June 5, 2013 - From the June, 2013 issue

Los Angeles River Summit Keynoted by Felicia Marcus

Felicia Marcus, Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, recently spoke to leaders from California and the Netherlands at Room for the River: Los Angeles, a two-day conference dedicated to exploring best practices for river revitalization. As indicated in her talk, Marcus’ work in water and resource conservation is as varied as it is exemplary—she was formerly the Western Head of the NRDC, VP of the Trust for Public Land, an appointee to the Delta Stewardship Council, and an EPA regional administrator. MIR shares an excerpt of Marcus’ talk, in which she notes a hopeful proliferation of water resource management and habitat restoration projects across the state committed to reconciliation, multiple-benefit problem solving, and the power of the natural world to connect people to history and each other. 

Felicia Marcus

“ We are going to have to deal with the Delta, we are going to have to deal with water conservation and recycling in our cities, we’re going to have to deal with storm water capture and reuse in some significant way or we are fools, and history will not treat us kindly.” -Felicia Marcus

I am delighted to join you today because we’re going to engage on one of my all-time favorite topics. When asked to speak by Deputy Mayor Romel Pasqual, I jumped at the chance to open this meeting not just because of the topic, or my history with Andy Lipkis and TreePeople, or the Tree People location, or the cast of experts from the Netherlands, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on the Delta Stewardship Council. I jumped at it because I love LA, because I love Romel, and because I love all of you who have labored to see the potential of a revitalized and restored LA River. The river is great as a project; it is even better for what it represents for us a society and what this endeavor brings out in the people who work on it.

I am not a nature-for-nature’s-sake girl; I’m not against nature either. It’s fine; it’s important, beautiful, and wondrous, but what motivates me at a gut level is the connection between people and nature; or the connection between nature and an individual person; or what the act of restoring nature does to the connection between the people doing it. In the urban context that need is more acute than elsewhere, and the potential benefits of restoration are multiple. They are important in a personal sense for people; they are also essential for us to pragmatically and economically deal with the challenges of flood control, water supply, water quality, and greening. We’ve traditionally approached these separately, through hardscape solutions and building facilities, whether flood walls or export facilities or treatment plants. And we’ve established institutional infrastructures that are completely separate to deal with them.  This is probably the most expensive and least effective way to deal with this. Across the state we are seeing efforts blooming to restore nature for nature’s sake, but also for our own sakes from an elegantly pragmatic perspective. Your work on the LA River is one shining example of that.

I have a somewhat unusual perch from which to see this paradigm shift, this historic evolution, as I have had the amazing opportunity to be yanked into different jobs throughout my career, quite apart from any intentional plan. I am the original “my karma ran over my dogma person”; this job I’m in now is the fifth time I’ve been asked to help run an entity that I used to criticize. More important, I’ve been in and out of government at the local, federal, and now state level, and in both non-profit and private sectors, in regulatory roles, and in operational roles. In Northern California and in Southern California. It gives one perspective.

When I left USEPA in the early 2000s at the end of the Clinton Administration, I confess I was disheartened. Working across the Southwestern US and with 14 different statutes we had to implement, including toxics, pesticides, and other things, I came away feeling that we could implement all of the laws on the books and we would still be living a dull gray existence—we might have prevented toxins from contaminating our health to a certain extent, but it would not lead us to a sustainable and vibrant future. We might be cleaner, but we would be congested, surrounded by concrete, and we really wouldn’t ever be able to produce livable cities from our approach.

For a variety of family reasons I stayed in the Bay Area instead of coming back home to LA, but I realized that I needed to work in a setting where I could see what could be done to bring green back into people’s lives. I thought we could create the cleanest environment in the urban context but it would be lifeless and dreary. So I got to spend seven years working in an organization nationally, the Trust for Public Land (TPL), that did over 200 projects a year, each one restoring nature into the lives of people, so they could touch it in a very personal way. Each one a miracle of disparate people coming together to make something wonderful happen.  Whether it was reconnecting the Nez Perce tribe to their homeland for the first time since they were driven out 150 years ago; or a vast project in Atlanta that took what people referred to as “sprawl central” and created a beltline of green space and for transportation all around the city and between the city center and the suburbs; or those myriad parks and playgrounds in New York, Newark, LA, and San Francisco—these places are significantly beautiful but also connect. They connect us to the world we live in and to our broader collective humanity.

