Water leaders are in the business of delivering community value. They provide essential services in the face of complex, unpredictable, and fast-evolving challenges—from climate change and regulatory constraints, to a global pandemic that has tightened already strained staff and water budgets.

Staying connected to what will deliver the highest value, and making a case for that investment, isn’t always easy. Courageous water leadership has never been more important, nor the hurdles to delivering it more acute. Here we highlight three stories where water leaders are prioritizing stakeholder alignment, making complex cost/benefit tradeoffs, and keeping an eye on solving not just today’s challenges but future needs as well.

Pivoting for resiliency: San Clemente Dam

In the hills of Carmel Valley, California, a 109-foot-dam built 100 years ago sat inoperable in the early 2000’s. Once an essential storage reservoir for the region’s water supply, decades of sediment buildup had nullified its storage capacity. An existing fish ladder, already one of the steepest in the country, was also ineffective. Further, the dam’s seismic risk was significant; if it failed, downstream impact could be devastating. Decision makers could buttress the dam to keep sediment in-place (at the tune of $49M), or remove the dam and the sediment altogether, providing a literal gateway to a healthier river and watershed.

In the water industry, the lowest-cost solution is often prioritized to ease the burden on communities and rate payers. Quantifying the long-term community value of a higher investment, and building the case for that investment, can be a tough hurdle. In this case, the Dam’s owner, California American Water (Cal Am), was required to approve the “lowest cost, shortest timeline” buttress option, which left several challenges unresolved—including the opportunity for watershed and ecosystem restoration. By 2007, Cal Am was at an impasse. While well intentioned, each of its state and federal partners had conflicting positions on the “right” solution.

“We brought all agencies back to the table,” described Trish Chapman, Central Coast Regional Manager of the California State Coastal Conservancy. “By conducting a comprehensive risk assessment, partners could see each solution from all perspectives—risk, cost, environmental impact, as well as short- and long-term value. That allowed the partners to move the conversation beyond fear and risk to a focus on value.

The collaborative risk assessment, which required slowing the project momentum, ultimately pointed to the removal of the dam and rerouting of the Carmel River as the optimal solution.

Traditionally, leaders of complex programs are measured on progress and their ability to meet the next milestone. But that’s changing as program leaders are recognizing the most critical milestone is early alignment of partners. “Trust was a critical ingredient here,” Chapman said. “Each partner had to learn something about everyone else’s world in this process.”

“When you’ve been working on something for so long, and you are so far down the road, it takes real courage to ask: Is this the highest value path?” said Jeff Szytel, CEO at Water Systems Consulting (WSC), who helped manage the project and facilitate the stakeholder process for Cal Am.

The payoff for the Valley, meanwhile, continues to accrue. Five years after the dam removal, Carmel River steelhead trout numbers are growing, and the science shows extraordinary improvements in many measures of watershed health. Thanks to the courageous leadership of project partners, the Carmel River is now a river in renewal.

Groundwater data visualization for decision makers: Riverside Groundwater Atlas

Groundwater management is complex—hydrogeologists often speak in hydrographs, 3-D basin cross sections, and interactive GIS maps with an exclusive language of terms and data sets. “It’s tough to effectively manage what you can’t easily talk about,” said Mike Plinksi, Engineering Manager with the City of Riverside in California.

Riverside relies solely on groundwater supply to serve its customers. “We had a wealth of historical data and were collecting new data all the time,” said Plinski. In that data, Plinksi saw a basin that was over stressed with looming indicators of significant water quality and storage challenges. What was missing was a practical tool to characterize and communicate the basin needs to leaders and constituents, and thereby empower proactive and informed basin investments.

The Riverside Groundwater Atlas, championed by Plinksi and delivered by WSC, translates complex data into simple visual characterizations, visually compelling graphics, and objective narratives that help educate broader audiences, ease decision making, and build alignment among elected officials. “We create a lot of plans that look forward, but we didn’t have a good reflective document,” Plinksi said. “The atlas, coupled with our Urban Water Management Plan and Master Plans now tells a full story so we can confidently prioritize investments,” said Plinski.

Plinksi believes accessible data such as this is an imperative for cost-effective and responsible groundwater water management. The Atlas is scheduled for public release in Summer of 2021. Plinksi said the City plans to issue updates every two years.

Public engagement innovation in face of pandemic: Water Vision Santa Barbara

The City of Santa Barbara has one of the most diverse water supply portfolios in the state of California, supported by a 20-year upward trend in community water conservation. Yet their supply faces evolving threats from climate change and increased regulation. In early 2020, water leaders began their most community-aligned urban water management planning effort to date. In addition to meeting California state requirements for an updated Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP), Water Vision Santa Barbara aimed to provide a clear roadmap for the City’s current and future water supply portfolio, including a plan for desalination and potable reuse as conditions change.

The City recognized the importance of an open and transparent process for public involvement to instill ownership in the resulting plan. In partnership with a 28-person stakeholder group, the City aimed to create a “water vision” that offered significant economic, social, and environmental value to the community over the next three decades.

“We wanted stakeholders to genuinely feel like partners in the process, and our Water Commission and City Council to see the community’s input directly reflected in our final recommendations,” said Water Resources Manager Joshua Haggmark. The City engaged the stakeholder group across five workshops and a virtual engagement platform at key milestones in the planning process.

Just two months into the project, shutdowns from COVID-19 hit, demanding a shift from in-person workshops to an all-virtual environment. The City also worked swiftly to respond to input from elected officials and stakeholders by expanding representation of communities of color, students, and other vulnerable populations on the stakeholder group. The City worked with WSC to envision and deliver an inclusive outreach process that met stakeholders where they were, enabling them to easily voice their constituents’ needs and concerns.

Iterative, ongoing feedback loops with the stakeholder group, Water Commission and City Council created clear connections between the input provided, and the resulting decisions made within and outside of the UWMP. “I’ve been part of water task forces in Santa Barbara for over 47 years,” said Miguel Avila of the Greater Santa Barbara Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a Water Vision Stakeholder Group member. “I’ve never experienced something this educational.”

Leaders like the City of Santa Barbara are showing the value of a more inclusive and transparent model for community-driven water resource planning. “This process put an important spotlight on water equity and helped the City define community value far more holistically,” said Water Supply Analyst Dakota Corey. In February 2021, the Santa Barbara City Council unanimously approved the Water Vision, a critical milestone in the planning process. The City’s UWMP is scheduled for adoption later this year.