Curtis Creel

Curtis Creel

One of California’s most important water jobs is coming open next month.

It’s a job with immense responsibilities, clout and high pay. And even though it’s the head of a public agency, most people have no idea how much it affects their daily lives, especially in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Kern County Water Agency General Manager Curtis Creel will retire Dec. 7, leaving a very large and important hole to fill.

The agency is the second largest contractor on the State Water Project and pays 25 percent of the bill for that massive endeavor, giving it a very big voice on most water issues.

In past years, it was the agency that brokered deals to ensure greater reliability for ag water during droughts. It also is responsible for creating the largest water bank in the state.

California governors for the past 60 years have courted the agency for help with statewide issues from propositions to pay for water quality and infrastructure projects to the proposed tunnel through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

It is not a stretch to say the agency has often been the tail that wags California’s water dog.

“The perception is the water contractors tell (the state Department of Water Resources) what to do. We don’t. We give input,” demurred Creel. “We’re not focused on politics so much as we are on policy. We want to develop good relationships with the state.”

And while DWR Director Karla Nemeth “does listen, she’s very good at laying down the law,” Creel said.

Making nice with the state, though, is just one aspect of Creel’s job.

He also has to keep the agency’s “member units,” Kern’s often fractious agricultural water districts, top of mind. The agency makes sure their water contracts are filled, transfers and exchanges are moving along and that they are generally working well together.

Not easy considering the districts’ penchant for internecine warfare.

“Yeah, you can’t have a lot of ego in this job,” Creel agreed in his typical soft-spoken manner. “I have loved working there and I’ve learned a lot. But it’s a humbling experience.”

Although he is an engineer, Creel said the agency’s next general manager doesn’t need a lot of technical skills. The agency has staff with all the required abilities.

Instead, Creel said the next general manager should focus on three things: Listening, collaboration and vision.

They are the skills that will be needed in the future.

Whoever takes the reins will need to quickly come up to speed on how new biological opinions recently handed down by the Trump administration could affect state water deliveries. The opinions serve as guidelines for delta operations to protect endangered species.

Water exports from the delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet in a giant estuary south of Sacramento and run out to the San Francisco Bay, are operated jointly by the state and the federal governments.

The federal government just issued new biological opinions for delta operations that could result in more water going to federal contractors. If the state decides those opinions don’t meet California’s Endangered Species Act requirements, it could react in a couple of ways.

The state may sue. Or it could take more water from its own contractors to make up for any loss in federal flows, which happened in the 2017 water year.

Whatever the state decides, it will have an impact on the agency, which contracts for just about 1 million acre-feet from the state.

And, though the agency isn’t directly involved in groundwater sustainability planning under the state’s new groundwater law, any cut in imported supplies will affect how much pumping is allowed locally.

“It’s going to get complicated,” Creel said.

Creel’s three-year tenure as the agency’s general manager focused heavily on the delta, where he is widely considered an expert.

“It’s a big loss for the agency,” said Creel’s former boss and predecessor, Jim Beck. “I don’t think people understand how knowledgeable and respected Curtis is in Sacramento on delta issues.

“He’s like EF Hutton; when he spoke, people listened.”

Beck hired Creel in 2005 away from the Department of Water Resources, where Creel had worked since graduating college in 1986. Most of his career was spent working with delta operations.

His understanding of the vast matrix of operational rules governing water flows for endangered species, salt limits, temperature, turbidity and other factors is immense.

“Curtis’ skill set was very much needed by the agency,” Beck said. “Some of the most critical state projects and policy issues came up during his tenure.”

The so-called California WaterFix — a tunnel through the delta designed to take water out of the Sacramento River to alleviate environmental concerns — occupied a great deal of Creel’s time as general manager of the agency. The project was first proposed as two tunnels by former Gov. Jerry Brown and later reduced to a single tunnel by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

It hasn’t been an easy sell, and not just to environmentalists and delta farmers, most of whom see the tunnel as a means to export even more water out of Northern California.

The agency’s ag district member units haven’t always seen the benefits of a $10 billion (down from about $17 billion) tunnel, especially when there hasn’t been a minimum guaranteed amount of water from the project.

Even though the agency’s hierarchy, including Creel, supported the tunnels, directors voted to pay for only a 6.5 percent share in 2017, which reflected the ambivalence of its member units.

“The tunnels definitely occupied a significant amount of Curtis’ time,” said Eric Averett, general manager of Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, an agency member unit. “It’s hard to say if the investment of time and resources by the agency will be commensurate with the level of benefit.”

Creel smiled when asked about the tunnels.

“Will they be built in my lifetime? I’d like to say yes because I want to live a long time,” he joked. “It’s still the best option we have for moving water around the delta.”

But he acknowledged the cost and, even more importantly, the emotions surrounding delta water are hard to overcome.

Averett said the next general manager will have to step up on state issues quickly. “There’s no time for on-the-job training.”

State issues are important, said Mark Mulkay, general manager of Kern Delta Water District, another member unit. But local issues can’t be ignored.

“I always enjoyed working with Curtis. He was a good thinker,” Mulkay said. “And when we had him engaged on local issues, he really helped. But because of his background, he spent a lot of time in Sacramento.”

