WATER DATA SUMMIT: Secretary Crowfoot discusses resilience, partnerships, and transforming our water systems to meet the challenges ahead

The California Data Collaborative (CaDC) is a network of water professionals collaborating to create tools and applied research supporting planning and analysis to support water management.  The CaDC is governed by water agencies and powered by technologists, and, according to their website, the CaDC sees data and technology as a tool to realize a more reliable, resilient, and sustainable water industry.  The CaDC advances their mission through committees, workshops, webinars, and the annual California Water Data Summit.

The sixth annual California Water Data Summit was held in August of 2021 with the theme, “Expect the Unexpected.”  The keynote speaker was Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot, a position he has been in no less than three times before, including the very first Water Data Summit held at Stanford in 2016.

Joone Lopez, General Manager of the Moulton Niguel Water District and active participant in the Collaborative, asked Secretary Crowfoot for his reflections on the growth of the Collaborative and some of the achievements.

It’s remarkable,” he said.  “I remember that convening well at Stanford back in 2016. And it seems like a lot more than just five or six years ago.  At the time, I remember there being a pent-up demand for more discussion, collaboration, and, frankly, utilization of water data.

We all know in our bones just how complicated California water is, within our own water agencies and governmental organizations, but then across our ‘system of systems.’ So the consortium – this coalition of the willing – was born out of this recognition that we need to better measure everything in California water if we’re going to improve water management.

I’m pleased with the amount of progress that’s occurred over the last five years, certainly with this confederated system of data.  Big thanks to the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Resources Control Board for anchoring the state’s participation. As I understand it, there are more discussions, more working relationships, and, most importantly, more utilization of all manner of data to improve water management at the local, regional, and state levels. So much more work ahead of us.

I think the health of this effort and the breadth of organizations are that are involved in this effort really speak to the fact that we’re collectively on to something.

Ms. Lopez acknowledged Secretary Crowfoot’s support over the years and noted his use of the term ‘system of systems.’  “Data is part of that fabric,” she said.  “It’s been such a helpful way for us to advance some of the management strategies, particularly now that we’re heading into what people call the megadrought.  When we started the data collaborative back in 2016, that was motivated by a historic drought at that time. And since then, under Governor Newsom’s leadership, under your leadership, the resilience portfolio, and highlighting all that it takes to be resilient for California going forward, and being very creative and collaborative.”

“That’s why the theme of this conference is ‘Expecting the unexpected,’” she continued.  “It’s how we prepare ourselves for what we can’t foresee, but how we do it better going forward. But everyone has a little bit of a different way of describing the word resiliency. We hear it a lot. We know what it means. And I’m just wondering, from all the years of experience in all the different capacities, for you, what does resiliency mean for California?

That’s a great question,” said Secretary Crowfoot.  “I’d boil it down to the title of your convening, which is preparing for the unexpected, but maybe more broadly.  We talk about water resilience as enabling communities and natural places to adapt and weather growing challenges, whether that’s climate-driven drought, and flooding, or any other manner of impacts on water systems. So, to me, it’s all about enabling California, both our human communities and our natural communities, to continue to be able to thrive, given, frankly, the stressors on our water system.

We know that climate change impacts are accelerating. We’re literally experiencing that this summer between catastrophic wildfires, record-breaking extreme heat, and deepening drought and alarming drought conditions compared to just five years ago.  So from our perspective, really strengthening our ability to weather these changes and adapt to these changes is more important than ever.

It was the experience in the last drought that led Governor Newsom to issue that executive order back in the beginning of 2018 directing our state agencies to develop this water resilience portfolio. That was the watchword – resilience. So how do we build California’s drought resilience and flood resilience? How do we take a system that was the marvel of engineers across the world 75 years ago, 100 years ago, that is centralized, rigid, and fairly static, and make that water system of systems more decentralized, flexible, and dynamic?

