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Felicia Marcus: "Water is at the center of climate adaptation and where so many solutions lie"

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The United States is facing various pressing water challenges, including drought, rising sea levels, ageing water infrastructure and polluted waterways. We speak to Felicia Marcus, William C. Landreth Fellow, Stanford University Water in the West Program, Founding Member, Water Policy Group, about some of these questions.

Founding member of the Water Policy Group and the William C. Landreth Visiting Fellow at Stanford’s University’s Water in the West Program, Felicia Marcus has worked in most areas of the water sector, having turned her volunteer work into a successful and buzzing career. Serving in positions in government, the non-profit and private sector, she shares with SWM her vast experience and views on various pressing water issues, including the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Clean Water Act, climate mitigation, and the provision of clean water in disadvantaged communities, a topic particularly close to her heart.

Published in SWM Bimonthly 15 - November 2022
SWM Bimonthly 15

Can you tell us briefly about your career path and your current role at Stanford University and the Water Policy Group?

There are many achievements accomplished because of the Clean Water Act, which is possibly the most successful environmental statute

I have a crazy accidental career path that came from following my heart and my volunteer work turned into my career path. I started as a public interest lawyer in LA and ended up becoming the volunteer lawyer and VP for a group called Heal the Bay which was fighting to upgrade the City of LA’s wastewater facilities to protect Santa Monica Bay. Long story, but we were successful in part because we won some regulatory and legal battles, and in part because we also got the city leadership to agree with us in the political/policy arena. I ended up heading the public works department several years into it due to some amazing vision of Mayor Bradley and his Deputy Mayor Mike Gage, which led to me being able to put myself where my mouth was, get even more done on more issues, and also learn the joy and the challenge of actually being in an operational role. It was a revelation and a great privilege. I then became regional administrator of US EPA in the Clinton Admin (in part because I knew what it felt like to be regulated in addition to my environmental and legal background as an advocate). There I worked on issues across the board in water — drinking water, water supply, conflicts over ecosystem flows, source water protection, water quality standards, etc. across four states and 143 federally recognized Indian tribes and many of the Pacific Islands. I also spent a lot of time at the US-Mexico Border on a host of issues. After a ten-year period working in national nonprofits (NRDC and TPL) I went back into government in the Jerry Brown Administration as Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. Currently, I am a half-time visiting fellow at Stanford’s Water in the West program and the other half is a mix of an energy corporate board, some water consulting, and a lot of pro bono work on recycled water and climate adaptation both domestic and international. I just finished a project looking at synergies between state climate policy and nature-based solutions that yield multiple benefits, especially for water.

  • We need far more to retool to deal with aging infrastructure, the chemicals of emerging concern, and to deal with non-point sources

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act in the U.S. What are its main achievements and what are the main threats to water safety that still exist?

There are many remarkable achievements accomplished because of the Clean Water Act, which is possibly the most successful of our environmental statutes.  In particular, if you look at the issues at the time the act was passed, it’s been estimated that at the time 80-85% of the water pollution problem was from unregulated, or under-regulated, “point sources” or pipes that went directly from a facility to a water body for pollutant disposal.  It’s done a pretty awesome job, albeit later than 1985 (the original goal for “fishable, swimmable” waters), but significant nonetheless.  Sewage and industrial discharges are reduced to a small fraction of what they were, rivers aren’t catching on fire, and waterbodies are not choked by sewage discharge that absorbed so much oxygen that fish asphyxiated).  On the other hand, “non-point source” pollution from urban runoff and agriculture and other land disturbance has not been vanquished and we are seeing algae blooms and “dead zones” from that runoff in lakes and waterways, including big-time in the Gulf of Mexico (and increasingly in the Bay-Delta and last month in San Francisco Bay). We also have new generations of pollutants that are emerging through better science, including more ubiquitous chemicals like the PFAS and PFOA families of “forever chemicals” and microplastics that slough off everything and are now even found in what we all excrete.  Ditto with endocrine disruptors (hormone mimickers) from the hormones and drugs we take, or even caffeine.  We’ve also not achieved healthy water for ecosystems (the fishable part and beyond), so despite the great progress compared to where we were 50 years ago, we still have a long way to go and we’d better not take 50 more years to get there.  The federal tools for dealing with non-point pollution are much more constrained than for point sources (e.g., the exemption for much of agriculture), so this is a big lift.  Another remarkable accomplishment of the Clean Water Act that most people don’t realize stems from its emphasis on capacity building in states and tribes to implement federal programs. Similarly, people don’t acknowledge the billions of dollars in grants and loans that have gone to much of the public sector clean-up of things like sewage treatment plants.  Grants shifted to low-cost loans along the way, but those are helpful too. We need far more to retool to deal with aging infrastructure, the chemicals of emerging concern, and to deal with non-point sources. And we need more integrated solutions that include nature-based systems that can provide multiple benefits (like stormwater capture and quality through greening urban spaces while providing flood control and water quality) and large scale water recycling. This is where the Clean Water Act meets the Safe Drinking Water Act.

