Municipal Water Leader
Interview

Dave Eggerton of ACWA Leadership for a Challenging Water Future

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he Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) represents more than 450 local water agencies across our nation’s most populous state. Between advocating for its member agencies’ needs on the state and federal level and supporting their policies and investments, ACWA works to ensure a reliable water supply amid the challenges of population growth, extreme climatic conditions, and groundwater overdraft.

In this interview, Dave Eggerton, ACWA’s executive director, speaks with Irrigation Leader Editor-in-Chief Kris Polly about California water agencies’ funding strategies, infrastructure investments, and plans for the future.

Kris Polly: Please tell us about your background.

Dave Eggerton: I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, and went to Texas A&M University, where I studied English and political science, and then attended law school at the University of California, Davis, where I studied to work in corporate law. I started my career in Silicon Valley, representing high-tech startup companies. When the dot-com bust happened in 2000, I, along with half of the first-year corporate attorneys at the firm, I lost my job. That’s when I changed my focus to government law. I practiced in Sacramento, working with local government, special districts, cities, and counties. Through that, I found out about a position with El Dorado Irrigation District and became their deputy general counsel. I stayed there for 7 years. While there, I realized that I enjoyed the management and policy side of the job more than practicing law, so I transitioned to the position of general manager at El Dorado County Water Agency, which I held for 4 years. El Dorado County Water Agency didn’t have operational facilities—it is a planning, water rights, and policy organization—and I wanted experience in operations, so I moved on to become the general manager of Calaveras County Water District, where I worked in water and wastewater. Throughout, I always had the desire to put my name in for this position at ACWA if it ever became available. I became executive director in December 2018.

Kris Polly: Please tell us about ACWA’s history and mission.

Dave Eggerton: ACWA was formed in 1910 as the Irrigation Districts Association of California. Over time,
it has grown to include more than 450 members, all of which are local water agencies. Our members deliver about 90 percent of California’s agricultural and municipal water supplies. Our mission is to promote the work of our member agencies, facilitate consensus, and provide resources to help members with their policies, investments, and efforts to improve local water supply reliability. We work to influence water policy in Sacramento and Washington, DC.

Kris Polly: How many people work for ACWA?

Dave Eggerton: We have around 40 employees, split between our Sacramento and Washington, DC, offices. The strength of our organization is our people. We have some of the most talented and dedicated professionals in the business. We are further empowered by the volunteer efforts of our member agencies and their staffs and directors, and all that they do through our 13 committees, 10 regions, and our 37-member board of directors.

Kris Polly: What are ACWA’s top issues?

Dave Eggerton: Each time we have an incoming board, it sets priorities for the work of our staff, and so right now we’re working on a list of 11 priorities, including both policy-oriented and organizational goals. On the policy side, one of our highest-priority issues is trying to successfully pass a legislative alternative to the water tax that’s been pushed for the last 3 years. The vast majority of Californians have access to safe drinking water, but not all do. The state needs to pass a legislative solution to this problem this year. We have a much better solution than a tax. Our Safe Drinking Water Trust legislation would use an allocation of general fund money during a budget surplus year like this one to provide a stable funding source for operations and maintenance. One of the challenges of providing safe drinking water is that most of the funds that are available from the state or federal government, whether they are state revolving funds or bond money, are overwhelmingly intended to deal with infrastructure needs. What’s also needed are sustainable funds for operations and maintenance, consolidation, replacement water, and management that will allow those systems to be successfully operated.

Kris Polly: Would you elaborate a bit further on your concerns about the establishment of a water tax?

Dave Eggerton: There are a number of reasons for our concern. We do not think it is sound policy to tax a resource that is essential to life. We are talking about taxing people’s tap water. A state-imposed water tax would also be highly inefficient. Our member agencies would have to make changes to their billing software and hire staff to implement and administer the tax. Their staff would have to determine things like which customers would be exempted from the tax because of their income levels and would have to administer the ongoing collection and distribution of these funds back to the state. We’ve estimated that the costs of implementation and administration could be as much as three times the amount of revenue that would actually be collected. So a charge of 95 cents per standard residential meter would probably cost each customer closer to $4 per meter. These administrative costs would ultimately be shouldered by water system customers in the form of higher rates.

