with Kate Bunney

We began with Felicia asking Kate the question of what’s next for Walking Water and how do we decide where the next pilgrimage might  be …. We began chatting about the Spirit with which  Walking Water works, the listening and asking for where to be … In California, in Payahuunadu (Owens Valley), the Central Valley, or even elsewhere …. then we dove in …… 

Felicia: Where next for Walking Water? I think it’s an interesting question because  Walking Water adds a different dimension to the work. Where or how you find the places where your work – that  of connection and humanity –  is going to add something so very needed and important is interesting to me. With all of the people working on water, it feels too many times that what’s missing is a sense of how magical and important water is not only for life, but for being a connector between people.  That’s true whether you talk about the “water wars” over the San Francisco Bay Delta, in the Colorado River Basin (though encouraging breakthroughs there), the Klamath River Basin (again, signs of hope there), or the Salton Sea. You name it. Clearly in the Owens Valley and in LA, there is a need for more connection across vast distances. Having periodically spent considerable time on my own and in past jobs trying to find a way to help folks in the Owens Valley and LA to connect better on both water and air issues across the past few decades, there is no question that your presence can help. LA is a wonderful place and is much better than it was years ago on so many fronts, but maintaining the human connections between that huge metropolitan region and the people of the Owens Valley is essential. Productive reasonable dialogue and progress has been elusive, punctuated by periods of great progress.  That’s not unusual around the world, but I’d have hoped we’d have been better by now.

The question is how do you open up parts of people that are sort of closed off –  not even intentionally closed off – but closed off because they assume a certain frame of reference and nothing has inspired them to see things differently? Some days it feels like people just talk past each other across the decades, never truly trying to connect.  It is the issue of these times.  

It is weird to be in more of an observer role at a time like this, as I no longer work for the State Board. Yet, it is also quite good because if I were there, I wouldn’t have as much time to observe and reflect.  I would have to do all the stuff you have to do in an institution and it can fill your entire day hurtling through the tasks and the incoming. I like to think I did my job at the State Board with more humanity than the average bear, but if you don’t make the time to let your mind rest and ponder what is really going on in society or right in front of you, you can miss important opportunities for understanding, for breakthroughs, and for making true progress with people.  There are different planes of consciousness happening in every room and you have to be observant and interested to even see their possibilities.  When in government, you are frequently hurtling through more issues than anyone can fully understand, and picking your shots for when to dive in at some level of depth.   

Kate: Do you feel that in a governmental role, there actually needs to be space for ‘the mind to ponder different planes of consciousness’?

Felicia: Of course!  We need that space in all aspects of our lives–our work lives, our family lives, and our own personal interaction with ourselves.  If you take the time to think about it, there’s wonder everywhere.  That is in part why I was so grateful to you for being invited to the sessions at Tree People (Walking Water held a day long event together with TreePeople on the walk through LA 2018, which included Tribal representatives from Payahuunadu and elected LA officials. More info here). Even spending a day in that space really felt right and it felt good. It felt evolved. It is also why I liked working with tribes so much when I was at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In particular, I initially loved it  because it forced me to be respectful in a more obvious way than working with state and local officials and others who do their bureaucratic talking past each other. The combination of respect for the thousands of years of thinking about a place, the much older way of thinking about it all, the deeper experience commands respect. I also felt a deep respect for people who have been treated so poorly over so many years–it just commands respect and humility. I mean between those two pieces, it was like a practice to just try to do the right thing – try to do a little part to right over 150 years of wrongs – trying to figure out how to build respectful, sovereign to sovereign relationships. Respectful individual relationships. What an honor to try to do that.  We also had money to give the tribes to help build their capacity and to do projects so we were able to partner with them by helping them hire staff to develop and to run their own programs, not just telling them what to do in a top down kind of way. I hired a full-time tribal trainer and trained our staff (and other agencies) so that the tribal representatives didn’t have to always be so patient with us not understanding or making the same rookie mistakes. We built up our staff, including staff that came from tribes, and we built our program together with the tribes to be a joint effort.  We did the same thing with  my environmental justice unit.

It just seemed obvious to me that these are the folks who we have treated poorly, and we need to help them, and we haven’t been. Instead, we have been obsessing over micron-sized fights with California  on lots of issues where California really didn’t need or want our oversight or our help. This shift in how we built relationships with tribes actually helped to create better relationships with business people and with state and local government people and other people. Folks started to understand the importance of respectful listening and relationship building instead of prioritizing impersonal protocols. Sure, we still had to do enforcement and be tough on regulations, but that wasn’t the only tool we had to be helpful. 

Kate: Throughout your career you have gone between the NGO world and governmental roles. I always imagine that it’s more open and embracing in the NGO world. Can you say more about your experience of these 2 worlds?  

