The El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce meeting was packed last Wednesday when it held a forum on water.
The topic that drew the crowd was the integral part that water plays in the economic viability of El Dorado County, the Sacramento region and the state.
There to address that topic from a local, county and regional perspective were Jim Abercrombie, general manager of the El Dorado Irrigation District; Dave Eggerton, general manager of the El Dorado County Water Agency; and John Woodling, executive director of the Regional Water Authority.
Providing an overview of the county’s largest water agency, Abercrombie said water and water availability is like a gold mine for the county. “If you have it, you will grow and prosper. If you don’t, there will be negative economic consequences.”
The good news is that EID has an ample water supply for the next 20 to 30 years, he said, noting that EID has water rights for around 65,000 acre-feet with an acre-foot serving almost two homes. EID customers currently use almost 36,000 acre feet, leaving 29,000 acre feet for future growth. Abercrombie added that EID also has an integrated water system, which means it can move water from place to place depending on need, so even if the state announces a water shortage, it may not affect El Dorado County.
Abercrombie emphasized that EID does not push for or against growth. Rather it responds to what actions the county takes. “We’re not a pro growth or anti-growth district,” he said, but added that if the county wants to grow, it has the water supply to serve new customers.
Addressing the topic more from a countywide perspective on water issues was Dave Eggerton of the El Dorado County Water Agency who explained that his agency doesn’t operate a water system. Instead it’s more of a planning, water rights and advocacy organization. Praising the efforts of the Regional Water Authority in protecting the interests of El Dorado County and other areas upstream of the Delta, he noted that as a result of a 2009 conference on Delta-related water issues, upstream water suppliers “have gotten our act together and are very well-organized.”
Crediting Woodling as a leader in this effort, Eggerton went on to say their plan is to gain control of the water rights in Folsom Lake and elsewhere so they can wholesale the water to EID and other water agencies. “Pursuing water rights is part of our job,” he added, crediting the local agricultural community for its help in this effort. Citing one example of this, he said they are currently pursuing 40,000 acre-feet of SMUD project water, with half of it projected for new ag development in the county.
“We have identified areas in the county where we can see agriculture thrive and this water will support it,” he said, citing the success of Apple Hill and the wineries in south county. “Even in this downturn, ag has been the bedrock of the community and withstood the economic downturn.” By acquiring additional water rights, the county will have the water supply it needs to expand agriculture, said Eggerton.
In response to a question about the possible erosion of water rights, Eggerton said while there are statutory guarantees on the books that have been there since the early 20th century, there is not a lot of case law. The original idea was to guarantee to upstream communities that they would have a water supply. “But I see a whittling down of those rights as case law has developed,” he said, although the agency is countering that by applying for additional water rights such as the 40,000 acre-feet of water stored by SMUD at Folsom Lake. “If we don’t pursue it now, the days of getting any rights will probably be gone,” he added.
Taking a more statewide perspective was Woodling of the Regional Water Authority. RWA is a joint powers agency made up of 20 water suppliers in different counties. “We have a relatively abundant supply of water, portable water supplies and high-quality water because we’re located near the source,” he said. “That’s an economic driver and economic advantage. Businesses come here that need water supplies.”
But there is growing pressure on RWA suppliers because of the imbalance in California between where the water comes from and where most of the population lives, Woodling continued. In California, most of the water comes from the Northern Sierra and North Coast, but most people live in the Bay Area and Southern California with much of the agricultural production in the San Joaquin Valley.
California has a network of reservoirs and conveyors to take water and store it and move it around the state to where we need it, he said. The Bay-Delta is part of that. They aren’t the source of water, but that’s where the pump is. The source is predominantly the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada.
“I also hear the Delta called the hub of the water system, but I’d call it the choke point now,” he continued. Calling water one of the biggest issues in the state right now, he worried that the problem of supplying water to the southern part of the state was being pushed upstream to suppliers like El Dorado County.
Agreeing with Woodling, Abercrombie said the most important issue right now has to do with the Bay-Delta, noting that although the county has senior water rights, he and others worry that the state may try to take away those rights in order to backfill the water that is being pumped out of the Delta to other areas of the state.
Currently Gov. Jerry Brown plans to build twin tunnels to convey water south.
“We have to make sure the solution doesn’t impact us,” said Woodling. However he also didn’t think stopping the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan was a good long-term solution, saying, “Ongoing uncertainty for export supplies will cause ongoing uncertainty for us as well.”
Eggerton said he believes a bond to fund the Bay-Delta project will be on next year’s ballot, but only for $6 billion — not the $11 billion originally proposed. But he warned that “If we don’t get general obligation funding, it will be a real call for a statewide water tax.” At that suggestion, Abercrombie said that if that happens, it will be a call for action since everyone should pay for infrastructure improvements, not just ratepayers.
Eggerton went on to say that only now are some people in the state starting to realize where their water supply comes from. He said this was brought home to residents in the Bay Area this summer when an emergency was called in San Francisco due to the Rim Fire and the threat to the Hetch Hetchy Dam. That dam supplies the water for 2.6 million Bay Area residents and businesses, as well as hydroelectric power for the city.
Woodling said as more water users understand these issues, hopefully they will be able to build enough political power to protect against these potential impacts.
“Water agencies are there to hold water rights in trust and to manage the system to provide for the people in those areas,” he added.
With time running out, the meeting was closed with a quote, often attributed to Mark Twain, that “Whiskey’s for drinking; water’s for fighting over.”
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.