California Institute for Water Resources
California Institute for Water Resources
California Institute for Water Resources
University of California
California Institute for Water Resources

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Catching the water bug: A conversation with Brinda Sarathy

Brinda Sarathy is Professor of Environmental Analysis and Director of the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability at Pitzer College.

In addition to being on the faculty at Pitzer, you are also directing the Redford Conservancy. Can you explain a bit about the Conservancy and your work there?

We're focused on engaging communities for undergraduate research and education on sustainability in Southern California. In the region, we worry about water scarcity, population growth coupled with growing economic inequality, and the disproportionate allocation of environmental burdens and benefits.

In light of these challenges, the Redford Conservancy was established in 2012 to facilitate action on Pitzer's sustainability commitments. The Conservancy is a leader in innovative academic programming and interdisciplinary education. We engage with collaborative approaches to environmental problem solving with an emphasis on the longevity of Southern California's natural environment and the wellbeing of the people that live here.

We started by concentrating on sustainability in our own backyard, and have been working on a new physical center next to the Bernard Biological Field Station. Planning the facility has meant thinking critically about how to live in tune with California's landscape. This process has also included a deep commitment to working with Tongva elders to create a site for gathering and celebration. Elders' input played a critical role in site landscaping, which is made up of plants that are not just native or endemic but that also have cultural value. Although the Tongva people are not federally recognized, we acknowledge our status as settlers on their ancestral lands and feel a responsibility and obligation to create more reciprocal relationships.

You have also developed an undergraduate course focused on water policy. How did that course come to be and what do you focus on?

There was a professor at Pitzer named Jack Sullivan who would start conversations by asking people if they knew where their water came from. When I started here, he would come to my office and try to persuade me to teach water issues, which were a gap in our curriculum. That was not my area of expertise at the time, but his enthusiasm was contagious and I “caught the water bug.” We began a memorial fund in his honor to support public lectures, develop student research and internships, and create workshops and field trips for faculty and students on water-related issues.

I later became a Water Leader with the Water Education Foundation, which gave me a good baseline for teaching my first course on water, “Hustle & Flow.” It is offered every 2-3 years and is always in high demand. To teach such a vast topic, I first focus on some of the "fundamentals.” This includes reviewing the California Doctrine and how water rights have been shaped by both prior appropriation and riparian rights. We look at legal cases, legislation, and California Constitutional amendments to understand how various branches of government have responded to changing water needs. We also examine the critical role of the state – at the local, state, and federal levels – in enabling big infrastructure projects.

Once students are familiar with the range of institutions and often overlapping management jurisdictions, they engage in role play exercises around Delta and Colorado River water challenges. These exercises are impactful because they invite students to take on diverse perspectives, and not necessarily those they may initially be empathetic to. This allows students to see how complicated California water issues are, and the reality and costs of competing interests.

For the latter half of the class, in addition to final group research projects, I invite professionals from the field to share their experiences. This is a way to help students think about working in the public sector, which, as everyone knows, has already been hit by a "silver tsunami"! I love helping students think about water careers, or simply be better informed in water conversations as they move into other careers.

I am always surprised how little most people know about their largely imported water supply and how much we take clean drinking water for granted. I look back, though, and realize that I belonged in the same category until I started the deep dive into teaching water issues. I now have a bit of an emotional reaction to broken sprinklers and green lawns in arid Southern California. I wonder how such practices are made possible by not knowing where our water comes from. Certainly, water retailers and agencies could do more outreach and education, although I'd also say there is more awareness around water conservation as a result of the drought.

In addition to directing the Conservancy and teaching, you also do research. What kinds of issues are you looking at right now?

I recently served as the lead editor on an academic press volume titled Inevitably Toxic?: Historical Perspectives on Contamination, Exposure, and Expertise. The book addresses processes by which toxic spaces have become normalized. On the one hand, there is an increasing awareness of how toxic some of landscapes we inhabit are. But on closer look, regulations have been pretty lax. We repeatedly see a tendency to minimize danger, and to reject the lived experience of those harmed by exposure to toxic substances, individuals who tend to come from disadvantaged communities.

I contributed a chapter to the book as well, focused on water pollution control in Southern California in the 1940-50's. At that time, government institutions were keen on supporting economic growth and industrial development. Words like “pollution” and “nuisance” were defined to allow for industrial waste discharge, and I argue that expertise was filtered through a lens that favored economic growth and that interpretations of scientific data were never simply objective, but rather, inherently political-economic in nature.

