Great Water Cities Panelist Felicia Marcus Shares California’s Perspective on the Future of Water Management

August 31, 2015

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Felicia Marcus, chair of the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) State Water Resources Control Board, joins a panel of water sector leaders at WEFTEC 2015. Photo courtesy of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Felicia Marcus, chair of the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) State Water Resources Control Board, joins a panel of water sector leaders at WEFTEC 2015. Photo courtesy of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Felicia Marcus, chair of the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) State Water Resources Control Board, joins a panel for the WEFTEC® 2015 session, “The Impact of Leadership: Culture, Communication, and Community in Great Water Cities.” On Sept. 28, from 10 a.m. to noon, attendees can hear Marcus and other water leaders share lessons learned in managing water to improve resilience, livability, and economic vitality. The event is part of a series of Great Water Cities conversations hosted by the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.).

California Governor Jerry Brown appointed Marcus to the water resources board in 2012 and designated her as chair in April 2013. Marcus also has served as the regional administrator of the U.S EPA Region IX, head of the Los Angeles’ Department of Public Works, private and nonprofit sector attorney and community organizer in Los Angeles, Western director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (Washington, D.C.), and as executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Trust for Public Land (San Francisco). In addition, she has served on many nonprofit boards and advisory councils, was a Schwarzenegger Administration appointee to the Delta Stewardship Council, and currently is an Obama Administration appointee to the Commission on Environmental Cooperation-Joint Public Advisory Council.

What do you think are the biggest issues the water sector is facing today?

We are in a transition period, or paradigm shift, where we need to move … to integrated water management. While folks have been talking about this for 20 or 30 years, now we see cities (and states) in the early phases of implementation. So we have large cities – Philadelphia, D.C., Los Angeles, and others – taking steps to look at flood control, water quality, water supply, and urban greening using the same drop of water and the same local dollar. It is definitely an opportunity to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

These are challenging transitions, as people are used to thinking and working in their geographic or subject-matter silos. It is decadal change, not an instant change, and all change is challenging. [For] example, Los Angeles’ mayor has issued a directive to take actions that cut the city’s reliance on imported water by 50% in 10 years. They are 90% dependent today, so it is a huge lift that will require them to be cutting-edge on conservation, recycling, and stormwater capture. They have already spent hundreds of millions [of dollars] on pilot projects to capture stormwater and infiltrate it into their groundwater basins; we are seeing the city start to green.

As with all infrastructure issues, however, it takes money that no longer flows as freely from the federal government as it did in the 1970s, so funding is perhaps the greatest challenge. That said, with an integrated and appealing plan, the voters in L.A. approved their greening dollars in the last decade, and the voters of California approved a $7.5-billion bond to deal with an “all of the above” strategy last year that included conservation, recycling, integrated water management, stormwater capture, [desalination], groundwater cleanup, flood control, and ecological restoration.

Are there any particular issues that have been more challenging for California? For the southwestern region as a whole?

Well, we do have water supply issues that the rest of the country doesn’t face as often, so drought would have to be the biggie. That simply puts more force behind our need to implement integrated water management strategies to deal with the reality we face.

In California in particular, we’ve also faced the challenge of retooling our water supply management systems to meet the needs of this century. While we pride ourselves on being front of the pack on water quality, we are the last state to have a statewide groundwater management law, which just passed last year. And our water rights system, while based on seniority like the rest of the western states, is not as settled as the other states, and lacks the level of information that other states have. We’ve gotten more through emergency orders during this drought that will allows us to implement the system with more precision, but we have a long way to go to have the basic data on withdrawals, discharges, accretions, and depletions that we should have to manage the water rights system and the environment. 

Has the State Water Resources Control Board had to make any cultural shifts or organizational restructuring in recent history to respond to changes in the economy, environment, etc.? What other changes has the control board recently made to respond to the changing world around it?

The water board is a pretty adaptable creature, having a five-member, fulltime board that meets every other week. We can adapt and change our rules more nimbly than many other institutions. We also are in a constant state of change as our five board members shift in and out in 4-year renewable terms, so it is a pretty dynamic place.

This past year, the biggest institutional change was the transfer of the state’s drinking water program from the Department of Public Health in the Health and Human Services Agency to the water board, which happened last July. The purpose was to have one institution responsible for water from source to tap, and to facilitate a number of things, including one-stop-shopping for communities, particularly disadvantaged communities, for their water needs — drinking water, wastewater, recycling, stormwater, etc. It also helps facilitate funding as well as technical assistance. And, our top priority now is dealing with the myriad communities, particularly in rural California, that do not have the assured safe drinking water that our large urban communities take for granted.

The other big change is due to the drought emergency — while we are addressing it on all cylinders (water rights, water quality, drinking water), the governor gave us authority to do mandatory urban conservation regulations, and that has been a very big and very public task, as we ask urban Californians to step up and save 25% overall to prepare for a drought that continues into year 5, 6, etc., just as the Australian drought of the 2000s did. That has been a huge change and lift.

What are you hoping to share and/or learn from the Great Water Cities panel?

I’m hoping to share how in motion many of our urban areas are in making the transition to a more integrated and effective water management future. And [I plan] to share how the state is assisting in that through dollars but also through legislative and regulatory incentives and encouragement. I’m hoping to learn great examples from other cities who are doing similarly great and locally appropriate things. I’m looking for inspiration, insight, and tips.

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