Felicia: Well, actually, it is interesting because I guess it depends on which level of government you are talking about. I found the people in government to be surprisingly humble and service oriented, especially at public works. (In my view the NGO world can suffer from elitism that is as bad or worse than anywhere I have seen). And still, I didn’t necessarily set out to go into government; each time I did, it was somebody else’s idea. But the first time was particularly fraught because my early sense of identity was as a public interest lawyer and I figured the way to make change was to sue the government. I had a bias that the government was the ‘other’. If you want to make a difference though, you need to influence the government. And government is inhabited by…people.  And government, as I recall from fourth grade civics, is the collective embodiment of how we want to govern ourselves in theory.  I came around to realizing that if I got a chance to actually be in government, I should absolutely do it. I resisted it the first time because I felt it might be some kind of political trick. I didn’t want to be a part of green-washing. At a certain point though, the city of Los Angeles changed its approach very quickly. A new Deputy Mayor came in who was environmental and unusual, and he heard us and decided not only that we needed to be managed politically, but that we were, in fact, correct. 

Kate: What year was this?

Felicia: This was in the mid 80’s. When Heal the Bay was first formed, we went into City Hall and talked to someone high up in the Mayor’s office.  We brought Democrats and Republicans and we walked in and said ‘you know here is this horrible thing that is happening in Santa Monica Bay, so much untreated sewage. Realize you have been misled by some of your consulting science organizations who are telling you that sewage is good for fish.  Nonsense. We know the mayor is going to run for governor and we don’t want to get in the way of that. We think he would be a great governor but you have a big problem here and we are coming in to tell you, you have a bigger problem than people have told you and  we want you to fix it. You should want to fix it.’ 

You start with the ask. The mayor’s staffer we talked to  pretty much told us to go to hell and that nobody would vote to spend the money and he brushed us off.  Not knowing other people in the mayor’s circle we could talk to, we took that as hopeless. So, we went out and Heal the Bay did its Heal the Bay thing and we created a very different political dynamic in the city. We ran one of our people for city council and she won! Politics were changing in the country and we became a force. We beat them on their waiver in front of the Regional Water Quality Control Board, we entered into stalled litigation in federal court, and we were fairly relentless. What was most important in the long run once we had their attention however was bridging the divide between us and them – government and NGO-over a period of a few years. It didn’t happen overnight. When we went in to brief the new Chief Deputy Mayor a couple of years later, he practically came out of his chair when he heard the facts, not our exhortations, just the facts. He apparently went to the Mayor and said, ‘You know, these guys are right’. Which is what we had been trying to say all along and he said, ‘You know you are the Mayor of the second largest city in the country, good policy can be good politics.’ He said ‘Why not fix it? Let’s fix it!’. And the Mayor said, ‘OK’. So, they came out with this 10-point plan to heal the bay! 

We were taken aback at first and I remember at the meeting, someone said, ‘Well wait a minute that is our name’. And I said, ‘Yeah that is our name, but these are good things, these are things we’ve been asking for’. And people were like, ‘Well now what do we do, what do we come back with…’. We were so into being the warriors, into fighting, and I remember sitting in the meeting and saying ‘We could declare victory!’ It never actually occurred to us that we could win other than in the courts.  Frankly, I’m not sure we had contemplated winning at all, just that we knew we had to wage the fight.

There is a long story in all of that but there were plenty of Aha’s! along the way.  For instance,  to hear our early talking points you would have thought we thought that the city operations staff got up every morning to go to the Hyperion treatment plant to manufacture sewage for the joy of dumping it in the ocean. In fact, they were hard working, under resourced public servants doing the best they could with a river of human waste coming at them 24 hours a day. It seems obvious now, but because we had separated so much into ‘us and them’ and ‘good and bad’, it was hard to see them as real people. I don’t think they saw us as real people either, but as people that were just interested in criticizing them who didn’t understand how hard they tried with what they had.  Some of their consultants and the Judge (the amazing Judge Harry Pregerson) presiding over their longstanding case with the federal government got us together where we could finally ask questions, and they would have to answer, and we would have to listen to the answers.  It started to humanize us to each other and we started to see why they couldn’t just say yes to some things we were asking for.  We started suggesting alternatives, as did they.  And we started asking questions differently.  At one meeting, I asked a question and felt that the city engineer’s answer was designed to brush us off.  Undeterred, and feeling somewhat bratish, I asked him the same question multiple times using different words and angles.  After a few brush offs, or so we perceived, I asked the question another way, and bingo, he answered it directly and with grace.  Oh my goodness, it was a huge lightbulb going off.  He was answering the question, but the way he would answer it engineer to engineer.  Engineers answer in engineering terms and you always think they are just trying to blow you off, but it is actually just a different language. They were answering the question, but they were answering the question the way an engineer would answer to another engineer. That was an epiphany that changed my life, and changed it so much for the better whether professionally or personally.

That is the space I live in – where you see good people talking past each other and think they are disagreeing, but they aren’t always. We’d started asking more personal questions, like whether they’d let their daughter swim in the bay, and they said ‘no’. They knew it was bad and they didn’t like it either. 

