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Felicia Marcus: California’s Drought Lessons

As chair of California’s Water Resources Control Board, Felicia Marcus has her hand in water rights, drinking water programs and conservation regulations, among other things. She recently talked to Water Deeply about her experiences helping to manage water resources during California’s drought.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
Sierra nevada snowpack 56ea94dd6571b

During a week of stormy March weather Felicia Marcus went through three umbrellas, thanks to the wind and rain. “I was thrilled,” she said of the weather. “I have to revel in every drop.”

Her enthusiasm comes with her job. Marcus joined the State Water Resources Control Board in July 2012 and became its chair in April 2013. One of the hardest jobs in the state, her task has been made more difficult with the drought in full swing for her entire tenure thus far.

There are at least a half dozen agencies in California that have a hand in managing the state’s water resources, but the role of the Water Board is one of the most crucial. It includes implementing the water rights system, managing the clean water program (this includes storm water quality regulations, wetland protection, agricultural runoff and protecting groundwater), managing the drinking water program, running a financial assistance program of grants and loans to help communities provide safe drinking water and, more recently, setting urban water conservation regulations.

Marcus recently spoke to Water Deeply about what the future holds for California’s water, the hardest part of her job and the one issue she wishes the legislature would address.

Water Deeply: You’ve been chair of the Water Board during this drought, what’s been the biggest challenge?

Felicia Marcus: The hardest thing is dealing with the pain of the people who are affected significantly by the drought, whether it is small communities in the Central Valley that are running out of water because their groundwater reserves have run dry or because they are junior water rights holders whose water has been cut off, and that includes farmers and community members.

It’s very painful and it’s also painful to see the incredible harm to fish and wildlife who suffer mightily in the drought. As somebody said, “they can’t pump groundwater.” They are just getting hammered and it brings out the tensions where people feel that we are choosing fish over people. In fact we’re slashing fish flows as well trying to deal with cuts to people. It’s just being in the middle of an awful set of choices. And trying to figure out how to use the tools we have to balance things a little bit.

Water Deeply: Is there enough water even in a good year for everyone that has a claim to it?

Felicia Marcus: Well, yes, sure. That’s what water rights systems were set up for, at least the seniority based system that we have in the arid west. It’s a method for allocating water in shortages because we have such variable swings [in rainfall].

Our whole system is predicated on the fact that we had wide swings. Some years there is not very much [water] and people adapt and if they don’t have senior water rights, sometimes they buy them or they plant different things they can fallow.

There are arguments that the science supports that we’ve diverted too much water from the ecosystem in many places to survive. We certainly have huge fights when we try to redirect even some of that water back to nature. Those are the crises of our normal years.

Do we have enough? Absolutely, we just have to figure out how to use it more efficiently and over and over again as often as we can. It’s doable. It costs money but it is doable.

Water Deeply: What about the future outlook?

Felicia Marcus: Actually for the foreseeable future, particularly in our urban areas, we definitely do have enough if we become more efficient in our landscapes and we use less water in our appliances and with the boom in recycling and stormwater plants and projects.

If we do all the things we have on deck we have enough for a long time to come, which we need because with climate change we know we will lose our snowpack because a few degrees’ increase in temperature means more of it is going to fall into rain than snow. And we’ll have a pinch more often between these competing forces because the snowpack makes up a third of our storage.

We have a great variance not only in how much rain and snow we get in any given year but also where most of it falls is not where most of it is used, and it doesn’t fall in the time of year when the greatest use is – in the summer.

For us, summers are always dry so we have to have storage of all kinds – above ground and below. But the snowpack is our biggest single source of storage. There is a crisis coming that we had just a taste of last year when we had the worst snowpack in 500 years, which is what made the drought impact just so great. We are on fire to use conservation, recycling, stormwater, groundwater management and storage to prepare ourselves for what is coming down the track.

Water Deeply: What lessons do you think we’ve learned from the drought?

Felicia Marcus: We’ve learned, particularly in urban California, how much water we use outdoors. We targeted outdoor landscaping because we knew on average urban California uses half of its water outdoors on ornamental landscapes that don’t need that water to survive. We are spending enormous amounts of our precious, highly treated, drinking water quality water to trick our lawns into thinking they’re in Scotland when we are in a Mediterranean climate where natural grasses go brown in the summer.

