CA WATER COMMISSION: Implementing AB 1755: The Open and Transparent Water Data Act; Groundwater Basin Boundary Modifications

At the January meeting of the California Water Commission, the commissioners were given a presentation on the progress in implementing AB 1755, The Open and Transparent Water Data Act, and a briefing on the draft groundwater basin boundary modifications as part of the Department of Water Resources’ ongoing efforts to implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

THE OPEN AND TRANSPARENT WATER DATA ACT

Christina McCready, Chief of the Integrated Data & Analysis Branch (DSIWM) at the Department of Water Resources briefed the commissioners on the efforts to implement AB 1755.

In September of 2016, Governor Brown signed The Open and Transparent Water Data Act (AB 1755) authored by Assemblyman Bill Dodd.  The legislation’s main intention was to make water data available open and transparent, but also focused on interagency cooperation opportunities for innovation.

The legislation set deadlines for the agencies:

  • By January 1, 2018 the Department of Water Resources was to produce a strategic plan for data management, implementation, and protocols.
  • By April 1, 2018 the Department was to release any Requests for Proposals to build a statewide water data platform. The Department determined that existing data platforms could be utilized, rather than build something new, so the Department did not issue any RFPs.
  • By September 1, 2019 the Department must make available on the platform any existing water and ecological data held by the state agencies.
  • By August 1, 2020 the Department is to make available any datasets having to do with California water resources from the federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal fish agencies, the USGS, and the USFS.

Section 12415 of the legislation calls out specific datasets to be made available.  The Department of Water Resources must make its data available on State Water Project reservoir operations, groundwater levels, urban water use, and land use; the State Water Resources Control Board is to make data available on water rights, water diversions, and water quality data, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife is to make their fish abundance and distribution data available.  Federal agency datasets are also called out, such as streamflow conditions through the National Water Information System, federal Central Valley Project operations, and fisheries data from the federal fish agencies.

Ms. McCready noted that at the time the legislation was written, the state was deep into many years of drought, and at the time, there was a desire to facilitate transfers and exchanges to ease drought conditions being felt statewide, so that was actually one of the mobilizing considerations when the legislation went through.  However, she noted that it is less of an issue at the moment, but nonetheless, it is something they want to work toward, recognizing that water transfers and exchanges are of keen interest, especially in times of shortage.

WHAT IS OPEN DATA?

Ms. McCready noted that the term ‘open data’ is used casually and with some flexibility.  There are a number of definitions available to describe what ‘open data’ means, but the state has yet to officially adopt one.  The California Government Operations Agency is actively working on open data policy and will adopt a definition soon, she said.  Generally, the term open data means not having any restrictions or very little restrictions on the use of data, and that the data is available in the public domain; the only requirement for use really is attribution and a share alike philosophy.

The World Bank calls out two dimensions of data openness.  One is being legally open, meaning placed in the public domain or under liberal terms of use with minimal restriction. The second is being technically open, meaning that the data are published in electronic format, machine readable, and non-proprietary so that anyone can access them.  There has been a wide-range of data collection over the years, and the forms it can take are Excel files on someone’s hard drive, boxes of data in older institutions, graphics, and charts.

We are recognizing data readiness is a process and something that we’ll always be working toward,” she said.  “We’ll be transforming data as we can, but machine readability would make searching easier and more reasonable for folks that are interested in finding particular data.”

The Department of Water Resources and the other implementing agencies are embracing the spirit of legislation, which is about fostering collaboration, creating opportunities to share and integrate, to work together, to minimize duplication and effort, and perhaps free up some of our staff who are collecting data to spend a little more time on data analysis so that we can draw new conclusions and identify new solutions,” she said.  “We are improving our water resources management, that’s really at the bottom line for 1755, and of course transparency and accountability, because as government agencies, these are important to us.”

AGENCIES AND ORGANIZATIONS INVOLVED IN IMPLEMENTATION

The legislation specifically named four state agencies: the Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the California Water Quality Monitoring Council.  They also have strong support from Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, the Natural Resources Agency, the Government Operations Agency, and the Delta Stewardship Council.

It’s a real productive relationship,” Ms. McCready said.  “There’s not always agreement, but there’s healthy disagreement and a lot of discussion.  So far, what we’ve seen a lot of is a willingness to work through until we get to good answers to our questions.

She also noted that they have a lot of support from the research sector, the California Council on Science and Technology, UC Water, and the National Labs.

IMPLEMENTATION ACTIVITIES

Ms. McCready presented a graphic to show the full complement of activities that are happening in support of implementation of AB 1755.  The two blue puzzle pieces are the strategic plan and the protocols and were required by the legislation.  The green puzzle pieces are complementary activities that inform the implementation process; those activities also have informed the strategic plan and the protocols.  Ultimately the goal is to move toward federated interoperable portals.

