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Fixing California’s Water: Felicia Marcus at the Helm

Fixing California’s Water: Felicia Marcus at the Helm

Felicia Marcus has a knack for accepting jobs just before crises occur. Just before the California drought hit, Marcus agreed to serve as Chair of the California Water Resources Control Board.

A philosophical person in a potentially bureaucratic position, Marcus has a lot of ideas about water governance and management. She is a believer in local control, and put the – just lifted – state regulations in place last year reluctantly. But even when playing “bad cop” to farmers, homeowners and others eager to use lots of water, Marcus sets out reasons for her actions that provide a Mary Poppins-like “spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.” Whether when I’ve met with her in person or, more recently, in an interview on the Let There Be Water Podcast series, Marcus is cheerful and intelligent.

As the job title suggests, Marcus is responsible for all manner of water issues, from quality to quantity and from infrastructure to emergency regulations. While that makes common sense, California has localized the management and governance of water.

There are more than 3,000 agencies, bureaus, irrigation districts, flood control boards, utilities and so forth just in California. As such, consistency is hard to achieve, but, even so, Marcus prefers to leave each locality with full autonomy, stepping in only when necessary.

But how to figure out when it is necessary?

Whether handled by top-down mandates or by local control, one likely long-term casualty of the drought and mandatory conservation plans is what we’ve come to think of as the California lifestyle: Just-washed cars, shimmering swimming pools and green lawns in homes and gold courses. How can that self-image endure when water is suddenly seen as a limited resource?

 

Even if Marcus is right and a generational transformation is taking place as regards these seeming California birthrights, the changed thinking she speaks of in the podcast can’t occur fast enough to promise water security in the coming years. Despite Marcus’s preference for letting the local water boards make the decisions, someone needs to police the level of aquifers as the consequences of over-pumping come into relief. As aquifers get pumped lower and lower, the future of farming in California will be at risk. And one way or another, that can’t be allowed to happen. Both California (for its economy) and the country (for its nutrition) rely too much on California’s produce.

In our conversation, Marcus described how she came to override her preference for local control and what the trigger was. Leaning on the models she knew from Israel and Australia, Marcus and the state Water Resources Control Board decided to take action – just in case the drought was worse than expected. Restrictions were imposed. Now, with conservation efforts resulting in a significant drop in water usage, thanks to those politically tough moves (and some robust rainfall), the state restrictions have been lifted.

Beyond regulatory decision-making, as a piece with her “we’re all in this together” personality, Marcus says that the only solution that will work is one that takes everyone’s needs into consideration. She wants localities to continue to decide on water pricing, even if it is fairly clear that she prefers that the price for water that is charged be something akin to the precious commodity’s real value.

The solution to California’s water problems won’t come until farmers get more water and the environmental community gets the water it needs to protect endangered species. It won’t be easy hammering out that compromise, but one that Marcus relishes taking on.

Seth M. Siegel is a businessman, activist and writer. His new book Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World is a New York Times bestseller. Seth regularly appears on television and radio, and his essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Learn more about Let There Be Water at www.lettherebewater.com and follow Seth @SethMSiegel.