When agencies and the state have put out rebates to help cover the cost of changing out a lawn with drought-tolerant landscaping, they have been snapped up in weeks. Southern California agencies put out more than half a billion dollars in lawn transition rebates.

We’ve seen the public’s attitude toward recycled water change dramatically. You have a lot of agencies on hyper drive to get projects going and that’s a really huge watershed moment.

And you have these incredible plans in places like L.A. to dig up concrete in the city and get water into their groundwater basin as opposed to letting it go out to sea all the time in a way that is going to yield transformative benefits for L.A. and other communities.

Water Deeply: What about outside of cities?

Felicia Marcus: In agricultural areas, I think people have seen some of the values of incredibly efficient irrigation methods. Agriculture is a little different because one person’s flood irrigation is another’s groundwater recharge but I think folks are going for grant funds to put in drip irrigation and moisture sensors and telemetry as quickly as they can afford it.

I also think we realized how precious our groundwater basins are because if it weren’t for our groundwater basins, particularly in the Central Valley, the impacts of the drought would be 10 times as bad. But people are also aware that they have to rebuild that bank account even though we got historical groundwater legislation passed in 2014.

I also think the approach [Gov. Jerry Brown’s] administration started taking before the drought with our water action plan, as opposed to arguing about which one thing will solve California’s problems, we looked at the Mack truck of climate change coming at us and the loss snowpack, we decided we have to do them all.

We insisted on all of the above – dealing with ecosystems, dealing with conservation, dealing with recycling, stormwater, desalination in the appropriate circumstances, storage of all kinds, managing groundwater – all the things that had been sacred cows or things people argued which one is better. By putting them all on deck and saying as an administration we’re going for all it, because that’s what California needs, we got people to be for something and we got the $7.5 billion water bond passed, which is giving us a down payment on getting it done.

We’ve changed the dynamic in California water substantially.

Water Deeply: There has definitely been a lot accomplished in the last few years, but do you think there is any legislation we still need?

Felicia Marcus: We’ve gotten a lot done on information in particular in terms of trying to get some rigor in the withdrawals of water from water courses. This is an area we were behind all the western states. We finally got authority to do metering and measuring regulations for all water diversions and the like, and we’ve gotten legislation and staffing to deal with issues from fracking to marijuana cultivation and other things.

I think the biggest challenge for us, and I don’t have a set idea of what the solution is, is that we need to make a decision as a state that we are going to help subsidize poor people’s access to safe drinking water.

Even though we got a half billion dollars in the bond for capital projects, these are communities through no fault of their own, who will never have the financial wherewithal to develop modern treatment systems to deal with the contaminants that cost a lot to treat, whether it’s arsenic, perchlorate, nitrate or whatever. So that’s the big one that is hanging that we need the legislature to make a decision on.

Water Deeply: The Water Board recently passed a resolution on the human right to water in California. How does that improve or differ from the law passed a few years ago?

Felicia Marcus: The law that was passed set the policy goal that agencies would consider the human right to water in pretty much all that we do – it’s at the heart of what we do and we prioritize it. The reason for the resolution at the board level was to make clear to our staff that it is the priority of the board to focus on that.

Ironically, the drought has given us tools to help communities that we didn’t have with them simply drinking lousy water. If you have contaminated wells in a large urban area it wasn’t a big deal because the area can afford to treat it – treating stuff isn’t rocket science, it’s just the application of energy and money and equipment. But if you’re in a small community that doesn’t have those resources or doesn’t even have an organized water agency, it’s another story.

Because of the drought, some of those people were out of water and the legislature gave us the ability to work with the Department of Water Resources and the Office of Emergency Services to be able to help deliver water to communities that we might not have been able to before.

Top image: The drought-stricken Washoe Lake is seen below the peak Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, in a view from atop Mount Rose, Nev. Mount Rose is part of the Sierra Nevada range which provides a large part of the water for California and Nevada. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is showing signs of recovery following a series of winter storms. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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