Those aha’s ended up changing our strategy to a more sophisticated approach where we targeted, in a more public way, creating the political will in the city council and at the mayoral level — ultimately, to get these engineers and operators the resources they needed. They weren’t the problem; the problem was downtown. Again, a very human aspect. I still didn’t trust those relationships at first, but within two years they had actually done all the things they said they were going to do. We had two more years of regular meetings and so when Kathleen Brown left to run for treasurer that Deputy Mayor came back to me. At that point I still hesitated but Dorothy Green, the founder and President of Heal the Bay said, ‘Look we are trying to influence them, if you can be them then you can get a lot more done’. I took the job and became the chair of the board who actually runs the department shortly thereafter.  And the Mayor said, ‘Get it as clean as you can kid.’ It was an awesome opportunity because we, Public Works, weren’t given the direction to do just the minimum we could get by with. We were told to ‘go for it.’ It was to regain faith with the public and show how much we could do. 

This shift started a huge transition where Hyperion (the city’s largest treatment plant) won international awards for the fastest environmental  turnaround imaginable. It unleashed creativity in the staff to come up with different ways to meet the standards earlier than they had to under the consent decree. We broke the records.  So, I had this revelatory experience of going in and being able to manage government, in a way, at its finest. It was my job to figure out how to do as much good as I could, not just on wastewater but also on solid waste recycling programs. The city had proposed in the mid 80s to do a fleet of mass burn incinerators that the environmental justice movement had defeated with an alliance in support from the West Side. (Editor note: This was a huge deal because normally the West Side did not ally with the environmental justice movement, and in this instance, not only were the two groups allies, but the West Side actually backed a project not led internally). It was one of the early wins of the environmental justice movement in the country. And also, a really good consciousness from the folks on the West Side coming as allies rather than from a position ‘we are better’ that was patronizing. There were amazing leaders at Concerned Citizens of South Central and the Mothers of East LA who led the effort. We then followed their lead and helped them. So then, the city needed to do the biggest recycling program in the country, and someone had to help them make that transition, which was a piece of why they brought me in. So, I got to do that! I got to do water recycling and graffiti abatement and all kinds of hazardous waste reduction. But my job was really to make it work as well as it could for all people, not just the powerful or political donors, and you don’t often get that opportunity in government at a total level. 

It was the hardest job I ever had because it was frightening. We had floods, we had heartbreaking civil disturbances, we had earthquakes.  I had to grow up quickly too. It is easy to be an activist and say what somebody else ought to do. It is a lot harder to put yourself in their shoes and see all the obstacles they have within their own context and institutions to doing what it is that they might want to do. I think it is worth going into government at whatever level when you have the opportunity to work with people who actually want to use government for good versus people who want to put it in a straightjacket. You need to discern the difference, but you learn alot and get to make a difference.

I was lucky enough that in the Clinton administration, (EPA Administrator) Carol Browner’s leadership style was ‘let’s do good and bring everybody in’. There were other times that I could have gone into government and I did not. It is only worth going in if you are going to be allowed to do what you want to do, and I have just been lucky that I have had three shots at it where I have been given the chance to make change for the better while including as many voices as I could. It can be corrosive and wearing to stay in government too long, so I like going in and out to recharge my batteries and get to focus on what I want to do vs dealing with incoming crises and other peoples’ agendas non-stop. 

Kate: What you are saying is that there is actually nothing wrong with government if the intentions are good and clear and that actually it can be a way more challenging place to be because you have the position and the power to actually change it. 

Felicia: Right, but you need help. So that is where strategy and strategic thinking are needed. I think it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who famously said at a meeting with a group that wanted him to do something particular, ‘you know I think that is a really great idea, now make me do it’. It’s like when the Clinton administration won and there was this immediate critique of everything Al Gore hadn’t immediately fixed which showed a naivete about what it takes to move the government in our system. Eventually it shifted, but at the beginning rather than continuing to create political will that could help him drive the results, it was more like,’ let Al do it.’ And it happened in the Obama administration too.  Eventually, it evolved in both cases to a recognition that we had to work strategically together, that this work is hard, you need to line up the votes and create the momentum, and that you should applaud the good things that do happen vs. a “what have you done for me lately” approach. The very things that the Trump administration has rolled back were huge things to put in place. Like the clean car rules and the clean power rule – things the environmental community had talked about and fought for for decades and they finally got it done through the Obama administration. Nobody says thank you enough or offers ‘how can I help you get it done?’. A lot of times it’s like the message from activists “you do this or you’re bad.” Which I think is a flaw in any kind of advocacy strategy.  

Kate:  What you are saying is how important an understanding of relationship is. Again and again I hear you return to 3 words – it is about connection, compassion and communication. Could you say something about that? From my perspective that is often so lacking in the areas related to water management.  

