California Water Quality Monitoring Council: Toward an Integrated Monitoring and Assessment Framework

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Monitoring and assessment are crucial to environmental decision making by helping managers track the outcomes of their management actions. However, in order to produce meaningful data, a wide range of data types are needed to be captured and then aggregated into indicators that are useful to environmental managers.

Although there have been requirements on the books for decades to monitor the results and ultimate environmental outcomes of management and administrative actions, in practice even those monitoring activities that are extensive and coordinated are not yet sufficiently integrated with other monitoring efforts. As a remedy to address these types of challenges, the legislature established the California Water Quality Monitoring Council in 2006 and charged it with formulating recommendations for improvements to the Secretaries of Cal EPA and the California Natural Resources Agency.

The Delta Science Plan also contains recommendations to support and sustain a web-based information system for monitoring activities in the Delta and the watershed, and to integrate and improve monitoring programs based on a comprehensive Delta monitoring strategy.

Rainer Hoenicke, Deputy Executive Officer of the Delta Science Division, opened up the agenda item with a brief discussion of why monitoring occurs, what the data and information is used for, and what the current state of monitoring is in the Delta.

DSC Hoenicke 2There are essentially two types of monitoring activities, and both need to go hand in hand if we ever want to make adaptive management operational,” said Rainer Hoenicke. “The first type is compliance monitoring and it relates to tracking the management actions undertaken to reduce identified stressors on the ecosystem. The second type is effectiveness monitoring, and it relates to testing our conceptual models and our anticipated outcomes so we can make course corrections if the monitoring results suggests that our expectations were wrong. It’s part of learning.”

This all sounds pretty simple in theory, but in practice, it’s often tricky to find the appropriate indicators that can tell you something about the performance of our management actions, such as what data should be collected that can give you a decent representation of environmental condition over time, and how do you scale project data up to determine if the goals outlined in the habitat conservation plan or a beneficial use protection plans or a county’s general plan are being achieved.”

He gave an example of a policy in a general plan that says there should not be any net increase in imperviousness in groundwater recharge areas. “How do you monitor the effectiveness of this policy? What is the desired end point, what natural variability affects your measurements, what indicates success, and what management actions are required to implement this, and then also what actions are more effective than others?

Outcome PyramidMr. Hoenicke said that these types of overarching big questions can be answered through designing monitoring efforts in the right way, and he presented a pyramid diagram. “These are the different kind of steps that need to go into the thinking about monitoring programs, from documenting compliance and activities all the way up to how conditions are improving,” he said. “All of this has to fit together. You have to have data in every single one of these levels.”

He then turned the floor over to Jon Marshack, the Executive Director of the California Water Quality Monitoring Council.

The California Water Quality Monitoring Council: Increasing Efficiency & Effectiveness Through Collaboration

Item_10_Attach_2_Marshack_Presentation_Page_02Many local, state, and federal agencies, regulated entities and hundreds of water bond grant recipients spend millions of dollars each year collecting water quality and aquatic ecosystem data around California,” began Jon Marshack.said. “These data must be turned into usable information to help decision makers and stakeholders understand the status of our waters and aquatic ecosystems, public health and welfare issues related to water quality, and the effectiveness of agency programs to manage our water resources.”

But California’s system of water quality and ecosystem information needs improvement. There are inconsistent monitoring objectives and methods to collect and assess the data. Often it’s not possible to bring data together from different studies and integrate them into a whole piece of information, and there’s no single user-friendly place to access these data.”

Item_10_Attach_2_Marshack_Presentation_Page_04In response, SB 1070 was signed into law in 2006 requiring formation of the California Water Quality Monitoring Council. The legislation required that the monitoring council report its recommendations for maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of existing water quality and associated ecosystem data health collection and dissemination, and for insuring that collected data are made available for use by decision makers and the public via the internet. These recommendations were further refined in a comprehensive monitoring program strategy for California which the Council published in December of 2010. Members of the monitoring council represent a diversity of interests, including state regulatory resource management and public health agencies, regulated stormwater, wastewater and agricultural interests, water suppliers, citizen monitoring groups, the scientific community, and the public.”

