Deep Dive: Open Water Data Access & Availability

Water data are collected by a variety of governmental agencies at the local, state, and federal levels, and by non-governmental organizations. Access to such data provides vital information to the public to understand how water quality and quantity impacts their health, the environment, and decisions related to conservation, business development, infrastructure investment and moreLaws around open data requirements, more broadly, exist in 17 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), and four governors have issued open data executive ordersPolicies that promote the consolidation of water data in a common and open platform ensure easier access of data.

Lessons from California & New Mexico

In New Mexico and California, policies pursue integration of data and increasing access to data for state agencies and the general public. Key takeaways from both states include the following:

Agency Collaboration: Both the California and New Mexico policies require agency collaboration in the development of an online portal. This is essential as many of these agencies currently host a variety of water data; and through co-development, the transition of the data to a single platform is made easier.  

Catalyzing Event–Drought: In the West, drought has proven to be a key motivator in water policy reform. In both California and Texas, drought played a pivotal role in providing pressure and motivation to the Legislature to pass comprehensive water data sharing policies. This is a key lesson for water data sharing advocates. Open and transparent data will allow for more informed policies which will ensure better water management over the years to come.  

Trust Building: Trust building is critical in providing open and transparent data. There are concerns for both the state and community members on how water data is handled, processed, and communicated at large. California, in an effort to build trust, developed the California Water Data Consortium, which “provides an independent space for ongoing collaboration and sustained engagement between state agencies, water agencies, industry, NGOs, tribes, academia and others.

Key Policy Language in California

California’s Open and Transparent Water Data Act (AB 1755, 2016) directs the Department of Water Resources to create, operate, and maintain a statewide integrated water data platform. Specifically (emphasis added), 

Implementation Timeline 

“The department, in consultation with the California Water Quality Monitoring Council, the state board, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, shall develop protocols for data sharing, documentation, quality control, public access, and promotion of open-source platforms and decision support tools related to water data. The department shall develop and submit to the Legislature… by January 1, 2018, a report describing these protocols.” 

Click here to view the report. 

“By August 1, 2020, the department shall make available on the platform available water and ecological data related to California water supply and management that is held by the following agencies: 

(i) The United States Bureau of Reclamation.
(ii) The United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
(iii) The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
(iv) The United States Geological Survey.
(v) The United States Forest Service. 

The department shall quarterly add the information described in subparagraph (A) not available as of August 1, 2020, that becomes available at a later date.” 

Platform Data Integration 

“The statewide integrated water data platform… shall, at a minimum, do all of the following: 

(a) Integrate existing water and ecological data information from multiple autonomous databases managed by federal, state, and local agencies and academia using consistent and standardized formats.
(b) Integrate the following datasets, as available:
     (1) The department’s information on State Water Project reservoir operations, groundwater use, groundwater levels, urban water use, and land use.
     (2) The state board’s data on water rights, water diversions, and water quality through California Environmental Data Exchange Network (CEDEN).
     (3) The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s information on fish abundance and distribution.
     (4) The United States Geological Survey’s streamflow conditions information through the National Water Information System.
     (5) The United States Bureau of Reclamation’s federal Central Valley Project operations information.
     (6) The United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s, United States Forest Service’s, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries’ fish abundance information.
(c) Provide data on completed water transfers and exchanges, including publicly available or voluntarily provided data on the volume, price, and delivery method, identity of the buyers and sellers, and the water right associated with the transfer or exchange.
(d) Provide documentation of data quality and data formats through metadata.
(e) Adhere to data protocols developed by state agencies pursuant to Section 12406.
(f) Be able to receive both spatial and time series data from various sources.” 

Click here to access the state’s open data platforms.  

Water Data Administration Fund 

“All moneys in the fund are available, upon appropriation, to the department, the state board, or the Department of Fish and Wildlife for the collection, management, and improvement of water and ecological data. 

Advocacy and Implementation in California

Climate Change Demands Interconnected Data

With the passage of AB 1775, California became the first state in the country that had a policy that directed the integration of water data to a singular sharing platform. From 2011 – 2017, California was in the midst of one of the longest droughts in the state’s history. The drought was the catalyst needed to attract legislative attention to the ever growing problem that is California water. Activists and stakeholders were able to leverage the drought’s hold on the public into two pieces of legislation: The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014 and the Open and Transparent Water Data Act (AB 1755) in 2016. 

While the drought was a key motivator in the passage of both SGMA and AB 1755, SGMA’s success made it easier to pass AB 1755 through the Legislature. At the time, legislators and stakeholders were interested in integrating data across agencies to “facilitate transfers and exchanges to ease drought conditions”across the state. In fact, SGMA was mentioned as a reason for integrating data between state agencies in the bill’s language.  

