Water in California with Wade Crowfoot, California Secretary of Natural Resources
Wade Crowfoot was appointed California Secretary for Natural Resources in 2019. As Secretary, Crowfoot oversees an agency of 19,000 employees charged with protecting and managing California’s diverse resources, including its fish and wildlife and rivers and waterways. Before becoming Secretary, Crowfoot served as CEO of the Water Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropy based in California that supports shared water solutions for communities, the economy, and the environment across the American West.
Wade spoke with Lesli Allison, executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance, about Western water, and in particular the Colorado River Basin. California has rights to the largest share Colorado River Water, and half of all Americans who use Colorado River water live in the Golden State. So the view from Sacramento on the future of Water in the West is particularly critical.
Links and references from Water in California with Wade Crowfoot
WLA’s Water in the West program page: https://westernlandowners.org/water-in-the-west/
Colorado River Basin by the numbers: https://onland.westernlandowners.org/2022/on-water/the-colorado-river-basin-by-the-numbers/
2023 System Conservation Pilot Program updates: https://onland.westernlandowners.org/2023/on-water/what-landowners-need-to-know-about-the-2023-system-conservation-pilot-program/
WLA Policy Updates: westernlandowners.org/policy
Water in California with CA secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot
Wade: California recognizes how urgent it is for us to act. We know that if water users don’t come together in the next 2 to 3 years and identify ways to cut their water use and keep water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, we could face an untenable situation of those reservoirs unable to export water across the west. (Wade Crowfoot, California’s Secretary for Natural Resources)
Louis: Welcome to the On Land Podcast, the show that brings you conversations with those shaping the West, from farmers and ranchers to policymakers and more. Today’s guest is Wade Crowfoot.
Louis: Wade Crowfoot was appointed California Secretary for Natural Resources in 2019. As Secretary, Crowfoot oversees an agency of 19,000 employees charged with protecting and managing California’s diverse resources, including its fish and wildlife and rivers and waterways. Before becoming Secretary, Crowfoot served as CEO of the Water Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropy based in California that supports shared water solutions for communities, the economy, and the environment across the American West.
Louis: Wade spoke with Lesli Allison, executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance, about Western water, and in particular the Colorado River Basin. California has rights to the largest share Colorado River Water, and half of all Americans who use Colorado River water live in the Golden State. So the view from Sacramento on the future of Water in the West is particularly critical. We’ll be back with Lesli and Wade right after this break.
Lesli: Secretary, wonderful to have you joining us today. Got a lot of things we’d love to we’d love to cover. We probably won’t have enough time to touch on all of them. But why don’t we start out by asking you, just what does Colorado River water mean to California? How is it used? And what do significant water reductions actually mean for the state?
Colorado River water in California
Wade: You know, California can feel different than other parts of the American West, but there’s a whole lot that we share in common. One of those things we share in common is the Colorado River. And California uses a significant amount of Colorado River water. About half of our residents in our state, 20 million people get at least some portion of their water from from the Colorado River. That’s about half of the overall population that relies upon the Colorado. So about 40 million people rely on the Colorado for some of their water. Half of those Americans are in California. At the same time, a portion of our state in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, which is in the far southeast portion of the state, relies on their water. And in fact, the Imperial Valley relies on the Colorado River for 100% of its water. And it’s a really vibrant agricultural area which has communities that depend on agriculture and water.
Wade: So California’s use of Colorado River is both urban and agricultural. California has a Mediterranean climate. It’s a fairly temperate climate and we have a wet season and a dry season, and our wet season is in the winter and we get most of our water in between December and March. We’ve been seeing real changes to what we consider to be the hydrology, the precipitation that we’re getting every year. Across the world, these Mediterranean climates are becoming less reliable for providing water to their communities and farms. And we’re seeing that in California, more extreme weather, longer periods of drought and more intense storms like those we just experienced earlier this year.