The water resilience portfolio called for very specific actions that we’ve been tracking and making progress on.  Our focus has not been a one-size-fits-all solution from Sacramento because California’s water needs are diverse, based on where you’re at in the state and who’s providing your water; but rather, what can the state do to help agencies like yours improve local and regional resilience. So that’s really been our focus.

Frankly, I was hoping that we would have some space and time to actually build drought resilience before experiencing the next drought. But the fact is, we have to continue building the plane and transforming our systems, even as we address and respond to the immediate impacts of drought.”

Ms. Lopez asked for his thoughts on the greatest challenge or barrier to achieving resilience as he described and in terms of decentralizing and utilizing all these different strategies to make California more resilient?

My colleague, Joaquin Esquivel, [Chair of the State Water Board], has put it well:  we have 19th-century laws and 20th-century infrastructure to address a 21st-century challenge of accelerating climate change. And so, we have built a system over the last 170 years, since statehood, that has served our growth into a state of 40 million people and the fifth largest economy of the world that has to be fundamentally transformed. And that transformation takes time. 

Consider SGMA, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.  Probably the most notable change in California water management in the last two decades.  California was the last state in the American west to manage groundwater. It takes time.  SGMA passed in 2014, seven years ago, and now the Department of Water Resources is evaluating the first tranche of groundwater sustainability plans. And as you know, it will be another 20 years until sustainable groundwater use is achieved in basins. So I think the biggest challenge is, how do we move at the pace that climate change demands, recognizing that these systems, whether the physical systems or the managerial systems, or the legal systems, took decades to evolve? How do we change them and improve them at the pace required by Mother Nature?

There are so many questions, noted Ms. Lopez, and one thing they’ve learned is that we have a lot of friends across the state, across the country, and across the world that have faced very similar challenges because climate change is a global issue. “For example, our friends in the kingdom of Denmark, who is our wonderful partner for this data summit, they’ve done some amazing work.  We’ve had a great partnership as a state in learning from each other and trying things together.  So can you speak to the value of partnership, and particularly with Denmark?  You were part of the whole effort with the signing of the MOU, the memorandum of understanding between California and the Kingdom of Denmark. And since its inception, many agencies like ours have benefited from that kind of relationship, both locally and regionally. So maybe if you can talk a little bit about sort of what you had envisioned and how you see that come to fruition.”

At the highest level, the collaborative is that platform for partnership and shame on us if water agencies and organizations across the state are each inventing their own approaches to these challenges we face, particularly on data,” said Secretary Crowfoot.

I work with an extraordinary colleague, Nancy Vogel, who serves as our deputy secretary and all things water.  In preparing for my discussion with you, I asked her for her thoughts on the value of the Collaborative.  I want to want to give you a quote that she emailed me:  ‘We need tools like this Collaborative and the Summit to showcase what’s possible, help us speak the same language, highlight trends, spark discussion, build connections, and steer us collectively toward water data, infrastructure, governance and practices that reduce the friction of managing water.’

So I think these collaborative platforms, where there is a coalition of the willing that is partnering, sharing ideas, and learning from each other is absolutely essential.

Likewise, in California, we want to learn from others that are leading the way on water. And that led us to this partnership with Denmark. We’re now on our second updated memorandum of understanding.  Denmark, as many don’t know, is a leader in water technology. So one of the areas of focus of this official government-to-government agreement is to share our expertise on water.

We’re benefiting from this in real-time, as I understand it. For example, very recently, in San Luis Obispo, a pilot is underway utilizing technology from Denmark that’s using helicopter-based electromagnetic readings to better understand groundwater levels and to improve sustainable groundwater management.

Likewise, we were excited with the Department of Water Resources leadership in partnering with the Environmental Defense Fund and others to provide this open-source groundwater accounting platform that could enable the flexible use and sharing of groundwater within groundwater agencies. These are the types of partnerships that we need to expand and accelerate if we’re going to achieve resilience quickly.

