Felicia Marcus: In Praise of California Governor Brown’s Water Leadership

Felicia Marcus

As Jerry Brown exits the Governor's office for the last time, State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus reflects on how his political leadership has both shaped and reframed California water policy. In response to California's historic drought, Governor Brown accelerated the alignment of once-siloed state agencies and departments to craft an "all of the above" agenda, and signed into law long-awaited mitigation measures that are paving a path to a more sustainable water future for the state. In this VX News interview, Marcus recounts the immense progress the state has made on water under Governor Brown's leadership: integrated water management, data collection and transparency, and conservation, capturing, and recycling—while also noting the infrastructure challenges that await his successor.

With the conclusion of California Governor Jerry Brown’s fourth term just months away, reflect on his signature accomplishments and how he has reframed the water debate.

Felicia Marcus: Governor Brown has always been 30 years ahead of his time. Before climate change was as evident is it has now become, he laid the foundation for the energy efficiency and renewables revolution in California. By the time he returned for his third term, he realized that climate change is the overriding issue of our time. He also realized quickly that when it came to water, climate change was going to pack a wallop and we needed to take action now.

Just a few degrees’ rise in temperature will give us more precipitation falling as rain instead of snow. That means we will lose a huge amount of our snowpack, which accounts for 30 percent of our water storage every year. Storage is essential for California given that most of our precipitation falls away from where it is most used or when it is most needed. The snowpack also replenishes reservoirs, rivers, and groundwater basins when it melts. Without it, we will have more flooding in the spring and smaller reserves to last through the summer and fall.

Governor Brown knew that to preserve all the things that make California California—a healthy natural environment, healthy communities, and healthy agriculture—we were going to have to look at water differently. We had to elevate the discourse and accelerate the policymaking, and we couldn’t keep working in boutique silos of talking points on discrete single issues, whether storage, or conservation, or recycling, or insert your favorite single issue in isolation.

In a thoughtful and somewhat revolutionary fashion for California water, Governor Brown brought multiple agencies together—the Department of Food and Agriculture, the Department of Natural Resources, and the California Environmental Protection Agency—and in 2013, directed us to come up with a plan for the five years left in his tenure to lay the foundation for a sustainable water future in California. By January 2014, before the drought was truly apparent, we had the Water Action Plan—emphasis on action.

The Water Action Plan is about integrated water management: conservation and efficiency first and foremost, and recycling, stormwater capture, groundwater management, surface storage, safe drinking water, dealing with the Bay Delta, and more. It includes floodplain restoration for flood control and ecological resilience; habitat restoration to protect the; using upper watersheds to prevent catastrophic fires, with their attendant devastation and carbon emissions; and managing our forests and mountain meadows to retain more water as a substitute for declining snowpack storage.

The only way we are going to meet the challenge of climate change is by getting way more precise about how we use every drop, and putting more away in the wet years—above and belowground—so that it lasts longer in the dry years. Our goal is also to make each drop of water do double, triple, or even quadruple duty.

We’ve accomplished a whole suite of activities in recent years, and it all started with Governor Brown ringing the bell and saying, “Aim high.” He knew that if we got going on an all-of-the-above approach that acknowledges the reality of much tougher times ahead, we’d be in a lot better shape when those times came.

When Governor Brown appointed you to chair the State Water Resources Board in 2013—before the drought changed the political framework for water in California—what were your initial priorities, and how did they change when the drought hit?

The No. 1 thing on our agenda was to update water quality rules. One piece of that was the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan. We also moved forward on historic irrigated lands management to reduce ongoing nitrogen contamination attendant to normal farming activities. And that led us to look at safe drinking water for poor communities.

The dirty little secret in California is how many hundreds of thousands—if not a million—Californians don’t have safe, clean, and affordable drinking water in this day and age. We put out key reports in 2012 and 2013 that highlighted the number of people in our state relying on contaminated groundwater for all or part of their drinking water needs.

In 2013-14, the governor directed us to move the drinking water program from the Department of Public Health and the Department of Health and Human Services to the Water Board. As California moves toward a different water future, it helps to have one entity responsible for drinking water from source to tap, as well as for recycled water. We worked closely with stakeholders and our colleagues, and the Legislature approved the move, which has gone exceedingly smoothly.

This has been an evolution; to make all these things happen is not just a snap of the finger. But even in the early days, efficiency, safe drinking water, recycled water, groundwater management and quality, and the Bay Delta were all high on the agenda. By the time the drought came into play, we already had an outline of what we needed to do. The question was how to accelerate our timeline.

We knew that this drought was one of historic proportions, and that we were likely to see much longer droughts than in the more recent past—perhaps even 10 years, like Australia did in the 1990s-2000s after having the same more or less three year drought cycle as we had had over the past 100 years or so. When the drought set in, the state’s focus on groundwater management became sharper and the Water Board was also brought in as a key player in the new groundwater management regime. Our groundwater basins, which have been seriously depleted over the years, are the only storage that can approximate the loss in snowpack we are going to see, so figuring out how to get a more focused management regime was a top priority.