Another important factor is the precedent it would set. In the past, state agencies and other groups have called for additional taxes on water bills for other purposes beside ensuring safe drinking water. Allowing a tax on water bills puts us on a slippery slope, with the possibility that 95 cents would be just the beginning.

Finally, all this is happening despite a policy the state adopted 6 years ago, establishing the human right to safe and affordable water. For the state to impose a tax on ratepayers’ bills would make their basic water supplies less affordable. It undermines one of the state’s critically important policies.

Kris Polly: What are ACWA’s other top issues?

Dave Eggerton: Another big issue is the State Water Board’s update to the Water Quality Control Plan for the Sacramento–San Joaquin Bay Delta. The staff approach that was adopted for the first phase, which dealt with South Delta and San Joaquin River flows, and is recommended for the next phase, including the East Delta and Sacramento River and its tributaries, is problematic. It’s based on the notion of restricting water agencies from impounding water supplies, thus preserving unimpaired flows in the river systems. On the San Joaquin, the State Water Resources Control Board is proposing a requirement of unimpaired flows of water from February to June each year with an allowed adaptive range of 30–50 percent and a target of 40 percent; on the Sacramento, they’re looking at requiring 45–65 percent, with a target of 55 percent. That would dramatically affect anybody who’s operating a water system, substantially reducing their ability to divert and store water for agricultural and municipal uses. It is claimed that this is necessary to protect the beneficial uses of the ecosystem and the fishery. Frankly, we believe the singular focus on quantity
of flow is not the best method to support the ecosystem. There are other options, not specifically related to the amount of flow, that would be highly beneficial to the fishery. We very much support a more targeted, science-based approach to realizing more functional flows, focusing not just on the quantity of flow, but its timing, temperature, and interaction with the floodplain for the benefit of the fishery throughout its life cycle.

Our work is to support the achievement of voluntary, collaborative agreements between the state, local water agencies, and the Bureau of Reclamation. It has been supported by both former Governor Jerry Brown and Governor Gavin Newsom. We want to see a comprehensive suite of actions that can be successfully implemented. Flow is one component, but it’s not the only one. There is a lot of work planned around habitat restoration, improving spawning grounds, and reconnecting the water to historic floodplains in order to reactivate them. This would create additional food supplies for the fishery and better conditions for the fish to rear in before they go out into the ocean. Numerous local water agencies have invested enormous time and effort into these plans, and they’re willing to contribute vast quantities of water and enormous financial resources to make them happen. In fact, much of the funding would come from fees assessed on Central Valley Project contractors. We’re supportive of these efforts and believe that agreements will be reached this year.

Kris Polly: What are your thoughts on forestry management and watershed protection?

Dave Eggerton: It is one of the priorities that our board has established, and it’s very important
to our work. About 5 years ago, we adopted a framework policy statement on the importance to our water supplies and quality of improving conditions in the forested areas of our upper watersheds. I’m proud of our organization for taking a position on the importance of that natural infrastructure.

Our forests are in peril: Catastrophic fires are obliterating the landscape’s ability to filter and convey water. The dense vegetation today is much greater than it was a century ago. The recent extended drought and bark beetle infestation in California killed over 129 million trees, further increasing the fuel loading for catastrophic fire events. The Camp Fire in the Paradise area was the worst example of the devastation it caused. Paradise Irrigation District served over 10,000 customers in that community; after the fire, it has only about one-fifth of its customer base remaining. It is essential that we change the paradigm and carry out large-scale fuel reduction efforts on the landscape level.

