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Environmental Blog

  • 26
  • October
  • 2016


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Water Data, Water Data Everywhere

Several years ago, analytics guru Gary Cokins popularized the notion that organizations are drowning in data but starving for information.1 The waterbody metaphor is apt, particularly for water management agencies that would like to swim—but not drown—in the data they and others collect that can help them better manage scarce water resources. Propelled by lingering pains of California’s recent drought, the California legislature took a step in this direction last month when it passed, and the governor signed, the Open and Transparent Water Data Act.

This new law helps water managers overcome two unhelpful realities they face when deciding how to efficiently manage scarce resources: (1) water management agency boundaries seldom align with watershed boundaries, and (2) the information water managers need to make decisions and to measure the results of those decisions is often collected using different methodologies and is housed in various databases strewn across numerous local, state, and federal agencies and organizations.

The new law creates a California-wide, integrated water data platform to make water and ecological data, as well as information on water transfers and exchanges, more accessible. The hope is that having open and accessible data in consistent, usable form will help California water managers make better decisions and help make the water market more transparent, both of which would result in water being steered to more valued uses. For example, water managers could use data on groundwater levels, streamflows, water quality, and fish abundance to model potential outcomes of a proposed water reuse or water exchange project, or to test whether past or ongoing projects are delivering their intended benefits. When used correctly, water managers should be able to replace practices based on institutional habit and intuition with evidence-based practice.

The California law applies to a wide range of data, including state data on reservoir operations, groundwater levels and use, urban water use, water rights and diversion, water quality, land use, and fish abundance and distribution. The database will also include data from federal sources, such as streamflow conditions from the U.S. Geological Survey, operations information from the Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project, and fish abundance information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Last, the database would include data on water transfers and exchanges, including publicly available (or voluntarily provided) information on volume, price, delivery method, buyer and seller identity, and associated water rights.

Transparency and availability of water data, however, is just the initial step. The risk of drowning in data, data everywhere, without a thought to think (echoing the popularized quip by Theodore Roszak) is just as real for water data. Although the data make it possible to spot trends and unlock new sources of economic value, this only occurs as economies form around the data. In other words, the data represent a new raw material, and water managers and researchers must learn how to use this economic input to address California’s water problems. California is often on the leading edge of environmental and sustainability efforts. It will be interesting to see how implementation of the Open and Transparent Water Data Act plays out and how it affects water management decision-making.

1 For example, see this 2013 interview in Forbes.

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Brandon M. Tuck

Brandon M. Tuck Counsel