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.