August 4, 2014 - From the August, 2014 issue

Felicia Marcus Warns: California’s Drought Worst in 100 Years

Felicia Marcus was appointed Chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board by Governor Jerry Brown in 2012, following a period as Western Director of the NRDC and a prominent career advocating for the environment. In the midst of one of California’s most serious droughts in decades, the Board’s focus on conservation and infrastructure to maintain water resources has regained the public’s attention. MIR presents the following interview with Marcus on the state’s response to California’s drought emergency and on planning for more resilient water resource infrastructure in the future.

Felicia Marcus

“Water districts throughout the state are implementing their drought contingency plans that include mandatory outdoor irrigation limits, and that is what we were looking for.” —Felicia Marcus

“The Public Policy Institute of California poll recently confirmed that 75 percent of the public wanted and supported mandatory conservation at the local level, which is terrific.” —Felicia Marcus

Felicia, a drought emergency has been proclaimed in the State of California. Could you elaborate on the significance of such declarations?

We’re in the worst drought emergency we’ve seen in over 100 years—as long as we’ve been recording. Technically we’ve had two years (1924 and 1977) with slightly less rain and snow since the beginning of the last century, but the impact now is far greater. We have millions more people. We have far more agricultural production dependent on the same drop of water, in part because agricultural efficiency allows us to grow more crops with the same amount of water. We also have many more endangered fish and wildlife species that no longer have the resilience to get through a drought. 

In this third dry drought year, it’s dire in many areas of the state. We’ve got over 400,000 acres of fallowed fields. There are citrus trees dying, particularly in areas that don’t have groundwater resources to fall back on. About 10 percent of agricultural production is out of service in the Central Valley, with a devastating human and economic impact. Thousands of people are out of work, having food boxes delivered to them through emergency services. Communities are running out of water. In fact, the state—through the Office of Emergency Services and the Drinking Water Program—is getting water trucks out to communities that are running out of water, or funding new wells or pipelines. Some communities are running water lines to other communities to help out. We’ve got people who are down to a minimal amount of water and are bathing out of buckets. It’s a serious situation.

How is the state presently responding to the drought emergency?

We’re responding on many cylinders and the response varies around the state.

I think we found a relatively lackluster response in the early part of this year in large urban areas for some interesting reasons. Many of these urban communities are hundreds of miles away from their water source—they don’t see the dried-up streams, reservoirs, snowpack, fallowed fields, or hurting communities. At the same time, communities in Southern California have invested billions collectively in regional storage over the past couple of decades, since the last big drought. Understandably, they were quite proud of themselves and wanted their consumers to know that their rates had gone to a good purpose. So they trumpeted the fact that they’d be fine for a year or two. That was in January. By April and May, when it was clear it was not going to rain during the rainy season, the alarm bells went off, at least at the state level. We knew we needed to do something more dramatic than just urging voluntary conservation. 

We don’t know how long this drought will last. We are acutely aware that in Australia, they kept thinking they were in a three-year drought cycle. After about six years, they finally had to take far more drastic and expensive measures than they would have had they conserved early. Their drought ended up lasting more than a decade and became known as the Millennial Drought. 

The lessons learned from both Australia and our own last bad drought in the ’70s was that we should conserve early to avoid taking even more drastic action later. We issued the first statewide water conservation regulations at the end of July, which recently went into effect. We issued rules for individuals that got a lot of the press coverage because they could result in a fine of up to $500. These included: Don’t water your lawn so much that it runs onto the street, use a broom instead of water except when health and safety is implicated, and have a shutoff nozzle on your hose if you wash your car. We also issued more significant direction to local agencies to impose some level of mandatory outdoor conservation or face a $10,000/day fine. On the heels of that, many water agencies have told us that they are going to comply, or have already complied. Water districts throughout the state are implementing their drought contingency plans that include mandatory outdoor irrigation limits, and that is what we were looking for. 

You leave the impression that Southern California has not done enough this year in response to extreme drought conditions—despite acknowledging years of significant public investment in water conservation. Are water conversation efforts and measures in the Bay Area, Sacramento, and Metropolitan Los Angeles equally progressive? 

It’s a complex question, or rather, a complex answer. The Bay Area and Southern California have spent the last 20 years implementing progressive conservation. There’s been a lot of investment and you’ve seen those major metropolitan areas grow substantially without using more water in total. There’s a lot to be proud of, but there’s still a long way that folks could go—particularly given how much water is spent outside the house watering lawns. In California, 30-80 percent of residential use is still outside the home, an average of about 50 percent. Many folks don’t realize that they are overwatering their lawns because it often just sinks into the soil below the lawn. That’s why we focused there.

