LOS ANGELES – Directors from water resource agencies representing seven Southern California counties met with the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District here Nov. 12 to discuss preparations for the anticipated El Nino winter and other issues of common interest.
“It is important that we understand the issues of mutual concern among the Corps and our federal and state partners,” said Col. Kirk Gibbs, Los Angeles District commander, “and for us to be cognizant of the assets at our disposal, and their limitations, which can help us fulfill our obligations.”
The meeting was the fourth for the agencies responsible for flood risk reduction and water conservation in San Bernardino, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
“The potential for a strong El Nino this year is a significant concern,” Gibbs said. “We have an opportunity to synchronize our efforts to develop action plans, not only for how we prepare for and respond to potential emergencies, but also to investigate how we can best provide to the public the important messages about our efforts.”
Although the potential El Nino is an area of major concern and discussion of preparation for it garnered much of the meeting’s discussion, the attendees also had significant discussions about ongoing common projects and responsibilities, such as levee maintenance, flood protection along the Santa Ana River and water conservation.
Tom Fayram, the deputy director for public works for Santa Barbara County, said the meeting offered an opportunity for the counties, the Corps and other state and federal agencies to work collectively to address the public safety issues inherent in representing a population of more than 22 million people.
“We have an immense population within our geographic area and significant ports and infrastructure,” Fayram said. “We’ve evolved over years of meeting at conferences and events to realize how much we have in common and the problems we face, and that we are stronger when we face those issues together.”
Over that time, the SOCAL Seven, as Fayram referred to them, began to meet collectively and conduct joint trips to Sacramento and D.C. to present their issues and seek support.
Dusty Williams, general manager and chief engineer for the Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, said the unique environment in California helped the counties form a bond.
“Common issues brought and kept us together,” Williams said. “The weather and topography is different here, and we have to educate the rest of the country, because there needs to be a different definition of levees out West. I don’t think the traditional definition represents accurately the western U.S. geography, topography or climate. And the permitting is difficult because of all the endangered and threatened species, whether federal or state.”
Salomon Miranda, the Southern Region National Flood Insurance Program coordinator for the California Department of Water Resources, said that although there is a high probability of a strong El Nino, it won’t end the drought or solve some of other environmental issues the region faces.
“Temperatures will be higher than normal,” Miranda said. “We’ll have less snowpack and more rain, possibly leading to more flooding. We know wildfires have a huge impact on flooding, and the topography, hydrology and climate increase the threat of flooding. Every county in California has experienced flooding in the last year.”
To emphasize the need to prepare even when a strong El Nino is not forecast, Sara Agahi, the Flood Control District manager for San Diego County, said the county has experienced significant flooding under all El Nino and La Nina conditions, from very strong and strong down to moderate and weak, and needs to be prepared regardless.
Mark Pestrella, chief deputy director for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, said that in addition to preparing for and being transparent about the risk of damage from flooding, an El Nino also provides potential opportunities to alleviate drought conditions.
“We captured about 6.5 billion gallons of stormwater over the last year,” Pestrella said. “We want to optimize the system for protection and for water conservation. We will have to make decisions during this storm season that will require coordination. We need to keep the communities aware, plan strategies and prioritize our issues. We have to be transparent about the risk. Even so, with water conservation, we have big opportunities, and know the situation will continue.”
“We are all aware of the potential dangers we face, not just during this upcoming winter season, but for the foreseeable future and beyond,” Gibbs said. “We know our current capabilities and we know what assets we’d ideally like to have to help us in our preparation and our response. We are all very much aware of the limitations on available funding that we will have to consider when we make the difficult choices about how we will fulfill our responsibilities.“
Williams concurred, emphasizing the collective approach the counties and the Corps use to address the team’s common goals.
“We don’t view ourselves as customers,” Williams said, “but as partners.”