Last year, California state officials reported that chemicals widely used for decades in manufacturing and household goods had seeped into the public water supply. Known as “forever chemicals,” these compounds have been detected in water systems that serve potentially millions of Californians and are part of a public health crisis nationally. In mid-February, the Conservancy will be hosting a panel titled “Forever Chemicals: PFAS Contamination in California's Drinking Water & Beyond,” bringing together government officials, public health advocates, and technical experts to discuss this important issue.

Finally, I am interested in drinking water issues, but this is new and I am still scoping research questions. I am particularly interested in communities that are reliant on bottled water, often because they do not trust government assurances about tap water. I know many agencies working to build connections with these communities, but there is some work to be done on the ground to help to build relationships that might lead to more trust.

Posted on Monday, February 3, 2020 at 7:30 PM

Silver Solutions: A new webinar series from the UC ANR Water Program Team

UC water experts Sandoval, Grantham, Khan, Nocco, Bruno, Medellin, and Suvočarev (clockwise from top left) are kicking off the first session of the new webinar series.

“When it comes to California water, there are no silver bullets, only silver solutions,” reads the tagline for the new webinar series from the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources water program team. Organized by Mallika Nocco and Sam Sandoval, water-focused cooperative extension specialists with UC Davis, the series aims to highlight diverse areas of expertise from the University of California and beyond.

Nocco and Sandoval say they were inspired to develop a series that covered a broad range of strategies to address California water issues. “There really isn't a single solution or ‘silver bullet' that will solve all our water challenges. But when taken together, there are groups of ‘silver solutions' that can provide a set of strategies at a systems level.”

Launched late last fall, the series has already covered a variety of issues. In the first webinar, Sam Sandoval discussed the “role of the scientist in decision-making,” where he offered advice to researchers on potential roles and processes that scientists can consider for getting involved with decision-making. Kicking off the new year, Ted Grantham, a cooperative extension specialist at UC Berkeley, explored environmental flows, focusing on the latest research and related application of environmental flows.

Coming up, Safeeq Kahn, a cooperative extension specialist at UC Merced, will cover watershed management on February 11. Mallika Nocco will discuss irrigation strategies on March 10. Ellen Bruno, cooperative extension specialist at UC Berkeley, will cover water economics on April 14 (read our interview with Bruno). Josue Medellin, associate professor at UC Merced, will present on systems management on May 12. The last presentation for the spring series will come from Kosana Suvočarev, cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis, who will discuss evapotranspiration and greenhouse gas management on June 9.

Currently, the series is running 4-5pm Pacific on the second Tuesday of the month via a video conference link, with recordings of the webinars available afterward as well. The series will take a break over the summer months, and resume in the fall. More information and links are available at

Nocco and Sandoval say that like the strategies that can be applied to address California water challenges, the knowledge and expertise from academics within UC Agriculture and Natural Resources is highly complementary. “We hope that by letting people know about the valuable work that we are doing, we are also working as a group that can be greater than the sum of its parts and spark new thinking and collaborations.”

Posted on Monday, January 27, 2020 at 4:36 PM

Highlighting the gap between policy design and policy implementation

Linda Estelí Méndez Barrientos

Linda Estelí Méndez Barrientos is a PhD candidate in Ecology at UC Davis, where she works within the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior, focusing on the implementation of environmental policies.

You have over a decade of experience studying the relationship between water governance and social justice, not only in California, but internationally. Could you tell us about your current research?

Through my work, I seek to understand how power asymmetries among actors shape policy processes. In the past, we have assumed that whatever is written in law or designed as policy is simply translated into practice. However, the gap between policy design and implementation is very big. I explore factors that explain that gap. I study how inequality and diverse groups of people shape policy implementation efforts.

In my current research, I have been studying the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, commonly known as SGMA, in California. SGMA is one of the world's largest-scale policy experiments on collective action to manage natural resources. At the same time, pervasively disparate access to water resources in the Central Valley made SGMA the perfect case study to test some of the power asymmetry theories I have been working on with my colleagues.

This year we launched a statewide survey that measured stakeholders' perceptions on a wide range of issues related to policy process and groundwater governance in California. Our report highlighted many valuable opportunities and challenges. We found that tribal groups and disadvantaged communities, in particular, perceived challenges to participate in the policy process. In addition, it was interesting to uncover a hierarchy of access in SGMA processes. Survey respondents reported having generally positive access to information about Groundwater Sustainability Agency meetings. This contrasted with perceived lack of opportunities to comment on issues and express opinions, and even less opportunities to be adequately represented and influence decisions. This suggests that even groundwater users who are involved in groundwater management and are knowledgeable about SGMA face barriers to participation in SGMA processes. Policy-makers should pay attention to this.

