Open Data: California’s Water Records Should Be Made Public

Making California's water records available to a wider range of scientists and civil engineers could have a profound effect on how the state keeps from completely drying up.

by MIKE MONTGOMERY AND BRIAN PURCHIA / July 30, 2014
California's Folsom Lake is less than 20 percent full. FlickrCC/sjrankin

As California struggles through one of the more brutal droughts in its history, hundreds of thousands of water-related records are left languishing in cardboard boxes in Sacramento. These records are ripe with potential — for studying water supplies, improving water safety, and protecting groundwater, among other things — and yet, as The Sacramento Bee recently reported, they are only available to a select few.

 
As big believers in the benefits of open data, California’s locked-up water records are an exciting prospect. Making those records available to a wider range of scientists and civil engineers could have a profound effect on how the state keeps from completely drying up. And yet, as with many state problems, a dusty law in need of an update bars the transparency of California’s water records.
 
Specifically, California Water Code Section 13752, which blocks the public from inspecting water logs. Enacted in 1951, the law was basically written by well-drilling companies, who worried making their records public would give competitors a leg up. In other words, transparency and the public interest weren’t at the forefront.
 
While this may not have been much of an issue 60 years ago, Section 13752 is now keeping California from leveraging today’s technology. As Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, told The Bee: “The lack of information about well logs make no sense, particularly because we are trying to manage a diminishing public trust resource.”
 
Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees. When asked by the Bee whether the water records should be made public, Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau, replied that he didn’t see a “real benefit” in kicking the law to the curb. “Those who are in authority and who have a need to know have access to it now,” he told The Bee.
 
Wenger and the organization he now runs have their reasons for wanting to keep water records available only to “those who are in authority.” But, given California’s severe water shortage, embracing open and transparent data would create an opportunity for universities, civic-minded startups and the general public to wrestle with the state’s very real water problem instead of a select few.
 
Our legislators should take a page from their forward-thinking colleagues at the California Department of Public Health, which just opened its data to the public and do the same for our water data.
 
It’s in all our best interests to keep water flowing, after all, so what benefit do we gain from keeping big brains on the sidelines? What potential products and services is this 60-year-old law stifling?
 
As reported in The Bee, there have already been two attempts to reform Section 13752 — both in the past three years — but both were thwarted by regulatory squabbling. As a result, California remains the only state in the Western U.S. to keep its water records restricted. Which, given our state’s leadership when it comes to technology, is pretty absurd.
 
Mike Montgomery is the executive director of CALinnovates, which brings together stakeholders in the technology and startup communities with government leaders. Brian Purchia is a new media communications strategist and owner of Purchia Communications.
 
This story was originally published by TechWire