In the Sacramento area, they aren’t even fully water-metered. State legislation requires that they be metered by 2025 and they’re about halfway there. Sacramento is actually putting in very expensive state-of-the-art “smart meters,” so that once they are totally metered, they will be cutting edge. Sacramento will be able to help community members understand their water use inside and outside the house, which has been demonstrated to be a highly effective tool in conservation. 

On the other hand, Sacramento-area residents are not hundreds of miles from their source of water or even their reservoir. In January, Folsom looked pretty dry, with boat docks sitting on the dirt. Because the entire Sacramento metropolitan area was at risk of running out of water, their alarm bells really went off. They have instituted among the most aggressive outdoor irrigation requirements. This includes a whole phalanx of water cops and reporting systems, because they can’t rely on meters the way other places can. In Santa Cruz, they don’t have a huge reservoir and don’t get imported water. So, they have instituted tough restrictions including higher prices if you go over a reasonable allocation of water, which they can do because they do have meters. In this particular drought, Sacramento has done a stellar job moving quickly in the face of necessity, and so has Santa Cruz, while the Bay Area and Southern California cities that had more water tucked away in storage and had done conservation for the past 20 years were taking a more leisurely approach.

I also think it was easier in Southern California and the Bay Area to believe that it wasn’t so bad. The media wasn’t covering the drought in an aggressive way. They ran stories about El Niño coming to save us, then didn’t run stories when the facts came out that, of course, El Niño could be wet or dry, and it was more likely to be moderate. Counting on El Nino to save us was like buying a lottery ticket and thinking it was a retirement plan—not a good strategy, especially if we get a long-term drought. We cannot face the specter of areas all over the state running out of water in a few years because they allowed overwatering lawns now. That just doesn’t make sense. 

Have the common economic travails experienced in the Bay Area, Southern California, and the Central Valley resulting from the drought brought more Californians to agreement on water policy? Or do the old competitive north/south and urban/agriculture narratives still rule the politics of water?

The former would be my hope. I think that’s what the governor had in mind in January when he declared the drought, asked people to step up, and said that we’re all in this together. I agree with him completely. 

I think the public is with us on that. The Public Policy Institute of California poll recently confirmed that 75 percent of the public wanted and supported mandatory conservation at the local level, which is terrific. It’s not surprising to me, because I think the public wants to be a part of solutions. They just needed to know that we really were in a drought, and that everyone would participate fairly in their efforts. 

We’re also seeing unlikely allies in conversation about groundwater legislation, and how to marry water supply reliability with ecosystem protection and restoration in many places. We’re seeing urban areas, particularly in Southern California, invest in stormwater capture and reuse to increase their supplies, versus being so dependent upon imported water. Communities all over the state are coming together to develop integrated water management plans to use their local dollars more wisely to deal with flood control, water supply, and water quality with the same scarce local dollar. All of that is good. The old narratives are still there, and still being repeated, but I’m hoping they will no longer rule the politics.

When you were appointed by the governor to the Water Resources Board, VX News quoted you as follows: “One thing that has completely struck me since coming back full time into the water world is the number of new myriad accords, agreements, and 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 breath.” Do you still feel that way?

Yes, absolutely. More so, as I’ve been here longer and have seen more depth on those issues. I’ve been a part of the dialogues about how to leverage even more integrated actions. 

We are on the verge, I hope, of passing groundwater legislation in California. We’ve got an incredible array of unlikely allies stepping forward and saying, “Now’s the time.” At first they were talking about it in bars and coffee shops, just not into microphones or for attribution. Now they are talking in front of microphones, cameras, and each other. They’re agreeing on a format so that California can join all the other states that have groundwater regulation at the state level—but in a way that honors local leadership and tries to replicate it, as opposed to coming in top-down. There’s amazing agreement across the spectrum on the bones of the framework for groundwater legislation. People have said this would be the most important thing to happen in California water law in 100 years. That’s been fabulous—fingers crossed that we’ll get over the finish line. 


At the beginning of this month, we moved the Drinking Water Program from the Department of Public Health into the State Water Board. The goal is to have one entity responsible for water quality from source to tap, to be able to find synergies between all the programs. This will help get safe drinking water to small communities in particular. They can have one-stop shopping for all of their technical and financial assistance, as well as regulation.

The transition also allows us to bring together two governmental units that deal with expanding recycled water use in California. The aim is to expand it in a way that uses precious water resources more intelligently, but also protects public health, as they do in many other countries. That is always our most important goal.

We have the California Water Action Plan. Within the administration, we were able to take comment from people across the spectrum and come out with a relatively short document identifying 10 areas where we can do some immediate good. This will also allow us to lay a foundation for sustainable and more integrated water management for the coming decades, as climate change and population growth put more pressure on our water resources. We promised over the course of five years that we will prioritize and make a difference on those issues. 