Groundwater is a particularly looming issue in California, and California has been slow to manage it. How does your experience in other places compare to what you are seeing here?

Compared to other states in the nation and other places in the world, California is incredibly behind in terms of groundwater management. I think Californians tend to pride themselves on being at the vanguard of many issues, but this is not one of them. It is important to note that institutional change does not happen overnight. It is very rare to introduce sweeping or ‘revolutionary' policies. Instead, we typically develop policy in layered arrangements that are limited by past decisions or events, first introducing something such as SGMA, on top of which we can add layers of improvements. In this sense, if our starting point for SGMA was in 2014, you get an idea of how far we still have to go in terms of fine-tuning policy design and implementation to achieve the desired goal of sustainable groundwater management.

You have also studied South Africa's land and water reform in its effort to address apartheid's heritage of inequality. How has that work informed your current research?

Each case comes with its own historical context and set of interesting and unique policies and actors. I think the land reform and water crisis that I studied in South Africa gave me intuition in terms of what to pay attention to in California. It is worth noting when two very different case studies bring about similar policy results.

What do you find most exciting or challenging about your research?

At the time, I did not think it was so exciting due to all of the driving I had to do, but looking back it was exciting to go to so many Groundwater Sustainability Agency meetings. I spent over 250 hours observing these emerging organizations develop. This provided me with a sense of the barriers to participation that many groundwater users face. It also gave context to the governance challenges these new groundwater management agencies will have to overcome.

From a cultural perspective, as a Latin American, immigrant woman, going to the Central Valley was extremely interesting. Peoples' politics, perceptions, and beliefs diverge significantly from those on the Coast and in intellectual bubbles like Davis, where I live. I felt blessed that my research on water offered me broader perceptions to gauge the political thermometer of the Central Valley.

My research interviews had comical moments that still bring a smile to my face. For instance, I interviewed more than one person who referred to issues of immigration in California. Interviewing people who did not identify my ethnic background just because I am highly educated was interesting. In other cases, people did make the connection, and nonetheless told me they despise immigrants. Notably, those were the most eye opening and rich interviews.

Posted on Monday, December 2, 2019 at 2:52 PM

Fire and water: Researching debris flows to mitigate post fire storm hazards

Graduate student Nathan Jumps revisiting Englewild Canyon to collect additional sediment samples. Photo by A. Gray.

Destructive debris flows, commonly known as mudslides, have affected many parts of California in the past few years. Debris flows can cause extensive damage to homes and infrastructure, and threaten human safety. A related issue that gets less attention is how debris flows affect water quality downstream following fires. A current study led by Andrew Gray of the University of California, Riverside, is therefore timely.

“Historically, we haven't known much about the quality and quantity of sediments exported from burned areas. Our approach to addressing this knowledge gap was to monitor debris flows and associated suspended sediment so we could get a better understanding of the changing conditions that might lead to a debris flow following a wildfire. We also wanted to characterize the effects of debris flows on water quality,” says Gray.

Debris flows are fast moving masses of rocks, soil, and water that occur when steep terrain cloaked in unstable sediments is exposed to high intensity rainfall. Urban populations and infrastructure adjacent to wildlands in Southern California have both grown in recent decades. Combined with increased risk of wildfire from a changing climate and a legacy of fire suppression, this means that residents are at a higher risk from dangerous debris flows.

For this study, Gray and his team, which included two other professors, three graduate students, and eight undergraduate students, selected research sites in the steep watersheds of Englewild and Las Lomas canyons above the Southern California cities of Glendora and Duarte, among others. At the time, these headwater catchments had recently burned during the Colby and Fish fires of 2014 and 2016, respectively. This context made the research especially timely and critical, as the fire activity rendered most of these areas, which are historically prone to damaging debris flows, particularly vulnerable. Collectively, the team has spent over 100 days in the field over four years taking samples, which has been no easy feat.

Graduate student James Guilinger taking measurements in the Box Springs burn area before the first rains hit in December 2017. Photo by A. Gray.

According to Gray, “working in steep hillslopes and channels destabilized by wildfire is extremely challenging.” Although Gray and his team took serious measures to protect themselves, there were always risks: “From the acute hazards posed by rock fall or falling ourselves, to the chronic presences of dust, ash, and poison oak, work with our group has become somewhat infamous. Even external participants with broad experience with steep, demanding field work have characterized our field sites as the worst!”

Rapidly deploying the research group to the various catchments after fire and storm events to take samples, combined with the time consuming and highly technical processing of the samples and data afterwards, also made this research challenging.

