Felicia Marcus on The Role of Water Data & California’s Conservation Efforts

Felicia Marcus, Chair of CA Water Resources Control Board

Last month, the White House Council on Environmental Quality partnered with the California State Water Resources Control Board and other agencies to launch the California Water Data Challenge. State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus joined VX News to discuss the importance of leveraging publicly available data to support creative solutions to California’s water challenges, as outlined in the Brown administration’s California Water Action Plan. Marcus also discussed the state's continued work on increasing recycled water and integrating technological advancements into the regulatory process. 

Governor Brown recently signed the Open and Transparent Water Data Act (AB 1755), which requires the Department of Water Resources and state agencies to create a statewide water data platform. What will the State Water Resources Control Board’s role be in developing that platform, and what is your vision for it?

Felicia Marcus: The goal is to have a platform where all of the related agencies’ data can be housed in one place, and we’ll be happy contributors to whatever platform gets set up.

We’ve been emphasizing data a lot this year. Data transparency is important to having real-time, real conversations about water and water policy. It can lead to conversations about how communities can become more efficient—because when folks look at what their neighbors or similarly situated communities are doing, it opens the question: What are they doing that we’re not? 

We’ve also made huge strides in getting data and regulation on how much water all diverters are taking from our rivers and streams.  We were at a very crude level of knowledge in most places before the drought. We’ve also done our own open data challenge where we posted our data to see what folks could come up with that we hadn’t thought of and got some very interesting data.  We post to the Government Operations Department Open Data Portal, which I highly recommend.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality recently launched the Water Data Challenge, seeking input on California water goals based on public data sets. In your opinion, what is the state of water data collection today? What do you envision this transparency to include and be valued for?

We’re in our data infancy in water, compared to some other fields or other countries. Only in the last couple of years have we gotten the authority to ask for basic data on water use in more real time. In just the last two years, we’ve developed more data that we’ve ever had.

We’ve gotten more precise in administering water rights over the course of the drought, because—through emergency orders and legislation—we’ve been able to order people to report more frequently about how much water they’re using and how much they plan to use.

Before that, the rules were that junior water rights holders had to report once a year on what they had used in the preceding year. Senior water rights holders—pre-1914 appropriative rights holders and riparian—had to report every three years. That didn’t give us the tools to manage the system in any way that was close to reflecting reality in anything like real time.

Since we got to the point in the drought where we actually had to issue curtailment orders and cut people off under our water rights seniority system, having better data about water use was essential to us, and we didn’t get huge pushback because everyone realized it was in the collective interest to operate on real data so we didn’t over-curtail or under-curtail. We’ve also made reporting a big part of our urban water conservation regulations, and the governor has ordered us to make the reporting requirements permanent.

For this challenge, we’ve basically thrown open the doors for the data world to look at all of the California Water Action Plan, which we’ve talked about previously, and come up with their best ideas on how to use data to advance our aims, whether conservation, recycling or other integrated water management, flood control, storage, safe drinking water, groundwater management, etc. There’s really nowhere to go but up. We’re not in the Dark Ages, but we’re not in the 21st Century where we ought to be, either.

In our first open data challenge, we got an interesting analysis back about how much energy was saved through our emergency water conservation regulations, which was huge. That was a really important point, and it made the news and got people thinking more seriously about how water conservation is also energy conservation.

Update us on the status of the water conservation efforts that the state set in motion. Where are we in the process of meeting those goals?

Folks certainly met the goals or came darn close during the period that we actually had mandatory targets. Given the rains last year, we relaxed the standards: We let people show us that they had enough water—conservatively—for another three terrible years, and then we let them set their own standards, at least for this year.

Many of the agencies that avoided state-mandated conservation targets because they had sufficient supplies are still saving 10-30 percent. Some other agencies have gone back closer to business as usual unfortunately. Nonetheless, collectively, Californians are keeping their conservation levels up. We’re cumulatively still at 23 percent less than we were using in 2013, although month to month we’re seeing about a one-third rollback—not so bad when you consider that we got decent rain in northern CA last year, but it's something we are watching. We’re focusing on those areas that seem to have slipped, and we’ll be ready to come back with some kind of mandatory conservation if we continue to see significant slippage or if the recent rains are not a harbinger of things to come.

We’re also working very closely with other agencies—such as the Public Utilities Commission, the Energy Commission, the Department of Food and Agriculture, and most important, the Department of Water Resources—to draft a proposal to the governor for the next generation of efficiency efforts. A draft will go out soon for additional stakeholder input, we’ll polish up the proposal based on what we hear, and then we’ll make recommendations to the governor in January.

