As the Orange County Board of Supervisors looked to submit its responses to this year’s slate of Orange County Grand Jury reports, the supervisors held an in-depth discussion on one report in particular: “Historic Rain Yet Drought Remains.”
Board members on Tuesday, Aug. 8, discussed the county’s recommendation to partially disagree with certain parts of the report, which largely found that South Orange County’s reliance on imported water will be impacted by climate change and must adapt.
At issue was the finding that “future water supplies are impacted by climate change, and current supplies will not meet future demands.” The county argued that it does not have the expertise to determine future impacts from climate change.
The county also disagreed partially with the findings that “climatologists predict future extended periods of low moisture with occasional wet years” and that “South Orange County relies primarily on the importation of water”—on the same basis that it does not have the knowledge to make this finding.
The county did agree that it would need additional water supply as it continues to develop. The county also agreed that conservation, efficient water use, outreach and public education were necessary.
Fifth District Supervisor Katrina Foley cited the South Coast Water District’s previous statements that it has between 10 and 20 days of water supply if it lost its ability to import water.
After an extensive exchange on the language in the county’s response, specifically to the grand jury’s Finding No. 3—“that climate change is inevitable and is exacerbated by human behavior”—the board voted, 3-2, to submit its response.
In its draft response, the county had recommended disagreeing partially with the statement, because it “does not have the technical expertise, experience, industry-specific training or knowledge to make this determination.”
Foley stated that she “couldn’t disagree with that response more.”
“I do want to thank the grand jury for their time and attention that they’ve put into this session,” Foley said. “It’s a group of volunteers who spend a lot of time getting to know a particular area of concern in the community and then make findings and give recommendations.”
Foley noted that she was concerned with the response, particularly because the county has several experienced professionals on staff who are “knowledgeable about the impact of climate change,” Foley said.
Instead, she recommended the county respond that it agrees with the jury’s finding and state that “the county acknowledges and supports efforts to mitigate climate change impacts on Orange County residents. The county works to support regional water supply through water reclamation, recycling and reuse.”
“The county recently applied to join the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate pollution reduction grant cohort with Los Angeles County,” Foley added. “Orange County has created a director of sustainability position within OC Waste and Recycling and has begun to work to start a climate action plan.”
Foley pointed to the recent atmospheric rivers and year-round wildfire season, noting that “we’re experiencing the impacts of climate change every day.”
“It is indisputable fact that climate change is exacerbated by human behavior,” Foley said. “To deny it, even marginally, is disconnected with the priorities of Orange County families.”
Third District Supervisor Don Wagner, the board’s chairperson, argued in favor of the original response, arguing that neither the staff nor grand jury has the information or expertise to respond to the finding.
Wagner commented that the grand jury is “made up of a bunch of retired people with less experience even than our own staff.”
“To say what they say, especially when they venture out into the scientific community, as opposed to when they actually dig into, as they are supposed to do, government services, or indicting ham sandwiches,” Wagner continued. “So, referencing and respecting the technical expertise of the grand jury, as opposed to our staff, which crafted this response, strikes me as getting things exactly backward.”
Wagner added that the grand jury report focused on drought conditions and access to water, not on the issue of climate change.
Fourth District Supervisor Doug Chaffee commended the sanitation district for its efforts with water reclamation and recycling as ways to add to the water supply. He added that he’d like to see conservation be proposed in addition to reclamation, reuse and recycling to encourage residents to use less water.
However, Chaffee noted that he was ambivalent on the change to the county’s response for Finding 3, stating: “I know, but not from the county necessarily, that we have climate change issues.”
District 2 Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento agreed that the county has access to technology and experts to make determinations on water supply needs and impacts.
“We have sister agencies that we can lean on if we don’t have it internally; the technology is out there that we can certainly learn of,” Sarmiento said.
Sarmiento added that the OC Water District is dealing with the challenge of groundwater contamination by Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA), Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS), also known as forever chemicals.
“Those are challenges that we’ll all face as a county going forward,” Sarmiento said, adding: “I think that we can’t ignore the fact that our climate is changing and we do need to work with our—again—with our sister agencies to see how we can deal with not just the impacts to water but the impacts to the climate generally.”
Agreeing with Wagner, Sarmiento noted that the grand jury members are not experts but are “representatives of the public and they certainly have a right to comment and opine.”
Sarmiento also noted that he’d like to see the composition of the grand jury diversified.
First District Supervisor Andrew Do called Finding No. 3 an overreach and a political statement.
“We can support the language of the things that we’ve done, proposed by Supervisor Foley, but I would wholly disagree with the ‘agree’ part to the finding, because I find that it is an assertion, because a finding has to be grounded in something factual,” Do said.
Foley responded that she believes “climate change to be inevitable, and there’s plenty of scientific evidence to support that.”
Though Foley stated she was willing to accept “disagrees partially,” she requested language be removed from the county’s response stating that it does not have the expertise or knowledge to determine that “climate change is inevitable and is exacerbated by human behavior.”
Wagner argued that the sentence does belong in the response, as the staff does not have the expertise to comment on climate change’s effect on the world.
After Foley’s motion failed to gain a majority vote, Do motioned to keep the language the same as the draft response for Finding No. 3, adding Foley’s language on the ways that the county has worked to mitigate the effects of climate change.