November 1, 2012 - From the November, 2012 issue

Felicia Marcus on Balancing California’s Water Quality, Supply, and Ecology

Before her appointment by the Governor to the California State Water Resources Control Board, attorney and activist Felicia Marcus was the Western Head of the NRDC, VP of the Trust for Public Land, a Schwarzenegger appointee to the Delta Stewardship Council, and a Clinton-era, EPA regional administrator. Five months at the Control Board, she speaks with MIR about her experience in California water and her optimism re the impending Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Marcus additionally charts 40 years of improvement in LA water policy, notes the players and issues central to water in California, and predicts that the next two years will see significant legislation on water quality, quantity, and ecology.

Felicia Marcus

“We are at a time when critical decisions are being made, and there’s more happening at the State level to take leadership in dealing with California’s water issues than in the preceding several decades.” -Felicia Marcus

Felicia, when you were appointed in May by the Governor to the State Water Resources Control Board (State Board), Phil Isenberg said the following: “No other council member has been both a federal administrator and a local water agency official. Tie this experience to her commitment to solving problems—not just arguing about them—and you understand why she is so effective, and why Gov. Brown decided to appoint her to the Water Resources Control Board. The public will benefit from her service on the Water Board, and the council looks forward to working with her in the years to come.” What is it that so perfectly ties together your experience now on this Water Resources Control Board? 

Felicia Marcus: It’s interesting having had so many different jobs and experiences that run the gamut of issues that come before the Water Board. The Water Board is the entity of the state that holds responsibility for water quality, water supply, and many ecosystem health issues. I started out as a water quality lawyer in Southern California and worked on the range of issues dealing with what are known as point source discharges, or pollution that goes into a water body through a pipe, like industrial waste or wastewater. I also was dealing with storm water pollution, recycling, hazardous waste, air quality, and land use, both as a public interest lawyer and as the head of the Public Works Department. 

At the EPA after I moved to Northern California I was able to work on issues of water pollution and other issues in the western US but, more important, got to focus on the whole range of issues involved with the Bay Delta Estuary, which involve more water quantity and flow and fish. . So I have water quality and water quantity experience as well as experience with the fish agencies, wastewater agencies, agriculture, and industry in both Northern and Southern California along with the Central Valley, covering the field in a way that most other people haven’t. 

A big part of what the state regulatory authorities, like the State Board, are doing is implementing federal law. USEPA helps them do that and is also overseeing how good a job they are doing.  So I know what it feels like to be the overseer of the State Board, but I also know what it feels like to be at the local level, being regulated by the State Board. I’ve sort of played every role in this play. 

When you were appointed you said you were delighted, especially at a time when critical decisions were being made on both water quality and water supply matters. Elaborate for our readers what these critical decisions are all about.

There are a series of decisions coming up that are related to the San Francisco Bay Delta. These will deal with the Delta itself and also with the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers that feed into it from the North and South, respectively. As part of our job, under both federal and state law, we take what actually is a fairly commonsense approach and look at the Bay Delta to set “water quality objectives” or “water quality standards.” In this case, we’ll ask what this estuary needs in order to be a healthy estuary, for supplying drinking water, for meeting recreational and economic needs, and for the ecosystem’s needs. What do the fish need? What do the birds need? What do people need for drinking water and recreation? We look at the whole array of beneficial uses, saying, “Okay, what do we need to do to reasonably support all of these beneficial uses?” 

Frequently, people focus just on flow, asking how much water do you need to have flowing through the estuary to have a viable ecosystem and to have drinking and agricultural water intakes in the Delta that aren’t too salty. In California, and in the Delta in particular, we have a system that has yielded incredible benefits for the growth of agriculture and all of Southern California in terms of federal and state water projects that have diverted a significant amount of the flow that would normally pass through the Delta and instead pumped it down to the federal and state water projects. The flip side is that that pumping has a series of effects on fish populations, including salmon, which have drastically reduced a viable fishery and iconic species while also having a deleterious effect on some other water users. There are also other changes in the estuary that are both related and unrelated to the flow changes, like invasive species, predators who eat the salmon or smelt species, pollutants that rob the water of oxygen, habitat loss, etc. There is also heightened concern that the levees in the Delta are vulnerable to storm surges and earthquakes, exacerbated by the sea level rise that will accompany climate change. In addition to potential human and property losses, the consequences could be to endangered water supplies in delta and for export.