During the depths of the drought, after calls for voluntary conservation had yielded less than impressive results, the governor called for mandatory conservation—a 25 percent conservation target, which urban California was very successful in achieving. He also signed historic legislation last year that will require cities to integrate water efficiency into their long-term planning efforts. That will save urban ratepayers money in the long run, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and hopefully obviate the need to take emergency measures in the future.

On the agricultural side of the house, the governor and the Legislature granted the Water Board additional water rights enforcement authority. That may seem a little wonky, but it led to historic breakthroughs for us. We were able to require annual reporting from all the diverters in the state, which in turn will enable us to better implement our water rights system, including protecting fish and wildlife. The governor and the Legislature put us on a better footing to build a sustainable water future.

An unsung accomplishment of Governor Brown’s administration is that we used both funding and regulatory authorities to bring about a paradigm shift on recycled water in the state. In the water world, we’d recognized the need for this shift for 20 years, and the time was finally ripe.

The Water Board put out more than $1 billion in grants and loans and even went to the bond market for more money to get projects from the drawing board onto the ground. We created incentives for stormwater capture in our urban communities and a host of sensible water solutions. We did a series of expedited rulemakings on outdoor use, agricultural use, groundwater recharge, and, just last year, reservoir augmentation with recycled water. We also delivered a report on the feasibility of direct potable reuse and are moving towards statewide standards by 2023. Now, California is on the path to the nation’s most advanced standards for all kinds of reuse.

Much of this was funded by Proposition 1 (as well as our state revolving loan fund), which the governor led as a way to quickly implement the Water Action Plan, and it was augmented by Proposition 5 earlier this year.

Many eligible voters have given up on government’s ability to make a difference in their lives. But this interview refutes that negativism—at least with regard to water. Can you explain why so many believe that government is operationally incapable?

I think we shortchange communication efforts, which are as important as the pipes and the treatment plants. But it’s difficult to communicate about water issues. There are complex issues of regulation and infrastructure and funding, and there’s a completely fragmented series of government players dealing with those issues. There are thousands of local water agencies; how you feel about the big issue of “government and water” may depend on how you feel toward your local water agency, or toward government more broadly.

In general, though, I think people see that California has made progress on water. Recent polls show that water is a huge concern for Californians where it never was before, and there is an expectation and a hope that government will do something about it. Certainly, people in the water world note that they’re seeing more government action than they have in decades. And that action has been more creative and multiple benefit oriented than ever before.

On the other hand, some in the environmental community think we haven’t been aggressive enough on protecting fish and wildlife or on water quality. What we have done is lightyears ahead of what’s ever been done before—but that may be more of a commentary on how little was done before than it is on how close we are to where we need to go.

We certainly made some mistakes during the drought; it wasn’t by any means perfect. But I think we did a pretty darn good job in the face of the worst drought in modern history—not only coping with it in the short term, but also using it as an opportunity to build toward a better future.

In the past, the motto for water politics in California has been: Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. How did the Governor change that paradigm?

The changes are very apparent; people are coming together. The players in the water world know that action of some kind is inescapable. In some cases, that has led to even tougher fightin’ words.  In others, we’re spending more time in coffeeshops and bars trying to figure out the answers outside the glare of the microphones and megaphones.

I think our all-of-the-above-approach has helped create a different political dynamic. When everyone can see that the thing they want is on deck, it’s a little easier for them to tolerate the other things that people want.

We found an appropriate balance for public policy: listening to everyone to make your action as good as possible for the most uses, but not paralyzed into inaction by the decibel of the shouting. We said, “We’re going to move on all of this; come with us,” as opposed to, “You’re going to be able to slow us down by being louder.”

The Planning Report published your remarks at a 2013 TreePeople conference on the Los Angeles River, in which you said, “We are going to have to deal with the Delta. We are going to have to deal with water conservation and recycling in our cities. We are going to have to deal with stormwater capture and reuse in some significant way or we are fools, and history will not treat us kindly.” Have we done that?

I truly feel that the battleship has turned, and we are finally in motion. In particular, I’m seeing a lot of action at the local level.

Look at Mayor Garcetti’s directive to use more local water, or LA County’s initiative in Measure W to fund groundwater cleanup, groundwater recharge, and urban greening. Look at San Diego’s cutting-edge potable reuse “Pure Water” project. Look at the expansion of Orange County Water District’s groundwater replenishment system, which was already the leader in the world, and at Metropolitan Water District’s partnership with LA Sanitation Districts to do an even bigger project. Look at San Francisco’s handling of onsite treatment in big buildings. Look at Sacramento, which set a new standard for outdoor watering that put the rest of us to shame in the beginning of the drought. In every area of the state, we are seeing innovation.