Creel, 58, grew up in Redding and Sacramento. He graduated from Humboldt State in 1986 with a degree in environmental engineering with an emphasis on water resources.

He went to work with the Department of Water Resources after college and had several positions involving delta operations and compliance.

During his tenure at DWR, Creel was instrumental in creating the controversial Environmental Water Account, which paid state water contractors for water to be used to benefit endangered fish.

It gained notoriety after The Californian and other newspapers discovered the program was paying entities, including the agency, significantly more for the water than they had initially paid. Critics were particularly upset that the payments were going to large private companies, such as The Wonderful Co.

Creel said the program got a bad rap in the press. He defended the concept as providing water certainty for all parties, including environmental agencies, by identifying blocks of water they could call on as needed.

In the end, though, it was a short-term solution for a much longer-term problem.

“The EWA was focused on providing water for each project, not overall habitat, toxics, predation, long term, good supplies,” he explained. “It was a lot of money focused on one thing.”

The EWA program ended after about five years in 2005.

That same year, Creel was hired at the agency as the water resources manager. He became assistant general manager in 2014, then general manager in 2016. His 2018 salary was $292,530, plus benefits, according to Transparent California.

After his retirement, Creel and his wife, Tracy, are moving back to their hometown of Sacramento where their 31-year-old daughter lives. They will keep ties to Bakersfield as their son, 29, will stay here.

Lois Henry is the CEO and editor of SJV Water, a nonprofit, independent online news publication dedicated to covering water issues in the San Joaquin Valley. She can be reached at lois.henry@sjvwater.org. The website is sjvwater.org.

(2) comments

Spreck Rosekrans

Curtis, best wishes and welcome back to Norcal.

yorkies2014

Internecine?....I mean really......I'm just a local schooled yokel ...

internecine

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Related to internecine: Internecine war

in·ter·nec·ine (ĭn′tər-nĕs′ēn′, -ĭn, -nē′sīn′)

adj.

1. Of or relating to struggle within a nation, organization, or group.

2. Mutually destructive; ruinous or fatal to both sides.

3. Characterized by bloodshed or carnage.

[Latin internecīnus, destructive, variant of internecīvus, from internecāre, to slaughter : inter-, intensive pref.; see inter- + nex, nec-, death; see nek-1 in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]

Word History: Internecine was first recorded in English in 1663, and at that time was used with the meaning "deadly" as part of the phrase internecine war. The Latin source of the word, spelled both internecīnus and internecīvus, meant "fought to the death, murderous." It is a derivative of the verb necāre, "to kill." However, in the 1700s, when Samuel Johnson was working on his great dictionary, he included internecine with the meaning "endeavoring mutual destruction." Some scholars believe that Johnson's definition was an error; that he misunderstood the prefix inter- as meaning "between" (which is its usual meaning) rather than as an intensifier meaning "all the way." Regardless of where Johnson's definition came from, his dictionary was so popular and considered so authoritative that his definition sparked a slight shift in the usage of internecine. From this point, more and more people began to use the word to imply a type of conflict in which opposing sides attempt mutual destruction rather than one that is simply highly destructive and deadly. This shift, which put the emphasis on a struggle between groups, paved the way for the eventual emergence of the sense that is most commonly used today, "relating to internal struggle within a nation, organization, or group." This modern usage can be seen in the sentence "While he was becoming more and more closely drawn into the internecine politics of the Socialist party and its pro-Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik offshoots, she was getting a broader sense of the country, of what the Russian experiment meant to various people" (Mary V. Dearborn).

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

internecine (ˌɪntəˈniːsaɪn) or internecive

adj

1. mutually destructive or ruinous; maiming both or all sides: internecine war.

2. of or relating to slaughter or carnage; bloody

3. of or involving conflict within a group or organization

[C17: from Latin internecīnus, from internecāre to destroy, from necāre to kill]

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014 © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014

in•ter•ne•cine (ˌɪn tərˈni sin, -saɪn, -ˈnɛs in, -ˈnɛs aɪn)

adj.

1. of or pertaining to conflict or struggle within a group: an internecine feud.

2. mutually destructive.

3. characterized by great slaughter; deadly.

[1655–65; < Latin internecīnus, internecīvus murderous, derivative of internecāre to exterminate]

Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Adj.

1.

internecine - (of conflict) within a group or organization; "an internecine feud among proxy holders"

internal - happening or arising or located within some limits or especially surface; "internal organs"; "internal mechanism of a toy"; "internal party maneuvering"

2.

internecine - characterized by bloodshed and carnage for both sides; "internecine war"

bloody - having or covered with or accompanied by blood; "a bloody nose"; "your scarf is all bloody"; "the effects will be violent and probably bloody"; "a bloody fight"

Based on WordNet 3.0, Farlex clipart collection. © 2003-2012 Princeton University, Farlex Inc.

internecine

adjective destructive, bloody, deadly, fatal, mortal, exterminating, ruinous, exterminatory The episode has turned attention to the internecine strife here.

Collins Thesaurus of the English Language – Complete and Unabridged 2nd Edition. 2002 © HarperCollins Publishers 1995, 2002

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