You have been named “California’s Water Czar” by the New York Times for your leadership during California’s historic drought. How is California dealing with drought? How can it serve as an example for other states?

We put over $1.5 billion in grants and loans into water recycling projects to get them off the drawing board and into construction

Didn’t feel like much of a “czar” at the time, but the State Water Resources Control Board that I chaired was on point for many of the key issues including historic mandatory urban water conservation regulations, helping get drinking water to underserved small communities that were running out of water (and frequently being served polluted water even if they had it), handling water rights conflicts between water rights holders and between water rights holders and the ecosystem, etc. so I was pretty on point on some tough choices. I do think we moved the needle significantly in that last drought in helping to get the human right to water issue front and center and prioritizing underserved communities, in helping folks see that they were hemorrhaging valuable highly treated drinking water on keeping their lawns a particular shade of green in a drought (the public saved 24% and has held 2/3rds of that), in getting historic groundwater management reform legislation passed, in getting better data on water use in agriculture (although still a long way to go), and in trying to protect the ecosystem (although we have a long long way to go), and other things.  We put over $1.5 billion in grants and loans into water recycling projects to get them off the drawing board and into construction and we streamlined our recycled water rules to make them clear, more usable, and more predictable.  Direct potable reuse standards will be out in 2023 and just the promise of that has unleashed huge projects -- particularly in the greater LA area that will make the region significantly more resilient to disruption of imported water sources which is inevitable with climate change but also possible any time for other reasons.  

In 2020, you joined the Program on Water in the West at Stanford University. What projects and research have you been working on regarding water management?

I finished a big project on the intersection of state climate policy and nature-based solutions that yield multiple benefits, especially for water

It’s been an eclectic mix of projects. I am there as a practitioner in residence of sorts, so I spend a lot of time lecturing in other people’s classes, advising students and professors about how policymaking actually works in practice, and how to get things done. I’ve team taught some courses including a cool one that integrated the Human Right to Water with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and an energy seminar dealing with the western governance infrastructure for managing electricity. I finished a big project on the intersection of state climate policy and nature-based solutions that yield multiple benefits, especially for water, in the Colorado Basin states that was really fun, and am currently working on a “policy lab” project with Professor Buzz Thompson and five students to update the state of state policies across the west that integrate water and land use — an obvious overlap that is rarely pushed or implemented at the state level.  I’m also working on a project on underutilized tools to protect instream flows across the west.  We have all kinds of policies and tools, but they are not implemented extensively or effectively.  Part of that is political will, or lack thereof, to be sure, but part of it may be that the tools are just too hard to use and perhaps there are easier to implement reforms or barrier removal that can see them used more frequently and effectively. I’ve also been spending a lot of time specifically in the climate adaptation and water space in the west and internationally.

You are a founding member of the Water Policy Group, counseling government officials on water policy strategies. Why was the Water Policy Group created and how does it help governments and international bodies improve their water policy strategies?

The Water Policy Group was founded by current and former senior national and international water policy officials who recognized the importance of being able to bring together years of experience and expertise as practitioners familiar with the challenges of being such an official.  The value of having others who have experience in that unique situation of working with elected officials, the media, stakeholders, and one’s administration colleagues gives one practical experience and ability to help ask questions, counsel, and help each other think through challenging water issues. I relied on the Australian members of the group during our big California drought as sounding boards who could ask good questions, which is why they invited me to join them when they formed the group. As Yogi Berra said, “in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.” 

Water has a role in clean power production and better operation of water and wastewater treatment plants can also mitigate climate change 

Members of the group have also worked extensively with international organizations of all kinds and can bring a sense of the practical and pragmatic to conversations and efforts that can otherwise sometimes be abstract. Last year we undertook the first survey of what national water ministers at the political level thought about pressing water challenges and were able to do so in part because of our various connections to water ministers through our collective work. It gave a candid look at what they were thinking in an anonymous survey (key takeaways included that climate change was the number one threat to water security across the board, and that fragmentation of institutions was the greatest barrier of many).  We are about to undertake another survey which we hope will help to shape future international meetings and discourse on the issues that the ministers most need help on. Individuals in the group have done a variety of speaking or assistance work with a wide variety of countries or multi-country efforts and we hope someday to do more as a group.

