A Moneyball Approach to Clean Water in California

PLACENTIA/CALIFORNIA - APRIL 22, 2018: Placentia landmark water tower.

PLACENTIA/CALIFORNIA - APRIL 22, 2018: Placentia landmark water tower. Philip Pilosian / Shutterstock.com


Connecting state and local government leaders

Up to 1 million Californians lack access to clean, safe drinking water at some point during the year. Data scientists believe they are part of the solution.

California has a lot going for it as a state, including one of the world’s largest economies and solid fiscal conditions. But abundant sources of clean water is not typically listed as one of its assets. Out of a population of around 40 million, the state estimates that “up to 1 million Californians lack access to clean, safe drinking water at some point during the year.”

Horacio Amezquita, general manager for a low-income housing cooperative of farmworkers in Salinas, California, recently discussed his community’s decades-long, ongoing struggle to maintain safe and clean water for their 300 residents with an assorted crew of policy wonks, data heads, academics and public officials.

“It’s not just disadvantaged communities that are facing water contamination,” Amezquita told his audience, pointing out that California’s urban areas were dealing with seawater intrusion into their drinking water. “This is a matter of public health and it should be treated as [such]... If we don’t have clean water, there’s not much of a life.”

The gathering last week at a Google Community workspace in San Francisco kicked off the 2018 Safe Drinking Water Data Challenge, a summer-long effort to find ways to improve water quality through data science. The goal is to help “publish water and ecosystem information in an open data format” in the hope it will spur “the development of innovative tools and insights related to safe drinking water.”

This summer project is not simply a lofty goal—it’s enshrined in state law. California passed a bill to build a statewide integrated water data platform in 2016, and was also the first state to pass legislation declaring access to clean safe drinking water a human right.

Even beginning to determine the state of drinking water across California is no easy task. California has a massive state water infrastructure that transports water from north of Sacramento to the southern two-thirds of the state, where 80 percent of the demand comes from. That may be the easy part, though. The state has about 3,000 community water systems, as well as over 4,400 small water systems for everything from remote truck stops to mobile home parks.

“It’s a very fragmented system with nobody regulating 80 percent of it,” Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, told the assembled group. “It’s very difficult in that institutional infrastructure to get to everything.”

Map of California's interconnected water systems. Made using data from USGS and California Department of Water Resources. Topography from USGS. (Wikicommons, 2016)

Data on those water systems isn’t structured much better; significant gaps exist in state databases, and much of the information that exists is scattered across state and local agencies. Enter the West Big Data Innovation Hub, part of the National Science Foundation’s national big data research and development initiative, which is helping the state convene experts to help compile, collect and extract knowledge from the data.

Meredith Lee, executive director of the West Big Data Innovation Hub, is taking a leadership role in the initiative. She explained that the state has “billions—at least” of data points in state databases on water. As wonderful as that is, she said, “they’re difficult to bring together into one space: to find them, to align them and to analyze them.”

That problem was echoed by academics like Thomas Harter, the Robert M. Hagan Endowed Chair in Water Management and Policy at University of California-Davis. Harter discussed how data about deep groundwater was being pulled from one department, while water quality information was held elsewhere.

“I can’t link the information about well construction, which sits in the Department of Water Resources, with the information of water quality, which most of it sits in the state Water Resources Control Board,” he explained. That sort of comparison could be critical in identifying best practices, or contamination of certain aquifers.

Despite the state of the data today, state leaders, as well as those joining to help support the effort, are enthusiastic about the potential outcomes of the collaboration ahead. And there’s good reason to be optimistic.

Previous water data challenges yielded substantial, and unexpected, results. A data analysis from University of California at Davis showed water restrictions in response to the California 2015 drought had the added benefit of tremendous energy savings. In fact, the study showed reducing water use saved more energy at a significantly cheaper cost than energy reduction activities state utilities were investing in.

Greg Gearheart, a deputy director in the California Water Resources Control Board’s Office of Information Management and Analysis, told Route Fifty that analysis changed energy conservation policy discussions in the state, focusing policymakers on prioritizing water conservation as a means to save energy and reduce carbon emissions statewide.

Gearheart thinks that type of success is possible when it comes to data on clean drinking water. He pointed to recent data analytics efforts by graduate students at University of California at Berkeley mapping water systems at high risk of lead contamination, and the potential to add new data sets through remote sensing technologies.

“It’s kind of like our cell phones: If you can deliver more data to a more common platform that more people can work in, share space in, and innovate in, you’re going to start seeing amazing things happen that you didn’t anticipate,” Gearheart said.

That level of potential impact has drawn significant support to the challenge. Over a dozen organizations have made commitments to support the effort, including universities across the western United States, Microsoft, and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. Imagine H2O, an accelerator for startups that focus on solutions to water concerns, will award $1,500 and other supportive services to a team that they believe provides the most effective and innovative solution.

The broad-based support points to the universality of the problem, Lee said. “There's a lot of regional and even national interest in this broader dialogue because we're not the only state to struggle with providing safe drinking water for everyone,” she said.

Last month, The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board excoriated the state legislature, pointing to a McClatchy analysis showing 360,000 Californians have unsafe drinking water. “That’s the equivalent of about three and a half Flint, Michigans, and it’s an outrage,” the editorial board wrote.

How to begin to tackle that complex problem is an open question without better data to go on. At the clean water data challenge “finale event” in August, the leaders of this initiative hope to have a better sense of potential solutions.

Mitch Herckis is Senior Editor and Director of Strategic Initiatives for Government Executive's Route Fifty. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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