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Three Ways California Can Transform Its Water Data

California faces challenges produced by inaccuracies and nonstandardization of water data. Recent legislation will help fix some of the problems, but more can be done, writes Mark Ziman of Ponderosa Advisors.

Written by Mark Ziman Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Anaheim Lake in Anaheim, Calif., is one of Orange County Water District’s groundwater recharge basins. As California focuses on sustainable groundwater, it needs to further refine its water data management.Florence Low/California Department of Water Resources

Without adequate record keeping, comprehensive management is impossible. California is facing a critical impasse where water management is in danger of a deadlock from a stifling lack of reliable and accessible information.

While water supply once transformed open spaces into teeming cities and bountiful farmland, it now fails to meet increasing demands. Californians are actively working to improve their water infrastructure and managerial practices; however, they are combating yet another bottleneck for effective management – a broken data system.

Limited budgets and staff, compounded with ambiguous priorities, have crippled California’s water data management system. The detrimental consequences are systemwide; nondigitized records, data errors, disparate sources and duplicate records are rampant across data sets. For example, at least 10 percent of the state’s 50,000 water rights are found only in paper-filled warehouses. The majority of well records have only an approximate documented location. Additionally, the state’s 700,000 well records are administered across a hodgepodge of programs and stored in seven semi-duplicative databases.

The seven partially overlapping groundwater well data sources. (Ponderosa Advisors)

Analyses are only as good as the inputs; with nonstandardized data like this, comprehensive assessments are at risk of being flawed. For Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) compliance, it is required that Groundwater Sustainability Plans be drafted with respect to groundwater usage. Local stakeholders, groundwater sustainability agencies and the Department of Water Resources must know how much water is extracted across a basin. Furthermore, they must have enough measurement sites across the basin to monitor groundwater levels with reasonable accuracy. These assessments require expending valuable time integrating and cleaning fragmented data or risk errors of omission (or commission).

New Legislation, New Challenges?

The data challenges produced by inaccuracies and nonstandardization are not the intentional fault of any individual; rather, they’re the natural consequences of an increasingly outdated system.

Fortunately, recent legislation has started addressing California’s data management. The Open and Transparent Water Data Act (Assembly Bill 1755) requires the development of a water data system for public, online use.

While the law is a step in the right direction, it is unfunded. This major shortcoming will impede the measure’s ability to solve California’s water data problems.

Compared to traditional water infrastructure projects ($16 billion for Delta tunnels or $275 million for Oroville Dam repairs), data systems are a cheap way to improve water management.

The Way Forward

To develop an effective water data management system, California must act with strategy and commitment, not wishful thinking and quick fixes.

1. Invest in data quality. The state must be the authority and steward of water data to ensure the accessibility of high-quality information. Funding must be appropriated for the digitization of all records, quality assurance of existing data and setup of robust data policies for long-term management.

2. Create a comprehensive software solution to help manage SGMA. Once SGMA is implemented, hundreds of local agencies will consistently report groundwater, land subsidence and water quality data to the state. To streamline this flow of data, the state should utilize a ubiquitous software management system, which effectively enables the transfer of standardized information. Although this would require upfront costs, it would provide long-term time savings and produce actionable insights for state and local agencies.

3. Look to the private sector for effective water data applications. Contracting this task to the private sector opens the door to creative approaches without risking government funding. Because of restrictive budgets, the government should focus on water data quality and allow the private sector to produce innovative water data applications. In this model, the private sector assumes the risk of producing high-performing products, bolstered by a successful track record of software that can (and must) adapt to evolving user needs.

Problems can be solved only by attacking the root cause, not by treating the symptoms. Now is the time to find a better, functional way to organize and provide access to water data in California.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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