Felicia:  At the State level, and particularly around the Bay-Delta suite of issues, there is less connection and compassion for each other than I would expect with people who have been working around each other for decades. It truly feels to me that people have been talking past each other for decades. I know that because I have been in and out of that issue over those decades, and when I come back, the same people are still talking past each other. I really think that folks get too wrapped up in their heads or their positions. They are not bad people (people think I like everyone, but I don’t.  I just reserve “bad” for a whole other level of bad, and I look for things to like in people.  It’s not that hard if you actually try, but I digress). If you focus on interests, you can find more ways to help more people meet their needs than they may suggest themselves. It’s how we got the Bay Delta Accord done in the 90’s. It wasn’t that just the stakeholders came to the agreement, it was so much more: the active government people (particularly my EPA team) and also the great people in the Department of the Interior.  We just talked to everybody. We had them in the same room and we spent a lot of time one-on-one, really figuring out what they needed. We put them together and  got them to agree to what we put together because they could see that their needs would be met. What was interesting is that none of them could actually propose the agreed-upon solution, which was really kind of fascinating. They didn’t want to “give” anything away, but they could accept not getting it if the whole package felt fair.

I have learned over time how important it is to see the other people in the room. It reminds me of the early epiphanies that came through the Heal the Bay experience… I felt bad about the way that we naively approached the very good people in the City. That was wasted time and wasted life force on all sides.  In California water is more divided than I have seen for a long time. Even though there are people who talk about agreements, settlements, and the wonders of them these days, or other people talking about how agreements are “bad” no matter what, they are not really practicing the hard work and patience that it takes to make good agreements happen. But I don’t think they even know that they are not practicing the agreements and settlements part. Again, an interesting thing about people is you can’t just say to them what they ought to do, you need to give them experiences where they realize it themselves. 

Again that’s why I really liked what you did with the Walking Water pilgrimage from Mono Lake to LA because it forced people to be in a different space, even in an urban meeting hearing about the walk. I think people, particularly city-people, did not expect to be greeted with such openness and graciousness at the end of that long walk, given the history of Mono Lake and the Owens Valley. Having those cross-boundary conversations while actually hearing the other side requires some human skills that frequently get left behind. It is part of why I like the strategies used by disadvantaged community advocates for drinking water –   Community Water Center, Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, and Clean Water Action – in their dealings with the state these past ten years. They would bring busloads of people to talk in our hearing room, and in legislative hearings, with bottles of the awful brown water they couldn’t drink that was coming out of their tap. They were fierce, moving, and tearful (as were we). But they also actually sat down with us to talk, and said, ‘why can’t you do it?’. They gave us a chance to explain why we wanted to fix it too, but we were all operating within certain laws and rules that didn’t allow us to do all we wanted. Prior to this, they had seen that we had the right intent and were able to deliver on helping small communities with wastewater issues, and they had been the movers behind moving the drinking water program to us from the Department of Health where it was just a small piece of a much larger set of issues.  By moving it to us, a smaller agency, it immediately became the most important thing. Governor Brown had signed the pioneering Human Right to Water policy that they got passed, the first in the US, that made it state policy to try to help, but did not give any additional tools or authority yet. They helped us build our program by promoting legislation to give us more tools to help small communities with drinking water. By a few years ago we had gotten all kinds of legislative tools, and capital dollars, and had made progress to help thousands more people, but had not yet gotten the last bit of funding needed to subsidize operation and maintenance of small systems (we could build the system, but many communities don’t even have the resources to hire operators, buy chemicals, and maintain equipment).  Governor Newsom came in and found a funding scheme that could get the votes and this last piece finally happened so they are off and running.

Anything that can bring people together helps us get things done. As we were working on a regulatory program to help prevent further contamination of groundwater from excess nitrogen fertilizers (to help prevent some of the contamination we were having to clean up on the drinking water side), we were able to help create a thoughtful alliance between  agricultural representatives and disadvantaged community activists. They had been at loggerheads. I suggested that they actually had similar interests. It’s in the  interest of agriculture to get drinking water to people, because until they do they will be seen as polluters, because that is where so much of the contamination has come from over the years as a byproduct of farming.  Farming is a good thing because it produces food, but if it also contaminates water, particularly in poor communities that can’t afford to treat it, that’s a big problem. Actually, the amount of water people drink is a fraction of what is used in agriculture, and nitrogen is not a contaminant to agriculture, it is an essential input. If you focus on getting drinking water to people – which is your common interest, it will be easier to give agriculture more time to figure out how to reduce their excess nitrogen through using less and through pumping the water and fertilizing with it rather than adding more extra nitrogen in the form of synthetic fertilizer.  They humored me and went to have a conversation, and then had more conversations, and then asked for more time for more conversations, and then they came up with a compromise and it was awesome. They just needed somebody to suggest that they talk to each other. I just wish more people could see for themselves or help other people see that they just have to talk to each other and work together. It surely won’t work all of the time with truly diametrically opposed interests, but it should sure work more often than it does.  They also created the alliance that worked on the funding for the drinking water program in the legislature for several years.  There are times that people helped me see where I was being stubborn or not seeing potential solutions and I always appreciated it in my early years, so I try to pass it along.  

