ACWA’s Sustainability Principles

ACWA adopted a set of sustainability principles a month back*, and they are a pretty good marker of the current conventional mindset. That’s appropriate, because ACWA (Association of California Water Agencies) is The Man. ACWA represents water districts mostly, which means that it is dominated by traditional civil engineering thought. On the other hand, water districts are the absolute front line, where water policy abstractions play out with real customers and real water shortages and real pipes. I like watching the two clash, like when the primal engineer brain automatically thinks of increasing storage, but a district spreadsheet shows that conserving water would be cheaper. So ACWA’s sustainability principles give a good read on what day-to-day practitioners of water policy are thinking.

The sustainability principles ACWA has adopted are… fine. They aren’t really radical thought, but they aren’t egregiously retrograde either.


They hammer home the point that no one is getting any more supplies until the environment is fixed. I don’t know whether that was a hardfought realization and significant movement for the membership or if this realization has been creeping up on everyone for years. But the principles include environmental stewardship and supply as co-equal goals** (1) and concede in principles 4 and 5 that water agencies will have to pay money towards both goals. That’s nice to hear.


Climate change gets mentioned twice, but not described or emphasized as an important future stressor. The sustainability principles leave out any mention of water districts playing a role in mitigating climate change (which they totally could, as large energy users themselves).

The paper has a bias that I see throughout virtually every agency discussion of water. They talk about big integrated solutions, but by “integrated” they mean “integrating all the physical pieces and plumbing and also having some nature reserves or something”. This happens ALL THE TIME. I have two objections to that. First, I think a lot of the ground for improving water yields will come from biological techniques, like improving water infiltration into the ground by using long-rooted vegetation or doing meadow restoration. That stuff just isn’t on the engineer radar and that is an oversight.

Second, the principles don’t mention people at all. They never consider changing the people side of the equation. These sustainability principles treat people as black boxes, customers who always want more water. Well, the sustainability principles don’t even mention people, because that model is so thoroughly engrained that no one need talk about it. As good engineers, district staff aren’t any more interested in people than they are biological systems; they never think of using influence to manipulate how people use water. This is a shame, because districts are the closest governmental link to actual people who use water.


The ACWA sustainability principles are good, as far as they go. Just having something as fruity as “sustainability principles” is good step for ACWA. I don’t think they’ll get ACWA and the population they serve (which is nearly everyone in the state) to a secure position in the coming decades, but they’re water districts, so they feel the heat first.  They’ll know that soon enough.





*I was talking to a guy one time about blogging on the west coast. Yeah, he said. ‘It is really hard to get the scoops out here and be first with the good observations. Those east coast bloggers are up so early.’ I laughed inside. True, the internet is a race and we’re all racists, but I have zero fear that east coast bloggers are going to beat me to my obscure state government documents. The issue is not a three hour advantage.

**”Co-equal goals” seems to be a dawning buzzword, perhaps originating the Delta Vision process.  My understanding is that both the water suppliers and the enviros support co-equal goals because both sides think it would be improvement over the meager dregs they get now.


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4 responses to “ACWA’s Sustainability Principles

  1. Thanks for your work in reading and summarizing these documents. I know I find it hard to plow through everything I wish I could read, so I find your blog to be a great service.

    A quick comment on your note about “co-equal goals.” This concept strikes me as shorthand for – convincing as many interest groups as possible to get on board with this idea so that we can build political consensus and make it happen. A sort of “branding” process whereby the idea, plan, or what have you is repackaged and sold to groups with varying objectives.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    Thanks. I know how people yearn to be directed to thick government documents and have a place to discuss them. I’m just here to serve.

    I’m always interested in how memes develop, and this one looks to be a few months old. (Perhaps I should check the Google.) If ten years from now people say it with the familiarity of “conjunctive use” or “water transfer”, I’ll be glad if I know the origination. I’d be even gladder if I could zero in on one person or one dinner conversation.

  3. aquafornia

    First time I ever heard the term was the very first report out from the Delta Vision Task Force calling for the”co-equal goals” of ecosystem restoration and water system reliability.

    The ‘vision’ report was completed in 2007; then the members traveled the state to talk about the report. I remember attending a meeting where one of the task force members was speaking, and there was an emphasis on ‘co-equal’ because they wanted to emphasize that both goals needed to be pursued equally, not taking one goal over the other.

    My guess is that the popularity of the term has come from the Delta Vision Task Force’s use of it.

    • onthepublicrecord

      Googling shows something similar, with most mentions coming from the Delta Vision process. Looks like there’s a concept of “co-equal goals” coming from the mediation community. Maybe someone in the Delta Vision process brought it over from there.