The researchers found that the more recently burned Englewild Canyon catchment had a lower threshold for debris flow than the Los Lomas Canyon catchment. These results indicate that as a burned system rebounds, vegetation comes back, soil health recovers, and there is less debris flow and sediment transport, as well as improved water quality downstream. In fact, Gray found it impressive how quickly these steep catchments re-stabilize following wildfire, even during drought periods.

Findings from the study will help scientists and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works personnel working on debris flow management modify their approach to assessing debris flow risk after fires to help mitigate danger during post-fire storms.

The hard work and physically demanding field work seems to have paid off. Gray is excited that his group has been able to collect high quality data that reveal sediment transport processes at very fine scales. This will enable the researchers to gain a better understanding of how sediment sources and pathways change over time, and begin to explore what conditions cause changes in the composition of sediments on a hillside.

In addition, the data has brought up further questions for the group to explore. They plan to use the results of this study to modify how they characterize post-fire debris flow hazards in steep, mountainous regions. They also have plans to expand their research to larger spatial scales so they can examine how wildfire impacts sediment transfer and water quality through entire watersheds.

Gray says “given the increase in wildfires and urban growth into places where debris flows are likely, we are looking forward to helping managers reduce the risks from the most devastating events.”

Posted on Monday, October 28, 2019 at 3:34 PM

Bottled water sales track community response to water contamination

Plastic water bottles. Photo by ricardo /

Drinking water contamination is an ongoing issue across the United States. However, tracking water quality violations and notifying residents about them is challenging, and there is no systematic approach for prioritizing assistance once a violation is detected. Using a dataset intended to assess bottled water marketing trends, Maura Allaire, an assistant professor in Urban Planning and Public Policy at UC Irvine, and her collaborators are tackling these challenges and gaining a better understanding of how communities deal with contaminated water.

In a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers explain how tracking bottled water sales might be help improve the process of identifying drinking water violations, notifying residents, and providing assistance. People reduce their exposure to contaminated water in many ways including boiling or filtering, but because bottled water sales can be traced, they may be a helpful new indicator of how communities react to water quality violations.

In the U.S., drinking water violations are split into two categories. The first are short-term, with acute effects that require immediate public notification. Allaire and colleagues found that for these kinds of violations, which are often due to pathogens like E. Coli, bottled water sales increased 14%. For the second type of violations, those related to long-term exposure risk and the category most violations fall into, bottled water sales increase on average 4.9%.

This means that, generally, bottled water sales are most responsive to violations that could cause acute health effects and require public notification within 24 hours. However, the actions that people take to deal with water contamination vary across communities. For example, low-income rural communities do not show a significant response to nitrate violations, which pose the highest health risks to infants under six months old.

“It was surprising for us to find that low-income rural communities did not respond to nitrate violations, since these populations are the ones facing the brunt of nitrate contamination. It is possible that these communities take other actions, such as installing nitrate filters, but we'd need to investigate further,” says Allaire.  

The researchers also expected to find that communities might make a more permanent switch to bottled water after experiencing a violation. However, Allaire says, “the effect we found was very small. After an acute violation occurred for the first time, bottled water sales are slightly higher at around 2%, but this declines as time goes on. For locations with many violations, sales of bottled water drop back to normal levels after violations end.”

Analyzing all those bottled water purchases was no small feat. “This was a two-year effort by a team of four researchers. At first, it was a challenge to work with such a large dataset of weekly bottled water sales. The raw data contained over 5,000 Universal Product Codes (UPCs) of bottled water purchased at over 25,400 stores. Sorting through terabytes of bottled water purchase data took quite a bit of time and processing before it could be used in the analysis. For some of the students, this was their first introduction to working with big data,” says Allaire.

There is yet more work to do. One outstanding challenge when it comes to drinking water violations is that regulations that guide public notification have not been updated in two decades. The guidelines recommend notifying people via radio, television, and notices posted in public places, and the researchers note that more modern forms of communication could improve public awareness and ability to respond.

In addition, tracking consumer purchases could detect emerging water quality concerns, especially for contaminants that are sampled infrequently and effect water taste or appearance. Additional monitoring could improve response of state and local agencies on issues that otherwise go undetected or unreported.

Allaire says that “it was exciting to use this extensive dataset to look at people's behavior. While this dataset was originally intended to assess marketing trends, it can shed light on how communities are affected by contaminated water, and help improve both notifications and assistance.” 

Posted on Tuesday, October 1, 2019 at 1:39 PM

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