Upon your arrival to the Water Board, the goal of a 20-percent reduction by 2020 was in place. Talk about how one changes the culture from reliability to efficiency and surpasses those goals, while being fair at the same time.

20 by 2020 is a 2009 statute with a baseline of a few years earlier. It got the statewide interest in becoming more efficient on deck and prompted all agencies to step up their conservation games, not just those, like LA or San Diego who stepped up big time after the drought of the late 80s and early 90s. Governor Brown’s emergency directive in 2015 was to save 25 percent off where we were in 2013—a much bigger lift--in light of three horrendously dry years coupled with what we now know was the worst snowpack in 500 years.

Fortunately, Californians saved 24 percent or so through the mandatory standards so we were prepared for another record dry year that we fortunately didn’t experience. We’re still at a cumulative 23 percent off 2013, which is really great. That was a more short-term metric than the 20 by 2020, which many agencies blew past a long time ago because it wasn’t a very high bar to set, though still a big deal.

We’re thinking about the next generation of that—not just a percentage off a given baseline calculated any number of ways, but a more fair and transparent way of finding a reasonable amount of water—not crazy drought times tough but significant—for Californians to aim for to not just become more resilient to drought or to save money and energy, but so that people are moving toward a similar and more equitably set target than picking a year, any year, and trying to take a percentage off that.  Communities have been working for varying lengths of time on this and have different baselines.

That’s where fairness comes in. People need some kind of guide or metric as to what’s reasonable and fair to aim for, so they don’t have to worry that they’re being held to a different standard than others. Data and transparency helps us to do more than assert that something is fair, but to lay it out so that everybody can see where other people are and that they’re moving toward it. I think it creates something of a social contract—a sense that we’re all in this together—around using our energy and water more wisely in an increasingly climate-disrupted world.  The details of it are subject to all kinds of debate or options.  We’re always hoping that someone suggests the perfect approach.

Elaborate on the water/energy nexus, and what you hope to see happen in the next couple years, given that the quality of the information has improved.

It’s the quality of the information and the quality of our consciousness about how much water we’re using—California has stepped up mightily during the drought. What we have found is that the amount of water used per person varies widely, and particularly in outdoor landscapes.  It costs money and energy to treat water to pristine drinking water standards and then use to overwater ornamental landscapes.  It creates ghg emissions adding to climate change.  Even recycling and stormwater capture, as great as they are, use energy and money, though desalination at present uses more.  So efficiency is the smartest, cheapest way to save money and emissions in the long run. But we need to do it all—efficiency and new supplies—to be resilient in the face of climate change, not pick one over the other.  I’m an “all of the above” girl given the disruption that climate change will bring, which will lead to greater unpredictability in water supplies and greater expense in dealing with it.

What we’re trying to do in the long run is create a culture of efficiency, where we figure out a reasonable amount for each person indoors and for a landscape of whatever size that’s appropriate for your climate. What’s an appropriate standard for leaks—when large communities can lose up to 30 percent to leaks and some smaller communities lose over 50 percent? That’s water treated to pristine drinking water standards that’s just totally wasted. What’s a reasonable way to measure agricultural efficiency, which is far more complicated than urban, and what’s a fair standard for rural communities to work toward?  How do we deal with commercial, industrial, and institutional sectors when they vary so widely between communities?

Part of fairness is transparency about where people are and where they’re going, so that folks feel that we’re moving together, as a state, toward a more efficient future. That should also include reporting on the net energy savings.

The Irvine Ranch Water District will soon install an energy storage system with Advanced Microgrid Solutions, which intended to reduce the cost of operations, make the district more self-sufficient, and lower demand on the grid. What is the Water Control Board doing in a similar vein, if anything?

We tend to work more at the regulatory and permitting stage, but we’re cheering them on, and happy to be helpful anywhere we can. The Inland Empire Utility Agency  is doing something similar with Advanced Microgrid Solutions and I’m sure there will be more and that this kind of utility scale demand management will spread.  We’re also engaged with the California Association of Sanitation Agencies and the California Air Resources Board on a host of ways in which wastewater utilities can contribute to net ghg emission savings in their processes.

I think there’s very fertile ground for water supply agencies and wastewater agencies to become big players in integrating resource efficiency and the water-energy connection into what they do and we need to figure out how to recognize and reward it.

