Without recordkeeping, comprehensive resource management is impossible, making fact-based decision-making equally impossible. California faces a critical impasse where water use regulation is in danger of deadlock from a crippling lack of reliable and accessible information.
While water supply once transformed open spaces into teeming cities and bountiful farmland, it now fails to meet increasing demands. Californians are actively working to improve their water infrastructure and managerial practices. However, as more people seek solutions to water problems, they are discovering yet another bottleneck for effective management: a broken data management system.
Drought is inevitable and competing needs for water cannot be eliminated. Now is the time to find a better, functional way to organize and provide access to water data in California.
Shrinking budgets, staff shortages, and unanticipated responsibilities have hobbled California’s data management system. The detrimental effects are present system-wide; here are some examples.
The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) stores information in databases, but there is also a shocking backlog of paper records separate from this system waiting to be digitized; 2,500 linear feet, to be exact. Conservatively, these paper records account for 10% of the state’s 50,000 water rights.
Even with the digitized data, there are errors. For example, the Department of Water Resources records an elevation of 70,212,070 feet for a well in Palo Alto. In Sacramento, a single location seems to contain 350 separate wells.
While groundwater usage is not officially regulated yet, the state keeps 0.7 million records of the approximate location and depth of wells. However, the records are stored in six separate, partially duplicated databases [Fig 1].
Within the state’s well records, any single irrigation record may have any of the following recorded uses: irrigation, other iriigation [sic], other irrigation, other irrigation only, other unknown – likely domestic or irrigation, water supply irrigation – agriculture, water supply irrigation – landscape, water supply irrigation agricultural, other agricultural, other agriculture. This is the consequence of inconsistent, non-standardized data entry and quality assurance.
Analyses are only as good as the input data; with non-standardized data like this, comprehensive assessments are inherently flawed. To access and analyze information, any interested party, from an almond farmer to the Department of Water Resources itself, must either expend time integrating and cleaning fragmented data, or risk omitting important information or improperly including inaccurate information.
New Legislation, New Challenges?
The data challenges produced by inaccuracies and non-standardization are not the intentional fault of any individual; rather, they’re the natural consequences of an increasingly outdated system.
Fortunately, recent legislation has started addressing California’s data management. The Open and Transparent Water Data Act (AB1755) requires the development of a water data system for public, online use.
While the law is a step in the right direction, it is unfunded. This major shortcoming will impede the measure’s ability to solve California’s water data problems.
For some perspective, the controversial California Water Fix plans to spend $15.6 billion on new water conveyance infrastructure. If we considered data as infrastructure and spent even a fraction of that $15.6 billion on data integrity and revamped systems, imagine how much better we could assess whether such fixes actually work.
The Way Forward
In order to develop an effective water data management system, California must act with strategy and commitment, not wishful thinking and quick fixes.
- Invest in data quality. The government must assume the role to steward water information by funding the digitization of all records, the review of existing online data for inaccuracies, and the creation of robust data policies for long-term data management.
- Create, and fund, a comprehensive software solution to help manage SGMA. Once the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is implemented, hundreds of local agencies will consistently report groundwater, land subsidence, and water quality data to the state. To streamline this flow of data, the state should utilize a single software system with an intuitive interface which effectively enables the transfer of standardized information. With a ubiquitous management platform, local agencies would know exactly what monitoring and reporting standards are required, and state agencies could more effectively review data submissions. Although this would require upfront costs, it would provide long-term savings and foster actionable insights. The benefits would be a win-win for all parties involved.
- Look to the private sector for effective water data applications. Contracting this task to the private sector opens the door to creative approaches without risking government funding. Because of restrictive budgets, the government should focus on water data quality and enlist private sector innovation for water data applications. In this model, the private sector assumes the risk of producing high-performing products, bolstered by a successful track record of software products that can adapt to evolving user needs.
Problems can only be solved by attacking the root cause, not by treating the symptoms. Now is the time to find a better, functional way to organize and provide access to water data in California.