We did those projects because it is important to individuals because of what nature does for them. By being connected to nature, a person can simultaneously connect with themselves and something bigger than themselves. I don’t know about you, but at times that were hard in my life—I know you think I went into nature for solace, but I didn’t; I avoided it! That’s because when you go out in nature it is very hard to put a stopper on how you really feel; it’s something elemental, something real, that can put you in touch with yourself.

Eventually I started going back to the great outdoors, and it was amazing to realize how important it was to be able to center myself, to breathe, and to honestly consider what I thought about a host of important things—something that it is hard to do sitting being a desk or in traffic all day. One also can’t connect with oneself in the same way with a TV, I-Pod, or Game Boy in front of you. Being outdoors also helps you connect more constructively with other people. I’ve always noticed that people are different in nature. I think it brings out something better in us that is hard to explain. As a camper, and as a camp counselor for many years, I marveled at how it is harder to be a jerk out in beauty. Not impossible of course, just harder.

There’s a lot of literature growing on the importance of what that connection with nature does for people, whether it’s the field of biophilia, architecture and interior design, or even Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder,” talking about what is happening to kids without that connection to nature.

Appreciating the power of nature is also important in a very pragmatic way. We know the multiple benefits you get from recreating nature for flood control, water supply, and water quality have never been more important than they are now. I think part of the brilliance of what Tree People did in the 90s was to bring on an economist who could create a model so people could see that by retrofitting a portion of the county with roofcapture/cisterns, permeable pavement, and swales, you could capture rain and flood flows for water supply, while preventing flooding, and controlling pollutants, all at far less cost than dealing with flood control, water supply, and water quality separately. That TreePeople came up with it was true leadership, but it was also leadership for LA County Public Works to set aside what ended up being over $100 million to test it out rather than raising a segment of the flood walls with the money. SunValley is something every public official that deals with water should see and learn from.

PPIC, the Public Policy Institute of California, recently came out with a report called “Stress Release” about the multiple stressors in the San Francisco Bay Delta, that built on an earlier report on “Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation.” In both reports, they talked about the importance of figuring out how to “reconcile” ourselves to what we actually can do in recreating nature. I don’t love the phrase or how they use it so much because it sounds like we’re settling for something instead of just being realistic. Reconciling means we can’t go back to pristine or pre-human conditions, but that we can somehow restore nature to do the best we can do. In the urban built out context, restoring nature is actually a better way to develop urban infrastructure, not a sweet thing to do for nature’s sake. The concept is to retrofit our infrastructure and urban form to introduce nature back in—to add green space and capture stormwater runoff, for example, to both provide flood control, to augment scarce water supply, and to prevent downstream pollution, while also creating green space for recreation and aesthetic purposes. But I think “retrofit” is a little too cold, even though it’s technically accurate. So I’m looking for a better word. Regardless of title, I actually see this as a growing effort in all sorts of places to figure out how to commit to restoration in a smart and integrative way. It’s an effort to look at well-intentioned infrastructure planning pre-CEQA, pre-NEPA, pre-environmental sensibility—whether it’s the State Water Project, LA River, you name it—things that were done before the realization that we had lost something, or that there might be adverse consequences in one sense from “fixing” a problem in another, and figuring out how to update our systems in an inherently practical and pragmatic way.  It’s not a romantic notion of restoration for nature’s sake; but a practical notion of what to do for our collective sake. It’s combining the ecosystem and the “egosystem” to get physical benefits, but also the social and societal benefits of coming together to do something beautiful and practical for your community.

From my vantage point of returning to public service after a decade out of it, I do actually see it afresh. I have to say, seeing what has happened in that decade away, I’m now more optimistic, which is a great thing to realize after being so disheartened.

