you!
Brian Schmidt, Director, District 7
Santa Clara Valley Water District

Monday, November 5, 2012

Last call for support for Measure B

(I sent this out today.)


Hi-

I think the connection between disaster preparation and environmentalism isn't as strongly made by the public as it should be.  Both are about planning for the future, not just the present.  

The tragic events with Superstorm Sandy show how important it is to be prepared.  Measure B is about being prepared for disasters, for flooding, for earthquakes, and for other disasters to the environment and to the water supply.  Rebuilding the levees along the Bay to prepare for tidal flooding and sea level rise can help avert on a smaller scale what we've seen back east, as well as making Bay restoration possible when we replace unsafe, old mud walls with a modern levee system.

I won't go over all the details of Measure B, but below is a letter I've been circulating about it.  Since joining the Water District Board two years ago, I've felt the urgency of the work as well the need in cases to change things.  Measure B helps us change things.  Waiting two years or four years is about increasing the risk - environmental improvements and flood control take years to do, so a delay now means a delay in finished projects from five to fifteen years in the future.

Please support and tell your friends to support Measure B.  I'm happy to answer any questions - and please forward this!

Cheers,
Brian
 
Brian A Schmidt, Director, District 7
Santa Clara Valley Water District

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

One climate adaptation in process for local water demand


So I'm going to get at least one of the climate change goals I've had for my Water District - recalibrate anticipated future water demand based on anticipated future temperatures.

I know that anticipating our future local water supply (about 35% is local, 55% from the Sierras, and 10% is from conservation) is really difficult.  Most likely it will be worse - longer droughts and larger percent of precip coming in large storms where the water mostly flushes to the ocean instead of percolating to groundwater or caught in reservoirs.  Also less snow - and we do get snow in the Bay Area hills, even if it doesn't last.  But none of this translates into numbers that we can plug into our 25-year projections.

Demand, or at least aspects of it, can be modeled in a climate-changed world.  Thanks to weather, we've got past unseasonably-warm years that will be just typically-warm years of the future, and the increased demands from crops and landscapes due to warmth should be easy to see.

While this analysis didn't go into a water supply master plan that we approved last week, it will go into the next iteration.  I brought up the issue below, and got support from our board chair and (after discussion of other issues by staff) from the conservative Republican director on our board:



If the video above goes away, click here, click on the October 9 2012 video, and go to Minute 43.

Wish it was this easy all the time.  Adaptation to climate change still seems like the easiest way to bring about acceptance of climate reality, despite North Carolina's legislature.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Santa Clara County environmentalists - Please support Safe Clean Water measure!


Letter to Santa Clara County Environmentalists about the Safe Clean Water Measure
Brian Schmidt
October 4, 2012

As a long time environmentalist with what I hope is some “street cred” on valuing the environment and knowing the Water District, I urge you, I beg you, to support the Safe Clean Water measure - Measure B - on the November ballot and to tell your friends to do the same.  This fall might be our only chance for a decade or longer to get expanded environmental funding, and it definitely is our best chance based on what we currently know about future circumstances.

It’s far better than the funding we have now, and that funding is on its way out

In 2000 voters passed, just barely, the Clean Safe Creeks funding measure with the support of most environmental groups, and the measure expires in June 2016.  About $15 to $20 million for environmental funding could be available under this measure, but it’s not required to be spent on the environment and could end up shifted elsewhere if Safe Clean Water doesn’t pass.

The new Safe Clean Water measure by contrast has over $20 million in grants for streamside and wetland habitats, $24 million that makes restoring South Bay tidal wetlands possible, $21 million for removing contaminants like mercury from our watersheds, $20 million for improving fish habitat and removing barriers to steelhead, $8 million for implementing the new County Habitat Conservation Plan, $7 million in pollution prevention grants, and $2 million in new water conservation programs and projects that encourage use of drinking water instead of bottled water.

Some of these things would happen anyway without Safe Clean Water, but some would not or not as extensively, or other worthy projects would lose funding instead.  There are other good environmental aspects of Safe Clean Water as well, like natural flood control along San Francisquito Creek, that I haven’t even counted.  What is clear is that the original, year 2000 Measure B is going away and will be gone before the next presidential election, so now is the time to move forward.

This is our best chance

A special tax like Safe Clean Water requires a two-thirds majority vote, even just for the purpose of renewing it at the same rate.  The Water District did polling in the runup to the Clean Safe Creeks measure 12 years ago and again for the current Safe Clean Water measure.  In June of this year, Safe Clean Water polled 69% support, two percent higher than Clean Safe Creeks did in June 2000. 

If Safe Clean Water ends up failing, then one likely conclusion the Water District may make fopr the future is that if preliminary polling doesn’t show even higher than 69% support, then don’t go through the planning process again, which cost over a million dollars this last time.  Statistics in non-presidential elections are not encouraging – 71% of city and special district parcel taxes like this one failed last June, according to the Calwatchdog website.  Younger, more environmentally-oriented voters and voters of color favor this measure and are far more likely to come out for the presidential election than the one in November 2014.

After this year there may be other open space funding measurers, a state water bond measure, and a Palo Alto flooding benefit district; all of them potentially competing with or reducing support for renewing the special tax.  After June 2016, the existing tax expires, and trying to get people to renew an expired tax is far more difficult.  We simply don’t know if we have another chance, or if we do whether that other chance will win.

Environmentalists think long-term

If Safe Clean Water passes, it is likely that in a decade or so we will be looking at revising and renewing it, just as we are now for Clean Safe Creeks.  As is the case now, renewing an existing tax in a decade will be easier than starting a new tax.  Passing Safe Clean Water now isn’t just a matter of this decade, but of making funding possible for the next measure.  Just as Safe Clean Water is better than Clean Safe Creeks, I expect the next measure will be better still.  For that, we need your help.

If Safe Clean Water fails, the realistic option is to prepare for reduced environmental funding until there’s another major river flood, tidal flood, or drought, which could be many years in the future.  Before then we might be able to do something to help environmental funding, but we can’t count on it, let alone that it would be nearly as much help.

We live in an imperfect world.  I’m not suggesting that Safe Clean Water is perfect and couldn’t have been made better (although there will be chances to improve it during implementation if it passes).  What I’m asking of the environmental community is that we reach out our hand and grasp this opportunity in front of us.

Please forward this letter on to any local environmentalists you know.  This letter is only a summary, and there’s a lot more to discuss for those interested in discussing it.  I am happy to talk to you or your friends to go into those details or to refute misinformation you may have heard (and acknowledge the occasional correct criticism).  You can also get more information at http://yesonsafecleanwater.com/.

Looking forward to the election – please vote YES on Measure B for Safe Clean Water!

Sincerely,
Brian Schmidt
Director, District 7, Santa Clara Valley Water District
Former Santa Clara County Advocate, Committee for Green Foothills
Former Board Member, Santa Clara County League of Conservation Voters
Former staff attorney, Earthjustice
Former co-president, Stanford Environmental Law Society

P.S.  If you can do a little more than just spread the word, please do!  Contact me for ideas, or if you can make a contribution at the website above, that would be incredibly helpful.