We are at a time when critical decisions are being made, and there’s more happening at the State level to take leadership in dealing with California’s water issues than in the preceding several decades. In the 1990s the federal and state governments came together with stakeholders around the Delta, but the federal government put in most of the effort to drive the issue, in part because of lawsuits and in part because of the initiative of the Clinton Administration. Ultimately what we strove for was a federal and state joint effort to deal with the catastrophic decline of the ecosystem as well as the threat of disruptions to water supply. We made some progress, but didn’t finish the job with changing administrations.

Flash forward to where we are now, and there are at least three things going on that give me great hope for the future. The first was in 2009—the California Legislature actually stepped up and did the most extensive water reform legislation they had done in decades, known as the Delta Reform Act. One of the things that legislation did was create the Delta Stewardship Council and call for a plan that would look 50 to 100 years in the future to set the overall objectives for the State of California. The legislation also had several key elements, one of which was establishing the coequal goals of water supply reliability and ecosystem restoration as the policy of the State of California. Not one or the other, but the policy of the State is to figure out how to balance water supply reliability and ecosystem restoration as well as being sensitive to the Delta as an evolving place. That work has been proceeding apace at the Delta Council, and I was honored to be able to work on that for a little more than two years with Chair Phil Isenberg and a dedicated Council. The Delta Council is delegated authority over other agencies to tell them that they need to be consistent with this plan. One of the elements of the plan is that the State Board needs to set water quality objectives for the Bay Delta, for the main stems of the Delta and the Sacramento and the San Joaquin by 2014, and from the tributaries to those rivers by 2018. 

Another element will be review over what’s know as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), which is a huge effort around a habitat conservation plan and natural communities conservation plan to restore all kinds of habitat in the estuary linked with some kind of canal or tunnel to divert water from the Bay Delta further up in the Delta than presently. It deals with this tremendous problem we have in taking water from the bottom of the Delta through these huge pumps which create reverse flows which make it difficult for fish to get where they need to go to survive and which draws salt water into the estuary beyond where it should be. So you have three state entities in theory now working towards complementary decisions that should both restore the ecosystem and improve water supply reliability vs. picking one winner and being in conflict:  The Delta Council and its plan, the Water Board and its water quality control plan, and the BDCP.

All three of those efforts are on the radar screen, a very high level of engagement, and they will all fit together. It’s exciting to be a part of the Water Board, to be setting the water quality objectives, and also to have had an ability with the Delta Council to take the longer view and deal more directly with issues of importance to Delta residents such as flood control, economic sustainability, and cultural protection. You have the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan that everybody has to meet, setting the playing field for what the fish need as well as people in the estuary. The Resources Agency is working on the BDCP, which will both need to integrate the WQCP goals, and have any change in where water is diverted approved by the Water Board.  And you have the Delta plan and the Delta Council as a bigger picture, over-all, long-view agency. 

Felicia, let me ask you about two of those. Just about the same time you were appointed by the Governor, the Delta Council released a final draft of the Delta Plan that led some to believe that they had totally bought into the Governor’s plan going forward with the Delta. And then this week, a report in the Sacramento Bee says, “Warring parties agree on some levees, habitat fixes in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta.” Are we seeing  progress towards an agreement here? 

Well, I’m more of a chaos theorist than a linear theorist. You’re seeing elements of things both with the Delta Plan, the BDCP effort—probably one of the largest infrastructure and habitat restoration projects on the planet, let alone in the United States—and our flow and other water objectives. They are parallel efforts that will be converging at some point in the next year or so, certainly by 2014.

The story that you reference is an interesting one pertaining more to the upcoming discussion over what to do with the water bond. When the Delta reform legislation passed, it had a number of pieces. One was legislation on water conservation, decreeing that we would do 20 percent water conservation by 2020, so we’re going to use our water more efficiently. There’s minimal water rights enforcement improvement—that was a fairly watered-down piece of legislation. 

There was a little bit of movement on ground water management, which basically just said that counties needed to report to the state Department of Water Resources what the status of their groundwater basins is. Incidentally, California doesn’t have ground water management in the way that virtually every other state does. It’s regulated at the local level, in some places very well—in other places not so well.  But it comprises 40-60 percent of water use in the state.  It’s not comprehensively managed. The Water Board can regulate it for quality, but for quantity we have limited tools. 

The fifth piece of the water reform legislation package was an $11-billion water bond that has been postponed a couple of times for economic reasons. In an effort to prepare for when the economy comes back enough to make a bond measure viable, some folks took it upon themselves to convene multiple stakeholders, set aside the things that they disagree on vigorously, like a canal or tunnel, and set forth a list of the things that they agree would be good to fund. And I think that’s a useful piece of the puzzle that will come together in the next year and a half.  So I think that was a good step, but they set aside the issues that they disagreed on versus having it stand in the way of considering what other things would be good for California. 