As the former State Water Board chair, you worked to prepare the state for a more challenging water future under climate change. What do you think is water’s role in climate adaptation?

Water is at the center of climate adaptation. It is the bleeding edge. It is where the effects are first felt, whether through droughts, flooding, or sea level rise.  It is also where so many solutions lie — better water management in cities and agriculture will blunt the worst effects of climate change, and smarter watershed management from mountaintops to sea or sink can do even more to help mitigate climate change’s worst impacts through wildfire prevention, mitigating snowpack loss, and mitigating floods and sea level rise. It can also yield multiple benefits for biodiversity, water quality, and other social goods.  Water has a role in multiple kinds of clean power production, and better operation of water and wastewater treatment plants can also mitigate climate change in many ways. Efficiency first and foremost is the cleanest, cheapest, and smartest thing we can do, followed by water recycling and stormwater capture — all of which have multiple benefits while making our communities more resilient in the face of a pretty darn terrifying future. Nature-based solutions like ecological forest management, meadow restoration, and enhanced agricultural practices are at the heart of building resilience. In SF Bay, they are working on using wetland restoration and elevation to buffer the force of sea level rise while providing greenspace and ecological value. In LA County, they are planning $300 m a year in greenspaces and stormwater capture to deal with flood control, recharging groundwater basins, and cleaning up stormdrain pollution. Massive recycling projects are being designed or expanded.  All of those are water efforts that will help us adapt to that scary future. Our systems and practices, unfortunately, tend to be backwards-looking and siloed, though there are signs of hope in all of the things I’ve mentioned. We just need to expand them across far more regions and communities and do it all much, much faster.

  • Drinking water and water quality in the environment are enormous and growing ever more important and challenging as science evolves

You also worked towards solving water challenges in disadvantaged communities. Has there been any progress in this regard? What remains to be done?

This is the challenge that is at the top of all our lists. We publicized reports in 2012 and 2013 to expose more broadly what a big problem this was and worked hard to get some tools to deal with it as we had neither the resources nor the authority to act at the scale needed. Oddly enough, the drought which followed and found people out of water created far more impetus to fix the problem than the fact that so many small communities that had water had horrible water. There has been a lot of progress in the ten years since the Human Right to Water (HRTW) statute made the HRTW state policy. We still have a long way to go but making good on the promise of HRTW is within sight. Due to the phenomenal organizing and strategy work of advocates like the Community Water Center, the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, and Clean Water Action plus the leadership of the Brown and Newsom Administrations, California did several things to consolidate the drinking water program into the state water board to help create a one-stop shop for small communities for funding and technical assistance, numerous legislative efforts to give the water board power to consolidate small water agencies with larger ones to create an economy of scale, over a billion dollars for capital and operational needs and a variety of other measures. 

A career spent in sewage, water rights, urban and rural, tribal and community has been educational and rewarding from every angle

Communities are now being helped every day with a robust plan to keep marching through the list of failing and at-risk communities. Each community is uniquely situated, so it takes a customized approach for each, but progress is being made.  We all want it to be faster, but there are good people in and out of government making this their top priority every day. There are still more tools that the water board needs to move even faster and I’m sure the advocates will keep going back for more, which is great.

Working closely with students at Stanford University, what advice would you give the younger generations entering the water industry?

It is a fascinating and important field of endeavor — people will always need water so this field is no passing fancy.  While it will evolve, and needs to evolve, it will always be important. The beauty of it today is that there are so many fields from which to engage — engineering, policy, law, communications, and science of all types. Drinking water and water quality in the environment are enormous and growing ever more important and challenging as science evolves.  Water rights and water supply management is an entirely different field. Natural systems and nature-based solutions are coming to the fore in a way they have not for the past 100+ years (during which we seem to have forgotten what everyone everywhere has known forever about the connectedness of things). Ecosystem management is something we need to rise to the occasion on or we will have lost something incalculable (which we already have in many instances but the worst losses yet to come can be avoided). We need scientists, advocates, engineers, managers, communicators, and any expertise you can imagine to meet the challenges ahead. The private sector is waking up to water insecurity as well as the need to be better water stewards in the communities they work in and due to employee and customer expectations so that is a growing field as well. I advise students to see what grabs their hearts and where their skills and the things they like to do come together. I also always encourage students to experiment with internships and externships and volunteer work to see beyond the idea of a job and get a feel for different parts of the water field.  I’m biased, but a career spent in sewage, water rights, urban and rural, tribal and community, and lots of corners of the water industry has been educational and rewarding from every angle. Each experience has made me more effective in the next and we need more people with a broad view of the field to be able to come up with and implement complex, cross-sector solutions.