She then discussed the specific activities so far:

STRATEGIC PLAN

The strategic plan was released in January of 2018 and updated four months later.  The strategic plan articulates the vision and goals.  “They are simply put, not necessarily simply accomplished,” she said.  “We are looking for data to be sufficient, accessible, useful, and used.”

INITIAL PROTOCOLS

The protocols will be a living document.  The protocols address the behaviors expected of people who publish data and certain expectations of people that use that data.  The protocols also define how platforms will talk to one another or how datasets will interplay.  Ms. McCready acknowledged that protocols has a broad definition in this context, but they are starting with as few as possible.

Some of us are beholden by the legislation to make data available, but others who are not will have the opportunity and we really hope to attract their interest,” she said.  “So we are starting with a small nugget of protocols, we’ll be exercising those and considering additions and augmentations in the near future.”

OPEN WATER INFORMATION INFRASTRUCTURE AND FEDERATED NODES

The legislation required the Department of Water Resources to issue a Request for Proposals by April 2018 to build a statewide integrated water data platform, but the Department chose not to do.  Ms. McCready said there were a number of reasons, but one of the most important reasons was that there was already an open data portal (data.ca.gov) hosted by the California Government Operations Agency (Gov Ops).  The open data portal has not just water and ecological data as AB 1755 requires, but also health data, prison data, and other data related to the daily operations of the state.  The State Water Resources Control Board has been actively working to make their own data available through the Gov Ops platform.  The California Natural Resources Agency is in the process of making their own platform at data.cnra.ca.gov, which is equally as powerful.

The legislation calls for is a statewide integrated water data platform, but rather than build a new warehouse of data, instead they are going to focus on allowing different portals and different platforms that already exist to work together.  They are focusing on the concept of federation.  She likened it to the local library; if you were looking for specific resources on a specific topic, you would look in the card catalog to see what are available, which would then make you aware of what you could borrow.  You might need to do an interlibrary loan from a neighboring library, or perhaps they would send those materials to you.  Nowadays with the internet, you wouldn’t even have to wait.

The focus here is on the discoverability of that data,” Ms. McCready said.  “Being able to be aware of its existence and then to pursue capturing it is exactly what we hope to do with federation, so we are working hard to make sure these two portals talk to each other and that they are federated with one another.  And while nobody else is obligated to do this, we hope that others will be interested.  We know we have some more sophisticated local water management entities out there who might choose to opt in voluntarily, observe our protocols, and make their data available and searchable through our portals and platform, so this is what we hope to do.  The searchability is where the power is.”

The portals are tools to help those who manage water and ecological resources to address their own needs to answer questions.  “The goal here is to maximize the value of data,” she said.  “Data is just loaded with potential power and we’re glad we have that captured and it’s somewhere, but what we want to do is turn it loose and let more people look at it.  Again, in the spirit of transparency but also because their inventiveness and the development of a new app that allows more people to see the results is where the power is.”

USE CASES

They worked with UC Water to develop use cases.  A use case is a brief examination of who needs what data in what form for what decision, she said, starting with the decision first.  What are we trying to decide about?  Are we trying to decide whether or program or project or grant was successful?  Are we trying to decide if we can release more water today?  Are we trying to decide if a species is thriving or deteriorating? These are the kinds of questions we might ask.  And then we back our way down into the data.  By looking at it that way, we expect that we are designing a system that is most focused on what a user needs. They will also consider user feedback on an ongoing basis.

Our focus is on usability of data to answer our questions,” she said.  “Questions that have been thought of and questions that we haven’t thought to ask yet.”

They have compiled 20 draft use cases; they are examples and not to be thought of as all the questions people are likely to ask.  Additional use cases might be added at a later point.  “These 20 draft use cases just got us on the road to thinking about what functional requirements and business requirements we had to deal with, and those ultimately fed in to the open water information architecture document,” she said.

DATA CHALLENGES AND TEST BEDS

They have also held data challenges to give stakeholders an opportunity to use these platforms and the available data to not only provide feedback on the platforms, but also to inspire new thinking and new visualizations.

During 2018, there was a Safe Drinking Water Data Challenge that began in the spring, with activities throughout the summer, culminating in a summit in October.

Ms. McCready gave two examples of results from the Safe Drinking Water Data Challenge.  One entry focused on the presence (or absence) of lead in the San Francisco Unified School District schools; the dots shown on the map on the lower left are various amounts of lead detected in the water on specific school sites.

Another entry was focused on domestic well vulnerability to drought.  It is mostly a visualization tool that allows folks to answer questions for themselves about their vulnerability during periods of shortage in the Central Valley.

What we’ve done here with these two entries and fourteen others, is foster a lot of interest in data and solving safe drinking water data issues,” she noted.