Item_10_Attach_2_Marshack_Presentation_Page_05The monitoring council believes that the best way to coordinate and enhance California’s monitoring assessment and reporting efforts is to focus first on delivering data and information that directly address user’s questions,” Mr. Marshack continued. “Theme specific workgroups under the overarching guidance of the monitoring council evaluate existing monitoring assessment and reporting efforts and work to enhance those efforts to improve the delivery of information to the user in the form of theme-based internet portals. They develop monitoring and assessment methods and data management procedures according to performance measures defined by the monitoring council. The workgroups are staffed by issue experts representing key stakeholders from both inside and outside state government that develop a web portal devoted to their specific theme. This provides the context needed to effectively evaluate and then resolve monitoring design, coordination, and access problems.”

Item_10_Attach_2_Marshack_Presentation_Page_08The Council’s enabling legislation requires that the secretaries of California environmental protection and natural resources agency conduct a triennial audit of the effectiveness of the comprehensive monitoring program strategy published at the end of 2010; the time for that audit is now. Because they are on the front lines of implementing the Council’s strategy, each monitoring council workgroup was asked to review their progress towards improving monitoring, assessment and reporting, evaluating their achievements against six performance measures using grading benchmarks contained within the monitoring council’s strategy. The resulting documentation has been summarized and shared with the monitoring council.”

The results of the audit can be broken down into four areas: Our goals and the achievements made towards reaching those goals, the challenges we face, and where we go from here. Based on these findings, the audit will make specific recommendations to the secretaries of Cal EPA and the Natural Resources Agency and to the legislature.”

Goal #1 Collaboration

Our first goal is to make California’s monitoring system more efficient and effective through improved coordination among governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations,” Mr. Mashack said. “This includes identifying and filling data gaps, minimizing redundancies in monitoring efforts, ensuring that quality control measures are in place so that data are usable – or in other words of known and documented quality, and enabling multiple data sources to be combined for broader assessments than were possible before.”

Item_10_Attach_2_Marshack_Presentation_Page_10The California Water Quality Monitoring Council has formed six theme-specific workgroups to coordinate monitoring, assessment, and reporting: Safe Drinking Water Workgroup, Safe to Swim Workgroup, Safe to Eat Fish and Shellfish (Bioaccumulation Oversight), Wetland Monitoring Workgroup, Healthy Streams Partnership, Estuary Monitoring Workgroup. A seventh workgroup for ocean and costal ecosystems is being formed. Mr. Marshack noted that program staff from numerous agencies and NGOs are involved in the workgroups.

The water quality council also formed the Water Quality Monitoring Collaboration Network, which provides regular web-based seminars, fosters information exchange, and encourages broader use of sound methods and tools for monitoring assessment and reporting and data management. The water council also formed a Data Management Workgroup to provide recommendations for data management, increased data access, geospatial information, and web development.

Through increased coordination, our workgroups have developed consistent monitoring assessment and reporting methods and data management tools,” Mr. Marshack said. “Through a state and federal partnership, the California Wetland Monitoring Workgroup has developed a state wetland and riparian area monitoring plan based on a framework from USEPA. This plan includes the California Rapid Assessment Method, or CRAM, a rapid wetland condition assessment method, and consistent procedures for defining, mapping, and classifying wetland habitats.”

Enhanced data management and visualization tools include the California Environmental Data Exchange Network or CEDEN, EcoAtlas, and tools used by the Estuary Monitoring Workgroup to bring reports, data, maps, and graphics together to tell stories about the San Francisco Bay Delta estuary. The California Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program or SWAMP has developed and is broadening the use of scientifically validated monitoring and assessment tools, protocols, water quality assurance practices, and data quality documentation procedures to make sure the data are both usable and accessible.”

Goal #2: Access to information

Our second goal is to improve access for decision makers and the public to meaningful water quality assured monitoring data and assessment information,” he said. “These goals include designing monitoring and assessment efforts to address specific management questions, turning monitoring data into meaningful information, and making the resulting data and information readily accessible.”

Item_10_Attach_2_Marshack_Presentation_Page_16Toward this goal, the monitoring council workgroups have publicly released six question based, easy to use web portals. Each portal brings together data and information to address questions commonly posed by decision makers and the public: Is it safe to swim our waters? Is it safe to eat fish and shellfish from our waters? Are our aquatic ecosystems healthy? A seventh portal focused on the question, Is our water safe to drink? is in the works. The ‘My Water Quality’ homepage provides a single point of access to all of these web portals.”

