Placer County Water Agency (PCWA), located on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains 30 miles northeast of Sacramento, California, provides water to about 35,000 treated water customers and around 4,500 irrigation customers. The region has a varied history that includes mining and some of the earliest transnational shipments of fresh fruit on the transcontinental railroad. While some of PCWA’s infrastructure dates back to mining days, the agency is aggressively pursuing certification and funding for new storage, delivery, and recreational infrastructure.
In this interview, PCWA General Manager Andy Fecko tells Municipal Water Leader about how PCWA is continuing its operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic and planning to be part of the nation’s recovery when the crisis recedes.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and experience.
Andy Fecko: I’ve been with PCWA for nearly 14 years. At the time I joined, the agency was in the early stages of a complex federal relicensing effort on our Middle Fork American River Project (MFP), which required a lot of stakeholder meetings in coordination with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and other state and federal agencies. I was brought on to help organize that effort and to provide key technical background.
My educational background is in fisheries biology. I was lucky enough to study under Peter Moyle, a world-renowned fisheries biologist, at the University of California, Davis. When I graduated, I went to work for Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), doing transmission-line siting work. From there, I moved to work for the State of California, doing research work on the effects of herbicides, particularly forest herbicides, on fish. When that job concluded, I moved on to the State Water Resources Control Board and learned the regulatory machine from the inside. I spent some time at the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), working on the Sites Reservoir project during the old CALFED days. PCWA hired me from DWR. I brought a lot of regulatory knowledge, scientific and technical skill on the fisheries front, and management experience from my work on the Sites Reservoir.
Municipal Water Leader: Where are you from originally?
Andy Fecko: I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and grew up in the East Bay, out near Livermore—an area that used to be rural, but isn’t anymore. My wife and I have lived in Placer County for over 20 years.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the history of PCWA.
Andy Fecko: We’re a special district that was formed by special act of the state legislature in 1957. We came into existence because the people of this county thought it was important that they control their own destiny when it came to water. During the previous 50 years, from the turn of the century onward, rural mountain counties in California had folks from more developed, more urban areas moving into their watersheds, building infrastructure, and then transporting water supplies to faraway places. The people of Placer County decided they were not going to let that happen. Through the construction of the MFP, which was really the purpose for the creation of PCWA, they were able to build a reliable supply and control their future.
Municipal Water Leader: Where does your water come from, and how big is your service area?
Andy Fecko: In Placer County, we are fortunate to have one of the most productive watersheds in the state. We have two primary sources of water in the American River basin. One is the MFP, which the people of this county voted to float bonds for and build by a margin of 25 to 1 in the early 1960s. We finished that project in 1967. It involves two major dams, five smaller dams, and five powerhouses. We store about 340,000 acre-feet of water in two major reservoirs. Thanks to those five hydroelectric powerhouses, the MFP also generates about a million megawatt-hours (MWh) per year of clean, renewable energy.
Our second source, which is older than the first, is a series of PG&E-owned reservoirs on the Highway 80 corridor in the Yuba and Bear River watershed. For a long time before PCWA existed, PG&E was a water service provider for Placer County. It bought Gold Rush–era reservoirs that were originally used for hydraulic mining and attached hydroelectric energy generation facilities to them. As a side business, it sold water from those facilities to Placer County residents. When PG&E decided to get out of the water business, we purchased its water facilities and became the service provider. PG&E continues to own and operate those original reservoirs and powerhouses, and it sells us water under a long-term contract. We treat the water and deliver it to Placer County residents.
PCWA is the primary water resource agency in Placer County, with a service boundary of 1,500 square miles.
Municipal Water Leader: What is the status of PCWA’s relicensing efforts?
Andy Fecko: We’ve broken some ground there. We finished our official efforts back in 2012. Since then, like many licensees across the nation, we’ve been waiting for the state to issue a Clean Water Act (CWA) certification. You’ve probably heard about certification delays in the national press. After a recent DC circuit court opinion (Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC) that essentially said that if a state hadn’t acted on certification within the 1‑year time frame granted by the CWA, the state waived its authority, we filed a brief with FERC asking it to waive state authority, which it did. We’re now close to having our license issued—as far as I know, if it weren’t for the pandemic, we would have our license now. In any case, I understand that we’re close to having a license issued. It’s important to note that we weren’t asking to have certain license conditions eliminated or anything like that. We came to a stakeholder-agreed set of license conditions, and we intend to live by those. The state didn’t ask for anything additional. It was just caught in a bureaucratic mess that made it impossible for it to act in a timely manner. But for PCWA and its customers, every year of delay is money spent. We had people on staff who were ready to implement the license and consultants who were ready to go. That was one of the points we made to FERC, and it agreed with us.
Municipal Water Leader: How many years will the relicensing be for?
Andy Fecko: The minimum term is 40 years; the maximum is 50. We have asked for 50 because of the investments that we plan to make in all our facilities, including our recreational facilities. We hope FERC grants that.
Municipal Water Leader: What steps is PCWA taking to protect its customers and workers during the COVID‑19 crisis, and how has the response changed your operations?
Andy Fecko: The first thing I think all water providers in the United States have to tell their customers is that we treat water to the highest level required by law and beyond. The water is safe to drink, especially here in Placer County; it is not necessary to stock up on bottled water. We got a lot of questions about that from our customers early on in the pandemic.