The Water Resources Control Board recently released a draft study concluding that it would be feasible for California to develop regulations for the direct potable reuse of recycled water, which would make it the first state to do so. Talk about the significance of that.

It’s significant along a continuum of recycled water—from non-potable, to what we call “indirect” potable, to “direct” potable.

The significance of the study is that we know this is technically feasible. But there are many open questions, and there is a need for more research to know how we can consistently produce recycled water of drinking water quality.  No exceptions; no “burps.” Many of the questions are: What are the barriers, the kinds of testing, and the level of monitoring that we need to feel comfortable that an agency can actually do this work?

The need for regulation is about having an off-ramp/escape valve to absolutely assure the maintenance of public health protection 24/7. It may well be that the first program to do this will have to incorporate more redundancy than we’ll find is ultimately necessary, but, it’s something that we want to take a pretty darn conservative approach to.

More important, while the direct potable feasibility study got the headlines, we’re also proposing indirect potable reuse regulations this year, which are about treating recycled water to a high level, then putting it into reservoirs before retrieving it. The Drinking Water Division also wrote rules for groundwater replenishment in July of 2014, just before moving over to the Water Board from the Department of Public Health.

In both these sets of indirect potable reuse rules, we have an environmental buffer as part of the process, such as: limitations on the percentage of recycled water that can be placed in the underground or above ground reservoir compared to naturally occurring or surface water. There are significant monitoring requirements and a long period of ‘residence time’ in the storage reservoir. That gives you additional natural treatment time, time to assess the quality of the water, and time to respond to any burps in the treatment system.  With direct potable reuse, we need to gain that confidence though redundant treatment processes, intensive monitoring, and heightened focus on the operational capacity of the agencies.  While there have been places that do this, none do it at the scale being contemplated by some agencies here.

So, direct potable reuse is an important potential part of the future water supply, while indirect potable reuse is already a new tool in the current water supply. I also think there’s still an important place in the future for the use of non-potable recycled water. In terms of the water/energy nexus, the amount of energy it takes to treat water escalates with each level of treatment. We can treat water to a level that is perfectly safe for industrial use or irrigating outdoor turf with far less GHG costs than desal or potable reuse, either direct or indirect. It may require a separate piping system, which is feasible in some places and not in others. But we have to consider not only the best use of our water, but also the best use of our scarce energy resources. People love the idea of a closed system, but it may not be the smartest thing to do in all circumstances.  It may make sense in others.

The Water Board has been one of the leading agencies in implementing new water regulations regarding cannabis cultivation. Update on our readers on how that coordination among agencies has been implemented, and if anything will change given the passage of Prop 64.

The mobilization, even prior to this, has been extraordinary over the last few years, as well as the support from the governor’s office and the legislature, whether it’s for the Department of Water Resources, Food and Agriculture, Fish and Wildlife, or us. We’ve actually gotten the staffing we need to start getting ahead of this train.

There’s a train to catch even if Prop 64 had failed, because of the expansion of even medical cannabis, and a tremendous impact, just speaking for the environment, both in water quality and in the water rights system, that frankly has rural communities, and farmers in particular, alarmed beyond measure, which has been a part of why I think we’ve gotten bipartisan support and broad-based geographic support to do something.  And it’s why we work in tandem with our sworn law enforcement partners at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, local sheriffs’ departments, and the federal government to collectively help deal both with illegal grows on public land and to deal with folks who are diverting whole water courses without a permit, leaving folks below them high and dry, or dumping herbicides, sediment, and other chemicals and fertilizers into waterways without a permit.

Think about all the law-abiding, permit-getting, rule-abiding folks along the watercourse, and this has been a relatively new agricultural commodity that’s come in and broken all the rules. There’s been universal support for there being rules, and for having them be abided by fairly. We’ve been able to get a head start on trying to get that together.

There’s also been legislation requiring folks to get a separate license to do this, which would be under the Department of Food and Agriculture, with the water board having to sign off that these guys have legal permits for water or for discharges before they can get their license to operate. That’s a part of the framework for how it’s supposed to work. There’s a lot of work here. A lot of these water courses were in trouble to begin with, with too many diversions even from law-abiding diverters.

On top of that, we’ve never had staffing to be able to establish the public trust flows on all of them in establishing how much there might be left for diversion. This gives us some tools to go in there and set the public trust flows, in addition to apportioning the water according to our water rights system among the players there. They’ve got to get in line along with everybody else.

"I think data transparency creates something of a social contract—a sense that we’re all in this together—around using our energy and water more wisely in an increasingly climate-disrupted world." - Felicia Marcus