Wade: Eight of the last ten years have been intense drought years. And that’s impacting us in California. We do have a big and diverse economy, believe it or not, if measured in GDP. California is the fourth largest economy in the world. So, you know, a lot of folks think of technology and entertainment, but we also have a huge agricultural economy. A quarter of our state’s land mass, about 25 million acres is in farming and ranching.
Wade: And a whole portion of our state, particularly in our Central Valley, relies on agriculture. It’s really the lifeblood of that regional economy. So it’s a big deal when we have water shortages or growing uncertainty about water.
Wade: I’ve worked in state government a better part of the last decade, and we’ve really had to navigate our way through tough water situations. So that means hundreds of thousands of acres of land fallowed in our agricultural areas. It means that poor communities, particularly poor isolated communities that rely on groundwater, have actually lost their water supplies as groundwater pumping has intensified. It’s had an impact on our environment and the Fish and Wildlife that depend on that.
Lesli: Well, that’s great and that’s a great segway into this next question. California plays a large role in the US economy and in food production. So how are water shortages in California already impacting or likely to impact the rest of the country?
National impacts of water shortages in California
Wade: Well, if an American goes into the supermarket, you know, regardless of the month, they’re able to access, you know, green vegetables, all manner of fruit and nuts. It’s pretty incredible the food options we have in our country.
Wade: California, Arizona, our Southwest is a really important part of what actually finds its way into our refrigerator on a weekly basis. California, we call ourselves a breadbasket for America and the world and growing water uncertainty and a lack of water supply. To grow that food means less food and most likely more expensive food that Americans can consume. So I think it’s important for us, you know, not only across the West but across the country, to realize that Western water policy actually impacts the dinner table and that our ability to maintain reliability and agricultural production in California and the West is good for everyone.
Lesli: So can you help us understand then, California’s current position in the basin negotiations that are taking place and particularly how the state is thinking about evaporative loss, the issue that continues to be raised in the discussions right now.
Wade: Everyone realizes that the hydrology in the Colorado River Basin has changed. We’re collectively experiencing over two decades of drought in the Colorado Basin, and scientists tell us that climate change means less reliability in the future, not more. So in many ways, this water scarcity across the basin is can be considered the new normal. So we all recognize that we have to come together across these seven states to figure out how we live and prosper with less water and less water use. And California recognizes that.
Wade: California recognizes how urgent it is for us to act. We know that if water users don’t come together in the next 2 to 3 years and identify ways to cut their water use and keep water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, we could face an untenable situation of those reservoirs unable to export water across across the west. So we recognize that everyone, including California’s water users, need to step up very quickly and in a meaningful way.
Wade: It was actually just a few months ago that California water users were the first of of any of the water users across the seven states to actually volunteer cuts in their water usage in coming months and actually over the next four years to keep water in in Lake Mead.
Wade: The disagreement between California and some of the other states right now is how do we achieve those cuts? So our water usage in California, but across the basin is the product of 100 plus years of compacts, of treaties, of decrees, of laws, of court cases and our communities in California. Again, whether it’s half of the state’s population or agricultural regions that rely exclusively on the Colorado River, they’ve come to plan their economies, their livelihoods around the amount of water that they’re legally entitled to. So this idea around making cuts is difficult, but we’re willing to do it. We want to make sure to do it in in a way, over the next three years. That preserves the larger question of how we split water in coming decades for a process called the guideline update that needs to be done by the end of 2025.
Wade: I think everyone has agreed until very recently that it’s that venue in which it really ask and answer the question of how are we going to live with a smaller water budget in the future. California is looking at the next three years as a bridge to that broader discussion. And so California believes that we need to cut Arizona needs to cut in that lower basin. Similarly, in Nevada, we all need to make cuts, but we don’t want to have and make significant decisions that are impact the permanency of water usage right now. And the proposal from the other states, from our perspective, by introducing this concept that starting now, we should adopt cuts that disproportionately are primarily in California due to evaporative losses, feels to us like raising a question that will impact the permanency of water usage in a way that should really be resolved in that broader conversation when all questions are on the table.
