Mark Gold: California’s New Deputy Sec. for Oceans and Coastal Policy and Dir. of the Ocean Protection Council

Mark Gold

Despite the grandeur of California’s vast neighbor to the west, the Pacific Ocean is a vulnerable and sensitive resource facing threats on multiple fronts: from rising sea levels and ocean acidification to overfishing and marine pollution. The California Ocean Protection Council is a state agency tasked with managing efforts to protect the vitality of this rich resource and the ecosystems and economies that rely on it. In this interview, new Deputy Secretary for Oceans and Coastal Policy and Director of the Ocean Protection Council, Mark Gold, speaks to his time as Associate Vice Chancellor for the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA and what he hopes to accomplish at the council. The veteran California water maven discusses opportunities for research collaboration and innovation to address the challenges facing the state’s ocean resources. 

Dr. Gold, recently appointed by Governor Newsom as Deputy Secretary for Oceans and Coastal Policy as well as Director of the Ocean Protection Council at the California Natural Resources Agency, what is your mandate?  

Mark Gold: I’m excited to be part of Governor Newsom’s new administration and to be working with Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot and CalEPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld. I’ve known them for a while, and everybody seems to be on the same page with a very strong environmental ethic and understanding that, despite all of the wonderful things we’ve done in California on the environment, we could do better. That’s why I’ve always wanted the opportunity to work in the state administration. Frankly, it’s a dream come true and is something I’m really excited about.

You’ve held several distinguished positions prior to your state appointment: Associate Vice Chancellor for the Environment and Sustainability and Interim and Associate Director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. (Before that you were President of Heal the Bay.) Speak to the challenges and your accomplishments at UCLA that most prepare you for your new responsibilities.

Working with faculty and staff to put the Grand Challenge together— having the opportunity to work with the university professors and researchers to get 45 interdisciplinary environmental research projects off the ground and build a really strong team—was great to be a part of. I was able to use one of my strengths, which is working closely with the city, the county, and the state to make sure the work we were doing at UCLA was actually having the desired impact for a more sustainable megacity.

But nothing was more rewarding than working directly with the city, the county, and the Garcetti administration on everything—from the first ever Sustainable City pLAn with Matt Petersen and the Green New Deal with Lauren Faber-O’Connor’s team, as well as the County Sustainability Plan with Gary Gero and his team. It’s just been great to bring all of that UCLA research to bear, have it influence policy setting within the region, and move the whole megacity of Los Angeles, all 10 million people, in the direction of sustainability.

In that regard, working very closely with Supervisors Kuehl and Solis— who deserve a shout out for their leadership and vision on sustainability as well as with Measure W and stormwater—was incredibly fulfilling.

We would be remiss without noting that you also were on the Board of the Metropolitan Water District as an appointee of Mayor Garcetti.

My three years on the Metropolitan Water District board may have been the three most interesting years at Met in the past thirty years. I love the City of LA team, and I think all of the directors bring something very different to bear, and I learned a great deal from all of them—John Murray, Glen Dake, Jesus Quiñonez, and Lorraine Paskett.

For me, I played much more of a role on the water conservation and local resources issues and tried to work with and push the agency in these areas. I think we made some initial progress in disadvantaged communities that weren’t getting their fair share of conservation resources. Now, MWD is looking at stormwater as a water supply source in a serious way—potentially starting two pilot programs, and MWD has strengthened the landscape transformation conservation program.

It’s been rewarding making sure the landscape transformation program is much more effective than the first round of the $350 million that went toward breaking our addiction to water-thirsty lawns. The whole reason I joined the board when the mayor asked me was the promise of water recycling within the region. To see that the advanced treatment pilot project actually got built at the LA County Sanitation Districts’ Joint Water Pollution Control Plant and is now operating—with the potential for both Hyperion and the Joint Plant to become full water recycling plants and provide us with a local water supply for at least 1.5 million people—is just extraordinary. Hopefully we’ll see a time when MWD, the City of LA, and LA County Sanitation have integrated their systems together, so we really have a network for the region that  provides drinking-water-quality recycled water. If highly successful, this may even lead to the promise of direct potable reuse sometime in the future.

Let’s return to your new role as Deputy Secretary for Oceans and Coastal Policy and Director of the Ocean Protection Council (OPC). Given that the OPC’s Draft Strategic Plan was recently released for public review, what are likely to be your priorities this year?

This is going to be very unlike me to say something like this, but I think that despite the fact that the strategic plan is comprehensive, I can’t set priorities at this time. The OPC, working with the public, really needs to set priorities as well as milestones and metrics. The current version of the plan doesn’t have those components.

My next six months are going to be focused on making sure that happens, so that the strategic plan is much more strategic than it currently is right now. I’m meeting with all of the members of the Ocean Protection Council to really take their temperature on what the biggest priorities are and then ask the community to do the same thing. That's going to give us a lot more direction. Ask me again about our priorities at the beginning of 2020.

I do want to emphasize—in light of how much I did just talk about water—that there are plenty of water people the Department of Natural Resources, but the water I’m dealing with is salty. That doesn’t mean I won’t be asked to jump in on a couple of things, but my focus is absolutely the coast, the ocean, and my responsibilities up here in Sacramento.

Dr. Gold, with respect to your focus, what does it mean to be ‘bold’ with regard to California ocean policy?

