An open letter to Governor Brown on the future of water management

“Constantly expanding the coercive power of government by adding each year so many minute prescriptions to our already detailed and turgid legal system overshadows other aspects of public service. Individual creativity and direct leadership must also play a part. We do this, not by commanding thou shalt or thou shalt not through a new law but by tapping into the persuasive power that can inspire and organize people.”
 -Governor Jerry Brown, 2013 State of the State

Dear Governor Brown,

I write to support your initiative to make “conservation a California way of life” and suggest ideas for improving its implementation.

These recommendations build from the rapid assessment our team led providing the first ever estimates ofefficiency goals for over four hundred California retailers according to the framework enumerated in Executive Order B-37–16. That work was funded by the Water Foundation[1] for $150,000, whose CEO Wade Crowfoot was previously in your administration, and completed over the course of four months.

Our technology was honored as the best urban tool in the 2016 California Water Data Challenge, an excellent collaboration that brought together the two state water agencies in partnership with the California Government Operations Agency (“Gov Ops”) and White House Council of Environmental Quality. That version one provides the technological infrastructure for future improvements, which are documented in full here and current key gaps to setting water budgets at the local water utility level are summarized below:

  1. The state water agencies do not have accurate service area boundaries for local retailers
  2. The state water agencies do not have accurate land use information
  3. The state water agencies’ evapotranspiration data has insufficient coverage
  4. The state water agencies have not developed landscape area definitions

Since May 2016, despite $3,000,000 in funding and repeated requests, the Department of Water Resources has yet to complete a two agency pilot and begin addressing issue four on the landscape area definitions and it is not clear how the results will integrate to address issues 1–3 on a statewide basis. There is an urgent need to modernize how California’s water agencies manage data in the spirit of the Open and Transparent Water Data Act enacted in November 2016.

Your Government Operations Agency offers proven experience and success leading collaborative data initiatives. We propose that Gov Ops lead a one year task force to ensure these important data issues are addressed in a timely fashion. Further our team stands ready to serve as an Applied Research arm of Gov Ops and collaborate with the inspiring array of in-kind local water utility, academic and technology partners assembled through the course of this project.

We recently completed our second annual water data summit at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Over 180 participants, including senior leadership from both state water agencies and your Office of Planning and Research, engaged and worked together to develop a roadmap to modernize the California water industry. Further we discussed actionable proposals on marketing, pricing and home automation to make conservation a way of life now.

According to a poll commissioned by the Association of California Water Agencies in April of this year, 93% of Californians agree that “Despite a wet year, California still needs to conserve water.” Yet “commanding thou shalt” will not make conservation a California way of life. The historic shift from lawns to California friendly landscapes is ongoing and in need of statewide leadership to build from early adopters and educate the broader public. Achieving the broader urban water efficiencies will require creativity and finesse, not simply command and control regulation.

Further, California’s entire water system, not just urban conservation, needs modernization to ensure every drop of our precious water resources is most effectively utilized. The historic drought created a huge trust deficit between state and local water agencies. The Little Hoover Commission report on “Managing for Change: Modernizing California’s Water Governance” provides a common sense framework to rebuild that foundational trust and achieve much needed operational improvements. Those recommendations to move operations of the state water project out of the Department of Water Resources and consolidate the two state water agencies into a new Department of Water Management are more timely than ever with your leadership on the Delta Fix.

Such transformational changes are often derided as impossible or a fool’s errand. So too were the initial plans for the State Water Project by California’s first state engineer William Hammond Hall. California’s water industry has historically been no stranger to visionary initiatives that were not complacent about things as they are but pioneered a brighter future that might be. With a water system designed a generation ago for a state half our current population and future uncertainty from climate change, the question is simply whether we have the courage our ancestors showed in doing not what was easy but what needed to be done. We have committed to the latter course and believe firmly the people of California deserve nothing less.

We humbly ask for your support in having Gov Ops lead a one year water data task force and formalizing A.R.G.O. as the Applied Research arm of Gov Ops so that we can continue delivering this mission critical work for California’s future.


Patrick and the Argonauts

A.R.G.O. (Applied Research in Government Operations) is a startup nonprofit that builds, operates and maintains pioneering data infrastructure to transform how water reliability, street quality, and other basic public services are delivered. ARGO’s work has been featured in Senator Hertzberg’s Subcommittee on Modernizing Government, Fast Company, Fox News Smart Cities, the Associated Press, Harper’s magazine and other news outlets. Learning from the tradition of visionary technocratic excellence in the California water community, we’re building a new kind of public institution, the world’s first data utility.

[1] This grant was officially “made through the California Drought Action Initiative program of the Resources Legacy Fund.”