Wade: I will say that I don’t think we’re that far apart. You know, we it all comes down to math, which is how much water we can keep collectively in these reservoirs. California needs to play a large role because of our large water usage.
Wade: We just want to do so in a way that focuses in on this three year bridge. And then again, we are committed to this broader conversation about how we manage in coming decades that’s unfolding over the next couple of years.
Lesli: Debates over water use often pit farmers against municipal interests, but we are really talking about about trade-offs between fundamental needs such as the food we eat vs. the water we drink. How do we as a society have a productive conversation about this?
Wade: Well, first, I think most of us don’t understand how much water is needed to produce food and fiber. You know, during the last drought in California, there was a lot of sensationalistic reporting about the amount of water needed to create an almond or to grow a tomato or to even produce a pair of jeans.
Wade: And the fact is, making food that we eat takes a lot of water. So in California, of the water that humans use, about 80% goes to agriculture. And sometimes that means finger pointing at farms and ranches saying you’re using too much water. And of course, there are ways that agriculture can be more efficient. But the fact is, in any society, most likely, if there’s if there’s a lot of farming, the vast majority of water will be used by by farmers and in some cases, ranchers. And so I think, as you know, for the urban among us, the people that live in communities that aren’t out there growing food, we have to recognize that a big portion of our state or our country’s water budget is going to be for agriculture.
Wade: It’s not a zero-sum game. In other words, we need water to grow food that will keep us prosperous and keep our communities prosperous. At the same time, you know, we recognize that. You know, water districts in cities and agricultural water districts need to find a common, common future or a pathway to build more resilience to this increasing phenomenon of drought in the American West.
Wade: In California, for example, we’ve done the country’s largest agricultural-to-urban water transfer, which was a voluntary transfer of half a million acre-feet of water every year from our Imperial Valley, which is our rural area in Southern California to San Diego. And that was specifically to address cuts we needed to make on the Colorado River. 20 years ago, in 2003. And so that was the kind of partnership within California, rural-urban agriculture, urban partnerships that we think can be utilized in other places like Arizona, like really across the basin.
Wade: No doubt we can continue to strengthen those partnerships between urban and rural, but we think that level of that level of collaboration, that level of flexibility is needed to navigate what is increasingly uncertain water future.
Lesli: Secretary, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about the role of states versus the federal government in resolving some of these issues.
Wade: Western water relies a lot on the federal government, in part because a lot of our infrastructure in the West is owned and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation. That’s certainly true in the Colorado River Basin and in California, and it has an operational role. There are also federal regulatory agencies that have, you know, legal requirements to keep our Fish.
Wade: States play a role and important role. You know, different in different states. But in California, for example, you know, certain things that we’ve needed to do to bring water into a sustainable, sustainable use have required state government. So groundwater is a great example. You know, it took a state law to to begin to bring our groundwater basins into balance, and it’s state law and regulations, but also funding that’s supporting communities to bring those basins into balance.
Wade: But let me introduce a third level of government or public agencies, and those are the irrigation districts, the urban water agencies that work with the state and federal governments to deliver water in the west. Those are really important because those entities typically have the water rights, the legal, you know, the legal obligation and the legal right to use water. And they’re planning a lot of the infrastructure, about 70 to 80% of the infrastructure that is put in the ground in the West is funded and implemented by local and regional agencies. So it’s federal, state and local regional partnerships that are really needed to address our challenges.
Lesli: You know, it’s often said that the water follows the money. What role do you think that water markets will play in addressing the challenges and what kinds of sideboards might need to be applied to ensure that those markets support the general public interest?
Wade: I think we need our water systems to be more decentralized, more flexible and more dynamic. And by that I mean we built infrastructure. We established management in the last century that’s really not prepared for the variability that we’re now facing.
Wade: So we need to be able to move water more nimbly when it’s needed, where it’s needed. We need to be able to increase usage when we have a lot of water and decrease usage when we don’t. We need to provide more flexible storage to capture water during these big wet periods for worsening drought periods. And so so-called markets or the idea of transfers between willing buyers and sellers is part of that. I think it can play a role. I think a lot of folks, when they hear the word or the phrase water markets are concerned that somehow we’re going to privatize water such that it will be unaffordable or it will be a source of profit and not within the public trust or the public rights.
Wade: We’re seeing some really interesting innovation in groundwater trading in California as basins are being required to come into balance. There are some interesting systems that are developing to allow those that want to sell their groundwater usage to others to be able to do so. So I think water markets, as at least they’re discussed in my circles, have a role to play. We just have to make sure we explain them in the right way. So everyone, whether you’re a farmer or an urban resident, understands it’s actually helpful to create more water certainty over time.
Lesli: You know, while there are clearly competing interests among the different states in the basin, there’s obviously also competing interests within each state. And I’d be curious to hear how California is engaging with its many diverse stakeholders, including the different geographic interests within the state itself.
Wade: California is a big state and we have all types of different regions and communities. So we’ve got our north coast is one of the wettest places in America and our Southeast. The Imperial Valley is one of our driest places. We have some of the largest cities in our country and we have, like so many other states, small rural towns.
Wade: And it is a challenge to identify what is the balance water policy that will serve everyone. I’ll say that one of our principles is that balance. So while Greater Los Angeles is an important anchor for our economy, it doesn’t mean that we prioritize the needs of places like Los Angeles over the needs of our Central Valley and our agricultural communities. So it’s all about balance. It’s all about identifying ways that we can support what we call water resilience.
Wade: How do we help big cities have enough water, have enough water certainty to continue to grow and attract investment and to help residents prosper? And then how do we build water certainty in small rural communities that are reliant on farming and ranching so that there will be investment, that the kids that grow up in those families have an opportunity to stay and continue to work the land.
Wade: And the challenge is, of course, the water water’s becoming less predictable. So when our systems were built in the middle part of last century, there was a sense that there was more than enough water to go around. Now we have to be smart about the water we use. I’ll always say, we will always have. We have enough water. We just have to be smarter how we use it. I always bring up the example of the fact that we flush our toilets with potable water. We do a lot of things that are not that efficient with potable water. If we apply technologies approaches that are already available to become more water efficient with water, we’re going to be way better off and ensuring that we have enough water in rural and urban communities for decades to come.
Lesli: So Western Landowners Alliance represents landowners across the West, most of whom have agricultural water rights. What should landowners be thinking about right now, both in terms of protecting their water rights but also in terms of being part of the solution?
Wade: You know what I ask everybody is to recognize that the future won’t necessarily look like the past. And by that, I mean we used to rely upon 100 years of records to identify how much water we’d have, you know, year over year now, we’d have droughts, we’d have floods. That’s part of our natural environmental cycle. But, you know, over time, we could we could expect some, you know, broad consistency in the water that we could use. Well, that’s out the window now.
Wade: Colorado River Basin being a great example. So everyone, including, you know, agricultural water users, need to come to the table recognizing that new reality and recognizing we need new solutions. And some of those solutions are, you know, pretty. Predictable in terms of, you know, upgrading infrastructure where possible, building more surface storage to capture runoff during really wet times, but increasingly getting, you know, innovative, which is how do we more aggressively recharge our groundwater basins to capture these flood flows in in urban communities? How do we apply desalination and water recycling in rural communities?
Wade: Where does water trading make sense, and how do those systems get put in place that protect rural communities? How do we invest more in agricultural water efficiency? In California, we’ve in many areas reduce water usage by almost 20%, while increasing agricultural productivity by more than that. And that’s because we’ve we’ve got technology to be more efficient with water.
Wade: Everybody recognizes we’ve got a major challenge on our hands in in the American West, and that is how to continue to prosper with less reliable water. And there are many solutions that we can put in place. But it will require some level of creativity and collaboration.
