As we fix California water system, also fix data system

February 13, 2017

Few people realize how outdated our systems for water information are. Because of data limitations, real-time, transparent decisions about drought management, flood response and groundwater protection have eluded the state for the past century. Without basic numbers on where, when and how much water is available and being used, we can’t improve how we manage our most precious water and natural resources.

 

A proposed new law, the Open and Transparent Water Data Act – Assembly Bill 1755 – could coordinate and integrate existing data. Paired with the vision of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, AB1755 could foster entrepreneurship, innovation and scientific discovery. But the long-term opportunity is even greater: AB1755 could help move water and natural resource management in California from sticky notes and push pins to the smart data tools of the 21st century.

 

However, the law could easily fail. Shaky funding and an aggressive timeline present challenges. The Department of Water Resources is tasked with designing a new information system, creating data protocols and convening other agencies to pool data. If DWR and its agency partners lack the necessary resources, and strong internal motivation, to carefully implement the data system while keeping the ultimate goal of long-term data-driven decisions front and center, AB1755 could come to naught.

 

The state could learn from previous efforts as it seeks to modernize California’s water data. We suggest four guiding principles:

First, data and information are only as good as their usefulness for decisions. A good water information system will be useable by numerous agencies and stakeholders, each for its own purposes. An effective data system that meets the needs of varied users will require developing a clear vision up front.

 

The state needs to start by systematically defining the purpose of a broader data system and anchor it to decisions about water management. A simple mantra can guide these explorations: who needs what data, in what form, for what decisions?

 

Second, take the long view. Time and again, a lack of data stymies research and decision-making. Short-term localism becomes the norm, while large-scale changes such as climate and land use beg new knowledge and system-level guidance. A data system will only have longevity with proper annotation, strong quality control and coordination among its users.

 

Third, apply careful thinking on a short time line. The timeline for AB1755 matches that of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which means establishing protocols for a complex data system by 2018. Such coordination is excellent in concept. But building the system that quickly will not be easy – haste could lead to cutting corners and the downfall of a well-intentioned product. To expedite design, the state should continue to harness the capacity of independent third parties – such as its universities – to convene stakeholders and co-produce robust protocols.

 

Fourth, develop funding and business plans. If California is to become a leader in environmental data and water management, the Legislature needs to appropriate funds to the Water Data Administration Fund while other revenue sources are assessed and developed. In the midst of wholesale water-management changes, droughts and flooding, state agencies cannot be expected to provide another service without new funding.

 

AB1755 provides an opportunity to advance water information systems and fix real problems for water managers, water users and the environment. The law could – if properly funded and supported – support accountability for the major investments made by taxpayers during the drought, including Proposition 1’s $2.7 billion in storage improvement projects.

 

California has the resources and ability to produce a truly transformative water data system for the benefit of the economy and the environment. But without careful planning and aggressive action, it could easily end up as an obscure website that does not help effect real advances in management.