The original California Water Atlas, a book addressing the state’s water crisis, was published in 1979. The book used maps and graphics to provide information about water supply, management, history, and governance. Almost 35 years later, computer specialists, designers, and environmentalists from outside the Governor’s office have produced the New California Water Atlas, replete with dynamic maps and data visualizations providing a clear picture about how water is governed and managed in the state.
The New California Water Atlas, based on data from state, federal, and regional agencies, creates access to real-time information on allocation and management of water resources to educate citizens about how cumulative water usage effects the farms, individuals, governments, and businesses that rely on water throughout the state. The people behind the project were motivated by California’s Public Trust Doctrine, under which the state’s water is a public resource to be managed by the government on behalf of the people, a lack of transparency or complete data, and the dual threats of climate change and population growth.
Water is a shared resource, and a water right is a granted permission to withdraw water from a river, stream, or ground water source for a “reasonable” and “beneficial” use. The state draws water from the Colorado River and Northern California. California’s water system serves 40 million people, but over 80% of the state’s water is used to irrigate farmland. Additionally, the majority of water comes from Northern California, but is used in the southern part of the state. In large part due to the state’s arid climate, water usage is 50% higher than in other parts of the country. As the climate continues to warm, precipitation declines, and infrastructure ages, water becomes increasingly scarce in the state.
Water resource management is a complex issue, as discussed by the California Supreme Court in Environmental Defense Fund v. East Bay Municipal Utility District, where it described the “scope and technical complexity of issues concerning water resource management” as “unequalled by virtually any other type of activity presented to the courts.”
The New Water Atlas aims to provide information on water rights, water governance, water pricing, water quality, and flood control by addressing conflicts, including the variation in prices between regions, drought, litigation, and abuse; tracking eutrophication, salinity, pollution, precipitation, water temperature, runoff, seepage, and stream flow; indicating the agencies managing specific watersheds; and reporting on levees, bypasses, and floodplains.