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What City Officials Should Know About Their City’s Water Supply

Martha Lennihan works with many cities and other public and private entities on water and related natural resource law issues. Her statewide practice reflects more than 20 years of experience with issues such as surface and ground water, fish and wildlife, and endangered species laws and institutions. She can be reached at mlennihan@lennihan.net.


During California’s early years, obtaining healthy drinking water was a challenge. Giant strides in technology and public support for enhanced drinking water quality largely solved that problem, and new water quality issues related to runoff took the front seat. The quantity and reliability of water supply has not been a dominant concern for most municipalities — until now.
Today, the availability of water is a major concern for many California cities. City council members are asked to make tough judgment calls about the adequacy of their city’s current or future source of water for new as well as existing development. The public is highly critical of water supply for new development, and the Legislature has responded with a series of laws increasing the requirements for development approvals. (The second article in this two-part series will address those laws and how they impact California cities.)
If you are an elected official, you may ask, “Why do I need to know the intricacies of my city’s water supply? The public works or utilities staff is in charge of that, or my city relies upon another provider. I have my hands full with many other city issues.”
City council members and senior staff need to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the source of their city’s water supply, and associated institutional and physical constraints, in order to comply with the new state laws regarding water. This knowledge is also essential to make executive-level decisions about the adequacy of the water supply for existing residents and commercial users, even before considering new development proposals. You should be able to understand when you are “being sold a bill of goods,” when there are questions that need to be answered before decision-making can proceed, and when you have enough sound information to take action. Your knowledge will help you avoid the serious pitfalls associated with inadequate municipal water supply.
Diversity Is the Name of the Game
The California water picture is complex. You can approach the topic of your city’s situation as if it were a mystery: who, what and where?
Who Are the Key Players?
Who is the retail water supplier? This is the entity that actually delivers water to the customers. Many cities provide this service via their public works or utilities departments.
Who is the wholesale water supplier? Whether your city is the retailer or not, there may be one or more entities that sell water to you on an ongoing basis. The wholesaler may acquire the water from another institution. A multilayered set of relationships may be the pathway for water supply and delivery. For example, Imaginary City provides retail water service to its customers. Imaginary City buys that water from a local water district, Local Water District obtains it from a regional water wholesaler, Regional Water Wholesaler obtains the water from the State Water Project (SWP) and the Colorado River Project. The SWP is a water development project operated by the State of California; the project operates dams and reservoirs that divert and store water, and canals, pipelines and pump stations to deliver water to far-away customers. The Colorado River Project is a multi-state source of water supply run by the federal government under a 1922 interstate compact and numerous subsequent agreements, treaties and court decisions. This multidimensional picture is typical of many areas in Southern California. Examples of regional wholesalers include the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the Sonoma County Water Agency.
This is quite different from the situation in which the city is the retailer and wholesaler: The city has its own source of water supply, which it diverts from a river or extracts from a groundwater basin using city facilities. Then the water is treated and supplied to residents and businesses. Sacramento and Santa Cruz are examples of such cities.
Other cities use a combination of resources and institutional arrangements to supply water to their residents and businesses. The City of Tracy, for example, provides retail water service and obtains its water from a number of sources. In addition to pumping from wells, the city is a contractor with the Central Valley Project (CVP), which is a massive water project operated by the federal government. It has negotiated assignments of portions of other CVP contractors’ contract rights, increasing the city’s CVP supply significantly. Tracy has partnered with other cities to fund a water development project utilizing the water rights of and under contract with a Sierra foothills water district. This is a relatively diverse portfolio.
Another type of water provider is the privately owned public utility, usually a mutual water company, such as California American Water Company or San Jose Water Company. This type of company can be regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission and, because it is private, may be owned locally or by far-flung interests, including those sited in another country.
The chain of command can be complex. Each institution involved in the provision of water has its own rules and regulations; laws under which they operate; and contractual arrangements with conditions regarding pricing, duration, volume, rate, conveyance and other matters that may affect how much water your city can get, when and at what cost. In some cases, the customer’s right to water or water service is based on land ownership or occupancy, such as the constituents of a district. Different contractual arrangements may exist between each of the layers of institutions involved in the development, provision and delivery of water to your city.
Institutional constraints can be as important as water rights or other factors such as cost.
What Are Your City’s Water Rights?
California is renowned — infamous, one might say — for the number of water rights it recognizes. Water rights typically determine the type and location of diversion, the place of use, the purposes of use, and the quantity and rate of diversion allowable. They also determine where you are in the pecking order, based upon a seniority and priority system.
Your city may hold the water rights directly or it may contract with others to receive water diverted and possibly stored under their water rights. How good are the rights your city relies upon? Can they be trumped by another rights holder? By environmental concerns? Does the amount of water available to satisfy these rights vary depending on whether it is a wet year versus a dry year? How frequently does that occur? Will the frequency increase in the future? What plans does the city have to address any shortfall? These are useful facts to know.
Where Does It Come From?
How does your water get to you? Water conveyance varies widely. Some cities obtain their supply from distant watersheds: for example, San Diego tapping Oroville Reservoir via the State Water Project and Fresno tapping Shasta Reservoir via the Central Valley Project. As with any physical facility, the size and operation of conveyance facilities may pose constraints and opportunities for moving water. Environmental issues may affect conveyance, as in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta where the CVP and SWP pumps that move water south are the subject of great controversy. At times, the volume of pumping must be reduced due to endangered fish that can be sucked into the pumps and onto the screens. High pumping rates at those giant pumps may cause the flow in the river to literally reverse. But the pumps’ operation is essential to the well-being of much of San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
Who owns the facilities though which your water travels? What are your city’s rights with respect to conveyance and storage — are you top dog or underdog? Does the shortage of conveyance or storage capacity impact your water supply? When is it most likely to occur and what level of cutback in supply will you endure? What are the city’s plans to address the shortage?
Both local and regional facilities require maintenance, repair and periodic rehabilitation and replacement. Reconfiguration or other changes to your water facilities may help you address environmental or engineering issues.
How to Find Out About Your City’s Water Supply
There are many resources available to you as an elected official. Senior city staff, such as the public works or utilities director and, when appropriate, staff from other institutions involved in the provision of your city’s water supply, are the first line to help you find out what you need to know. Briefings and workshops can also be excellent mechanisms to learn more about your water supply. Maps — local, regional and statewide, depending upon your source(s) of supply — are essential tools to orient the city council. Ask staff to provide a packet of materials for council members and senior staff to review. Make it clear that you want to start with the big picture, and that you do not need to know about the nuances of local piping. You and other members of council and staff need the basics first; then be apprised of issues particular to your water supply. Don’t jump into specific issues or too much detail before you have a good grasp of the fundamentals.
Ask that the most significant issues with respect to your city water supply be identified and explained. In some cities there are council and senior staff members assigned to work on water issues on behalf of the city. In this case, colleagues at the policy-making level will be able to help identify and focus the council on things that most merit their attention.
Make sure that the fundamental information is provided, including the differences between your city’s water supply and that of other cities. Council members need to know that just because their friend on another city council — or someone they met at a League conference — told them something does not mean that it applies equally or at all to your city. When the water supply situation is complex, or you have new council members, or there are time constraints, tailor your time and the information provided to make it most accessible to the council. This is not an esoteric exercise. Council members and management level staff will need to use this knowledge to address water and development issues.

In the April issue of Western City, we will address the new wave of laws obligating cities and others to correlate land use decision-making with water supply availability in an unprecedented manner.