Envisioning a California water data corps

The ongoing digital transformation of California’s water industry through AB 1755 and locally led collaboratives has seen incredible progress since the author of “the Big Thirst” Charles Fishman declared in the NYT that “water is broken, data can fix it” almost a decade ago. Still key areas of focus like streamlining state reporting have remain painfully entrenched and fragmented. Just ask any local water manager about the regulatory burden.

The political economy of California water plays a big role in that landscape. California water management provides a pretzel palace of incredibly complex interlocking institutions. That operational reality creates a keen need for effective protocols to share data. The importance of the people piece of unlocking that complex puzzle cannot be underestimated and standardized certs could provide a provide a powerful protocol for water managers to hire much needed talent at scale.

Uniquely, California has two state water agencies and an even greater number of disparate reporting requirements for local water suppliers. Many of those differences cut across different departments within those two state agencies. The CA water data consortium conducted a nice study summarizing the state of urban water reporting, particularly focused on supply and demand. There are many other reporting requirements for water quality and also regional groundwater adjudications, to give two examples.

Proven models like the USDS digital corps provide a radically common sense pathway to implement the consortium’s great recommendations on streamlining state reporting.[1] That program was implemented by the Biden Harris Administration to continue the public technology work supported by the previous two presidents. The goal was to provide a path for early career professionals to enter federal government and make better public technology much more of the new normal in public administration.

Over the last decade, California water industry has seen a great deal of attention on improving its data. As that water data movement looks to broaden and deepen its work, there is a ton of yeoman’s work needed to simplify and chip away at that massive reporting workload. There are lots of examples of formulaic literal punching in numbers from one piece of paper to an excel sheet to a pdf that gets shuffled off to another agency and then the cycle continues.

Below are a couple of categories of task types that do not require a four year degree (or more) and would benefit from a water data cert program.[2]

  • Data Workflow Improvement: Address bottlenecks in internal data processing pipelines. Produce charts and tables for reports and document the updated workflow.

  • Data Archival and Digitization: Work to digitize historical records through optical character recognition and other modern methods.

  • Data Sharing and Web Development: Update old websites to make water data more easily accessible for other industry professionals and the public.

Crucially, such a corps could be collaborative across institutions in the best spirit of the water industry. So many utilities like my hometown water district in La Crescenta are already overburdened and over capacity. An injection of new talent would provide much needed support and energy to industry face big challenges with climate change, an aging workforce and other seismic shifts.

To build such a water data corps, our industry doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. The US Digital Corps provides a lot of templates and structure that could be refactored. More locally, the Civic Spark Water Fellowship or the California Conservation Corps provide a lot of inspiring structure and examples. There is also a great opportunity to lead the way within the larger public interest technology movement.

At its best, California water has provided a path for people from all walks of life to make an honest living providing a valuable public service. The growing maturity of the water data movement provides a unique opportunity to build on that proud tradition and boldly pioneer solutions with broad applicability on workforce development, public technology and ongoing societal transitions.

Let’s find a way! Thanks for reading.



[1] My fellow Argonaut Varun had a great post imagining a public technology corps prior to the 2020 presidential transition that was shared widely in national civic tech circles.

[2] This blog posts builds off a nice LinkedIn conversation linked here.

[3] There is just something about the California Conservations Corps motto and founding that plays to my heartstrings. From Governing magazine:

“The CCC’s motto, “Hard Work, Low Pay, Miserable Conditions and More!,” echoes the sensibilities of its founder. Jerry Brown’s audacious vision, says CCC Director Bruce Saito, was to combine an Israeli kibbutz where people from different backgrounds could work together, a Jesuit seminary encouraging participants to think about their actions and reflect on their whole being and a Marine boot camp.”

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