Podcast: Felicia Marcus, California State Water Resources Control Board

November 14, 2016

Felicia Marcus has one big job – one few would ever covet.

She’s the chairwoman of California’s State Water Resources Control Board.

The New York Times has called her “the face of California’s crackdown on water abusers.” And a “drought celebrity.”

Her board implements both federal and state laws regarding drinking water and water quality.

It enforces water rights laws; sets statewide water quality, drinking water and water rights policy; and decides water rights disputes.

Like I said, tasks few would covet being responsible for anywhere right now – not to mention in the thirstiest state of our nation.

This woman brings tenacity, candor and doggedness to water, and I’m thrilled to have her as our next guest of freshwater Talk.

Take a look at a sampling of our conversation below, and listen to the full episode above. Next month, we’ll look at some of the best moments during another full year of freshwater Talk.

Q: What in the world made you accept this position?

A: It’s a great opportunity. I’ve worked in and around water in Northern California and Southern California at the federal level and at the local level and in the water supply issues, Bay Delta issues and in water quality. So at this point in my career, it was a great opportunity to put myself where my mouth has been and try to do some good with an administration that really wants to do stuff.

Q: You’ve become known as a pretty big supporter of local approaches to water management. How does local management really begin to work in these settings that have such different characters?

A: That’s part of the reason why local management makes sense. But in some ways, it’s about redefining local. I don’t think we need top-down state control, but I do think we need a more consolidated, local conversation about how water moves through geographies and different stages of use.

Q: The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is huge. It’s groundbreaking. Again, a lot of really great words written on paper. We have to make that through line happen in the applied world. What role do you see this improved and improving water accounting, tracking and reporting play? What type of opportunities does that open up for California going forward?

A: We have had a paucity of data at a scale that could allow people to come up with those multiple benefit solutions across jurisdictions or silos. So having some basic information about surface water, let alone the information about groundwater, allows us to even have a conversation about how we might be able to do things better, whether it’s implementing our water rights system above ground or below. I just think knowing about what we’re talking about is a better foundational base for discourse about how to use water wisely.

Q: Shifting gears to algal blooms. They are starting to pop up more and more in California. How are you looking at understanding those and ultimately figuring out how to manage those?

A: We’re starting to look at it much more closely. There are certain areas where they were relatively more common because of the nutrient load in a given place, even a natural nutrient load, not something that hadn’t been regulated, and a combination of shallow water and warm temperatures. But as we’ve seen an exploding number of them seemingly in the ocean and in water bodies because of the combination of low water levels due to drought and record high temperatures at the same time, we realize we need to take a more proactive approach. There are some areas where they regularly apply algicides at certain times of year, and that’s usually a hard fought issue at a local level. Sometimes people know to just stay out of the water at certain times of year, but the scale at which we’re seeing means we need to double down on thinking about it and may need to address our standard.

Q: What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this job?

A: That’s a good question. I’ve done so many different things. It’s hard to know. I’m not sure what I would have done next. I might have gone back into local government if I had gone back to Los Angeles in a local agency. I actually am more of an operations person than a regulator. I like doing stuff and working with people who are doing things, whether it’s a sewage treatment plant or stormwater capture. I spent seven years at the Trust for Public Land with people who were creating these amazing miracles of folks reaching across unusual divides and creating parks and playgrounds and saving farms and doing all kinds of things with the land, which does tend to bring out the best in people. So I’d probably be doing something like that. But I think having an operations mindset is a good thing in a regulator because it helps keep me humble about the role of regulators.

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