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How Science and Data Can Help Water Agencies Evolve

Among water users and agencies, data is often kept in private and hidden from public view, but that’s beginning to change, writes Kirby Brill, former general manager of the Mojave Water Agency.

Written by Kirby Brill Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Fl cedar springs 4280 05 09 2014
An aerial view of the Cedar Springs Dam and Silverwood Lake, located about 30 miles north of the city of San Bernardino on the West Fork of the Mojave River. Florence Low/California Department of Water Resources

During my last several years serving as the general manager for the Mojave Water Agency (MWA), I frequently stated to my board and community that we were operating in the midst of a rapidly changing world in water resources management. California’s recent drought conditions grabbed their share of headlines and placed a laser-sharp focus on the state’s finite water resources. In addition, in 2014 California passed historic groundwater management laws (Senate Bill 1168Assembly Bill 1739 and Senate Bill 1319).

California is not alone in this changing world. Other states such as Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Idaho and Montana are also facing challenges of population growth, climate change and new state and federal regulations that are bringing increased uncertainty. There appears to be a greater sense of urgency to develop innovative and cost-effective solutions in a water world that is rapidly changing all across the Western states.

In the midst of this evolution (or revolution), there are opportunities for our industry to raise its game. My experience at the MWA has led me to believe that “science-based,” “market-driven” policies can be effective cornerstones for a journey toward economic and water resources sustainability. While there, I saw how a community seized an opportunity to elevate science as a foundation that provided them the tools and confidence to make effective and bold decisions to ensure sustainability.

Historically, water users and managers are reluctant to share or make publicly available data on critical water level, production and quality. We fear that somehow it will be “used against us.” It is time for us to discard these past parochial perceptions that water data is proprietary, and to embrace transparency. It begins with each of us laying our cards on the table.

Focus on Science-Based Decision-Making 

When I assumed the position of MWA general manager in 2000, I entered a challenging and volatile environment that lacked trust and clear direction. Cities competed with each other for economic development. Water districts were pitted against each other in a zero-sum game. Downstream cities and water districts sued upstream entities at every opportunity to protect their access to limited supplies. Everyone disliked the MWA.

It became immediately clear that the looming challenges of constraining previously unconstrained groundwater could only be addressed with a science-based decision-making. This was a serious challenge for the sprawling rural desert region with limited resources. At that time the MWA’s data collection program comprised one employee, a steel tape, a filing cabinet and a limited partnership with the United States Geological Survey to cover approximately 5,000 square miles (12,950 sq km) of service area.

During the last 17 years, the MWA has made significant investments to build a regional platform to collect, store and evaluate data, and serve the science-based decision-making needs of the community. Its database now contains 22,000 well construction reports dating all the way back to 1890 and annual data for about 2,000 active producing wells. Water levels are regularly collected from more than 400 monitoring wells with additional water quality data coming in from more than 700 wells through partnerships with state and federal agencies.

All of that data goes into a robust relational database where staff use geographic information systems (GIS) and other analytical tools to make the knowledge available to the public and to the agency’s board.

Community Engagement

As the MWA traveled along its data-driven journey establishing science as the foundation for decision-making, a wonderful thing happened along the way: we gained public trust. Good, defensible data proved to be a bridge between a skeptical public and our agency.

Our team rolled out charts, maps and studies of basin health. Community members might not have liked us or what they saw, but they began to trust the science.

During the MWA’s series of presentations, the ABCs of Water – an ongoing program geared toward interested community members – I noticed a change. Citizens became increasingly interested in moving beyond the “talking points” and into the details of the science of water resource management.

So we put our geologists, engineers, water conservation specialists and operators out in front of these citizens to talk about what they do. We authorized them to speak in an unvarnished manner, using the data that they work with on a daily basis. I witnessed an enthusiastic interest from the audience and an appetite for more.

In California, and across the West, the public is skeptical and hungry for information on water levels, water quality, water production and other related water resource data. People don’t want simply to follow new rules and regulations; they want to become part of the solution.

In the Mojave Basin, science-based decision-making created an engaged and empowered community. The West faces many challenges ahead and it will only be through science-based innovation that we will find sustainability.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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