Sunday, January 24, 2016

2016 California Water Law Symposium notes

Some notes  on the 2016 California Water Law Symposium:

Panelist from Santa Clara Valley Water District said the District would've preferred that Governor Brown's water conservation order had allowed the percentage ordered conserved to be increased, because the District wanted more conservation without the direct authority to order it increased (by retailers that the District supplies).

I talked to Robb Barnitt from Dropcountr, involved in measuring consumer water use, and asked if they could measure long-term conservation changes (e.g., lawn removal) versus short-term (water lawns less). He said they have some ability to do that although it's difficult. This could help plan out what future water demand will be.

One speaker said "I hope the drought continues" because we have so much momentum to change practices that she didn't want to see stopped. I've heard that sentiment a number of times from water professionals.

Another panelist, Dave Owen, said urban stormwater management might want to incentivize "hotspots," like those that maximize infiltration or pollutant reduction. That's especially relevant to the San Francisco Bay Area where much of the urban development is over perched aquifers that don't add to the water supply. One might prefer more infiltration uphill, or even create a Transferable Development Right system that would reduce downill requirements for retention if they incentivize it uphill.

Keynote speaker, Justice Robie:  a former water lawyer, he said water lawyers from other Western states would just laugh at how convoluted California water law is. He said he laughed at them though because they had no legal protections for instream flow for the environment, while California does through the public trust concept. He also said fundamentally overthrowing California water rights law is unrealistic, but many other good changes are possible. Better accountability of rights itself could be very beneficial. He did say that he's seen the more reform of California water law recently than virtually any time over his 50-year career.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Using shallow aquifers: the oldest water source is a new method for climate mitigation and adaptation

Deep wells draw from confined and protected aquifers for drinking water, while shallow wells pump water for short distances for non-potable use.

Water issues and climate change issues overlap tremendously. Transporting and purifying water needs energy, a lot of energy in some places. Here in California, around 20% of all electric energy consumption is used simply to move water around the state (although pumping over high points can sometimes recover some of the energy on descent).

Transporting water also results in water loss through evaporation and leakage. Once the water arrives, agencies use additional energy and produce emissions in the purification process, including use of ultraviolet energy and chemicals for water purification.

In addition to these effects that make climate change worse through energy consuption, our water system suffers from increasing vulnerability to climate change. With less snow, more heat waves, more heat in general that dries out soils, and more drought, we will have less water from typical sources in the face of increasing water demand.

For these reasons, using water from shallow aquifers is something new - or possibly something old and now is new again - that can help in the mitigation and adaptation for climate change.

Communities draw water from two sources - surface water such as rivers and lakes, and groundwater in aquifers. Historically, people dug wells by hand and went no deeper than the shallowest source of dependable water. In many areas, especially near coastlines, that would be a shallow aquifer separated from deeper groundwater by clay layers deposited over millenia (see figure above). Today we can drill deeply to get to confined aquifers further down that are protected from surface contamination.

In Santa Clara County, home of Silicon Valley along the San Francisco Bay, the majority of the two million people living there reside above shallow aquifers. The county water agency draws from and actively recharges the deep, confined aquifer, but they do not use the shallow aquifer. With insufficient local rainfall, the county water agency draws on water pumped from the Sacramento River to refill reservoirs and recharge the deep aquifer. That water then gets pumped out, much of it used just once on people's yards, then enters the shallow aquifer where it gradually percolates to the Bay.

That county water agency, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, uses surface water, deep confined aquifer groundwater, and pumped-in Sacramento River water to recharge both sources. This process uses a lot of energy and becomes less available with climate change, but the people of Silicon Valley don't take advantage of the water just under their feet, water they just put there when they watered their plants.

Source information available from Santa Clara Valley Water District in the paper "Revised Final Groundwater Vulnerability Study 2010"

The figure above shows the shallow aquifer beginning just a few feet down. The deep aquifer for drinking water starts 100 to 300 feet lower. The rain then that arrives in the north-central through the south central part of the valley floor reaches only the shallow aquifer, where no one makes use of it. Similarly the discharged water for plants and gardens also is stopped at the shallow aquifer and not reused.