Item_10_Attach_2_Marshack_Presentation_Page_17The Aquatic Ecosystem Health area of the website provides access to portals focused on specific water body types including wetlands, estuaries, streams and rivers, and ocean and coastal waters,” he said. “The California Wetland Monitoring Workgroup is generating data and developing standard procedures being used by the State Water Resources Control Board to help develop a new wetland and riparian area protection policy for the state. Supported by USEPA’s healthy watersheds initiative, the monitoring council’s Healthy Streams Partnership guided the development of our first statewide multi-metric assessment of watershed health throughout California and the results of that assessment will be incorporated into the workgroup’s healthy streams portal.

Goal #3: Track projects effectiveness

A third key goal of the legislation is to ensure that those water quality improvement projects financed by the state provide specific information necessary to track their effectiveness with regard to achieving clean water and healthy ecosystems,” he said. “We hope to begin addressing this goal in the near future. Aquatic habitat restoration projects will be included within this task.”


Implementing the monitoring council’s comprehensive monitoring strategy for California involves substantial challenges,” he said. “First the legislation that required the formation of the monitoring council came with no dedicated funding. But resources are needed to initiate and sustain collaboration, including staff time to attend workgroup meetings and to coordinate monitoring efforts of the various agencies and organizations involved. Resources are also needed to break down the data silos within existing agencies and programs to develop and maintain the My Water Quality web portals, and to make those data available to all. As an outgrowth of the triennial audit, each workgroup will develop a business plan to get a precise handle on these resources needs.”

DSC Marshack 2While the enabling legislation required the monitoring council to develop the comprehensive monitoring program strategy and to send that to the agency’s secretaries, formal endorsement by the secretaries has never been provided, even after numerous requests from the monitoring council,” said Mr. Marshack. “As a result, implementation has been uneven and largely from the bottom up by volunteer efforts. Without leadership from upper management, the council’s collaborative workgroups have had inconsistent leadership and uneven participation from the organizations involved. Many of the tools developed by the workgroups currently have no agency home making their long-term maintenance uncertain. By relying largely on voluntary participation and outreach efforts, many agency personnel are still unaware of the workgroups and their tools that could improve their monitoring and assessment performance.”

Even with these substantial challenges, California’s monitoring council is determined to keep moving forward,” he said. “We plan to build support through increased outreach to agency and program managers within the upcoming years. Each workgroup will identify mandates of governmental agencies that can be addressed more effectively through their collaborative processes, tools, and web portals,. Outreach to agency managers will use this information to build increased support for the program.”

Click here to visit the California Water Quality Monitoring Council online.

Business plans will be developed to identify each workgroup’s actions, necessary resources, and potential funding sources that would ensure sustainability into the future. The monitoring council’s data management workgroup is working to develop recommendations for effectively sharing water resource information between agencies and with other data providers and users. This will directly support implementation of the soon to be released environmental data summit white paper recommendations.”

Looking back over the last 8 years, California’s Water Quality Monitoring Council has made amazing progress on a shoestring budget and largely through voluntary efforts, and we will continue to make progress into the future,” said Mr. Marshack. “To be truly successful, the monitoring council’s collaborative workgroup and portal development efforts must be blended into the normal way of doing business of numerous governmental organizations, both state and federal. Both management support and dedicated funding will be needed to make this happen.”

I thank you …

Discussion period

Council woman Susan Tatayon asks how the portals work, using the safe to eat fish and shellfish portal as an example.

Jon Marshack described the process. “When you look at the safe to eat fish and shellfish portal, you open it and portal navigation is based on questions that the public would have and the questions agency managers would have, such as, is it safe to eat fish and shellfish from my local waters? A member of the public may have that question. … So the first thing that the portal provides you is a map. On that map are highlighted any water body where the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment within Cal EPA has developed safe eating guidelines for fish from that water body. You click on the water body that’s highlighted, and up comes a pictogram that’s in columns, one meal per week, two meals per week, no meals per week, and identifies the fish involved in each of those categories by pictures of them, so even with someone who is challenged with the English language can understand what is meant by the safe eating guidelines.”

Click here to visit the MyWaterQuality web portal.