PAYING FOR IT – FUNDING AND GOVERNANCE

An advisory committee has been meeting to discuss the governance structure.  The idea is to have a consortium, not unlike the Internet Engineering Task   Force.  The triangle graphic with the steering committee on the top would be comprised of policy people who would make decisions in consideration of what they learned from the other two groups about how data management in California would go forward especially with relationship to water and ecological data.

On the bottom left of the triangle are the technical working groups comprised of data science experts not necessarily limited to inside California.  They are trusted technical experts, who would be advising on what’s realistic, what’s reasonable, and technically possible.  On the right, use case working groups who are experts in the business of water management and ecological resources management who are the drivers on what was needed.

On the left, across from the steering committee is the state governing group.  Ms. McCready said they’re not sure it would look like the existing agency partner team, but it might.  “What we want to get across is that there will be state agency representation at a sufficient level to make commitments and pursue funding and direct activities related to data,” she said.  “They would still be the implementers of AB 1755 but they’d be working in partnership with this consortium on the right that may or may not live within state service.”

The advisory committee has met twice to discuss this; they will meet one more time in February after which they will make a recommendation on governance to the state.

FOR MORE INFORMATION …

GROUNDWATER BASIN BOUNDARY MODIFICATIONS

The last agenda item of the day was the presentation of the draft decisions on groundwater basin boundaries modifications.  Groundwater basin boundaries are foundational to implementing SGMA because they define the area to managed.

Taryn Ravazzini and Dane Mathis from the Department of Water Resources Sustainable Groundwater Management Program were on hand to brief the commissioners.  The purpose of the presentation is to hear comment from the commissioners and the public, but it should be noted that in this instance, the Commission does not have an approval role in the Department’s decisions on basin boundaries.

Modifications to basin boundaries are solely at the request of local agencies.  This is the second round of basin boundary modifications that has occurred since the regulations were adopted; the first round was conducted in 2016.  The period for applying for modifications began on July 1, 2017 and closed on September 28, 2018.

Modifying a groundwater basin’s boundaries potentially affects the basin prioritization which is a ranking of the state’s groundwater basin based on eight factors, such as population, the number of water wells, the degree that the overlying population depends on groundwater, irrigated acreage, and others.  Those basins with a high and medium priority are subject to SGMA.  Basin boundary modifications must be finalized before the prioritization can be finalized.

There are 59 basins whose basin prioritizations could potentially change because they are either requesting basin boundary modifications or would be potentially affected by the results.  On January 4, 2019, the Department released the final prioritization for 458 basins who are not impacted by the requested basin modifications.  After the basin boundary modifications are finalized, the remaining basin prioritization for the 59 basins will be released; that is expected later this spring.

BASIC DEFINITIONS

A groundwater basin is defined as an aquifer or stacked aquifers with reasonably defined boundaries in a lateral direction and with a definable bottom.  An aquifer refers to sedimentary rock or alluvial sediments that can produce a significant economic quantities of groundwater.

The basin’s external boundaries are based upon science and presumably the best available science that we have.  However, a basin can be subdivided along lines that reflect jurisdictional or institutional boundaries such as a county line or a water district boundary.

A basin in itself is not necessarily defined by the land use, whether or not there may or may not be productive wells within the material,” said Mr. Mathis.  “It’s not necessarily defined by the presence of a stream channel or perhaps habitat.”

BASIN BOUNDARY MODIFICATION REQUESTS

Basin boundary modification requests can be either scientific or jurisdictional.  Scientific revisions are generally to a basin’s external boundaries, although sometimes an internal boundary can be modified based on a hydrogeologic barrier or some other groundwater divide.  Jurisdictional modifications are based on other factors, such as moving an internal subbasin boundary from a river to a county line.

Basins may request that an internal basin boundary gets dissolved or removed, therefore creating a larger basin; alternatively, basins may request to be subdivided into smaller parts.

The Department received 43 individual requests from agencies; 23 of those were jurisdictional, 15 were scientific, and 5 were a combination of both jurisdictional and scientific modifications.  The map (below, left) highlights in red and yellow the extent of requests that came into the Department.  A wide range of modification requests were received, such as agency requesting an update to only a small segment, or changing a segment from the center of a river line to a county, to requests for basin consolidations.

The Department then conducted technical reviews and released their initial draft decisions on November 29.  At that time, the Department approved 33 requests, denied 7 requests, and approved 3 with denied portions as there were parts of those requests that didn’t quite meet the regulations.

There were numerous opportunities for public comment; a Groundwater Sustainability Agency’s required notice and consultation activities includes identifying all the stakeholders and interested parties and holding the required meetings.  In the case of basin subdivision, agencies have to secure confirmed support from three-quarters of all agencies and all water systems in all of the affected basins that they are wanting to modify, and in some cases, that can be a very high bar to meet, Mr. Mathis said.  The general expectation is the agency collects all of that input and hopefully gets the support and comes to the Department without opposition, although that is not necessarily a requirement.

