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Maven’s Notebook Taps Into the Flood of California Water Data

The website Maven’s Notebook has been a major source of California water information for years. Now Maven’s creator, Chris Austin, wants to take it one step further with a new digital library.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A photo of the California Aqueduct from one of Chris Austin’s many trips to see California water infrastructure.Chris Austin

For many people involved in California water issues, the website Maven’s Notebook has become as important a resource as the water agencies themselves. Part blog, part news aggregator, part information hub, Maven’s Notebook is a passion project by one woman, Chris Austin. Now, Austin wants to provide a whole new level of information to her readers with the launch of her California Water Library.

The library, said Austin, is a central online repository of thousands of reports and documents on water, which are produced by various state and federal agencies, think-tanks and nonprofits. Much of the information is technically publicly available, but hidden away behind poorly designed or rarely updated websites. She has already loaded 1,000 water documents, and there are many more to go.

Austin says that she hopes that her new library can be used to find that same information easily, empowering not only water experts, but also ordinary citizens, to know what is happening to their water. Her funding for Maven’s Notebook comes from the Rose Foundation and reader contributions. Her main sources of funding for the development of the water library came from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Metropolitan Water District, the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, the Department of Water Resources and Geosyntec consultants. She also received smaller amounts of funding – about $1,000 each – from various water districts across the state. But, she said that no organization has ever tried to influence the website or content, and that this money is only for the development of the website. “From here on out,” said Austin, “it is going to be donors and sponsors.”

Water Deeply spoke with Austin about her new online library, the difficulty of accessing government water information and her own decade-long obsession with California water. [Editor’s Note: Maven’s Notebook often features content from Water Deeply.]

Water Deeply: How are you grabbing all of this information for your library and how do you know your library will be complete?

Chris Austin: It will probably never be complete because there will always be stuff coming out. It’s hard to know if I am getting everything because, I have to tell you, the agency websites are not helpful.

There are pages at the agency websites that say they’re a listing of publications, but they’re [pages] that started up and never ended up being maintained. So, I just keep digging through the agency websites, digging through the [Department of Water Resources] and the State Water [Resources Control] Board, and putting those things in.

I’ve been doing this for 10 years, so I kinda know who has stuff, and I remember a lot, too. Some of these things, they are hard to find, but I know the space pretty well. Sometimes I think I know more about what’s on people’s websites than they know themselves.

Water Deeply: It sounds like this was a passion project for you. What convinced you that this was relevant, and that other people would want it as well?

Austin: Well, I am a consumer of California water information as much as I am a producer of it, and I am out there surfing around on the web. Actually, all of my websites have been me looking at the space and going “wow, nobody has ever done this.” When I did [my last blog] Aquafornia, blogs were just starting and nobody was doing it like that, like I did. It was actually really hard to get people to look at it at first. The same thing with Maven’s Notebook. I decided to start covering meetings, and I tried to pitch this to people, and I even had one person tell me “who cares what happens at those meetings and who wants to sit through them?” So, you know what, I went out and I did it. And, what do you know, people liked it.

The library is another extension of that. I think that a lot of people understand the potential of it, but I think that once they see what I’ve done with it, they’re going to see it to be a really useful and innovative tool, and hopefully something that they can’t live without.

Water Deeply: How do you think people will use the library?

Austin: It is kind of a wonky tool, in a way, and we’ll have to see how people use it. The thing is, it’s never been done before. People have never had access to the information this way, so it is going to be interesting to see how it gets applied. There are so many different agencies, and so many documents in so many websites sitting out there – the idea that you could go to a region page and then get all of the plans that are active in that region … there is no place right now that you can do that. Here’s you basin plans, here’s you species recovery plans, here they all are in one place.

The real centerpiece is the “browse by region,” which is an interactive map of California with the Colorado River Basin added on. So, you click on a hydrologic region and you’ll get reports that relate to that region, and those reports could be groundwater reports or water-quality control plans, species recovery plans that are for species in that watershed. There’s a lot of different ways to go at the data.

Water Deeply: You have been writing about and researching California water for about 10 years now. How did you get into California water in the first place?

Austin: I had just started writing for a local paper – back in 2007. I wrote an article on water and I just got hooked.

At the same time, my parents live in Reno and the road up to Reno, where I take my kids up to grandma’s house, parallels the Los Angeles Aqueduct. I had read “Cadillac Desert,” and so I got really interested in the L.A. Aqueduct. It became our family pastime. We would look at things on Google Earth and figure out how we could get to that piece of infrastructure and take the van and the kids, and off we’d go. And then we expanded outside of the L.A. Aqueduct – we went and saw the Salton Sea and the Colorado River. Years later, my kids would come home from school and say “mom, did you know that some families actually get to go to Disney World for vacation?” I told them, oh no, it’s much more fun to go see water infrastructure.

Water Deeply: What is next for Maven’s Notebook?

Austin: I’m never done with my website. I’m not done with Maven’s Notebook, I’m not done with the library. I have all sorts of plans to keep going. Expect things to keep moving.

The next thing will be to rebuild Maven’s Notebook with added features for members and sponsors, and then to take that data from Maven’s Notebook and from the library, and pull it into some kind of dashboard for people – so you can have your favorites there and maybe things you’ve saved and whatever else.

Water Deeply: The library was part of Maven’s Notebook, but you gave it a separate website. Why?

Austin: I anticipate, I hope, to pass this [library] on when I stop doing the Notebook, and I didn’t want anybody to have to dig it out of an existing website. I have given it its permanent home, and everything is set up on that site, because that is the site that should live on.

The idea is to create a turn-key website for the next person who will succeed me. It should have funding set up, a donor system all managed, they will just have to maintain it. Everyone talks about legacies; the Water Library is going to be my legacy to the water community.

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