The problem in using this readily available water is that it is not reliably drinkable - its close connection to the surface means it can get contaminated. Today, however, there are many uses for non-potable water, including on plants and gardens, and even indoor use like toilets. The energy needed to pump a few feet is a fraction of that needed for the deep aquifer and for water from miles away in the Sacramento River. No energy is wasted treating water that people do not drink.

And once used outdoors, any excess water filters right back to the same aquifer it came from, a natural recycling system. This local water source also encourages landowners to remove impermeable surfaces to maximize infiltration. Because the excess water remains nearby after use; because the source is at hand and doesn't evaporate or leak during transportation; and because it is a new water source that is little-used in developed countries, the use of shallow aquifer helps in both mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

Santa Clara Valley Water District can help in the use and recycling of water in shallow aquifers, for example showing how to retain water onsite to filter into the aquifer for use. Other places can and have taken action. In Australia and other parts of the US, water storage and recharge in aquifers for nonpotable use is happening.

Shallow wells and shallow aquifers were the first subsurface water sources for humanity, and they can once again help, this time in facing the modern challenge of climate change.

Supplemental Material

Powerpoint presentation of a simple backyard shallow well and infiltration system in Redwood City, California: 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Adaptación y mitigación de cambio climático por uso de acuiferos superficiales por agua no potable

(Ejemplo de acuiferos:  "unconfined aquifer" es un acuifero superficial, y "confined aquifer" es un acuifero profundo.)

El cambio climático viene con muchos retos vinculado con agua. La purificación y transporte de agua necesita energía, a veces mucha energía. Acquí en California, aldredor de 20% de la energia electrica se usa en el transporte de agua (aunque se puede recuperar algo de este energía - despues de levantar agua sobre montañas, la presión cuando el agua se baja es suficiente para hacer electricidad).

El transporte de agua tambien resulta en el perdido de agua, porque de la evaporacion. Hay bastante energia usado y emisiones producido en la purificacion de agua tambien, incluyendo el uso de energia ultravioleta y la produccion de quimicos por la purificacion de agua.

Finalmente el reto de adapatacion al cambio climatico se necesita hacer algo diferente por un fondo de agua. Con menos nieve, mas olas de calor, mas calor en general que hace el suelo mas seco, y con mas sequias, van a ser menos agua para usar en formas tipicas.

Por todas estas razones, el uso de agua de acuiferios superficiales es algo nuevo - o posiblamente algo viejo que ya es algo nuevo - que pueden ayudar en la adaptacion y la mitigacion de cambio climatico

Sociedades sacan ague de dos fuentes - agua en el superficie como en rios y lagos, y agua bajo del suelo en acuiferos. Anteriormente, tienen que excavar pozos por mano, y por esta razon normalmente no se hacen mucho mas profundo que lo alcanzaba al nivel de agua, en el aquiferio superficial. Ahora en paises desarrollados normalmente usan agua mucho mos profundo, porque este agua tiene menos riesgo de contaminacion.

Por ejemplo, en lugares cerca de La Bahia de San Francisco, y en muchos partes del mundo, hay mas que una aquiferio. En diferente niveles del suelo, hay capas del barro que separan el acuifero superficial y el acuifero profundo. En el Condado de Santa Clara, la origen de Silicon Valley, la mayoria de casi 2 millones de gente viven sobre un acuifero superficial, pero no lo usan.

El Condado de Santa Clara tiene una agencia de agua que se llama el Distrito de Aguas del Valle de Santa Clara que usan agua superficial y agua del acuifero profundo, y el Distrito lleva agua desde el Rio Sacramento para llenar el acuifero profundo y los embalses. Este proceso usan mucho energia, pero el Distrito y las personas en Silicon Valley no se usan el agua muy cerca de sus pies.

Estas figuras demuestran los acuiferos superficiales and profundos:

Se pueden encontrar estas figuras en el sitio web del Distrito, en el papel "Revised Final Groundwater Vulnerability Study 2010."

Las figuras muestran que se necesita y solamente unos metros para encontrar el acuifero superficial pero 30 a 100 metros o mas para encontrar el acuifero profundo. La lluvia que llega sobre el parte norte-central y el parte sur-central de estas figuras solamente alcanza al acuifero superficial, y nadie lo usan.