Once the agency submits the modification request to DWR, that opens up a 30-day public comment opportunity to comment on the agency’s request.  After DWR released the draft decisions, there was an additional public comment opportunity from November through January 4th.  The Department also held a public meeting in December.

The Department received 30 comments on 12 basins.  Mr. Mathis presented a slide showing how the comments were distributed.  The Shasta Valley modification request on the left received the most comments, a total of 13.  The Shasta Valley modification was denied, and so the comments in orange are reflective of opposition to the Department’s draft decision which is generally reflective of local support, he said.  The South American Cosumnes, there was a mix of support and opposition, which was reflective of similar comments received during public comment period.

SOME NOTABLE BASIN BOUNDARY MODIFICATIONS

Mr. Mathis then gave some details on two out of the four modifications that were denied.

The Northern Delta Groundwater Sustainability Agency submitted a boundary modification request to subdivide three individual basins.  On the map, the yellow line represents where the line is today, and the red line and shape is what the agency was requesting.  The agency secured support, but the support for the subdivision was only focused on the agencies that were within their new proposed basin, so they did not meet that specific requirement in the regulations to get support from three-quarters of all agencies and all water systems in the affected basins.  “As you can imagine, there would be hundreds of them for this particular scenario,” he said.

The Sloughhouse Resource Conservation District submitted a request for an internal jurisdictional modification.  The yellow line shows the existing internal boundary line; the request request generally involves the expansion of the Consumnes Basin to the north into the southeast part of the South American subbasin.  There was some opposition, both from the Sacramento Central Groundwater Authority and the City of Sacramento; the Department’s draft decision to deny also had comment.  Sloughhouse RCD was opposing DWR’s decision to deny it, and Sacramento Central Groundwater Authority continued to support DWR’s decision to deny it.

In general, the main reason we denied it is that it did not appear to support sustainable groundwater management,” said Mr. Mathis.  “That’s one of the elements in the regulations that allows the Department as a basis of denial for the request.  In summary, there’s local disagreement on what needs to managed and how.  The thinking was that it isn’t up to the Department to make that call; it’s really the local agencies that should work together towards meeting the requirements of SGMA.  Certainly, they maybe to come back to the Department at a later time when they can show general agreement with each other.”

UPDATED DRAFT DECISIONS

A basin modification request was received from the Heritage Ranch Community Services District regarding a small portion of the Paso Robles area subbasin.  On the map on the left, the circle and the yellow line show the small alluvial channel that drains into the main part of the basin.  The initial request was denied because the information wasn’t quite clear about the connectivity of that portion to the aquifer that defines the basin; however, the requesting agency subsequently provided supporting information to the Department, so the draft decision was changed to approved.

The West Kern Water District submitted a basin boundary modification request for the Kern County subbasin.  Most of the requested boundary modification change was an external boundary that would essentially remove or exclude the significant oil producing areas.  These areas are somewhat anomalous within a basin; they aren’t quite pieces of bedrock that stick out in the center of the basin, but nonetheless it was based on the different type of land use going on.  The Department initially denied the request, because it wasn’t clear about the level of connectivity that these areas potentially had with what’s considered the main aquifer of the basin.  The agency submitted their additional technical comments during the period, and the Department did another round of technical review.

We did another round of reviews on the initial clarifying information,” said Mr. Mathis.  “We did change our draft decision a little bit, but not the portion to approve the removal of the anticlines in the oil field areas.  The approval was mostly for the perimeter older alluvial units and some older fractured rock units that we know are not indicative of aquifer material, per the regulations.”

There was a request by Siskiyou County Flood Control and Water Conservation District pertaining to an exposed expansion of the Shasta Valley.  The initial request was very thorough with quite a few technical studies to demonstrate their proposed expansion of Shasta Valley, shown in yellow on the graphic; this was a quite a large expansion to the east from the existing basin.  They demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the groundwater pumping in the area, the land use, and these volcanic deposits that they had presented.  However, the one thing that was missing was the data or the confirmation that the volcanic deposits actually met the definition of aquifer in the regulations, which is defined in the regulation specifically as being reflective of sediments of sedimentary rock that produced economic quantities of groundwater.  The agency provided clarifying information to successfully show there was a predominant presence of sediments and sedimentary material, although it’s interspersed within the sequence of volcanic deposits that contribute and make up and define the basin that they are wanting to modify.  That updated draft decision is approved by the Department.

IN CONCLUSION

The updated draft decisions were released on last week.  Out of 43 requests, 35 were approved, four were denied, and four were approved with only portions denied.  The basin boundary modifications are expected to be finalized in February.

FOR MORE INFORMATION …

OTHER NOTES FROM THE JANUARY MEETING …

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