I find it irresistible, even though spring training is over, to go to my favorite philosopher, Yogi Berra, who said, “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.” I predict that you’re going to be seeing more of this work happening in more places at an accelerating pace. I think it’s in motion, all over the state and the country (I can’t speak as much for the world), and our course is towards reconciliation of nature and the built environment, and you in LA are among the shining examples both because of what you are doing and because it is so counter to the caricature that non-Angelenos have of LA.

Let me just give you a few examples that I hope will encourage you.

We really do see this leadership and sensibility in practice on the ground, instead of in cocktail party conversation or the high-drama in the halls of the legislature in Sacramento. You see the same people who are the combatants in one forum be very different back home, in their communities, working with people and putting together the pieces of whatever their local water puzzle is. Some of it is because of the Integrated Water Management Program (that some of you had a part in creating) and the state Propositions that gave it money. Some of it is because this is what water agencies do and what they are good at when they are at home. Some of it is because there is incentive in the form of potential grant money. But the heart of it is because, for whatever reason, people all over the place are finally sitting down to discuss how to use water and infrastructure to achieve multiple goals, reaching across silos and historical divides.

One thing that has completely struck me since coming back full time into the water world is the myriad accords, agreements, and IRWMPs (Integrated Regional Water Management Plans). There are growing groups of folks at the local and state levels reaching out to make their disparate water resources work for more objectives, whether it’s looking at contaminated water as a potential resource, finding a way to create habitats for salmon, figuring out how to turn urban storm water into a drinking water resource, or thinking about flood control and habitat restoration in the same breadth. While I wouldn’t say that multiple-benefit thinking is ubiquitous, it’s enough to be noticed all over the place, gaining a critical mass for what seems to me to be a sea change, a paradigm shift. It’s extraordinary.  It’s not universal, but it is significantly different than the trends of the previous decades.

Finally, a key reason I am optimistic about this is that I kind of have to be. We have to figure out how to make this work because the consequences of not doing it in the face of climate change are intolerable. Climate change with the increasing severity of storms, sea level rise, and the decrease in snow pack means we’re going to have to deal with both Delta fragility and losing a huge share of our storage in the State of California.


California’s water cycle is highly variable; we have one in five years where it rains a lot, and then it doesn’t rain much at all. Having storage is essential for our system, and we can fight over dams on various rivers, but the fact of the matter is that over half of our storage is in snow pack, and with climate change, we are going to lose a lot of that. That means we absolutely have to learn how to make our scarce water resources work better. We have to figure out how to reuse our ground water basins, not just for cleaning up water but for storage. We are going to have to deal with the Delta, we are going to have to deal with water conservation and recycling in our cities, we’re going to have to deal with storm water capture and reuse in some significant way or we are fools, and history will not treat us kindly.

Yogi Berra also said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is.” I’ll go with practitioners every time on these issues—those who take their experience and make practical suggestions on how to solve problems, those who understand give and take, and those who give as well as take. You are the prime example.

There are a plethora of examples of things happening that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. Many of them are actually in the Sacramento Valley, where rice farmers, Audubon, and other NGOs got together to take what was once seen as wasting water and loading it up with pesticides, and clean it up, and grow rice while also creating the bird refuge we so sorely need along the Pacific Flyway. With the loss of almost 90 percent of bird refuges in California, birds have nowhere to rest along the Pacific Flyway. The rice farmers and environmental groups came together, did great work and inspired others to do the same for salmon. They’ve focused on how to bring back fish, not just holding on to every molecule of water and daring us to rip it from their grasp. They are working on the whole range of things fish need, including habitat, and finding ways to release water at times that matter most for fish. It’s “Accords Are Us” along the Sacramento River—it’s really impressive.

I won’t say peace has broken out, but the notion of balance has broken through.

