A Strategic, Connected, and Adaptive California Water Action Plan

In California’s multiple responses to the drought, there is one key initiative that remains relatively unknown: the California Water Action Plan (Plan).1,2 The Plan calls for coordinated action to address the dynamic and interconnected challenges faced by the state’s water system. Thus far, our ability to resolve these challenges has not kept pace with the increase in their scope and complexity (see Figure). Efficient and effective coordination is exactly what is needed, but the question is: how do the actions of multiple agencies align to advance solutions that are strategic, connected, and adaptive?

The Plan represents the first succinct, centralized, and actionable water mandate in California’s history. It has three broad, long-term objectives:

  1. “more reliable water supplies,
  2. the restoration of important species and habitat, and
  3. a more resilient, sustainably managed water resources system (water supply, water quality, flood protection, and environment) that can better withstand inevitable and unforeseen pressures in the coming decades.”

The Plan outlines ten specific actions, with numerous sub-actions, to be taken over a five-year timespan to address urgent needs and provide the foundation for long-term, integrated solutions. The Plan reflects the Brown administration’s best thinking about how to coordinate and integrate an effective response to the drought and California’s water needs. It is the primary directive for how agencies should move forward.

Uniquely collaborative and inclusive in its approach and aspirations, the Plan’s development and implementation is led by a first-ever multi-agency collaboration including the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA), the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). Additionally, the Plan calls for better cross-sector “collaboration between state, federal and local governments, regional agencies, tribal governments, and the public and the private sectors.” It’s one thing for multiple agencies and partners to plan together, and entirely another thing for them to act on a single set of goals with a shared set of performance indicators.

Successful coordination of a group like this depends on a “centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.”3 The Plan has the centralized infrastructure of the Governor’s Office and the dedicated staff of that Office and three state agencies.

But what about the structured process piece? Ag Innovations is working in partnership with CNRA, CalEPA, and CDFA to bring the Plan’s collaborative implementation to the next level. We are doing this by helping the group develop a common agenda and shared measurement system, cultivated by the process of a structured, generative dialogue that builds positive visions for the future while facing difficult truths.

A preliminary review by the California Roundtable on Water & Food Supply (CRWFS) identified an opportunity for a deeper integration of the Plan’s goals and actions in order to grow a common agenda that opens the way for true systems leadership. What we know from effective coordination is that it requires “networks of collaboration commensurate with the complexity of the problems being addressed.”4To support this need, Ag Innovations is working in partnership with CNRA, CalEPA, and CDFA to facilitate a process to help bring the Plan’s collaborative implementation to the next level.

Tapping the collective wisdom of the CRWFS and a state government advisory group, this group will work over the next year to provide the Plan with a clearer systems orientation, and strengthen collective leadership capacities to support the effective implementation and long-term endurance of the Plan. For instance, the group has already discovered that placing the Plan’s actions within a strategic framework, such as the connectivity approach, can further a common agenda and vision for success. This framework can help build a shared understanding of the connectivity between institutional and environmental actions, and a deeper understanding of the dynamics of these relationships over time. This approach can then offer insights on implementation ordering and level of imperative, as well as collaborative leadership strategies.

We’re in the very early phases of exploring this unique opportunity to support policy implementation with the brainpower of the California Roundtable on Water & Food Supply. It’s an exciting time for collective impact in California water management. Stay tuned for more updates from the field.

Photo: Complexity of problems and our ability to solve them over time. Source: Eugene Eric Kim, Fasterthan20.com.


  1. CNRA, CalEPA, and CDFA. 2014. California Water Action Plan.
  2. CNRA, CalEPA, and CDFA. 2015. California Water Action Plan Implementation Report 2014-2018.
  3. Kania, J., Kramer, M. 2011. Collective Impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Winter: 36-41.
  4. Senge, P., Hamilton, H., Kania, J. 2015. The Dawn of System Leadership. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Winter 27-33.