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California Is Using Open Data to Provide Key Health, Water Information

Water boards have improved their use of modern data management to change public habits on critical water issues and are hoping to do more in the future, writes Steven Moore, vice chair of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Written by Steven Moore Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A harmful algal bloom offshore of San Diego County, California. Blooms may appear in a variety of colors depending on the species of algae.With permission from Kai Schumann / NOAA

In most California homes, access to drinking water is as simple as walking into the kitchen and turning on a faucet. The State Water Resources Control Board is working to ensure that water data in California is just as easy to find with a simple click of a mouse or swipe on a mobile phone.

A report by the nationally recognized Aspen Institute notes that much of the United States lacks the data needed to sustainably manage our water supplies and pursue innovative solutions to meet our water challenges. The report, “Internet of Water: Sharing and Integrating Water Data for Sustainability,” makes key recommendations for improving the accessibility of water data and engaging the public on issues important to them, like safe drinking water and water availability.

In California, two recent examples illustrate how the state water boards have improved their use of modern data management and presentation techniques to influence public attitudes and change public habits on critical water issues. The goal of the water boards is to do more of this in the future, as recommended by the Aspen Institute.

This data-driven approach played a key role in the state’s success in conserving water during the historic five-year drought. In 2014, State Water Board staff began collecting monthly water production data from more than 400 water systems representing 90 percent of the state’s population. An easy to understand water conservation portal gave the public and media immediate access to how individual systems were doing in their efforts to meet Governor Jerry Brown’s call for a 25 percent reduction in water use. Public awareness of how their own water suppliers were performing in a statewide context helped to change behaviors. As a result, Californians cut water use by more than 24 percent during the worst 12 months of the drought.

The board is using this same approach in an important public health effort to raise awareness about harmful algae blooms. With growing frequency and severity, these blooms are occurring in lakes and reservoirs across the state, posing risks to people and animals. The water board is tracking blooms in real time using data reported by the public and verified by state agencies.

Once reports are confirmed, the board works with local health officials and the media to ensure residents who live near or use waters where harmful algae blooms have been identified are aware of the risks if they contact these toxic blooms. This initiative is highlighted by the use of an interactive online map that tracks bloom reports in real time.

A major obstacle to broader data access is fears and concerns about the consequences of sharing it. But these examples illustrate that making data more widely available and easier to understand can increase trust and encourage public participation. When the public trusts and understands the data on which water policy and funding decisions are made, they are more supportive.

The impacts of climate change and population growth will dramatically change how we interact with one of our most vital and precious resources. Our residents, not just our policy leaders, need to know more about how water reaches their homes and the challenges we face in meeting the growing demands of the future with a finite amount of water. Open data management will help us navigate that future.

The Aspen Institute report outlines a doable framework upon which all water data can flow, and invites public participation and understanding of our investments and requirements. Our recent experience with water conservation and alerting the public to the dangers of harmful algae blooms has shown that reliable data, structured in a way that makes sense to the average user, results in greater public confidence on key water decisions by the State Water Board and local water leaders.

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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