Kate: I think what you are saying is that if we just really respond to each other as humans, really to the heart of the matter, knowing that all of us need something, then that already takes away some of the barriers.

Felicia: Whoever first used the phrase ‘Help me understand’ was a genius because it is hard to do that all the time. I found that it was hard to have to do all those fractious hearings, particularly on the Bay Delta. I am kind of an empath, so I can feel all that stuff happening in the room, which is exhausting, and I am always pained from the hate or fear in the room.  It is also a strength because I can feel what is going on, but sometimes it is hard to stay compassionate. It’s a life’s work! I would put post-it notes on the bathroom mirror, reminders such as  ‘compassion’, or ‘listen’, because it is so easy to react, especially when it seems that speakers were lying.  On the other hand, it is completely understandable that people would be afraid, and would believe the talking points that they were told, e.g., that we wanted to hurt agriculture or that we cared more about fish than people, or the reverse.  Depending upon whose stories you read, I was either an eco-terrorist, an ag apologist, or a handmaiden of urban water users in southern california. Hard to be all three of those.  At the beginning of a hearing, I would write in large letters at the top of my paper words like ‘listen’ and ‘questions.’I would always take a lot of notes because it would force me to listen and remember to ask a question before reacting to what I thought I heard. When the old me- the lawyer- would have come back with a quick retort about why someone was wrong, I asked them a question instead. This both showed that I was listening and it clarified misunderstanding. What I found was that 70% of the time, the person didn’t mean what I thought they did, and that there was far more merit to their concern than it appeared on the surface. It takes compassion and a sense of value for every person who is there, but it also is so much a better way to approach every interaction.  Certainly has enhanced my life. 

I tell people this story: I normally wear a bracelet watch and Tibetan bracelet. The bracelet makes a little noise here and there as it hits the watch to remind me to be compassionate. My own little bell. During the Water Board job, I found another bracelet that had 15 Virgin of Guadalupes on it. I added that and then for the big hearings bought another one, so I had 30 Virgin of Guadalupes on my wrist, along with my Post-it’s  ‘stay calm’, ‘stay compassionate’ in front of me.  What I found is that if you are sitting there and you are actually trying to get something done, and you approach everyone with respect and as a potential source of inspiration, wisdom comes from the most surprising places.  I’ve been humbled enough to realize that it’s more effective to your cause to spend the time asking and clarifying meaning and offering compassion to people, but I also think that is a better way to live.  

Kate: The Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan has been continuous throughout your career. Could you say a little about it?

Felicia: I think in the Bay Delta, it has been really hard to get folks to come together and really respect each other. How do we redress a system that is seriously unbalanced, where we have just taken more out of it than the system can sustain? And that is unfortunate because agriculture needs the water and urban cities needs the water too. And yet, we have drained so much out of the Delta, both above it and through it, that the ecosystem doesn’t have a chance to function.  Temperatures are too high, water is too slow, and the infrastructure itself, whether Delta levees built to allow farming in the Delta, or the mighty pumps in the southern Delta that export water, create an impossible setting for the native species to navigate.  We also historically built up this mental architecture around a narrative that the system can provide enough water for everyone, everywhere and it’s endless. Even when people talk about limitations they talk about maintaining what they have.  Actually, what they have already taken out is more than what the natural system can bear, and we now see it collapsing around us, which is a tremendous loss to all of us. Adding more water back into the rivers, even a modest amount, can make the difference, but it has to be enough, not just a trickle or what folks want to offer. But even the famous Bay Delta accord of the 1990s – which I was proud to be a part of –  wasn’t good enough. So, we had to update it. It is the job of the Water Board to look at what all the beneficiary interests are and to find that place where you can maximize the most interests without triaging any one. 

What has developed over the years is a series of talking point silos where people are talking to each other in their own circles and it all sounds good; they are hearing from people they feel like they can trust. Those who disagreeing must be evil or stupid.  And then, the politics of it are exploited, I think, by folks who are in it for political or economic gain. So, it becomes impossible even for people of good will at the water agencies to give up one drop without extreme duress or they will get voted out of office. And so, this entire architecture has grown. And in the meantime, you have the environmental community that feels outgunned. They are worried about extinction and the loss of a species because they can see the beauty and importance of the whole ecosystem and the plight of the fishing industry which has collapsed into a shadow of former strength. The funding on the environmental side has dropped over the years, as you get Bay Delta fatigue on the part of the funders, staffing gets tighter, and they become more frustrated and frightened that they are letting the ecosystem down. And the environmentalists are afraid to make a deal because they already did that in the Bay Delta Accord, and it didn’t work, so it is not an unreasonable fear. 