California has been such a beacon of innovation, as we all know. But, historically, our water sector hasn’t necessarily been as innovative as other places. But I think that’s changing as a result of the participants in today’s Summit. And these partnerships will allow us to move further and faster on that innovation.

Ms. Lopez noted that the vision of the Collaborative is to bring people together, not only to create a network of ideas, innovation, and technology but also with the idea of bringing everybody together to develop these pathways for envisioning a future where we need to be.  “Now more than ever, with all these challenges ahead and dealing with drought conditions in California, what message do you have for the audience and the participants of this conference for what people are describing as a pretty bleak future for water? What can you share with us?”

I would say everybody has a role to play in building our resilience to climate change, and specifically our resilience to drought,” said Secretary Crowfoot.  “California is no stranger to drought. We’ve been through this before; we’ll successfully navigate this. But the way that we’ll do that is everyone in California, regardless of whether you’re a water sector professional or just a regular person living and working in California, will do their part.

We know that the last two years have been remarkably impactful for our water supply and infrastructure, and if we have another dry winter, we’re going to be challenged like never before. So actions that we are taking now to deepen water conservation will pay dividends not only help us collectively weather this drought but to lower water bills for average Californians, keep water in the rivers for the environment that we care about, and frankly protect the water security that our communities rely on.

So Save Our Water, which has been the platform for water conservation in the state, is getting a refresh in real-time that coordinates with the governor’s call for 15% conservation.  So we would ask our water agency partners and our water sector partners participating here today to do what you can to drive this message. And it’s all towards efficiency and sustainability. And as most everyone in this convening knows, the improvements that we make now to better utilize water will not only get us through the current conditions but also enable our long-term environmental and economic sustainability.

So don’t look to your neighbor and ask them to do something.  We are the people we’ve been waiting for to show the world as a state on the frontlines of climate change how we’re going to drive down our pollution, transition to a low carbon-no carbon economy in coming decades, and build our resilience to these impacts, like the drought that are already here. And I’m energized and optimistic.  If not here in California, where else?

For us at our agency, our message has been resilient together, whether we have a drought or no drought, said Ms. Lopez.  “This is a new way of living and thinking. And we can only do this and be successful if we work together and know that all these different pieces have to fit together in a very integrated way.”

Ms. Lopez had one more question for Secretary Crowfoot.  “As part of this conference, what we’re doing is highlighting the importance of telling people’s stories.  So if there was a book about Wade Crowfoot, what the title of the book be? There are a lot of people that are listening and watching you right now of all different generations, all different disciplines, and backgrounds. It’s tough when you’re trying to do something transformative; it’s not easy to bring about change. There are many setbacks, there’s a lot of pushback, and sometimes it can be a little discouraging. So what sort of a motivating message based on your personal and professional experience can you share with everyone?”

You did not prepare me for this,” said Secretary Crowfoot.  “On any given day, there’s a ton of different books on my desk.  I love reading, and I’m not good at writing. And I’m certainly not good at naming books. But I would say… ‘Adventures into the Art of the Possible.’ From my perspective, it’s so easy for a lot of reasons to be glass half empty. And I think that a lot of people that are part of this collaborative and that are figuring out how to innovate water data are people that are naturally drawn to the glass half full approach.

To me, what I love about the job that I’m in right now is I have this leverage, thanks to Governor Newsom and his leadership to really push the art of the possible. And I’ll be the first one to say that the answers do not exist where I work here in Sacramento; the answers exist across the state and across the world. So my closing message would be to help us understand how we at the state can support innovation across the state.  It won’t be one-size-fits-all.  We want to understand what the role is that we can play helping the collaborative succeed so that at your ten year anniversary, you’re able to look back on not only the first five years but the second five years and consider your role as pivotal in not only getting us through this trial but actually setting us off toward a long term sustainability path, given all the challenges we face.

Learn more about the California Data Collaborative by clicking here.

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