Water & Drought

Amid California’s drought, water chief preaches conservation – and balance

Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, has a central role in guiding the state’s response to its historic drought.
Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, has a central role in guiding the state’s response to its historic drought. rpench@sacbee.com

Felicia Marcus gets in the shower when it’s still cold.

As full-time chair of California’s State Water Resources Control Board, Marcus has a key role in how California stewards its finite resources during a devastating drought. So Marcus can hardly let precious water wash down the drain while she waits for the shower to heat up.

“Just using less and using it more wisely is No. 1,” Marcus said of her agency’s goals. “We’ve had the luxury of it just coming out of the tap – if you step back, it’s a miracle of civilization that we can have water as freely and inexpensively available to people that they can take it for granted.”

Drought consumes Marcus’ life. When she flies to San Diego, she peers out the window to see which lawns are green and which ones have been allowed to fade into yellow and brown. She bristles at restaurants that bring water to diners who haven’t requested it.

“Folks in large urban communities are hundreds of miles away from where the water comes from, so they don’t see what’s happening,” Marcus said. “There are people who are bathing out of buckets. There are people who are having to go to a community center to take a shower. There are farmers who are losing everything. There are farmworkers out of work.”

The prospect of significant relief gleamed briefly in December. Storms swept over the state, swelling rivers and forcing the Department of Water Resources to activate its flood-response center in what director Mark Cowin called “a hopeful moment.”

Then it barely rained in January. Record-low precipitation offered the latest indication that the drought will persist, further straining water supplies that have already dwindled sharply over the last few years.

A fourth year of drought means another year of crisis management for the constellation of agencies that manage California’s water. Marcus’ agency will have a pivotal role in much of it.

Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Marcus to her position in 2012, punctuating a career that has spanned public administration overseeing the Los Angeles Board of Public Works, environmental activism for groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, and air quality and water regulation for the Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton administration. As a young environmentalist, she co-founded Heal the Bay, which fought ongoing pollution in Santa Monica Bay.

More recently, she has played the intermediary’s role she describes as “environmental therapist.”

“I’ve been lucky to have this experience of sitting in multiple chairs, having been a litigator, an environmental activist – community organizer, really – and running a public works department where you’re dealing with a river of human waste coming at you 24 hours a day and the garbage needs to be picked up,” Marcus said.

Her board sets water-quality rules that help determine how much water can be delivered through the massive State Water Project, influence how much comes out of the tap in small, parched communities and shape whether technologies are cost-effective. It works to streamline permits and allocate money for drinking water and new infrastructure. It manages water rights, which lately has meant immense cutbacks. In 2013, the board issued zero “water rights curtailment” notices. In 2014, the number was 9,463.

It must consider the needs of urban users, of farmers, of disadvantaged small towns, of fish reliant on flows of fresh water – what Marcus describes as “a terrible, Solomonic set of choices.”

“People need fish, they need agriculture, they need to eat,” Marcus said. “Our task, unenviable though it may be, is to strike the balance that honors all users.”

Inevitably, that balancing act generates conflict. People petitioning the water board to relax standards and thereby free up more water for themselves had been a rarity, Marcus said. Now it is commonplace.

“Individual water users or agencies that have had very reliable water supplies are shocked when they realize they aren’t going to receive water or very limited water, or that the state board is going to curtail their water rights,” Cowin said. “There’s a period of unacceptance.”

Last year, acting on Brown’s executive order to craft new drought regulations, the board declared wasting water a criminal infraction potentially carrying a $500 fine. The water board also ordered urban suppliers to restrict outdoor watering and to report on how much water they use, a requirement that Marcus said motivated agencies hoping to avoid being publicly outed for wastefulness.

Despite the unprecedented scope of restrictions that Association of California Water Agencies executive director Tim Quinn said “would normally have been ferociously opposed,” water importers followed the board’s lead. Quinn credited the government’s work – including that of Marcus, whom he first met when she was “a fire-breathing young dragon of an attorney” with Heal the Bay.

“I have worked with every administration going back to (Gov. George) Deukmejian,” Quinn said.“I’ve never had a better administration to work with until this now, and Felicia Marcus would be high up on my list of people who make this administration as good as it is.”

Marcus understands viscerally the dire consequences of a sustained drought. She has traveled the state and seen fallowed fields. She has heard from representatives of communities bereft of drinking water.

And yet she projects optimism that the severity of the drought will prod people into longer-term plans that will make the state’s water management smarter and more resilient. She calls it “hopefulness in the long term, frustration in the short term,” and added, “This year is going to kind of be an amazing time for both progress and horror, really.”

There is a phrase Marcus repeats often: “Belts, suspenders, flying monkeys.” It encapsulates the all-of-the-above approach she deems crucial to California’s ability to provide enough water, not just in 2015 but in future decades when the state will teem with millions more residents and the challenges of climate change will likely have intensified.

“We built our infrastructure around a model that over the decades, I think, we can change,” Marcus said.

On a recent morning, Marcus and her colleagues met to discuss the potential of “direct potable reuse” – in more direct terms, finding a way to provide more water by making larger quantities of sewage water drinkable. The State Water Resources Control Board regulates the standards dictating when treated wastewater is fit for human consumption. That affects the cost of treatment, which guides how likely agencies are to invest in the technology.

“A lot of utility people want to get to” more widespread use of recycled wastewater, Marcus said, but that entails a “multi-decade” process. It will require more innovation and shifts in what people can stomach, both literally and figuratively.

“Astronauts drink their own pee and have been for some time, but here you’re drinking someone else’s pee,” she noted, which required a higher level of vigilance. “With public health,” she said, “you want to be conservative.”

Discussing ideas like recycling wastewater, or doing a better job capturing and reusing stormwater, or engineering water systems to better recharge groundwater aquifers, animates Marcus. Everywhere she looks, she sees opportunities for California to better manage water. And this drought, painful though it has been, provides an incentive to improve.

“There’s just so much waste in the system now,” Marcus said. “People are willing to talk about it because they’re talking about the reality of more frequent water shortages.”

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

Felicia Marcus

Age: 59, born in Los Angeles.

Education: Harvard College 1977, East Asian Studies; New York University School of Law, JD 1983.

Experience: California Water Resources Control Board, chairwoman, 2012-present; Natural Resources Defense Council, western director, 2008-2012; Trust for Public Land, chief operating officer, 2001-2008; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, regional administrator, 1993-2001; City of Los Angeles Board of Public Works, 1989-93.

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