El problema es que este agua es no potable y por esta razon no lo usan, pero hoy dia hay muchas posibilidades de usar agua no potable, en los cespedes y jardines, y a veces en parte de casas y edificios, como los banos. No necesitan bombear este agua desde muchos metros abajo, ni necesitan impulsarlo desde el Rio Sacramento.

Y cuando se usan este agua por afuera de las casas y edificios, el agua se filtran abajo al mismo acuifero superficial, y se pueden usarlo al nuevo en un sistema natural de reciclaje. Porque el agua queda cerca despues del uso, porque su fuente es cerca no necesita transporte que sufren evaporacion, y porque es una nueve fuente de agua que no se usan mucho en paises desarrollados, el uso de acuiferos superficial funciona tambien por la reduccion (mitigacion) de cambio climatico y por la adaptacion a los impactos de cambio climatico.

El Distrito de Aguas del Valle de Santa Clara pueden apoyar el uso y el reciclaje de agua en acuiferos superficiales, por ejemplo mostrando como se pueden detener lluvias para que se filtran al acuifero no salen hacia la Bahia de San Francisco.

En otros partes del mundo, se pueden hacer lo mismo. En Australia, donde ha sufrido una sequia muy larga, y en partes de los Estados Unidos, se han empezado a usar aquiferos superficiales y la recarga de ellos.

Los pozos superficiales y los acuiferos superficiales fueron las primeras fuentes de agua bajo del suelo, y los acuiferos superficiales pueden ayudarnos al nuevo.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Some of the things we've discussed in this election

As we count the hours to the close of polls, I thought I would put down here some of the things I've discussed with people in the election, either in person or in writing (and much of it can already be found on the campaign website, or with a little more searching at the campaign Facebook page.)

Campaign finance reform is the half-million dollar elephant in the room. I tried to work on this before I had any idea it would be an issue in the campaign but encountered roadblocks with District staff believing it would be extremely expensive. I frankly have doubts about that, and now that the issue has arisen again, you can believe that I'm taking it back up:
TO: Board of Directors and Staff                           FROM: Brian Schmidt
SUBJECT: Board Member Request to review models for limiting the role of money in future Water
District elections

DATE: October 10, 2014

Given recent news of extremely large amounts of money being spent in elections for the Water District, possibly a state-level record for any water district, I am bringing back an issue I raised before last year of investigating ways to limit the role of money in future Water District elections.

Staff’s previous research concluded that some limitations might require large administrative costs for
the District to ensure compliance. This new request asks staff to look at existing models in Santa Clara County and elsewhere that avoid large administrative costs. One example could be Mountain View’s Voluntary Expenditure Limits combined with partial reimbursement of certain fees paid by candidates to the government as part of the election process. I would request staff consider other options as well.

As we have seen very appropriate criticism and reform of the role of unlimited money in almost all other types of non-special-district elections, this request looks to opportunities for similar reform at the Water District in its future elections.

In addition, I think local party politics could use some reform. Exactly what to do is less clear, but what is very clear is that my opponent threw a lot of money around in the form of contributions to other political groups and politicians, much more so than in previous years. One trick I'm aware of is "stacking" political clubs with your supporters, so that a well-financed campaign will go out and actively recruit people to join various Democratic Clubs (and in at least one case I understand that included paid staffers joining up). A solution to this is to require a six-month waiting period before new members can vote to change the rules or to endorse local candidates.

Moving on from clean money issues, I've been very clear on my website on water supply issues, which are environmental issues as well. I've referred to lawns as the "fast food" of California landscaping, something that's okay in small amounts only. I believe that cities should prohibit replacing lawns with more lawns in commercial redevelopments, with limited exceptions. Single family residential is the area that lawns are most justified, but even there they don't need to be universal. Where we do have lawns it should be the most water-thrifty types, and possibly using the new underground irrigation techniques.

Something else I've mentioned to people is that while I want to remove concrete from our creeks as much as possible, we have to recognize that a lot of concrete channels are going to stay that way for years to come. In the meantime, we should focus on both the biology and aesthetics of concrete channels - they do have biological value and shouldn't just be 'functional and ugly' but places that the public also enjoys.

Climate change continues to challenge us. I am very interested in community choice aggregation as a way to get greener power, and the possibility of green bonds. I'm interested in anything the District can do to reduce its footprint and be prepared for our changing climate.

