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Felicia Marcus Explores What it will Take for California to Adapt to Climate Change

By January 19, 2023January 26th, 2023News, News & Info


Belt, Suspenders and Flying Monkeys
Felicia Marcus Explores What it will Take for California to Adapt to Climate Change

The Regional Water Authority on January 19, 2023, hosted a Coffee and Conversation event with Felicia Marcus, currently serving as the William C. Landreth Visiting Fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West Program and former chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board.

RWA Executive Director Jim Peifer chatted with Marcus about a wide range of topics, including how the state can utilize excess runoff and precipitation from storms to help prepare for dry times. Below is an edited and condensed version of that conversation. The full webinar can be viewed on YouTube.

Jim Peifer: What are you working on these days?

Felicia Marcus: It’s an exciting time and it’s kind of a cool time to be in more of an observer status, because it gives me the luxury to actually think about things and talk to people and learn about areas I haven’t had time to.

At Stanford, I’m kind of set up as a practitioner in residence. The idea is you’re bringing somebody into the academy who actually has had a part in making public policy. I lecture in classes and mentor and counsel a lot of students, and help professors and other staff with some of their projects. I’ve been doing some of my own projects on water and land use in California, projects on tools to protect instream flows, and a fair amount of things for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on how to collaborate across institutional divides to recycle water. I’m also doing some energy work and teaching as well as some international climate adaptation and water work.

Peifer: What will it take for California to adapt to climate change?

Marcus: Belts, suspenders and flying monkeys. Some people have heard me say this. All of the above. The only time we’ve made progress is when we realize we need to do a lot of things. No one thing is going to meet the challenge we’re facing.

What climate change is going to bring to California is a nightmare scenario for a system that is based on snowpack for our water storage. So we have to do a lot of things. We gotta recycle wastewater, we gotta capture stormwater, we gotta get groundwater in the ground faster — the way we are with managed aquifer recharge.

If you look at these things from a multi-benefit perspective, forest restoration is kind of a dead-bang winner, because you’re preventing conflagrations of this incredible overgrowth of forests that we’ve allowed to happen. If you add meadow restoration, you can actually get amazing water features that create natural fire breaks and habitat and also substitute for that timing loss that we’re going to have with losing snowpack. Also a big bang is going to be groundwater storage. Our overdrafted groundwater basins are the only thing that can approach our snowpack in terms of water storage.

Peifer: How do smaller water agencies get these types of projects off the ground?

Marcus: I think collective engagement allows you to get an economy of scale to look at the best projects as opposed to having a myriad of “I got mine.” Integrating across agencies is a way to use each others’ resources to hire the consultants and have the facilities you need to make these projects work. That’s part of the reason I’m a fan of the Water Forum and the Regional Water Authority in Sacramento, and the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority. Banding together with others not only gives you that economy of scale but also allows you to look at the watershed to see what the smartest projects may be.

Peifer: How do we move more quickly to a system of law that supports managed aquifer recharge?

Marcus: We’re going to have to make some decisions about protecting land as floodplain. There are some places that are just going to have to be protected or purchased. And that’s going to be tough. Because if you take away all economic value from a developer, then you’re going to have to pay for it. I think there’s a way to weave it together through a combo of funding, regulation, and incentives. In particular, there are requirements for stormwater capture for pollution reduction that also can work for recharge reasons. You can design projects so you retain all your water on site. We’re going to have to make some of those tough choices.

Peifer: When will regulations and funding adapt to provide desperately needed support, especially for disadvantaged communities?

Marcus: The program we do have that has promise and I think needs updating is to make the integrated regional watershed planning process even more robust. Some people have thrown their weight around and are better able to capture money than the small communities. So it’s a mixed bag. You gotta have the right people to do collaborative work. It’s very hard to make it work. It takes more meetings than people ever have time for. It takes a lot of courage to be able to give something up to get a gain for the whole. The challenge of “ego-system” management is a much bigger problem for us than ecosystem management. You either reach across the divide or try to be the hero of your own story. The challenge of a rewarding life is to be able to be empathetic, and not just get what you need but get other people what they need. In the end, we’re all better off.

Peifer: Can you close with some thoughts you want to share, some wisdom going forward?

Marcus: It’s a time of promise and peril. There are technologies out there to help us. But we need to move on a lot of these things rather than being stuck in stasis. I do think the key issue — and this is a broken record for me over past 30 years — is how we interact with each other. We have to bring more empathy and compassion to this work for the legitimate concern of others. And we have to act. If you can find it within yourself to be constructive in every setting, my experience has been that it’s extraordinary what you can do. You’ve got to mix strength with compassion to get things done.

Felicia Marcus

Felicia Marcus is the William C. Landreth Visiting Fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West Program, an attorney, consultant and member of the Water Policy Group. She most recently served as chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board, implementing laws regarding drinking water and water quality and state’s water rights, hearing regional board water quality appeals, settling disputes and providing financial assistance to communities to upgrade water infrastructure.

Before her appointment to the Water Board, Marcus served in positions in government, the non-profit and private sector. In government, Felicia served as the regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Pacific Southwest region during the Clinton Administration, where she was known for her work in bringing unlikely allies together for environmental progress and for making the agency more responsive to the communities it serves, particularly Indian Tribes, communities of color, local government and agricultural and business interests. Preceding the EPA, Marcus served as the president of the board of Public Works for the City of Los Angeles presiding over the department through a time of great change and challenge, including numerous emergency response situations (including flood, earthquake and riots).

In the non-profit world, she was the western director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and prior to that the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Trust for Public Land. Marcus also has an extensive background as a private sector and public interest lawyer, as well as a community organizer, most notably as a founder and general counsel to Heal the Bay. She has served as the director of litigation for Public Counsel, a public interest law firm; an associate at the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson; a visiting fellow at the Center for Law in the Public Interest; a law clerk to the Honorable Harry Pregerson (9th Circuit Court of Appeals); and legislative assistant to Congressman Anthony C. Beilenson in Washington, DC.

She has a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies from Harvard College, and Juris Doctor degree from New York University School of Law.