Water managers and regulators doling out big bucks

For decades, water agencies have taken advantage of state grants and low-interest loans to invest in water-treatment plants and other infrastructure. But since voters passed large water bonds in recent years, many agencies in regions across the state have joined forces to tap into millions of dollars in new grants, money that is contingent on their collaboration to come up with regional solutions for the state’s water woes.

“There’s been a push in recent years to tie the use of funds to good behavior and sound policies,” said Ellen Hanak, a senior fellow with the California Public Policy Institute. “Going forward with the new bond money, it may be a more important role than ever before.”

With a declining snow pack and less access to water from the Colorado River, much attention in the Capitol has focused on new dams and canals to deliver water from resource-rich Northern California to the arid south. But state water officials, managers and policy observers say that an increasingly important part of the jigsaw puzzle–the state’s water plan–are these localized integrated regional waste-management programs. The programs are designed to increase self-sufficiency by investing in wastewater recycling, groundwater banking, conservation, improved water quality and even habitat restoration.

Lester Snow, director of the Department of Water Resources, wrote in an update to California’s last water plan, that this strategy represents “the future for California because it will help regions diversify their water portfolio.”
And a flood of new money is accelerating this trend.

Last year voters approved $1 billion for IRWM with Proposition 84. This comes on the heels of $360 million in grants with the last water bond, Proposition 50, in 2002. In the last two years, the Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board have teamed up to dole out over $300 million of Proposition 50 money. Both agencies are involved because the projects affect not only water supply, but quality, too. The last $60 million from Proposition 50 should be awarded by this time next year, said Tracie Billington, chief of special projects with DWR. “This is a big pot of money that is available for a multitude of projects: water quality, supply, ecosystem,” Billington said. “I think investment in the grant funds is fostering cooperation among water interests that hadn’t occurred before in many cases.”

For Sue Hughes, co-chairman of the Watersheds Coalition of Ventura County, this was certainly the case. Hughes said that six months before Proposition 50 passed in November 2002, employees from the county of Ventura called up local water agencies, treatment plants, environmentalists–anyone who worked on watershed issues. While the county always had a spirit of cooperation, Hughes said agencies still needed to overcome trust and turf issues when developing their project list. And in order to compete for the money, the coalition had to merge with a competing local group whose projects overlapped. Eventually, the coalition, which swelled to 60 agencies and nonprofits, nabbed $25 million in grants for 11 projects. The projects–water recycling, salinity management, a new groundwater treatment facility, and even removal of the invasive water-sucking Arundo plant–are designed to lower rates for customers, protect wildlife and better manage water resources. “This process brought everyone to the table,” Hughes said. “I think the opportunity to work together [to bring in $25 million] speaks to the good work of the group.”

Ed Winkler, executive director of the Regional Water Authority, which represents 22 water providers in the greater Sacramento area, said that the amount of money going to regional projects represents a shift in philosophy on the part of water planners. “It is all about local interests coming together,” Winkler said. “The grant incentive is a big motivation for agencies to do the required heavy lifting to come up with good plans.”

Winkler’s authority was also awarded $25 million, this time to help fund 14 projects that range from improved habitats, low-flow toilet rebates, water treatment and recycling facilities. A couple years earlier RWA also received $22 million from Proposition 13, for a project that brought seven local water providers together. The plan, called conjunctive use, is based on storing excess water underground during wet years to be used in dry years. “When our agencies can better utilize groundwater in dry years

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