Usability, Partnerships, and Funding

While AB 1755 was rightly celebrated as a step forward towards more effective water management in California, the bill lacks language related to data usability for decision-making, according to a 2018 report by Data for Water Decision Making. While the absence of assurances or steps towards usability of data is not, in of itself, a bad thing, this will be something that will need to be addressed throughout the bill’s implementation process. And, in fact, it has been, with the creation of the California Water Data Consortium. 

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the implementing agencies formed a Partner Agency Team, made up of eight state organizations—DWR, State Water Resources Control Board, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Water Quality Monitoring Council, Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, California Natural Resources Agency, California Government Operations Agency, and Delta Stewardship Council. The agencies supported the creation of the California Water Data Consortium, a non-profit organization, to enhance AB 1755 implementation. 

The California Water Data Consortium recently announced a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and various state agencies (DWR and SWRCB) “to adapt and scale the groundwater accounting platform“ developed by EDF and the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District. This project will center local stakeholders to meet “local needs and define and encourage adoption of data standards consistent with the Open and Transparent Water Data Act.” Project partners understand the importance of open and transparent data, especially regarding groundwater management.  

According to California Water Data Consortium, the Water Data Administration Fund can receive voluntary contributions, but the legislation has not yet authorized a funding appropriation, creating a serious roadblock to sustainably implementing AB 1175 over the long-term. 

Key Policy Language in New Mexico

New Mexico’s 2019 Water Data Act (House Bill 643) established parameters for a data and information platform to identify and integrate key water data. Click here to see the current platform.  

Specifically, the platform includes (emphasis added): 

…”software, hardware and tools that collect, organize, integrate, distribute and archive water data that at a minimum: …integrate water data managed by state and local entities using consistent and standardized formats; and integrate: 

(a) state and local government data on streamflow, precipitation, reservoir and irrigation system operations, ground water use and levels, municipal and industrial water use and land uses, but not including data from residential wells;
(b) data on water rights, water diversions and water quality; and
(c) data on fish, aquatic and riparian systems and ecological data; and 

…”water data” means measurements of basic properties relating to the planning and management of water resources, including streamflow, precipitation, ground water, water quality and water use in agriculture, industry and municipal uses and natural systems.” 

Development of Data Standards, Information Platform, and Data Gaps 

“By January 1, 2020, the agencies, as convened by the bureau of geology and mineral resources of the New Mexico institute of mining and technology, shall: 

1) identify key water data, information and tools needed to support water management and planning; 2) develop common water data standards for data collection; 3) develop an integrated water data and information platform; and 4) identify available and unavailable water data… The agencies shall collaborate with other regional and national efforts to share, integrate and manage water data.” 

Water Data Account 

“The board of regents of the New Mexico institute of mining and technology shall establish a “water data account” to receive appropriations from the legislature and gifts, grants or donations for the bureau of geology and mineral resources to carry out the purposes of the Water Data Act.” 

Annual Plans 

The agencies must submit annual plans to the Governor and appropriate legislative committee with the following information: 

“1) an assessment of water data and information needs to support water management and planning; 2) goals, targets and actions to carry out the purposes of the Water Data Act in the upcoming fiscal year; 3) budgetary resources to carry out the purposes of the Water Data Act; and 4) metrics for achieving the purposes of the Water Data Act.” 

Advocacy and Implementation in New Mexico

Support for the bill came from a range of groups, including the state’s soil and water conservation districts, Sierra Club, New Mexico Association of Counties, the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District and Earth Data Analysis Center at the University of New Mexico.

Usability, Partnerships, and Funding

Like California policy, the language of New Mexico’s bill does not ensure the usability of the data. However, the state adopted the data management concept known as FAIR: Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable to steer their implementation process.

The New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources (NMBGMR) convened the Water Data Initiative (WDI) project to involve all “directing agencies” including the Office of State Engineer (OSE), Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), Environment Department (NMED) and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD). WDI’s goal is to transform data into information, which will then inform policy development and resource management. Formal partners include the Internet of Water, Healy Foundation, Sandia National Laboratories, and Earth Data Analysis Center. Collaboration between these public and private entities helped to quickly begin the substantial implementation process of the Water Data Act. The Internet of Water published a “Data 101” guidebook in 2021 to provide knowledge water data infrastructure in clear and non-technical language for decision-makers and data users. 

According to the WDI 2020 “Plan for Implementation of the Water Data Act,” funding for the project includes $110,000 from the legislature to New Mexico Tech and the Bureau of Geology annually for this project. The Healy Foundation provided an additional $25,000. WDI secured an additional $300,000 in cost-shared federal funding for the next three years through a WaterSMART grant with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.