Then let’s say someone working for DWR or SWRCB wants to see the underlying data. They then turn to another portal page that allows them direct access to the data, the concentrations of mercury, legacy pesticides, PCBs, in fish that people eat, mainly sportfish is what we’re looking at so far. And these samples have been taken from California’s lakes and reservoirs, streams and rivers, the Delta, and our coastal waters, so you can actually highlight a water body and bring up actual monitoring concentrations. What is the concentration of mercury in shad, in striped bass, in trout, or in salmon from this particular water body. Then you can also make comparisons. Is the concentration of mercury in this water body the same or different than in an upstream water body or one nearby? All of that information is made available.”

In addition, there’s information about where the mercury came from, so there’s an explanation on another page of the portal about legacy mining, aerial deposition from our burning of fossil fuels around the world and other sources of mercury pollution, as well as pollution of pesticides, PCBs, and other bioaccumulated pollutants. There’s also information the public can use on how to reduce their risk of exposure to these pollutants and the health effects that they might cause, and where they can get more information. There’s information on how the public can get involved in some of the monitoring efforts, perhaps through joining a volunteer monitoring group that would be collecting samples that could help the agencies get data in a more cost effective manner.”

DSC HoenickeRegarding aquatic weeds, Mr. Hoenicke added, “that’s one of those areas where there are remaining challenges. When we click on the portal, Is the Ecosystem Healthy?, there is not yet information on there that shows the distribution and abundance of these aquatic weeds, so there are data groups and data types that need to be added to the portal. … that’s one example of data gaps that the monitoring council is still struggling with. We want to build out these portals and the science program will be participating in that to cover all of these ecosystem stressors and hopefully address all of those services that we eventually want to track.”

Jon Marshack said that the Council also feels it’s important to look at the different factors from multiple perspectives because different agencies with different authorities may look at the problem in a slightly different way. “The portals do embrace that concept and provide descriptions of these various stressors and other various ecosystem health and water quality information from multiple perspectives … Also can we roll that information up into a letter grade? Can we distill the information so the average citizen can understand that this water body gets an A, that other one gets a C … based on certain water quality parameter or by rolling multiple parameters together. That’s what we’re striving for.

Mr. Marshack was asked about cost. “That’s a little difficult in that all of the efforts that have happened so far have been through voluntarily piecing together little pots of money from a variety of sources,” he said. “For example, the first three portals that were produced cost roughly $50,000 to $75,000 to get off the ground and the maintenance cost on each of them has been roughly $25K per year. To add significant new data and features to a portal can cost as much as launching a new portal itself, depending on the complexity of first of all getting access to the data, bringing the data into a usable format, and then displaying it in a meaningful way on the portal, so all the different processes of data interpretation, analysis, data visualization need to be brought to bear …

DSC MarshackHe said that the workgroups have been applying for grant funds and have been fairly successful. The State Water Resources Control Board has kicked in unspent grant monies from time to time, such as monies returned by grant recipients not fully spent. “It’s a matter of finding little pots of money here and there and trying to put it together in a meaningful way,” he said. “But definitely having a dedicated funding source over the long term would make it much easier.

There are two problems: You don’t have enough money, and the state and other agency officials don’t take you seriously, if you can allow me to summarize,” said Vice Chair Phil Isenberg. “Why don’t they take you seriously?

Probably because they are not fully aware of the monitoring council’s strategy,” said Mr. Marshack. “The monitoring council published its strategy in 2010 but there’s only 1.5 staff to do the outreach that is necessary. I have to say that those agency managers that I have briefed in the way I just briefed you have fully embraced the concept, and in most cases, have been willing to free up a little bit of staff time to enhance some of the existing workgroup efforts.”

It’s not just state agencies,” Mr. Marshack continued. “For example, SFCWA, after being briefed, brought in resources to entirely fund on their cost the estuary portal development effort. They hired their own IT consultants, GIS web development, and data visualization to take the data that the workgroup is putting together and then produce the portal with that, so I think that once I have enough time to get around to everybody and spread the word, as I’m doing with you today, I’m hoping that we get increased involvement from many of these programs that have not yet stepped up.”

Mayor Aja Brown suggested, “When thinking about your goals … It would seem to me that if you work backwards and focused on your third goal, which is how to track project effectiveness – if you can really define on how to make this effective in tracking projects, or how that impact can actually be measured, than it would seem that you would get more agency buy in and they would subsequently give you more access to information.”

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