I think there was an understanding in my interviews with the new administration that they were really more interested in appointing the person, rather than any specific issue. They really wanted me to use my background and history to try to work with the other coastal agencies, the public, and the research community and—together—come up with some bold visions for how we’re actually going to get to coastal resilience against rising tides.

There are ways to do that naturally and there are ways to do that from a more engineering and hardening standpoint. We need to be very cognizant of the differences between what you might do at a port versus what you might do in Malibu. Those are very different places. And that’s just part of the coastal resilience discussion, which is such a high priority in the state and at OPC right now. As I’ve often said, we in California have been a global leader on climate mitigation, but we really have not been the leader that we can be on adaptation and resilience. I hope to be a big part of that as well.

In the release of the Draft Strategic Policies for the Ocean Protection Council, there’s the following statement: “in addition to updated goals, objectives and actions, this plan includes several organizational changes from OPC’s previous strategic plan. Those changes are as follows: the role of science, climate change, sustainable fisheries and marine ecosystems, land-sea connection, sustainable ocean economy, and equity.” What, given the aforementioned proposed organizational changes, are you most likely to prioritize?

I think the areas in the state that can be improved upon are the Blue Economy component as well as equity. Obviously, the Coastal Commission and the State Lands Commission have spent the last year or so on the equity issue, and the Blue Economy has come up in a lot of different ways over the years. But I think those two areas are going to be critical areas for improvement.

Then there’s the issue that I have spent so much time on over the years: water quality.  I’ll make sure that water quality will continue to be a high priority.

As I stated earlier, we have such a tremendous and diverse coast with a wide variety of habitats and ecosystems and different current systems. Setting a one-size-fits-all set of priorities just does not make sense for the coast. What really matters is working with the agencies and the public on setting those priorities to make sure that they become a reality. That to me is the big challenge in front of me, the Ocean Protection Council, and the state in the year ahead. Feel free to check in with me again in a year and see how we’ve done.

Could you address the role in your work going forward of the many nonprofit entities up and down the California coast —including AltaSea, Monterey and Scripps—that are likely to be included in the work you’ll be leading at the Ocean Protection Council?

On the research side, we have a scientific advisory team and the Ocean Science Trust (OST) working with the Ocean Protection Council. One of the things that I’m going to do is start setting up meetings with each of the major research universities that do work on the coast to really share what our research needs are, what our priorities are, and learn about what they’re working on.  California’s coast would benefit greatly if even more researchers try to answer applied coastal and ocean science questions in a timely manner in order to inform coastal policy and management in California. I really want to close the enormous research gap that exists right now and use the latest scientific information to help us do a better job in managing our coasts.

I think that sort of outreach with our universities is very critical. On the Blue Economy side, you know how big a fan I am of AltaSea. One of my regrets about leaving UCLA is that I’m leaving before that project is signed, sealed, and delivered. All I can say is that I sure hope the best success possible for that project, because I think the combination of research, the Blue Economy, and public education all housed together in one place is absolutely unprecedented, extraordinary, and really the sort of leadership in the state that we need to serve as an example.

We have that on the basic research side with Scripps, MBARI, and others, and even on the applied side with people at the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project and the San Francisco Estuary Institute. But Alta Sea would be unique in combining basic research and applied research to determine the impacts of megacities on coastal resources and conditions. And multiple research institutions would be part of the effort. If the vision becomes a reality to put everything together in one place, with a Blue Economy component and a public face, it is something that will be great for the State of California.

Given that there are presently so few Southern Californians in Governor Newsom’s Cabinet, what valued perspectives will you, as someone from Southern Californian, bring to the deliberations of both CalEPA and the Natural Resources Agency?

The cabinet members who I will be working most closely with, Jared Blumenfeld and Wade Crowfoot, are very like-minded. I think it is going to be great to work with people whom I’ve had respect for, who are very open to new ideas, and who like to discuss and figure things out. I think it's a great fit in that regard.

My plan is not to be up here in Sacramento 24/7. My plan is definitely to meet with people on the coast and stay in Southern California at least one day a week for that exact reason. I think it is important that the Southern California viewpoint is actually shared with this administration as well. We have a lot to represent, but I take it very seriously that I am from Southern California and need to bring up those issues in our executive meetings moving forward.

Lastly, what benchmarks will you be looking to as the year progresses to define progress and success?

I definitely want us to finish the Strategic Plan by the end of the year. Before VerdeXchange 2020, the plan should be completely done and include milestones, goals, and metrics.

I really want the OPC and the OST to be more engaged with the research universities on ocean science, working closely with the Sea Grant system. I want to make sure we’re doing that better—finding out what’s going on and really learning from the research what we’re missing and how to best manage the tremendous marine resources that we have in the State of California.

Lastly, we need a strategy framework on coastal adaptation and resilience. Right now, the good news is that Governor Newsom’s administration has been funding more climate adaptation planning at the Office of Planning and Research (OPR), but making sure those plans on the coast fit together and are dealing with the ocean side is absolutely critical. The Coastal Commission, State Lands Commission, and the Coastal Conservancy are critical partners in this effort. Ensuring integration and consistency is something that I’d like to see occur within the next year.

"We in California have been a global leader on climate mitigation, but we really have not been the leader that we can be on adaptation and resilience."—Mark Gold