Felicia, readers are going to be able to quickly tell that there is a wealth of matters going on in the water world, and to keep the twin goals and missions of quality and quantity and ecosystem as the objectives. But they’re going to take years to happen—is that a fair statement? 

Not as many as we once thought. I think all these things, at least at a decision level, are going to be converging in the next year and a half, making greater progress than any time in my career.   Actually implementing them will take decades, but as Lao-tzu said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Let me take a half-step back here. You came down to LA this month to be part of LA’s clean water story celebrating 40 years of the Clean Water Act. Give us a sense of how much progress was made over these 40 years.


It was very inspiring. A tremendous amount has been accomplished through the Clean Water Act and through the initiative of people on the ground. Los Angeles in particular has been one of the most striking success stories in the country over the past few decades. Obviously the first wave is dealing with point sources or things with a big pipe, and primarily in the case of Santa Monica Bay that has involved City and County sewage treatment plant upgrades to what is known as full secondary treatment. WEB EXCLUSIVE

That was the initial objective we had with Heal the Bay in the mid-80s. The biggest issue was the inadequately treated sewage going into a very shallow bay. The improvement there alone has been extraordinary, and a report by Southern California Coastal Waters Research Project that was just issued details that from a scientific basis. 

After dealing with the most obvious pollutants to Santa Monica Bay, we turned our attention to storm water, or non-point-source, pollution, which is a lot more complex. Everything that ends up on the city street or in your backyard during a rainstorm can run down the gutter, into the storm drain, and straight out to the beach without treatment. In some cities, mostly in the East, in the rest of the country, they have combined treatment systems between their wastewater system and their stormwater system. In the West, generally, those are separated, other than in San Francisco. 

But something remarkable has happened in LA, from the regional water board to the City and the County. Screens and other kinds of diversions have been put into the storm drains to capture garbage that would otherwise go into the Bay; others are starting to have separators that can capture sediment and other pollutants before the bulk of the water heads into the stormdrain. You also have had the voluntary effort, where people came together and passed Proposition O in the City to not only improve the water quality flowing through the City’s stormdrains but to create green space and capture water for treatment and reuse. Pilot projects are being built all over the City. The City also passed a Low-impact development (LID) ordinance to require more green space and water capture in parking lot and building construction. There’s a County ballot measure being prepared to retrofit and create even more places for water to infiltrate through to the soil. Runoff from the streets can go into natural green spaces and filter back cleanly into the ground water. This will not just deal with the water quality issue but also the water quantity and flood control issue over time, while also creating green spaces LA so desperately needs. 

A lot of this builds on the pioneering leadership of Tree People from back in the 80s—Andy Lipkis really is the visionary behind it, joined in the more recent past by groups like Heal the Bay and NRDC, which is working on this issue nationwide. You now have LA as a fairly large-scale model, working voluntarily to dig up concrete and use scarce public resources in an effective way.  Philadelphia is another example of large-scale effort to introduce natural processes within a city for multiple benefits.

Felicia, you’ve said it’s inspiring and it is a track record success in the basin, but listening to you I wonder whether the schism between Northern and Southern California over water is somewhat mitigated by the dire nature of the challenge and the success of LA in managing its water supply and quality issues together. Is there a greater consensus now that there was 30 years ago? 

It depends on who you talk to. I think folks that know what they’re talking about note that LA and the rest of Southern California are diversifying their water portfolios as quickly as they can, using conservation, recycling, and stormwater capture. You’re always going to find people in Northern California that assume that LA is all swimming pools and lawns. You see people periodically raising the North-South specter, but, in fairness, LA is doing a lot.  Many people now know that and point to it and other southern California communities as models for the rest of the state to emulate.

One of the largest fights we had over the Delta Plan was the notion of reducing reliance on the Delta and requiring that anyone who put another straw into the Delta had to show that they had considered all water conservation, reuse, and other efficiency measures.  Our water conflicts would be far less severe if everyone focused on using what we have more efficiently.

Felicia, to help our readers, and maybe even pull together some threads that you’ve introduced already in the interview: if the reader had a scorecard of players and events to try to follow these dynamic initiatives on water and governance, who would be the players, and what would be the upcoming events that they would best learn from by watching?