More to come, later!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Water District election update - the "man of compass" column

The title above refers to a San Jose newspaper article. It turns out this election is going to be interesting.

What I have been thinking for a while though in this runup to the election is to actually acknowledge that I'm capable of making mistakes, and what they are. I've got one general category of mistakes, and then one specific issue. The general category is dividing my attention on too many things. Here's an incomplete list of the memos I've written:  too many subjects. Obviously we do a lot more work than can be measured by memos, but those memos should usually be priority items. If I had chosen fewer subjects and put more time into them, we could have progressed further. (I'll still defend our progress overall, though.)

The other, specific issue is pretty technical but involves the best approach to resolving legal and environmental issues under both state and federal law for the protection of endangered steelhead salmon. We'd been attempting to get simultaneous state and federal permits but had been held up on the federal level. Some local environmental groups wanted to split the process to speed up actions to help steelhead under state law; our staff resisted this approach. A few months ago, our staff changed their minds. Maybe that could have happened two years ago instead - the split approach was the right one. Now we have to make up for that lost time.

Anyway, I think you can acknowledge mistakes while still doing a good job, and that's what I hope to do in this election. 

And to be a good politician (or less guileless one), I'll also add that help is greatly appreciated.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Climate change, desalination, and astronaut water

As Eli points out, California has a water crisis, and much of the rest of the country needs to be much more water efficient. Water efficiency is the obvious place to start but then the next-step question comes up.

While plenty of people don't live near the ocean, lots do. Oceanside areas with large populations are going to have wastewater treatment plants (in developed countries, anyway).  These places therefore have two potential sources of new water supply:  ocean desalination or potable reuse of recycled wastewater.

Potable reuse of wastewater is nothing new. Almost any city drawing water from a river which has another city upstream is already doing it; the question is can we do it without lying to ourselves. In the case of astronauts and the International Space Station, they can do it outright, but the rest of us have to catch up.

Or not. Ocean desal actually uses the same technologies that potable reuse requires, either distillation or more commonly through reverse osmosis. The difference is that ocean water has a lot more stuff in it (mainly salt) than wastewater which already has to go through some purification before it reaches your reverse-osmosis system. That means a lot more energy and cost is involved in ocean desalination than potable reuse, so we've got a climate change issue.

The other climate change issue is that the lack of water currently stops a lot of unwise sprawl development, but ocean desal could change that, or maybe even mandate it - a very expensive desal system could be built on the expectation that there will be a lot more development to pay for it. I suppose there's some sprawl risk from potable reuse as well, but because it functions best in an existing populated area, starting at the wastewater treatment plan and then spreading from there, the risk is lower.

Many other factors involved of course, but these are the main climate issues. All but one of the factors weigh in favor of potable reuse. The one factor favoring ocean desal is psychology and political acceptance. People hesitate to drink this water, and that hesitation killed an earlier potable reuse project in San Diego (p. 17).

I view desal and portable reuse as being in a race. Money is limited so communities are going to prioritize. As much as I can I've supported potable reuse and opposed desal.

First step for potable reuse is Indirect Potable Reuse, achieving psychological acceptance by making the treated water sit somewhere for a while before reuse, either in a reservoir or underground. It's good but maximum flexibility and less cost require Direct Potable Reuse, shunting the water to your drinking water plants.

At my water district we've set up a reverse osmosis system. Currently it's just to improve the quality of non-potable recycled water which will help with certain types of uses, but the goal is potable, if we can get public acceptance.

Note:  stumbled across this - Los Angeles actually constructed an indirect potable reuse plant in the 1930s, but shut it down when they acquired Colorado River water. Back to the future, like with electric cars.

Also, desalination sometimes refers to desal of brackish water, usually groundwater. This water is much less salty than ocean water so a lot of the energy concerns are reduced with brackish desal. But brackish water and even potable reuse require a fair amount of energy, just nowhere near as much as ocean desal.

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):

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

A proactive response to the current drought
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.


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. 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, 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 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):

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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:

Board of Directors and Staff
Brian Schmidt

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



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.


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:

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

Directing research to place creek signs on all residential street crossings in the County
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
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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.

Board of Directors and Staff
Directors Estremera, Lezotte, and Schmidt

Item 10.1, Future Agenda Item for a Proposed New Policy on Disclosures
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:
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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:

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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: