Taking on Tough Challenges at the State Water Board
The State Water Board is central to addressing many of California’s major water challenges, including protecting water quality for drinking and for the environment, addressing drought and water conservation, and managing the allocation of surface water. We talked to Sean Maguire, a civil engineer who was appointed to the board by former governor Brown in December 2018, about priority issues.
PPIC: What are the big challenges the board is grappling with right now?
Sean Maguire: At the top of our list is the Bay Delta water quality control plan. The plan, which covers the Sacramento–San Joaquin watershed and Delta, must ensure a reliable water supply and protect the basin’s fisheries and ecosystems. We’re working through a process that is very complex and has a lot of moving pieces—and right now it’s unclear if we’re on track to meet all of these goals. But it’s exciting to think there is a stakeholder-devised solution at hand—the voluntary agreement process—which would set out a plan to manage multiple rivers in a coordinated way, coupled with large-scale habitat restoration and science programs. There is still a long ways to go, but I have hope that voluntary agreements will prove to be the best path forward.
At the same time, we’re preparing for climate change. It’s clear that going forward we have to be incredibly efficient in our water management. The last drought resulted in legislation to establish indoor and outdoor water use efficiency targets and to require urban suppliers to develop stronger drought contingency plans. Many small water systems rely on a single source—most often groundwater—and we’re helping them find opportunities to connect to larger communities and identify new supplies. This is where water portfolios can help build resilience to drought and get us ready for a changing climate.
And finally, the most exciting news is the establishment of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund earlier this year. California has 7,000 water systems and hundreds of thousands of residents using domestic wells—a situation that presents a lot of challenges because many struggle to meet drinking water standards. The fund is a high priority for us, and we’re committed to coming up with a plan and policies to implement it, while also working on projects that can get started right away.
PPIC: Talk about contamination challenges.
SG: Water contamination is a huge challenge for the whole state. There are so many different sources, and many contaminants of emerging concern. The board is at the beginning of tackling PFAS contamination. This is a class of “forever chemicals” used in a wide range of products—for example, nonstick coatings, water repellants, take-out containers, and fire retardants. We’re moving quickly to better understand the risk by requiring testing wells in close to possible source sites (such as defense facilities, landfills, and airports), and also requiring those facilities to test local groundwater. We are also working to understand the human health effects, which will take some time.
PPIC: What gives you hope?
SG: In the past year, there’s been incredible collaboration surrounding really controversial water issues that have lingered for decades. I’m very hopeful about the stakeholder-informed solutions that are arising out of these processes. In addition to the Bay Delta process, we now have a strong wetlands policy—a collaborative solution that was a decade in the making. We have another stakeholder plan to address legacy pollution from farming and other discharges in the Central Valley. I hope we can repeat this type of collaboration with other issues and in other watersheds across the state. I have a lot of hope for the groundwater sustainability plans that are being developed now in the state’s overdrafted basins. And I believe the governor’s upcoming water resilience portfolio will give us a roadmap to help California prepare for the climate changes to come.
The state has a lot of complex water problems, and we can’t untangle them all with one brilliant policy change. But we’re making progress on many difficult issues, and I’m committed to keeping up the momentum.