Simultaneously, the folks in government are beaten up for all the reasons that they usually are and because of that, they are not allowed to do their job most of the time. We actually put an offer of settlement into our regulation, which is  ‘please come together and give us a package where you are actually going to actively fix habitat and actively manage the water efficiently. And we will give you a discount in how much water you have to give’. It seemed eminently reasonable to us, but it got into the political maelstrom of folks saying, ‘oh they are lying, they just want the water, they want to destroy agriculture, they like fish better than people’. 

There is not a conversation of ‘what do we do then?’. There is an attitude of ‘we won’t give one more drop.’ It’s just easier to fly to your corner and blame somebody than it is to do what is necessary and correct. And unfortunately, because we have had an administration at the federal level that is not helpful on a lot of fronts, and actively fans the flames, it emboldens water users to not want to really make a deal that the environmental community can support. The community that almost always gets forgotten are the people who actually live in the Delta, which is very rich farmland with a long history and a lot of senior water rights.  

I liked the architecture of what we offered in the regulation (a chance to add collaborative management toward fish recovery including improving habitat) because it would allow us to empower the doers – the folks and the agencies who are actually the operations guys – and disempower the talkers. The talking class is the political class. So, what I found is once you get people around a table working on a common problem, you get a very different dynamic than you do when you’re at a microphone or at a negotiating table. If you just have regular people in a dynamic where they are trying to solve a common problem, they almost can’t help themselves. We got far enough to finalize our lower San Joaquin standards, which was a big deal because the Water Board, as far as I know, has never done that on their own without litigation or an EPA hanging over their head. So that felt good to be able to be at the Water Board when it actually did its job without being sued or forced by somebody else to do their job. In some ways it could be symbolically important, but unless they are allowed to implement it, and finish the job on the Sacramento River and in the Delta proper, it is not going to mean anything. 

 I am relieved we got as far as we did. I would have liked us to have gotten further and faster. But it took us a long time to give a really good response to comments and get that project out. It will probably survive legal scrutiny because of what we did so that was important but I would have rather we had gotten it out sooner so we could have gotten the Sacramento standards out during the Brown administration.  

Kate: Water has become a resource and the management of it has become so complicated that it is very difficult to approach it in some coordinated way.

Felicia: Exactly. I mean our whole system is inherently artificial, Governor Brown used to say. It is all artificial at this point. More than half the state of California has no idea where their water comes from because it comes from hundreds of miles away! Whether it’s the eastern Sierra, southern Sierra or northern Sierras, or Colorado river, they don’t know. That is not their fault.  It has had a big cost and it’s actually quite vulnerable under climate change. We need people to understand that so they will support the investments needed to develop local supplies like recycling and stormwater capture and conservation, while also adopting new technologies to fix aging systems  too. They are going to need to be more locally resilient in order to give up imported water. Fortunately, the local politics and local managers get it. So, since Heal the Bay, you have all these folks pushing in LA for far more local resilience. Mayor Garcetti has been awesome that way and I think, ironically, it has put a little bit more pressure on the Owens Valley supply. So, there is a, “Everybody, you’ve got to care about that too!” that we need to remind folks about In LA.  The Mayor’s plan now includes pretty big plans for 100% recycling of wastewater – to be used for groundwater basin augmentation, and the County has huge plans and now funding for myriad stormwater capture projects that will also create green space and help reduce urban contamination into Santa Monica Bay and the LA Harbor (Measure W). Orange County is now, and the Metropolitan Water District will be, the world leader in indirect potable reuse of treated wastewater into groundwater basins. San Diego is doing one of the biggest and most aggressive indirect potable reuse reservoir augmentation projects in the nation. I think there are some encouraging things happening if you look at Southern California, but in the dialogue around the Delta, it’s different and is the same as it has always been despite encouraging words about adaptive management and working together.  Words won’t save the ecosystem, real adequate actions will. 


Kate: It seems like the infrastructure is just creaking to a stop. 

Felicia: It is. We do need to figure it out, but there are things happening though. There is the local stuff and the groundwater. The groundwater legislation we got passed was historic and it’s structured to give the locals the lead time and the leadership and the obligation to do it themselves, as opposed to having it done from up above, by the State. This way you create the political will by saying, you guys have time to do it and if you don’t, the big bad State will come in and do it for you (many would say “to you”). It actually works because even when people don’t want to do a thing, they would rather do it themselves than have the government come in and do it for them. So, there is a lot of encouraging work happening that may save farming for many current farmers’ kids and grandkids vs. using it all up now.

Kate:  If we look at the situation of water and the environmental racism that plays out in water management, we see the effects that so many black and brown communities are experiencing right now, with the pandemic, the water shut offs and so on. What do we need to do to move out of that? 

