Friday, September 18, 2015

Water, economy topics at Impact Solano conference

By Kevin W. Green From page A3 | September 18, 2015

FAIRFIELD — Water and the economy were the major topics at the fifth annual Impact Solano business conference presented Thursday by the North Bay Business Journal at the Hilton Garden Inn.

Micah Weinberg, who heads the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, discussed the economy in the Bay Area and Solano County; while Wade Crowfoot, deputy cabinet secretary and senior adviser in the governor’s office, addressed water issues.

Forecasters are optimistic of continued growth in the region, Weinberg said of economic conditions in the region. The area has experienced a steady period of economic growth, rather than a spike, he said. Some forecasts predict the Bay Area economy will get even hotter, he said.

What happens with the economy during the next two to three years will greatly affect Solano County, Weinberg said. Large projects and some things that were anticipated prior to the Great Recession could come back into focus, he said.

One of the industries leading the way in job growth in the Bay Area is construction, which is also doing well in Solano County, he said. Housing permits, however, do remain well below peak amounts experienced in the 1970s and 1980s, he said.

Bright spots for Solano County include construction, agriculture, aircraft construction, falling unemployment and decent per capita income growth, Weinberg said.

Two major issues faced by the overall region are a lack of affordable housing and the lack of a comprehensive transportation plan, he said.

In wrapping up his presentation, Weinberg talked of a mega-region that would extend from the Bay Area to Sacramento. Solano County would be in the heart of such an area, he said. The county would be well positioned to take advantage of a mega-region, he said.

Water and the drought

Much of Crowfoot’s discussion centered on the drought. He also pointed, however, to climate change as a major issue contributing to the situation.

Droughts come in cycles and the state has endured them in the past, Crowfoot said. What has changed now is the climate, Crowfoot said. In addition to rainfall, California’s thirst for water has been sustained through dry months by the snowpack in the mountains. But now there isn’t a snowpack because it’s warmer, he said.

The situation has also affected the way major fires have spread, Crowfoot said.

Incident command teams that determine a strategy in battling a major fire develop computer modeling, running hundreds of forecasts in terms of how the fire will behave, he said. Those forecasts determine where they deploy assets, he said.

The Rocky Fire, the Valley Fire and the Butte Fire spread completely outside of the computer modeling that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had done, based on all the historic data, he said.

Crowfoot also pointed to the spread of the King Fire nearly a year ago.

“That fire made a 15-mile run in one day, which completely stunned the most seasoned Cal Fire veterans in the state,” he said. “Those are the conditions now that we’re facing fighting fires and those are some of the impacts of a changing climate.”

Crowfoot acknowledged the politics of the issue.

“Climate change is, obviously, a political football in Washington, D.C., certainly in the presidential primary – but I can tell you from somebody who’s living the impact day to day, it’s real and it’s impacting Californians,” he said.

Crowfoot also talked of the human impact of the drought.

While residents in Solano County and other regions have made big cutbacks in their water usage and experienced browning lawns, they have not felt the weight of the drought in the same manner as residents in San Joaquin County or parts of the Central Valley.

About 5,000 to 10,000 people there don’t have running water in their homes because domestic wells have gone dry, he said.

Crowfoot also discussed what El Nino might mean to Californians. Despite the predictions of El Nino, it won’t necessarily bring rains to Northern California, he said. The message is clear that we need to continue to conserve, he said.

While officials are pleased with the 30 percent reduction in water usage that has been reached in the state, they want to maintain that level, he said.

“We want to make sure when it does rain again that we don’t revert back,” he said.

Continued restrictions will be needed to assure there will be enough water for the future, he said.

Questioned about the distribution of water, Crowfoot said about 80 percent goes for agriculture and 20 percent goes to communities.

Growing food takes a lot of water, he said. It’s a major part of what is driving the economy in many parts of the state, he said.

He pointed out, meanwhile, that agriculture is working to be more efficient in its water use.

Also participating in Thursday’s business conference was a panel, representing three Solano County businesses. Panel members were Ron Lanza, vice president of Wooden Valley Winery; Brooks Pedder, senior managing director of the commercial real estate firm DTZ; and Kent Fortner, founder, Mare Island Brewing Company.

The conference was co-hosted by Travis Credit Union and underwritten by NorthBay Healthcare and Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty. The conference is produced in collaboration with the Solano Economic Development Corporation.

Reach Kevin W. Green at 427-6974 or