In the Delta, for example, even though legislation has enshrined in state law that our goals are coequal—both ecosystem restoration and water supply reliability together—I’ll tell you, that’s not what has been. It was a seesaw, one would win, the other would lose, and it went back and forth depending on what party happened to be in power. Now we are all on path and charged with figuring out how to do both.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is fraught with high-stakes rhetoric, and most of the airtime is reserved for the building of the tunnels to shuttle water under the fragile Delta that is now susceptible to collapse from sea level rise, storm surges, and earthquake, but at its heart the project is heavily about reconciliation and restoration, moving the point of diversion for 30 percent of the water that comes to Southern California, let alone what comes to the Central Valley. Under the current system, huge pumps were put in just the wrong place. This was prior to the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) or the California Environmental Protection Act (CEQA), which would have required looking at all of the reasonable alternatives for configuring the system and would have required going with the least damaging alternative absent a compelling reason not to do so. Had NEPA and CEQA been in place the pumps would never have been put solely at the bottom of the Delta. The State Department of Fish and Game said not to put the pumps there because that location would be a killing machine for fish. And it has been.  So the state is now trying to move those pumps, creating a different diversion that will give flexibility to not generate reverse flows--so the salmon can find their way out to sea and home again. That’s on top of tens of thousands of acres of restoration—one of the biggest restoration projects being proposed in the world. The devil is in the details, sizing, flows, etc., and it is far from done, but the effort and the aspiration is enormous.

In one of the biggest ongoing restoration/reconciliation efforts nationally, there is work going on in the San Joaquin Valley to restore the San Joaquin River, a river that ran dry for 30 years after the building of Friant Dam. After 18 years of litigation, diehard antagonists came together and are now working on how to restore it and bring fish back. In some test cases, water flowed all the way for the first time last year. But they are finding that they can’t just recreate what was there before, and in fact, some of the historic flood bypasses are probably going to be some of the best places to restore the river for fish because the river itself used to braid out across what is now acres and acres of rich farmland. If you can combine restoring part river and part flood bypass, you’re more likely to be able to get more restoration with less water. Balance.

In yet another part of the state, on the Klamath River there is an historic agreement signed by tribes, farmers, fishermen, conservation groups, and a hydroelectric company to remove a whole series of hydropower dams on the Klamath to bring back salmon runs.

Then, of course, in Southern California, you have remarkable things happening, like the Irvine Ranch Water District’s pathbreaking work on recycling and stormwater capture, or the meeting I attended a few months ago that featured people from local, state, and federal regulatory and water agencies trying to figure out how to clean up contaminated groundwater basins faster so that they can be used to store stormwater and recycled water. 

And here in LA, there’s the fact that folks in Los Angeles have done such an incredible job with water conservation, with Hyperion’s recycling goals, and the vision of what you’re trying to do through Prop O. When I think about how you’ve built upon TreePeople and LA County Public Work’s initial grand experiment in Sun Valley, through passing Proposition O and getting all kinds of stormwater capture, treatment, and reuse projects on the ground in the city, I am inspired. And while the county’s grand proposal to do its own version at a countywide level didn’t make it to the ballot this time, it will be back—this is a marathon and not a sprint.

As government, and now as a regulator­­­, I think we need to be here to set the bottom line, to create a level playing field, and yes, to sometimes just start the conversation. But we also need to recognize leadership and good ideas, create incentives, reward the proactive, and sometimes remove barriers of our own making. We are struggling to do this with our storm water regulations, while we’re trying to create space to reward communities that have real, concrete programs to get multiple benefits out of the same scarce local dollar. I encourage all of you to help us figure out how to do that in a way that’s not unduly restrictive but also ensures really good actions on the ground.

Getting back to you—this obviously is not the first effort, nor will it be the last, to focus on restoring and revitalizing the LA River. But it has the potential to be the most important, coming as it does from the midst of this rising tide of connection, integration across traditional silos and boundaries, and yes, restoration and integration of natural systems into traditional regulatory processes.  And, it has the potential to connect people across LA both by its very nature, and in the act of its restoration. 

I wish you all well moving this effort forward, both for its own sake and for what it represents about the maturation of our society. You are part of a movement whose time has come.  Bring all your technical and ecosystem skills, but also bring your humanity to it. In years to come I am sure people will look back, and may not know your names, but they will be grateful to you for taking this on. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

To close, I will paraphrase one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, in honor of the Consul General ­­and Lewis McAdams, who is also a poet: “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” I say, nothing better than the work we are all doing together today.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.