At the state level, the Delta becomes pretty important. 25 million Californians depend upon it for their water supply.  The Delta Council will finalize its Delta Plan by the end of this year.  That will give an overall narrative for where we ought to be going over the next couple of decades.  After that, they will pull together the myriad agencies with responsibility for the Delta into a Council to better integrate their work.  Then throughout 2013 and into 2014 two major efforts to watch for are the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) and the State Water Board’s San Joaquin River and Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan. The BDCP is a permitting process for a large tunnel to divert water south from higher in the Delta to avoid the reverse flow issue we talked about earlier, coupled with enormous habitat restoration—and that’s led primarily by the Resources Agency. The Water Board effort will set water quality objectives for the Bay and Delta, dealing with ‘multiple stressors’—not just flow, but also nutrients, contamination, invasive species, and a host of other things that affect the quality of the Delta ecosystem.  The Water Board will also later need to certify that the BDCP will meet water quality standards and approve moving the point of diversion before construction can begin.

The other things to watch are efforts to conserve and reuse water in Southern California.  Water agencies in the Metropolitan Water District service area, starting with San Diego and moving north through Los Angeles, are diversifying their portfolio of tools on water conservation, recycling, and storm water capture, treatment, and storage. Many of those projects will also create more green space.  You’re going to hear a lot more about those things in the years to come. 

The final thing that people have to look at, particularly in Southern California, is what’s happening on the Colorado River. It’s an imported source of water for Southern California through the Metropolitan system, and it’s going through a whole different set of issues as the other states along with Colorado take their share of water, climate change, siltation behind the dams, and other factors impact how much water California can rely on.  

In the longer term, but just slightly longer term, as the effects of climate change intensify, we are going to have a tremendous problem statewide, both on the Colorado and the Delta. With warming we will have more liquid falling as rain, rather than being stored as snow, which has two consequences. One, we’re going to have more flooding; two, we won’t have the snow pack that comprises more than half of our winter storage of water to meter out during the spring and the summer.  Everyone’s going to have to figure out how to make do with less water over time and how to effectively use our groundwater basins for replenishment and storage. 

Let’s close, Felicia, knowing that you’ll be with us at VerdeXchange Conference in February. How has the environmental movement evolved and matured in California over the course of your career? What do you see happening now that was not on the public’s radar screen in the 1980s and 90s, and where do you see things going over the next ten years, based on what you’ve learned?

Number one, I think the environmental movement is much bigger than it was, and I think we’ve succeeded in having the environment not be just a boutique issue. Instead, it’s a core public policy and planning issue with a lot of incredible legislation at the state level as well as progress at the local level.  I think on the ground, of course, we’ve made incredible progress cleaning up sewage treatment plants, improving air quality, and in diverting waste from landfills through reducing packaging, recycling, and composting.  Everything is a lot better, and we did it in large part through good old-fashioned litigation because we had good statutes to use at the federal and state level. With good old-fashioned organizing we got legislators at the state and local level to take action either in regulatory form or in a local take-the-initiative form, as in the case of the City of LA.   But we’ll need more than the push of legislation, regulation, and litigation to get us to a thriving future.  We need the pull of a vision of a more dynamic and vibrant community, with the environmental issues as drivers in some instances, and complementary benefits in others.

Environmental folks, I think, are less siloed than they were. A lot of people are looking beyond just being water, air, or land experts or just being litigators or advocates. With the Smart Growth movement, people are trying to figure out how to create more vibrant communities, which is a more proactive effective thing to channel our energy into. As someone who left Los Angeles in 1993 to go up to Northern California, when I come down to LA, it’s incredible to see what’s happening in infill development and transportation planning and construction, even as the traffic is, yes, worse.  But progress is in sight.  Just look at downtown, or the busway in the valley.

The problems that we are now addressing are some of the even harder ones, such as how to deal with the thorny issue of stormwater pollution in a way that yields water supply and flood control benefits along with water quality protection.  It started off as a way to save the bay; now it’s a way to save the city.  Infill development was originally advocated by environmental advocates as a way to save open space and lessen air pollution, now it’s an engine for downtown, Hollywood, and all sorts of areas’ economic development.

You’ve now got multiple generations of folks with an environmental bent, and now people are grappling with quality of life and economics as a part of it. You have young people with environmental values going into the business sector, and not just in high tech or clean tech. They see this as a vehicle to create a better world.  They mix environmental concerns with social justice concerns and use electronics to deal with complexity and communication in an exciting way.  They want vibrant communities and connection vs. separation and isolation.  They are more multlicultural and multi-issue than the boomer generation.  This makes me optimistic that we’re going to have a movement that makes LA, in particular, an even more vibrant place to be with the potential to be the model city of the future. 


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