That leads to the next question: How do we keep supplying safe, high-quality water under stay-at-home orders? Back in February, we designated some of our talented, highly trained individuals—water treatment plant operators, distribution operators, hydroelectric operators, and so forth— as critical employees. These were the people whom we needed most urgently to keep healthy so that we could continue providing drinking water to all our customers and maintain our hydroelectric system. We had to completely change our operations to make sure that our critical employees weren’t in the same place at the same time. We are having them do a lot of work from home and making sure that only one operator is assigned to each treatment plant to reduce the risk of more than one being exposed to an infection in any given plant.
The balance of our employees were designated as essential. Essential employees are our business employees: accountants, receivables people, customer service employees, engineers, people who design infrastructure, and so forth. The right solution for them has been to use technology to allow telecommuting as much as possible. For instances in which work can only be done in the office, we are rotating staff. Our ability to deploy a robust mobile computing network that allows folks to work securely from home has become crucial. They need access to our network and our servers. We know employees have a lot going on: They’re trying to stay healthy, and many of them have to watch their children because the schools are closed. We want them to be productive when they can be productive and to take care of their families when they need to. But we’ve got to keep the business running, we’ve got to keep water flowing, and we’ve got to keep delivering safe drinking water.
Municipal Water Leader: What is the most important thing PWCA has learned during its response to the pandemic, and what advice do you have for other water agencies?
Andy Fecko: It’s critical to be in regular communication with your entire workforce. We have around 240 employees, and I e-mail those employees once a week, usually so that it’s the first thing in their inboxes on Thursday morning. I update them on everything that’s happened and everything they need to know. It’s critical that our workforce knows that we care about their health and that we care about the job they’re doing. Everybody is an important player in a small agency like ours.
We communicate even more with our department heads and the directors who manage various areas of our business. We have 15‑ to 30‑minute situational awareness calls on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to get us up to date on what our employees are doing out in the field. Nobody has been in this situation before, so we are learning as we go along and developing protocols. Communication is an important part of that.
The same goes for our customers. We’ve got about 35,000 treated water customers and around 4,500 irrigation customers who grow everything from rice to mandarin oranges. Our irrigation customers are coming up on their business season—they’re going to start irrigating as spring comes around. Our irrigation customers should know that their business can continue; we’re going to be there for them. While they will not be able to have personal contact with our employees for the time being, we’re going to deliver irrigation water to their farms, orchards, vineyards, and livestock.
Similarly, the most important thing for our drinking water customers to know is that the water is safe to drink and that we have plenty of water for their needs.
Municipal Water Leader: How many acres do you deliver irrigation water to?
Andy Fecko: We serve about 7,000 acres of agriculture; a lot of it is smaller parcels. The biggest single commodity is probably rice. A lot of people don’t know that, at one time, Placer County was the largest fruit-growing region in the whole nation. That was made possible by those reservoirs that PG&E turned into a source of irrigation water; our favorable weather conditions; and the transcontinental railroad, which ran right through the middle of our county. The railroad allowed a mandarin orange grown in Placer County to be delivered fresh to the East Coast in 3 days. It seemed miraculous. Apples, grapes, mandarin oranges, and pears were grown here and delivered nationwide. A lot of those growers are still in business. This is one of the few places in the West where we still sell water by the miner’s inch. A California miner’s inch is a measure of flow derived from the idea of a 1‑square-inch orifice under 6 inches of head, meaning it has 6 square inches of water above it. One California miner’s inch is equivalent to one-fortieth of a cubic foot per second. In somewhat simpler terms, if you had a miner’s inch of water delivered for an entire year, you’d have about 18 acre-feet of water.
Municipal Water Leader: Besides dealing with COVID‑19, what are PCWA’s top issues?
Andy Fecko: Like, I’m sure, many water agencies, we’re paying close attention to what sort of federal recovery package will be passed to address this pandemic. We’re also focused on the infrastructure we have in the works— regional infrastructure that expands our clean water treatment capability and water storage capacity. We think the federal government has an interest in that: If the federal government can help us secure low-interest financing or grants to work on infrastructure like treatment plants, pipelines, or energy infrastructure, we can put people to work right away. Those things may not otherwise be built on the back of a tough economic situation caused by uncertainty. We have our eyes on what the situation after the pandemic is going to look like and how we can help the nation recover by building infrastructure. We think that we and other water agencies can be a big part of the federal economic stimulus response.
We’re also increasing the size of one of our major reservoirs and adding new spillway gates to provide water for recreation and ecosystem needs. We’ll be working on a lot of infrastructure over the next decade. That is going to be expensive to implement, but we’re prepared to do it, and we’re prepared to do it even faster if a stimulus bill comes along.
Additionally, once we get our FERC license, we’re going to be rebuilding the campgrounds that we built 50 years ago as well as other public recreation infrastructure.
Municipal Water Leader: What is your message to Congress?
Andy Fecko: Part of this recovery is going to have to be figuring out a way to streamline our regulatory processes. Dealing with several state and federal agencies really slows projects down, although the situation has improved due to the Trump administration’s one-federal-lead effort. I bet a lot of other water utilities feel the same way.
PCWA has been a leader in promoting the idea that water agencies can effectively help manage critical municipal drinking water and irrigation water. We’ve laid out a path, a process, and a funding model that we think can be applied broadly in the West to do things like forest thinning, watercourse improvement, and the use of prescribed fire to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. Congress has been responsive, but there is more to do. We argued for large categorical exemptions from the National Environmental Policy Act that would allow us to do these restoration projects with minimal overhead, but we didn’t quite get what we asked for. I think it’s time we revisit that issue. This forest work is another way to put Americans back to work, especially in rural areas. The more we can do to advocate for these things in 2020, the better off we are going to be.