Felicia: That’s a huge question, but I’ll give just a couple of examples because I can’t do it justice here. Our organizational structure around water and water delivery may have made sense at the time they were built because people want to control at the local level. But, in terms of structural racism, we have  communities that were iced out of being a part of a water district because they were pushed to the outskirts of town, primarily African American or Latino communities. Then they weren’t given water service, so they had to come up with their own little water districts without the ability to have the economy of scale of the municipality. One of the tools that the disadvantaged community advocates got us is the ability to order consolidations. The first one was a classic one where you had a little community right next to a service provider. The community wasn’t served and it would be relatively easy to serve them via the local provider. We paid for the pipes but the larger community didn’t want to do it, so we ordered them to. In the biggest case so far, we needed and got special legislation to even plumb to each house in East Porterville to connect people to the Porterville municipal supply where we also paid for improvements.  These were people who were formerly on wells that went dry. We were able to do it in part because of the media coverage and the heroism of people like Donna Johnson. She is this amazing woman who was buying and delivering water out of the trunk of her car for years and was able to also get massive media coverage in the large cities and across the county. That, combined with the activists I talked about earlier, definitely helped create the political will to get the legislature to give us the authorities we needed to act well beyond our prior authorities. 

Our water rights system comes from a 19th century mining mentality of extraction and claims. So that if you were there first you got it. First in time, first in right. This doesn’t always recognise those who were really first, the tribes, unless they had good federal treaties, which were very few of them in California. We can’t just change it wholesale now because we have built communities, farms, and businesses based on it over 30 years. In particular, our world of agriculture and farming would come to a crashing halt in some areas without the seniority to water. And the price of many foods would skyrocket.  On the other hand, we have a system that is very hard to implement and one that mystifies people from other states, and even countries, because it is so complex and underdeveloped in any systemic way.  We tried to do that through measures that require better information so that we can then even lay a foundation for a conversation about how we could improve the system for everyone.  We also need to get real about being able to implement our public trust responsibilities to protect ecosystems that are important to all of us.  The system we have now encourages fighting vs. modernizing to meet multiple goods, e.g., agriculture, urban communities, and the ecosystem.  Californians need and want all three, not just fights between them.  We need to have some civil discourse around this vs. it all being thrown into the “water wars,” meme.  

We also have to have a more intellectual consciousness about the structural ways in which we have disempowered and disenfranchised people. The fact that we have large diversions of water that go to agriculture, get mixed with fertilizers, and then go into the groundwater, all the while, the farm workers who are growing the food go home to a shallow well and have to drink the dirty water – when what gets put on the crops they grow gets much cleaner water.  The alliance of disadvantaged community activists and agricultural interests was a big step in the right direction, a wonderful one, but still in its relative infancy, and on one issue of many.  And, this week the state is doing a webinar with tribes on water to supplement their every five year water summit.  Those are encouraging, but we have a long way to go.

Kate: In many countries there is a national water watchdog. We don’t have that in the US.

Felicia: Well, we do have it in the form of the Environmental Protection Agency setting minimum standards for drinking water and water that makes its way to navigable water bodies. And we do have it in the endangered species laws implemented by other departments. States can be more protective.  In California, we are big and we have tougher standards than the federal standards and that’s how it should be in a federal system, though the federal standards should be heightened, as opposed to being relaxed or obliterated as they have been over the past four years.  On the supply side though, we have a very strong national history of leaving that to the states and that is how it should be as every region, every state, every community is different. Also, we are big! You know, California is the 5th largest economy in the world. We are like five of those other little square states (only  kidding, sort of). The California Water Board is the only one in the country that regulates both water quality and water supply in the same institution. That was set up intentionally, over 50 years ago. They felt that because our water rights system that regulates supply also has the public trust doctrine (that says we all own the water and that public uses like the environment and navigation come first) and, we have a constitutional provision (Article X, Section 2) that prohibits “waste or reasonable use” (no matter how senior your water rights are), there are qualitative judgements called for and it was better to have people managing water rights who understood water quality too, and the whole of water needs and vice versa. So, it is actually a cool structure. Allocating water is pretty much the most important of the “states’ rights,” so deferring to the states is right, on the other hand, the setting of minimum public health and environmental standards at the federal level (whether EPA or other agencies like the Department of the Interior, or National Marine Fisheries Service) are essential to hold the line.  States should do much better, but there has to be a backstop, or a floor, too.

Kate: What are the learnings you have gathered over the years? 

Felicia: There are a lot of them. It’s so humbling. Almost every day I learn something, which is a good way to live, but also humbling. I think what keeps getting reinforced is that it’s all about the individuals who happen to be in a given place at a given time. It’s chemistry, it’s awareness, it’s how many people in the room want to be in a space where they are going to learn something from somebody else. I think when you get enough people in the room who can really listen to each other, and want to see others’ points of view too, magic happens. The trick, I think, within the governmental arena, is that our hearings and what we do are set up for combat and winning and/or losing, and politicians and lobbyists and lawyers make money or keep their power through that competitive arena. They don’t have an incentive to solve problems. There are plenty of them who do solve problems, but not enough. 

