Could Innovators Fix California’s Drought?

Put big data in the hands of the state’s smartest businesspeople and we could see some real solutions.

by Mike Montgomery / June 23, 2015
In northern California, Folsom Lake has dropped to near-record lows; in December 2013, it was below 20 percent capacity. At the same time in 2012, it was at 80 percent of capacity. Flickr/Amber Tsuchida

For the people of California, the drought has become a very scary reality. Politicians have spent years hoping that the next rainy season would alleviate the problem. But this year it’s become terrifyingly clear that the drought is here to stay.

Now the state must figure out how to deal with a crisis that should have been part of the legislative agenda all along. Gov. Jerry Brown took a good first step by requiring the state to cut water use by 25 percent. But that’s (pardon the pun) just a drop in the bucket when it comes to finding the savings the state will need to get it through what could be a prolonged drought.

Politics make meaningful change hard. Brown’s cutback is already being attacked by communities claiming they can’t make the cuts. It might be too much to expect the government to take additional steps to make a difference anytime soon.

But there’s a very simple thing the governor could do that I believe would make a huge difference.

He could support the reversal of a dusty law from the 1950s that requires California water records to remain private. The law prevents these records from being disclosed to the country’s vast hordes of smart engineers and big thinkers. If we want a real solution, we need new ideas from water industry outsiders. By sharing water data, Brown could unleash the power of California’s entrepreneurial class to innovate new ways for the citizens of California to significantly reduce their water use.

It’s worth asking why, in these dire times, is California the only western state that restricts water record transparency. If universities, civic-minded startups and scientists could study these records for water supply patterns, groundwater protection and water safety issues, California would be on the verge of some top-notch solutions that could stretch a whole lot further than our backyards.

“We have many of the smartest minds on the planet here in California,” said Mark Daniel, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur and former Thiel Fellow. “To not involve them in a quest for a solution is absurd.”

California Water Code Section 13752 blocks the public from inspecting water logs. The law was enacted in 1951 to protect well-drilling companies from competitors, and only a select few in the state government are allowed to access these records.

To get a better understanding of how these records might be used, I asked three tech innovators to share their thoughts.

In the interest of full disclosure, they all are members of CALinnovates, the nonprofit tech advocacy coalition I run. Here are four ways public water records in California could help ease the drought.

Blue Marketplace

Yo Yoshida, the founder and CEO of Appallicious (a civic startup that uses data to help government better serve its citizens), says publicizing water records would allow for the creation of a dynamic pricing marketplace based on availability, use and ease of access. The market could set the price for water just as markets set prices for things like oil and wheat. Those who use little would have a cheap baseline. Those who use water as a luxury would have to pay more.

Public Shame as a Water Virtue

“I would love to see the use of drones in all areas to do moisture readings like they do on farmlands to optimize water usage block by block or neighborhood by neighborhood,” Yoshida said. Analyzing these data sets alongside public records would allow experts to compare the drainage of water tables and visualize cause and effect. “I imagine this would motivate towns and cities to finally fix some of our leaky infrastructure.”

War Room for Water Innovation

“Real-time water use data from across the state would be extremely useful — as would marketplaces where water priorities can be transparently determined,” said Bart Myers, founder and CEO of Countable, a platform that gives voters information about key legislation and tools for being heard in government.

He suggests a virtual platform where experts and residents can share their best ideas and practices along with the latest data and progress updates. “Imagine a kind of issue-based war room,” he said. “All Californians could access it, and most could contribute to it.”

Hackathon State

Carrie Norton, founder and president of Green Business BASE CAMP, believes that open water data would lead to public hackathons, where anyone with an interest in water management could attend and spur future ideas. I like this hackathon idea because what she envisions is hundreds of people putting their heads together and dreaming up, then actually building, products and platforms to specifically address water-related challenges.

For any of this to happen though, the government must update the laws. The world changes quickly, but bureaucracies move slowly. In this case, that slow movement is hampering real change that the state now desperately needs. It’s time for California’s politicians to show some bravery and change these outdated laws. The future of the state depends on it.

This story appears in the June 2015 issue of TechWire magazine.