Influential Women

Felicia Marcus: Controlling the Spigot in California

She directs a crucial policy intersection in a state battling drought

Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the California Water Resources Control Board, must please an array of competing interests. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Someone who likes to make enemies would be hard-pressed to find a more perfect job than running the agency that tells folks in parched California that they can’t water their lawns.  

But Felicia Marcus, who has that job, says she doesn’t like to make enemies. She says she likes to listen.  

As chairwoman of the California Water Resources Control Board, Marcus has the unenviable task of trying to please an array of competing interests in a state that has battled drought. She says she has tried to be “sensitive to what the legitimate interests were of the other people in the circle.”  

“I talk a lot,” she added. “But I’m actually a very good listener and I’m listening for what people really need rather than what they say they need.” That skill, she says, “is part of the art” of her job.  

Scrutiny, criticism The delicate nature of that art has brought scrutiny and some criticism of the drought response managed by her board. For example, a December report on the state’s efforts from the Natural Resources Defense Council yielded mixed results, offering solid marks on urban water conservation but significantly lower marks for conservation in the agriculture sector.  

Those findings were “a little disappointing,” Marcus told the Los Angeles Times. “We’ve done more in the past two or three years than we have in the past two or three decades on water in California. It’s nothing to sneeze at.”  

MarcusBioBox In an interview with CQ Roll Call in 2015, Marcus said “people also have a conception that ‘agriculture is using more, so shouldn’t they save more?’ And the answer is agriculture’s been savaged already in this drought, and, frankly, they’re growing the food you eat.”  

To be sure, the amount of water in the food consumed by folks in urban California “is a lot higher than what they put on their lawn  . . .  but you’re not going to say you can’t eat.”  

The water board has been “hitting it on all cylinders,” Marcus said. It has had to take an “across the board look at water in a very complicated state.”  

The drought has “called on all of us to try and find those actions that can maximize the benefits to competing interests.”  

Just Short In an April report, the board said that in the first nine months of intense conservation efforts ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown, urban residents of California had reduced their water consumption by 23.9 percent, just short of the 25 percent goal.  

“We’re nowhere near having a ‘drought’s over party,'” Marcus told the Times after the report, which covered the period ending on March 31. A “subdued … it’s-way-better-than-the-last-few-years party” would be more appropriate.  

Many Californians were hopeful that the El Niño weather system would spur additional rainfall during the winter and spring. And it did, but not enough to make a big dent.  

“We’re grateful for every drop and every snowflake,” Marcus told CQ Roll Call. “I really think that people are going to have a fair amount of drought memory, because this one has been so severe.”  

California’s State Water Resources Control Board was perceived as “timid and politically weak” before it was thrust into the fore by an historic dry spell, according to the Times. Before joining the board in 2012, Marcus worked in various government, non-profit and private sector jobs, including a tour of duty in the Clinton administration’s EPA.  

Hill experience In a March interview with CQ Roll Call, Marcus said she grew “intrigued by water issues and environmental issues generally” while working for former Rep. Anthony Beilenson, D-Calif., in the late 1970s.  

After earning a degree from Harvard in East Asian studies, Marcus says she spent a couple of years dipping her toe in domestic policy while weighing whether to pursue graduate work.  

In Beilenson’s office, she gravitated toward the environment. Citing the infamous Love Canal disaster, Marcus said “all of a sudden environmental issues didn’t seem so much like protecting people’s backyards, but it was actually an issue of public health that affected people of all income levels, and I found that incredibly intriguing.”  

Soon, she says, it became clear that it “made sense to go to law school, because so much of environmental work is statutory.” It “seemed like an important tool … in the quiver to work on environmental issues.”  

Marcus later took her New York University law degree to a federal clerkship for Ninth Circuit Court Judge Harry Pregerson, whom she credits with influencing her management ethos.  

“I think my activism and advocacy, even my being a lawyer, is very much influenced by him.” Looking for areas of agreement is “always going to be in your client’s interest too, to understand what the other side legitimately wants and respecting people on all sides of an issue.”  

Joanna Anderson is a staff writer at CQ Roll Call. Contact her at JAnderson@cq.com and follow her on Twitter @dcjournojo. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.