Lesli: It sounds to me like this is going to be a dynamic situation going forward. It’s going to take constant negotiation, collaboration among the different stakeholders. And we always talk about bringing landowners to the table, making sure landowners have a seat at that table or being able to be part of the solution. When we talk about that table, though, what are the what are the tables that are set here? Where are the conversations taking place? The landowners maybe could do more to plug into or learn about.
Wade: I think that everybody needs to be engaged in the conversation because progress will occur at the speed of trust, which means now for folks to come to the table and bring solutions and be willing to compromise. They need to trust the folks across the table and they need to trust the process. And I think too often in the past, big water decisions have happened without that level of engagement or transparency.
Wade: The decisions that are getting made now, you know, still are fairly centralized. They’re happening, you know, among leaders of these various water agencies with people like me that are that are leading our state. State water management.
Wade: Increasingly, we have to find ways to communicate and engage folks on the ground with the decisions that we have, with the solutions that we can provide. And so as it relates to these tables, I think we need to build more forums.
Wade: Give you an example. One thing we’ve done in our agency in California is a couple times a month we actually hold a public forum on a priority issue or something that is of interest to people across California. And we hold these forum online so everybody can can zoom in and we break down complicated issues in ways that, you know, non-experts can understand. So next week, for example, we’re doing an update on where we stand with our water situation after the storms earlier this year. And what does it mean for our drought? And we’re going to give an update on the Colorado River. So it’s all about trying to bring people into those conversations and then identify ways that they can actually take action in their own backyard.
Lesli: In terms just overall, the Western water crisis, what makes you worry the most? What keeps you up at night or And also what gives you hope?
Wade: What keeps me up at night is we have a system that took about 100 years to create more than 100 years. And that’s pretty rigid. You know, water law is pretty rigid. A lot of our infrastructure physically is is pretty rigid. Our management moves slowly and we’re dealing with changes happening in real time. I mean, listen to this. In the last year across the West in September, we experienced our hottest, longest heatwave on record. Eight of the last ten years in California have been exceptional drought years. And two out of the last three years in California have been our worst wildfire years. 7% of our entire state burned up in the last three years. These are changes happening very quickly. Yet we have, you know, legal management, infrastructure systems that are not necessarily dynamic to keep up with that. And we’re seeing this, you know, in the Colorado River basin right now, which is we need to make cuts very quickly and we have a system that moves slower. So that’s what keeps me up at night, is can the pace of our leadership, the changes we make, actually keep up with Mother Nature?
Wade: At the end of the day. You know everyone well, most everyone recognizes that things need to change, which is important because we all recognize the problem or the challenge. We’re not putting our head in the sand. We’re figure we’re working to figure this out. We have more funding from our federal government than we’ve had in a generation to make important investments to modernize our systems.
Wade: In California, we have a lot of investment. We call it a generational investment in in these changes in water. So that’s that’s a really good thing. We also have creative people working on these issues and we have solutions on the ground that are working. You know, whether it’s the farmer in California that is use state funding to make their agricultural irrigation more efficient, or whether it’s that irrigation district that’s putting a lot large groundwater recharge project in the ground to capture more of the winter flood flows. We’re seeing solutions. And those give me hope.
Louis: Thank you to Wade Crowfoot and Lesli Allison for the excellent conversation. Thanks to Albert Lundeen who helped us get time in Mr. Crowfoot’s busy schedule. And thanks to Resonate recordings for editing this episode.
Louis: Stay tuned to the On Land Podcast feed for upcoming conversations with other major players and innovators in Western Water. If you liked the show, please give us a rating wherever you listen. It really does help the show reach more people. Thanks for listening.
Thank you to Wade Crowfoot and Lesli Allison for the excellent conversation. Thanks to Albert Lundeen who helped us get time in Mr. Crowfoot’s busy schedule. And thanks to Resonate recordings for editing this episode.
Stay tuned to the On Land Podcast feed for upcoming conversations with other major players and innovators in Western Water.
If you liked the show, please give us a rating wherever you listen.