I have learned over time that sometimes you have to make the hard decisions and be the bad guy and hope that that will lead to progress or agreement the next round. And so, I actually think we need more people like Walking Water. We need more vehicles to have the smaller conversations and the smaller venues where you can actually connect and hear each other. But also, the great structured facilitation and the graceful space you all create where someone can express that they don’t know something without fear of being beaten up. Like at the TreePeople event, you created a space where David Nahai (Former General Manager, LADWP), could feel comfortable explaining LADWP’s interests.  Perhaps that was easier because he is the former director not the current director, but he was remarkably candid about pushing back. Now do I agree with everything he said? I don’t even remember, but I thought ‘how great’, and ‘he is a brave soul’, and ‘he chose to come’, but how gracious were you in letting him say his truth without judging him. We just need more leveling of the playing field and more people who are facilitators or mediators.One of the most successful multi-stakeholder dialogues in recent times that led to amazing progress was the Sacramento Water Forum. They spent a year together just agreeing on the facts of the region’s water supplies and ecosystem impacts. They did that so that they would then have a foundation for talking about what they can do about it. They really are a miracle of trading between groundwater and surface water and keeping the ecosystem a key object of mutual concern. They are actually a model that people should be watching carefully.  

Kate: What are you doing now? What is your next step?

Felicia: I am still in an interim space and I am doing some consulting with people who I respect primarily in the urban resilience space at the international and local levels. When I am in a single job, particularly a leadership job, I am all in, like 200%.  I also just took a part-time fellowship for the academic year at Stanford to allow me to read, write, and do some small convenings of my own on issues where I’m uniquely situated to pull unusual players together.

After seven years in the heart of the water world, including our worst drought in modern history and being able to lead the water board when the goal was to do what it had not been allowed to do for decades, I knew I needed to detox and recharge my batteries before I even decided what I wanted to do next. And I also wanted to give people space because I was a big personality in that field.

I spent a lot of time going all over the world giving speeches and learning and getting to know the international water world and finding out what other countries are doing. I am fascinated by climate change adaptation and water. The way we have dealt with water in California is so combative, and is not helpful given the realities of what climate change is gonna do to us. All the issues are going to be much harder as we lose our snowpack and that is just simple physics. But we also have to change our dynamics and relationships because we are going to have to be much more nimble. We are not just dealing with how you make a certain amount of water go further, we are dealing with disruption and we are dealing with unpredictability – where the historical record is absolutely not the guide for what is going to happen. I want to spend more time writing, as well as be active on local and international water issues, helping people move towards a little more structured thinking. Of course, the Newsom administration and their climate resilience draft did talk about helping regions which I thought was great. If we ever get a real infrastructure bill or a climate resilience bond, hopefully it will be one that actually facilitates things like the Measure W type, multi-benefit work. We can’t afford to manage water in separate silos the way we have before. We don’t necessarily have to combine all the agencies to do it, but we do have to create a way for people to work across those traditional divides as Measure W is helping people in LA do. 

Hopefully I won’t just be following my bliss… Hopefully I will do some stuff that is useful and then something will grab me and that will be what I do next. I mean, all these jobs have been somebody else’s ideas not mine. I am not particularly good at figuring out what I ought to do next. I have been very lucky. If there is such a thing as guardian angels – I definitely have them and they definitely have a sense of humor! There is no question about it!

Kate: Ok, very last question. Can you share a story of when you fell in love with water? 

Felicia: Oh, this is the hard question! I was hoping you wouldn’t ask. It’s interesting. I won’t say I was a hydrophobe for most of my life, but I don’t like swimming and I don’t really like being wet all that much. I’m a lizard, I’m not really a water person. I appreciate it, and enjoy being on a boat or sitting by a running stream anywhere. And showers, even short ones. You have to appreciate the beauty and magnificence of the ocean and all that. However, sewage was actually my first love. Believe it or not, sewage was my entry drug!!! It was Heal the Bay. There was a big wrong happening and thinking about everything flushed in the toilet in LA ending up in Santa Monica Bay is fairly motivating. But once we got into understanding the system, we all fell in love with sewage. And it was so interesting. And that was my sort of entry into the wonder of water. The fact that you can clean it and the fact that it is amazing. And then when I hit EPA, I had to do Bay Delta. So, I’m not saying I was ignorant to larger issues or how essential and magical water was to life, but it started with sewage oddly enough. I loved the complexity , but also the fact that we could fix it and the fact that fixing it brought people together, so the sewage fight was a vehicle for something even larger. I mean, we were into healing LA, not just healing the Bay. And we created a whole new movement that let anybody in who wanted to be in. So even today in the LA environmental movement you see business, government and environmentalists side by side at the League of Conservation Voters’ gatherings. It’s much more mixed than in other cities and we started that using sewage as our lever. Go figure.



Felicia Marcus is a lifelong California who has been in government, activism, and now academia.  She is the William C. Landreth Fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West Program, and a member of the Water Policy Group.  Most recently, she was Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, which has responsibility for the state’s water rights, drinking water, and clean water programs, formerly was at USEPA, the City of Los Angeles, and a variety of non-profit environmental and conservation organizations.


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