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September 23, 2019  |  Written by Somach Simmons & Dunn

Tess Dunham Selected for GRA's 2020 David Keith Todd Distinguished Lecture Series

The Groundwater Resources Association of California recently announced two speakers for the tenth year of the organization’s David Keith Todd (DKT) Distinguished Lecture Series. Congratulations to managing shareholder Tess Dunham for being selected as GRA’s first private practice attorney in the role. She joins Professor Graham Fogg for the 2020 lecture series, designed to provide a broad perspective on groundwater beyond the typical focus by engineers and hydrogeologists.

The two distinguished lecturers debuted on a panel during the Second Annual Western Groundwater Congress, held September 17-19 in Sacramento.

See the announcement in GRA’s latest edition of Hydrovisions magazine.

“The objective of this program is to foster interest and excellence in applied groundwater science and technology through GRA-sponsored lectures at California universities, local GRA meetings, and statewide GRA events. These lectures further a key GRA objective: to develop scientific educational programs that promote the understanding and effective implementation of groundwater assessment, protection, and management,” said GRA, in the announcement.

Dunham Lecture Title: The State’s Three-Legged Stool for Improving Groundwater Quality: Porter Cologne, SGMA and The Recycled Water Policy – How Do They Work Together? 

Abstract: The Porter Cologne Water Quality Control Act was adopted in 1969 and is the state’s primary authority for addressing water quality issues in both surface waters and groundwater. Since then, the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) and the regional water quality control boards (regional water boards) have adopted permits and various policies to protect groundwater. However, despite these efforts, groundwater quality in many parts of California has declined due to industrial, agricultural, and municipal discharges of pollutants that are associated with human habitation. The two most pervasive pollutants are salt and nitrate. Left unchecked, rising salt and nitrate levels in California’s groundwater basins will impact our ability to safely use groundwater for drinking, and will impede agricultural production. In response, some regional water boards have spent decades developing and implementing comprehensive salt and nitrate management plans through existing authority under Porter Cologne. 

Then enters the State Water Board’s Recycled Water Policy. Just as water-short-California looked to increase water availability in part through water recycling, treatment of municipal wastewater increased for a variety of reasons. Municipal wastewater agencies, and others, quickly recognized the value of highly treated effluent as a water resource. However, with recycled water comes salt and nitrate. To encourage recycled water use, make permitting of such projects more efficient, protect public health, and address salt and nitrate that comes with recycled water, the State Water Board adopted the Recycled Water Policy. The policy was first adopted in 2009, amended in 2013, and was then amended again in 2018. A key component in the Recycled Water Policy are requirements for the management of salts and nutrients through the development of comprehensive salt and nutrient management plans. While some regional boards were well ahead of these requirements, others are still working to comply with such requirements. 

In 2014, the California legislature adopted and Governor Brown signed into law the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). While the primary focus of SGMA is to address our limited groundwater supplies, it includes a requirement that pertains directly to groundwater quality and groundwater sustainability agencies must consider water quality standards when setting minimum thresholds. Thus, the groundwater sustainability plans that are in development must, at least in part, address groundwater quality impacts. 

In light of these multiple (but sometimes disparate) efforts to address salt and nitrate levels in groundwater, many people question how regional water boards, dischargers and groundwater sustainability agencies are to work together to each meet their legal mandates and, more importantly, how to improve and protect groundwater quality. In this lecture series, Tess will explore the different legal and regulatory mandates and the creative solutions that stakeholders are developing to address these complex issues. She will also identify the challenges and opportunities associated with implementing the multiple efforts and how all three are essential to improving and protecting California’s groundwater resources.

About the Lecturer: Tess is managing shareholder at Somach Simmons & Dunn, one of the largest boutique water law firms in the West. Her practice has been focused on California’s water quality laws for more than 20 years, during which she has become known statewide for expertise on the Porter Cologne Water Quality Control Act, the Clean Water Act, and other related regulatory schemes. Tess works closely with publicly owned treatment works, stormwater agencies, agriculture, industry and others on a variety of water quality issues 

In her role as attorney/consultant for the Central Valley Salinity Coalition (CVSC), she served as one of the chief architects of the Central Valley Salt and Nitrate Management Plan, which is designed to deal with the problem of salt and nitrate in Central Valley groundwater basins. Tess actively participates in the Central Valley Salinity Alternatives for Long-term Sustainability (CV-SALTS) Executive Committee along with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, environmental justice advocates, state agencies, federal agencies and others. In addition to CV-SALTS, Tess provided regulatory strategy and facilitation services to a special project under the Central Valley Clean Water Agencies (CVCWA), a 15+ year collaboration with lead policy staff from six of the Central Valley’s larger publicly owned treatment works (POTWs). Most recently, Tess was selected by the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority to assist in providing water quality regulatory and facilitation services to the Basin Monitoring Task Force, which oversees implementation of the Santa Ana region’s historic salt and nitrate management plan. 

Tess earned her J.D. from McGeorge School of Law and studied history at Boston University as an undergrad. She is a graduate of the California Agriculture Leadership Program and received a certificate in Executive Leadership from the University of California, Davis. Beyond her law practice, Tess enjoys time with her family and continues the family agriculture business of rice farming.