A few years ago, ACWA helped found a coalition called the California Forest Watershed Alliance, which also includes the California Farm Bureau Federation, the California Forestry Association, the Rural County Representatives of California, and the Nature Conservancy. We are advocating for an increase in the pace and scale of fuels management in these areas and are working in Sacramento and DC to accomplish that goal. There are reasons to be optimistic, but the scale of the
need is great.

Kris Polly: Would you care to comment on Colorado River issues?

Dave Eggerton: The Colorado River is critically important for municipal and agricultural water supplies
in California. Conditions in the Colorado and stored water supplies are dramatically effected by continued drought. We have closely followed the drought contingency planning efforts going on in the Colorado basin and support them, including congressional action to implement them. At the same time, it is extremely important that Salton Sea restoration efforts be adequately funded at the state and federal levels.

Kris Polly: What are your thoughts on the need for storage in California?

Dave Eggerton: Demands on water have increased over time, both because of California’s population growth and because of increased requirements for flows for environmental and other purposes. The needs are further compounded by the effect of climate change on water supply. We also have major challenges with groundwater conditions and the requirements of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Local agencies are working to achieve sustainability in some areas of the Central Valley that have been dramatically affected by groundwater overdraft.

Investing in additional surface storage and other facilities to make more water available for recharge has to be part of the solution.That’s why the $2.7 billion in water bond money that was approved as Proposition 1 in 2014 is so important. We have worked hard to try to make sure that the process used by the California Water Commission in making preliminary decisions on how those funds will be awarded is equitable to all applicants. These storage projects are critical to local communities and the state. Finally, we need additional infrastructure and operational flexibility to adjust to reduced snowpack and other effects of climate change.

Atmospheric rivers present an important opportunity for us to capture additional benefits from high-flow events. A series of megastorms known as atmospheric rivers begin over the ocean and provide the majority of California’s water supply each year. We need to capture more water during those events. There’s recognition of this at the State Water Board and at other levels of the state and federal government.

Early results demonstrate that capturing this water can benefit surface and groundwater storage. For example, Turlock Irrigation District, which manages the 2 million acre-foot New Don Pedro Reservoir, has been able to use advance-forecasting information from the Scripps Institute about the timing and magnitude of atmospheric river events to change the operation of the reservoir. That information is available to the operators of the reservoirs on a daily basis. They are also using information from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, including aerial surveys of snowpack and measurements of snow depth and moisture content. They have real-time information on the entire watershed unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. They’re using all of this information to operate the reservoir, and as a result, last year they were able to store an additional 150,000 acre-feet of water that otherwise would have been released into the ocean for flood management purposes. This effort is made possible with key, targeted investments at the state and federal levels in advanced, applied science, and it enables a better use of existing infrastructure. Ultimately, we will need federal assistance to change the decades-old operation manuals of Army Corps facilities that could likewise benefit from this scientific information.

Kris Polly: What is your message to Congress?

Dave Eggerton: My message to Congress is that water infrastructure must be a vital part of any infrastructure legislation. It’s a matter of continuing to provide for the most basic and important needs of our people, which is not a partisan issue. That’s why I’m heartened to see how much attention this issue is getting. Our aging water infrastructure is, in some cases, at risk of catastrophic failure. It’s a large part of why the nation has such a low rating on the condition of its infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Access to state and federal funding and low-cost financing, in partnership with local investment, is critical to achieving sustained, meaningful progress on the backlog of projects in every community.

Kris Polly: Is there anything that you’d like to add?

Dave Eggerton: It’s an honor to work in the water industry. What we represent and fight for is essential for human life. We are working to meet the needs of the next generation, which provides us with a different perspective. We’re not just maximizing profits for this year; we’re making hard choices looking much further into the future. That’s the ethic of the people that are part of our industry. To be able to represent them in this capacity is an unbelievable privilege.

I would also like to say how much we value our work with our colleagues in other states through the National Water Resources Association. We have so many shared interests and are a much stronger voice when we are united together.

Dave Eggerton is the executive director of ACWA. He can be reached at davee@acwa.com.