California’s Water Data Problems are Symptoms of Inchoate Science and Technical Activities


“The truth is lost when there is too much contention about it.” – Publius Syrus (43 BC)

by Jay Lund

In 2016, California’s legislature passed AB 1755, the Open and Transparent Water Data Act, requiring that State agencies provide water data online, including existing datasets, with open-data protocols for data sharing, transparency, documentation and quality control.  That any legislative body, composed mostly of lawyers, would show interest in the wonkish topic of data and pass legislation on data management, is a testament to the failures of state agencies on the subject.  (Imagine state engineers suggesting changes in legislative rules.)

Efforts are now underway in diverse government agencies and other organizations to make water data available, accessible, and perhaps even organized and better explained.  Alas, if experience is a guide, most improvements from these efforts will be marginal, as they do not address the cause of California’s water data malaise.

Disorganized data is a symptom of disorganized technical work.  California has many agencies and programs involved in water management and regulation, particularly its Department of Water Resources, State Water Resource Control Boards, and Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Each agency has some excellent employees and the state supports some exemplary data and technical resources, particularly regarding floods, often in collaboration with other agencies.  But most of the state’s overall water-related scientific and technical activities are notoriously splintered across programs with independent legal mandates, funding sources, and lines of management, and overall leadership to serve the common good.  Addressing the root disorganization of the state’s technical efforts on water management and regulation is needed for long-term data success.

Fragmentation of the State’s technical activities also has other problems.  The many water accounting systems now hinder development of the common water accounting needed for groundwater recharge and management, water rights enforcement, environmental water management, and water markets.  The splintering of water quality and quantity data collection obscures insights needed for more effective management and hinders quality control within and across agencies.

Water data problems will likely worsen, particularly if unaddressed.  More data are being collected.  As prices for collecting data decrease, we collect much more.  Without organization, more data can add confusion.  The cost and controversies of making sense and developing insights from data is increasing.  Without synthesis, each side chooses the data and interpretations it wishes for.

Data will always be frustrating, even if we manage it well.  Good management and use of data will reveal sometimes unwanted insights and unrealized gaps and needs.  Good data management also raises demands for new analysis and quality control.  The more we know, the more we want to know and make sure of.  This is a price of progress.

California’s water challenges are leading to a more integrated water management, which needs to be supported by more integrated technical programs across the many state agencies and programs.  Implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will be excruciating for water users and all agencies without a common water accounting framework and common technical information (including recognized models and data).  The effectiveness of environmental flows will continue to be clouded and undermined without coordinated data collection, management, and analysis.  And water rights will be less secure, less marketable, and often unenforceable without more solid water accounting.

The problem is not lack of legislation or even (mostly) lack of money.  Local and regional water agencies already collect and manage immense amounts of water data, which can better contribute to a common understanding of California’s water.  State agencies need a more common scientific and technical program for water management and regulation, providing common support across agency boundaries.

The progress report on California Department of Water Resources’ (DWR’s) implementation of Assembly Bill 1755 contains many good things and is a step in the right direction.  However, these steps will not progress far or fast without a broader and more profound vision for more effective state technical water work, across agencies, extending well beyond DWR.  Integrated water management requires integrated scientific and technical work across the many state, local, and federal water data and technical efforts.

A few specific thoughts on the document:

  1. Funding for data management is as fundamental as funding personnel and personnel records, and should be part of every agency’s financial plan. That the report seeks separate funding for data management misses how fundamental data management is for the success of the state’s water management enterprise.
  2. A test bed and use cases are important, but it is also important not to stake too much on the success of the details of this narrow effort. Technology development often outstrips state software development.  Technological progress in this field can be both an opportunity (if we are prepared for it) and a problem (if we are not).  This is a rapidly-changing field.
  3. A “federated” approach to water data is needed.  The state’s most successful data and technical efforts are usually joint efforts across state and federal agencies, such as CNRFC, or joint efforts across state, federal, and local agencies for data collection. To be effective and not bog down in bureaucracy, a federated approach will need consistent accountability, motivation, and resources.  The most effective water data management efforts (CDEC and CNRFC) are motivated by flood problems, which must respond quickly to serve a wide range of users or create violent consequences.
  4. An improved institutional setting for data management might support improved technical information and coordination overall. Each state agency might develop a routine data management policy for its major functions, so that these data and functions might be more transparent and more easily coordinated across agencies.
  5. In data management, the best can be the enemy of the good. Trying to address too many issues too soon usually leads to collapse. Success will be frustratingly slow.
  6. One activity that would provide immediate and lasting service to all state and local agencies, as well as the public, would be on-line archiving of all reports done by or for state agencies. Maven’s water library is a prototype of such a system. The University of California library system is another suitable steward for such a system.  Any state project or decision process could archive analyses and reports with an automated system where agency staff and consultants could enter, catalog, upload, and archive documents into the library.  State agencies and programs often place documents on the web, but these can quickly become a dystopia of broken links.

The Department of Water Resources is accepting comments on its Progress Report – Implementing the Open and Transparent Water Data Act with Initial Draft Strategic Plan and Preliminary Protocols until March 30, 2018.

Jay Lund is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California – Davis, where he is also Director for its Center for Watershed Sciences. He enjoys data, and hungers for mostly better.

Further reading

California Legislative Information (2016), AB-1755 The Open and Transparent Water Data Act,

California Department of Water Resources, California Data Exchange Center (CDEC),

James, K. (2016), “California’s New Water Data Law Will Have Far-Reaching Benefits,” Water Deeply, 11 October.

Lund, J. (2016), How much water was pumped from the Delta’s Banks Pumping Plant? A mystery,, Posted on

Maven’s Notebook, California Water Library,

Mount, J. (2018), Advice on Voluntary Settlements for California’s Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Part 3: Science for Ecosystem Management,, Posted on February 27, 2018.

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), California-Nevada River Forecast Center (CNRFC),

UC Davis Center for Water-Energy Efficiency, work on data analytics




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2 Responses to California’s Water Data Problems are Symptoms of Inchoate Science and Technical Activities

  1. Frances Griffin says:

    Recommend this article:China’s ‘sponge cities’ are turning streets green to combat flooding ……/chinas-sponge-cities-are-turning-streets-green-to-com…

    Dec 27, 2017 – Replacing concrete pavements with wetlands, green rooftops and rain gardens means stormwater is absorbed back into the land, making water work for the city instead of against it.

    But then beavers do much the same thing for free.

  2. Jai Rho says:

    The truth is never lost. But fools get lost when they wander in the weeds.

    Organization is necessary and on-line accessibility is helpful, but both are inadequate without complete data. “Dystopia of broken links” is an apt description of water data collection in California. Groundwater is the source of approximately 40% of annual water consumption in California (over 60% in drought years), yet there is no monitoring requirement for private well extraction. While the recent Sustainable Groundwater Management Act has a monitoring requirement, it is limited to regional monitoring by local agencies. Any greater degree of accuracy is entirely dependent upon voluntary self-reporting and estimates from a patchwork of independent organizations.

    Moreover, data collection methods throughout the state are antiquated and generally performed manually (snowpack is still measured by digging a hole and dropping a stick, and steel tape is still a primary tool for measuring water depth in monitor wells). While the best can be the enemy of the good, complacency can be the enemy of the good.

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