It’s an all-of-the-above strategy that I’ve never seen an administration do so comprehensively. We’re also putting ecosystem protection up on deck at the same time as safe drinking water. Water supply and water quality; storage above and below ground; big and small. More conservation first and foremost, and expanding the use of recycled water, stormwater, and desal as available and appropriate. Every region is different, and the solution is providing the tools, incentives, and rewards to diversify each region’s portfolio of surface water, imported water, groundwater, recycled water, groundwater recharge, etc. The beauty is that it’s not just a document—it’s something we’re working on every day. We have already made great progress. 

I’m exhausted, but delighted to be. We’ve been working full-tilt with each other and with stakeholders.

July 29th was the last day for stakeholders to comment on the current Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Give our readers an update on the BDCP. Has traditional opposition regarding that plan dissipated or grown?

The current proposal is quite different from the proposal a number of years ago, but it’s still just in draft form. There’s a lot of process to go. It’s hard for me to opine at the moment, particularly because I’ll be holding hearings on it as a decision maker. Down the road, the BDCP is going to need to get a water rights permit change for an additional method and location of diversion. That will be the subject of evidentiary adjudicatory hearings out in public in front of my board. We will need to determine that the proposal doesn’t adversely affect fish and wildlife, or any other water rights holders, and can put appropriate conditions on it. 

We will take a long, careful look at how much flow can go through the facility and the Delta. That’s in line with our ongoing Bay Delta water quality planning update. 

Of course, if you have two points of diversion, you have more flexibility to try to avoid the reverse flows that have really wreaked havoc with fish populations given the existing location of the pumps at the southern end of the Delta.

The dialogue is still heated and the stakes are high all around. I think there’s a recognition that it’s a much more complex set of issues than the north-south slogans of the past. The hot button continues to be flow, but there’s more to the dialogue. It’s about dealing with flow to be sure, but also the other things fish need, like habitat. It’s about water quality for those who live in the Delta as much as for those who export from it.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people who are pedal-to-the-metal at the extremes still. There are people who have all kinds of strongly held views and fears on all sides. It is a very important and complicated infrastructure and ecosystem management issue that requires open minds and problem-solving on all sides rather than repeating talking points louder and slower and more frequently. It would be nice for folks to spend more time talking with each other than past each other or about each other.

Your favorite philosopher, you often have said, is Yogi Berra. And your favorite quote of his is, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Ergo, will there be a water bond—with co-equal goals of water supply reliability and ecosystem restoration in the Delta—on the November California ballot?

It’s very much up-in-the-air. Without action by the legislature, the current $11 billion-plus bond from 2009 will be on the ballot. I think there are commonalities between the different players in the legislature as well as in the administration. The key issues that folks are discussing now have to do with the size of the bond, how much the state can afford (because you have to pay them back), and what would pass in front of the voters. Reasonable minds can differ. The governor has proposed that the state can afford $6 billion. 

All of the bonds have provisions for the very important things upon which there is agreement. They include some element of storage, both above and below ground, to deal with challenges of climate change. They all have some kind of ecosystem or watershed restoration. Happily, they all have provisions for helping get safe drinking water to communities. Frequently, that issue is discussed in different settings, but has risen to the fore as a matter of great concern—whether it’s communities struggling with toxics or, in particular, those struggling with nitrate contamination when they’re reliant on groundwater. I think that high-level focus on safe drinking water is particularly terrific. 

The bonds vary in the details and amounts for each type of action. They vary on who decides where the money goes and who spends the money or delivers the projects. Those questions are in very active discussion between legislators, legislative staff, and the administration, along with the stakeholders. I really don’t know how it will turn out. My experience has been that these things get resolved right before the deadline. 

To close, when you moderate a VerdeXchange Conference panel this coming January on water resources and management, what will you likely trumpet as a successful response to California’s current drought?

Frankly, the most successful thing would be rain!

But regarding drought response, success would be if we really do see urban Californians step up, with the attitude that they want to stretch their own resources as far as possible and want to help other Californians. A gallon saved in one part of the state, while not necessarily connected to every other part of the state, does free up flexibility in the system as folks can be more generous with transfers or deferral of their allocations. 

We really could use progress on changing our concept of outdoor landscape aesthetics to one more suited to a Mediterranean climate, and accelerating our work on recycled water. One of our early responses to the drought was to give 1 percent financing and expedited, streamlined permitting to the use of recycled water outdoors. If we also make real progress on stormwater capture, treatment and storage—the kind of green infrastructure work that the City of LA has pioneered, along with Philadelphia and New York—and accelerate toward regional water supply reliability, that will be a good thing.


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