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Want to Fix California’s Water Data Problems? Get to the Root Causes

Don’t blame a lack of legislation or money, says Jay Lund, director of the U.C. Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, the state’s water data problems go much deeper.

Written by Jay Lund Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Glen Gordon, engineering geologist with the California Department of Water Resources, measures the water depth at specific agricultural wells in Colusa County on March 17, 2016.Kelly M. Grow / California Department of Water Resources

In 2016, California’s legislature passed AB 1755, the Open and Transparent Water Data Act, requiring that state agencies provide water data online, including existing datasets, with open-data protocols for data sharing, transparency, documentation and quality control. That any legislative body, composed mostly of lawyers, would show interest in the wonkish topic of data and pass legislation on data management, is a testament to the failures of state agencies on the subject. (Imagine state engineers suggesting changes in legislative rules.)

Efforts are now underway in diverse government agencies and other organizations to make water data available, accessible, and perhaps even organized and better explained. Alas, if experience is a guide, most improvements from these efforts will be marginal, as they do not address the cause of California’s water data malaise.

Disorganized data is a symptom of disorganized technical work. California has many agencies and programs involved in water management and regulation, particularly its Department of Water Resources, State Water Resource Control Boards and Department of Fish and Wildlife. Each agency has some excellent employees and the state supports some exemplary data and technical resources, particularly regarding floods, often in collaboration with other agencies. But most of the state’s overall water-related scientific and technical activities are notoriously splintered across programs with independent legal mandates, funding sources and lines of management, and overall leadership to serve the common good. Addressing the root disorganization of the state’s technical efforts on water management and regulation is needed for long-term data success.

Fragmentation of the state’s technical activities also has other problems. The many water accounting systems now hinder development of the common water accounting needed for groundwater recharge and management, water rights enforcement, environmental water management and water markets. The splintering of water quality and quantity data collection obscures insights needed for more effective management and hinders quality control within and across agencies.

Water data problems will likely worsen, particularly if unaddressed. More data are being collected. As prices for collecting data decrease, we collect much more. Without organization, more data can add confusion. The cost and controversies of making sense and developing insights from data is increasing. Without synthesis, each side chooses the data and interpretations it wishes for.

Data will always be frustrating, even if we manage it well. Good management and use of data will reveal sometimes unwanted insights and unrealized gaps and needs. Good data management also raises demands for new analysis and quality control. The more we know, the more we want to know and make sure of. This is a price of progress.

California’s water challenges are leading to a more integrated water management, which needs to be supported by more integrated technical programs across the many state agencies and programs. Implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will be excruciating for water users and all agencies without a common water accounting framework and common technical information (including recognized models and data). The effectiveness of environmental flows will continue to be clouded and undermined without coordinated data collection, management and analysis. And water rights will be less secure, less marketable, and often unenforceable without more solid water accounting.

The problem is not lack of legislation or even (mostly) lack of money. Local and regional water agencies already collect and manage immense amounts of water data, which can better contribute to a common understanding of California’s water. State agencies need a more common scientific and technical program for water management and regulation, providing common support across agency boundaries.

Rachel Ehlers, principal analyst for the Legislative Analyst’s Office, records data during a snow survey at Phillips Station in California on March 1, 2016. (Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources)

The progress report on California Department of Water Resources’ (DWR’s) implementation of Assembly Bill 1755 contains many good things and is a step in the right direction. However, these steps will not progress far or fast without a broader and more profound vision for more effective state technical water work, across agencies, extending well beyond DWR. Integrated water management requires integrated scientific and technical work across the many state, local and federal water data and technical efforts.

A few specific thoughts on the document:

  1. Funding for data management is as fundamental as funding personnel and personnel records, and should be part of every agency’s financial plan. That the report seeks separate funding for data management misses how fundamental data management is for the success of the state’s water management enterprise.
  2. A test bed and use cases are important, but it is also important not to stake too much on the success of the details of this narrow effort. Technology development often outstrips state software development. Technological progress in this field can be both an opportunity (if we are prepared for it) and a problem (if we are not). This is a rapidly changing field.
  3. A “federated” approach to water data is needed. The state’s most successful data and technical efforts are usually joint efforts across state and federal agencies, such as the California Nevada River Forecast Center (CNRFC), or joint efforts across state, federal and local agencies for data collection. To be effective and not bog down in bureaucracy, a federated approach will need consistent accountability, motivation and resources. The most effective water data management efforts (California Data Exchange Center and CNRFC) are motivated by flood problems, which must respond quickly to serve a wide range of users or create violent consequences.
  4. An improved institutional setting for data management might support improved technical information and coordination overall. Each state agency might develop a routine data management policy for its major functions, so that these data and functions might be more transparent and more easily coordinated across agencies.
  5. In data management, the best can be the enemy of the good. Trying to address too many issues too soon usually leads to collapse. Success will be frustratingly slow.
  6. One activity that would provide immediate and lasting service to all state and local agencies, as well as the public, would be online archiving of all reports done by or for state agencies. Maven’s water library is a prototype of such a system. The University of California library system is another suitable steward for such a system. Any state project or decision process could archive analyses and reports with an automated system where agency staff and consultants could enter, catalog, upload and archive documents into the library. State agencies and programs often place documents on the web, but these can quickly become a dystopia of broken links.

The Department of Water Resources is accepting comments on its Progress Report – Implementing the Open and Transparent Water Data Act with Initial Draft Strategic Plan and Preliminary Protocols until March 30, 2018.

This story first appeared on California Water Blog, published by the University of California, Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

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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