On Jan. 27, 2017, Santa Barbara-based water attorneys Stephanie Hastings and Amy Steinfeld with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP convened a historic meeting of nearly 100 of California’s top women in the water industry. This first-ever “California H2O Women Conference” brought together leading professional women representing all sectors of the industry to discuss the complex and uncertain future of California’s water supply.
Five years of unprecedented and devastating drought have highlighted California’s immense water supply challenges and ushered in a new era of water law and policy. While recent rains have eased conditions in many parts of the state, the threat of water supply insecurity remains and will only increase with climate change. Scarcity conditions have forced water users and providers to substantially modify the way they do business—by protecting, maximizing and diversifying supplies. Keynote speaker Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, summed it up perfectly: “We need everything; all solutions are on the table.”
Invited speakers and guests—all leading female water professionals—discussed bold new actions being taken to address water supply challenges amplified by the recent drought. Many remarked that California’s “feast or famine” water supply regime necessitates greater flexibility in the way we use, move and store water, greater collaboration across diverse interests, improved communication among stakeholders and with the public, and innovation. The conference provided a forum for women to reflect on their history in this largely male-dominated industry and the unique opportunities for women in the future. The meeting itself was evidence of the significant impact women are having in the water field and that as more women enter science, technology, engineering and legal programs, the gender gap will narrow further.
Hastings and Steinfeld set the stage for the day by explaining that both water providers and users have been impacted by the sheer number and diversity of new laws, regulations and enforcement actions promulgated during and in response to the drought. Following the governor’s 2014 drought declaration, the State Water Board adopted emergency drought regulations that imposed mandatory urban water conservation measures—and penalties for failure to conserve—for the first time ever. Likewise, previously unregulated groundwater is now subject to the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires the sustainable management of all groundwater in the state and imposes mandatory new requirements for more than 100 groundwater basins. One speaker described the new law as “unprecedented in terms of governance and administration.” Other speakers agreed that a critical but often overlooked element to successful implementation of the new law was spending time to develop trusted relationships and collaborating between potentially divergent stakeholders.
Several panelists highlighted the substantial investments made by their communities in securing new and alternative supplies, as well as the infrastructure needed to support them. They reported that there’s been a material uptick in the number of water providers applying for state loans to support new capital projects like storage and desalination facilities, upgrading outdated infrastructure and securing customer commitments to use alternative supplies like recycled water.
A diverse panel of infrastructure experts from the public and private water supply and investment sectors debated financing new water investments. The panel explored key challenges water providers face in providing the infrastructure critical to future water supply reliability, economic growth and sustainability, including regulation and financial considerations. The speakers addressed the essential balancing that water providers must strike between ensuring adequate facilities and affordability for end-users. A lively discussion ensued regarding the availability of public and private funding for new infrastructure, challenges in conveying the value and associated cost of water to customers, and securing support to fund infrastructure improvements. The panelists also discussed the potential for investment in new water supply infrastructure during the Trump administration.
Although “new” supplies—conservation, desalination, and recycled water—were at the forefront of the conversation, most attendees agreed that imported water from the Bay-Delta and the Colorado River will remain a key component of a diverse water supply portfolio, especially in communities where local water supplies are challenged. The necessity of increasing the reliability of imported water is a given, but how to do it—through constructing new conveyance tunnels or loosening species protections—and how to pay for it, is more contentious. Balancing environmental interests with municipal, industrial and agricultural interests is a delicate dance. But contrary to popular belief and historical divisions, the panelists relayed inspiring stories of collaboration among farmers, city dwellers and environmentalists in protecting imported supplies.
Along with emphasizing the importance of industry collaboration, several speakers underscored the importance of robust and effective communication with the public about the vital role of water. Communication—through education, journalism and public relations—is essential in educating and informing stakeholders and the public about the technical, legal and political complexities of water. A panel of prominent water journalists polled the audience to determine where industry leaders receive their daily water news, what sparks their interest and how they communicate to stakeholders. Interestingly, both long-form, in-depth reporting and the shortest forms available, Twitter and other social media, play integral roles in educating stakeholders and customers today.
Santa Barbara was not just a pretty setting for the conference; it is a microcosm of California’s water experience. Santa Barbara County’s local storage facility for imported and local supplies—Lake Cachuma Reservoir—reached dead pool status last year, and even after an already abnormally wet winter, it remains below capacity. In response to the severity and duration of the drought, local water providers—like many throughout the state—have placed moratoriums on new water service connections, banned well drilling and lawn watering and imposed record fines on customers wasting water. To shore up the reliability of its water supply portfolio, the City of Santa Barbara has resuscitated its mothballed desalination plant, rehabilitated old wells, expanded its recycled water distribution systems and started exploring direct potable reuse of wastewater. These water decisions have all been made against the backdrop of a community that long equated water supplies with population growth, and therefore not surprisingly, these water decisions bring intense political debate.
Fittingly, the conference closed with a reception including five of Santa Barbara’s federal, state and local female elected officials—allowing industry users, professionals and policymakers to share ideas about how to manage our most important natural resource. Opportunities abound in the areas of improved innovation, management, policy, and advancing technology and efficiency. While each water leader brought a different perspective and diverse experience to the day’s discussions, all conference participants agreed the water industry is undergoing a fundamental paradigm shift. This presents a unique opportunity for all engaged and passionate “California H2O Women” to play a leading role in managing and protecting the water supply so vital to the world’s sixth-largest economy.
Additional information about this historic conference and the leading women speakers can be found here.
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