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California Finally Starts Digitization of Water Rights Records

The state has begun scanning 2 million pages. It’s part of a $60 million project to build a database integrating a century of water rights records, geospatial mapping and up-to-date water diversion data.

In a Sacramento, Calif., office building, university students carefully scan pieces of paper that underpin California’s most contentious and valuable water disputes. One by one, they’re bringing pieces of history into the digital era, some a century old and thin as onion skin.

The student workers are beginning to digitize the state’s water rights records, part of a project launched by the state’s water regulator earlier this year. It may seem simple, but scanning two million musty pages is part of a $60 million project that could take years.

The massive undertaking will unmask the notoriously opaque world of California water. Right now, it’s practically impossible to know who has the right to use water, how much they’re taking and from what river or stream at any given time in the state.

The State Water Resources Control Board aims to build a database that integrates a century of water rights records, geospatial mapping and up-to-date water diversion data that’s available to the public. This new directory will, most crucially, help regulators make high-stakes decisions on who to cut off when the next drought hits.

“I believe strongly that you must measure it to manage it, especially with water,” said Brent Vanderburgh, project manager at the Water Board. “We’re looking at how digital tools can help us do our jobs better, more efficiently and according to the modern standards that our society expects.”

California may be the country’s tech capital, but it still relies on a room filled with aging paper records — maps the size of bedspreads, illegible letters written in bygone cursive and corduroy-bound ledgers — to manage its water supply. Other Western states such as Washington and Oregon have far more modern accounting systems.

The state’s labyrinth system of water rights dates back to the Gold Rush, when miners declared their rights to water by nailing paper notices to trees. The oldest rights holders have seniority, and when the state restricts water use during drought, they are the last to be curtailed, if at all.

A lack of timely and useful data became all too apparent during recent dry spells. After the 2012-2015 drought, new regulations populated a clunky online portal with new water use information, but problems remained in 2021 when regulators were forced to use outdated data to issue drought curtailments.

Since then, the state has committed approximately $60 million from the general fund to the water rights digitization and data modernization effort underway at the water board. Project managers estimate the new system, called CalWatrs, will be operational sometime in 2025.

A bulk of the project’s budget will fund back-end web development, for which the agency has hired a team of consultants from Deloitte. Meanwhile, the water board launched a pair of pilot projects to begin scanning paper water rights with specialty scanners.

That’s taking place in the “digitization bullpen” made of cubicle walls at the agency’s office, where a group of state workers and student assistants are processing and scanning thousands of pages in a carefully choreographed dance of paper pushing.

The team inspects each water right file, removing any bindings and looking for duplicates. Damaged or fragile records are flagged and sent to a “triage” center for special attention, including for repairs with artifact tape. Once scanned, each page is uploaded to content management software.

There, another student assigns it with metadata tags and geocodes so that someday it can be found with a simple keyword search. Eventually, most of the paper records will go into offsite storage and some may even be housed as antiques at the California State Library.

Water board staff warn that the journey to a data-based water future for California is long. That’s not just because properly scanning 2 million pages will take time, but combining that data with accurate and timely water use reporting is even more complicated.

Through a series of regulations, the agency is requiring water rights holders to report their water diversions more regularly and with high-tech meters. Annual water use reports have been required since 2016, but the data held the board’s unwieldy eWRIMS system can be a year old and wildly inaccurate.

Water board staff say the ability to compare timely, accurate reporting data to historic water rights with a new database undoubtedly shed light on the whole system, potentially revealing everything from honest errors in to newfound violations.

“It’s one step on the road to growing up into a modern system,” said Felicia Marcus, a visiting fellow at Stanford University and former chair of the water board. “Water rights are so crudely regulated now that it would be a huge leap forward in terms of ability to implement the system and institute fairness.”

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation giving the board explicit authority to investigate the validity of water rights, including senior rights. A pair of bills that would have given the board broader authority to issue curtailment orders stalled in 2023 but could be brought up again this year in the Legislature.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all are happy with the board’s data-gathering efforts.

Michael Kiparsky, director of UC Berkeley’s Water Wheeler Center, led a 2021 study that found the state’s water rights system was ill-equipped to protect people and the environment from climate change — which state officials say will increase drought severity and shrink average supply.

His research team also produced a digital database of water rights from the Mono Basin that helped inform the state’s current project. Kiparsky said he encountered “a lot of resistance to changing the status quo, and the status quo in California is about stasis and a lack of clarity.”

Senior water rights holders in that region, according to his report, worried that water rights data transparency would facilitate more regulation and litigation. They also argued that the water board should not be trusted with such information, whether because the agency was too activist or too pliant.

Kiparsky expressed his own caution, not about the agency’s regulatory authority, but its ability to deliver on a massive data project. California, he pointed out, has a less-than-stellar track record of modernizing government information technology systems for the internet era.

The state auditor found last year that projects led by the California Department of Technology, which is involved in the water rights effort, have ended in widespread delays and cost overruns. That history includes the botched FI$Cal budget database and the pandemic Employment Development Department fraud debacle.

“It’s very difficult to make big databases work well in conjunction with other ones, and part of that is the structure of government,” Kiparsky said. “We’re in a race against the next drought so it would be wonderful if this were put into place before rather than after it comes.”

A public system developed by a mega-consulting could pose future issues with maintenance and ownership, said Gary Darling, California’s first statewide geographic information officer and longtime civil servant at the Department of Natural Resources.

But this time around, he said he has faith in the project’s managers — in part because the stakes are too high to mess up.

“Just because Deloitte doesn’t have the best track record doesn’t mean we’re going to screw this up,” Darling said. “This is one of the most important IT projects California has done in a long time. If this doesn’t come off were going to pay for it for decades.”

Project staff at the Water Board say they have taken steps to steer clear of cost overruns, including building a team of 12 new staff members who have expertise in both water rights and data systems.

The one thing that remains unclear? Exactly long it will take to scan millions of pages. Two pilot projects beginning in December didn’t even get through 20,000.

“I don’t think there’s any way we’re getting all these records digitized by 2025,” said Vanderburgh, project manager at the water board. “But our pace right now on the project is fantastic. We’re on budget, on schedule.”

©2024 The Sacramento Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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