Communities are figuring out how to come together; in many cases, we in government just need to get out of the way and incentivize them in any way we can. Other times, we can be an active partner. In East Porterville—with some legislation, some money, and some friendly persuasion—we were able to get over 1,000 families hooked up to a safe water system who had previously relied on groundwater wells that had gone dry during the drought and were contaminated long before that. It definitely took a village, and now we’ve got a coalition of disadvantaged community activists and agricultural interests working together to help hundreds of thousands more Californians get safe, clean, affordable water.

We’re not done; this is decadal work. But we’re in motion, and increasingly, those in the talking class are being left behind.

Address the significance of the Bay Delta Water Quality plan—which is up for a critical vote in December—for California.

The Delta plan is a step toward reconciling modern society with the natural world that we unintentionally took for granted until recently. We need to rebalance the way we share our rivers among urban areas, agriculture, and fish and wildlife before we drive the last salmon to extinction. This plan is an interesting and different approach to this issue, and it’s just one piece in a voyage.

Since 2012, our approach to restoring fish and wildlife in the Delta has been to put more water back in at certain times of year. That means reducing the amount of water people can take out of the river during those times that are critical for fish and for which they have evolved over millennia. To offset that impact, we also offered an olive branch: If diverse water users come together for environmental efforts—habitat restoration, predation suppression, temperature control, etc.—we’ll allow you to take more water out. Now we’re waiting with bated breath for an agreement to come forward that is robust, transparent and verifiable. The governor and our colleagues in the Natural Resources Agency are helping with that.

What we need is on-the-ground action across the traditional warring factions to make each drop of water do more. We need a combination of habitat restoration, timing of flows, counting fish, and more. To get collaboration, more frequently than not, you need regulation to make it happen.

We are moving toward more transparent and collaborative water management. It’s a move toward a more rational and holistic way of managing water resources, and away from the fragmented, warring parties, talking society approach of preceding decades. Our next step will be to work on the Sacramento River system, which is much bigger; that proposal will be out later this year as well.

California and your board have launched a number of efforts to improve water data. Speak about what progress has been made.

A key moment was when the Water Board got the authority to require water diverters, whether junior or senior water rights holders, to measure and report their water use every year. We leapt 100 years into the future with that rule, and finally did what every other Western state has been doing for years.

Another important milestone was getting reporting on urban water use. During the drought, we put that information online every month so that people could compare water use in their community to similar communities across the state. That helped establish what seemed fair and what was possible. We are now in a period between the drought emergency regulations and the new efficiency regulations where we are only relying on voluntary reporting, and we are still getting pretty good compliance.

On a different note, a couple of years ago, folks at UC Davis analyzed our data and found that, during the drought, California saved more energy through water conservation than through all the water efficiency incentives combined. Now, we are trying to get every dataset we have online in order to take advantage of the bright minds out there making connections.

We’ve run and participated in a number of open data challenges, including with the White House and with non-profits. We just finished a Safe Drinking Water Data Challenge, and just launched a “trash” data challenge. We’re also working closely with our colleagues in the Department of Water Resources, Government Operations, and the Governor’s Office toward more transparent and centralized data management in keeping with the Open and Transparent Water Data Act (SB 1775, Dodd). But we all have a long way to go.

Lastly, comment on the significance of Los Angeles County’s efforts to fund stormwater infrastructure through Measure W, and also on the Salton Sea, which has been on California’s agenda for decades.

Measure W is incredibly important because it brings the county and all the cities together. It helps LA meet its water quality requirements under our permits—which are very important to protecting our beaches, streams, wetlands, and harbors—but puts the same local dollar to work for water supply, urban greening, and flood control as well. It’s a very creative measure that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s kind of precision management that we’re going to need in order to survive the trials ahead, whether from climate change, inevitable growth, or growing water conflicts.

The Salton Sea is one of the thorniest issues facing California, and financing is one of its biggest problems. There are public health risks of exposed playa and environmental issues for birds and fish, not to mention the economy of the region. I’m encouraged that there is a plan, though it’s behind schedule, and I’m encouraged that people are talking to each other rather than past each other. Propositions 1 and 5 gave it a financial kickstart, but more will be needed.

The Water Action Plan placed a special significance on the complex issue of special waters like the Salton Sea. Prop. 1 had money in it for the Salton Sea and the Bay Delta as well as the Klamath, where governments of two states, tribes, and private and non-profit partners are proposing dam removal and restoration of salmon and local economies.

Water funding measures, as well as efforts by the administration, are incredibly important. We’ve got to deal with these large, intractable issues in creative ways—and to deal with any of them takes money.

"Governor Brown and the Legislature put California on a better footing to build a sustainable water future." —Felicia Marcus