CA WATER POLICY CONFERENCE: Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth shares her vision for moving the Department forward

Speech emphasizes the importance of partnerships and the transformational changes underway at the Department

In January of this year, Karla Nemeth was appointed Director of the California Department of Water Resources by Governor Brown.  As Director, Karla Nemeth oversees the Department in its mission to manage and protect California’s water resources, working with other agencies in order to benefit the state’s people and to protect, restore, and enhance the natural and human environments.  Prior to her appointment,  Ms. Nemeth worked at the California Natural Resources Agency as Governor Brown’s Deputy Secretary and Senior Advisor for Water Policy, a role she held since 2014.  She also was Bay Delta Conservation Plan project manager from 2009 to 2014.  Before starting in state government, Ms. Nemeth was an environmental and public affairs director for the Alameda County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, and Community Affairs Manager at Jones and Stokes.  She earned a master’s degree in Public Administration from University of Washington.

At the California Water Policy Conference held last week at UC Davis, Ms. Nemeth talked about the importance of partnerships in moving forward, the need for California Water Fix, the watershed agreements that are currently being negotiated, and how the crisis at Oroville is bringing about transformational changes at the Department.

Karla Nemeth began by saying that since assuming the role of Director, her sense of the importance of partnerships has been invigorated.  “These partnerships are built on and solidified by the respectful exchange of ideas and information,” she said.  “As we move through the next decades, we want to build on the history that we have in California for collaborating.  It’s not really the part of California water that’s very well touted, but it is key to our success in the future, and I want to position the Department of Water Resources to embrace that and work with you all to get through the important work that we need to do.

She acknowledged the communities in Central and Southern California who are dealing with the frightening realities of devastating wildfires followed by severe rains, and at the local level, there are local organizations as well as state, federal, and local agencies all working shoulder to shoulder around the clock to protect life and property.

I want to take a moment and thank them for their service,” she said.  “It is through these strong partnerships that we’re able to address these challenges in real time, and it’s not going to be the last.  I think in time, events like these will touch Californians in every corner of the state.  It’s not just the communities that are in the line of fire or mudslide … It really is one of humility before forces that are much greater than ourselves, and also I think the growing awareness  is that we must reshape our lives in some pretty tangible ways if we want to help manage this risk into the future.”

The world is changing around us, but we are not yet ready for that change, she said, citing climate change, aging infrastructure, and ongoing environmental challenges as having pushed the state’s water system to the brink.  Water managers know this, and now after 5 years of record drought, followed by a historically wet winter and flooding, the majority of Californians actually get it too, she said.  “Like past public awareness turning points involving pollution or energy use, California has awakened to the importance and challenges of our water system,” she said.  “I believe that they will never think about water in the same way again.  And in that spirit, I think we need to seize this moment and we need to push forward.”

For DWR, Ms. Nemeth said this means embracing and investing in new technologies that recognize and reinvent the value of water, as well as accelerating our stewardship of an aging infrastructure in partnership with local water agencies, nonprofit groups, universities, and local communities.  “That for the Department of Water Resources really requires a transformational change,” she said.  “Some of that transformational change has been brought to our doorstep by the crisis at Oroville, but some of that transformational change has been underway in some subtle ways for a long time and in ways that are not unique to DWR; they are actually ways that are affecting our state government and local government in really all sectors of society.

I want to give you all some examples of some of the incredible things we’re starting to do at DWR that you might not be aware of, but they are going to be the underpinnings of how we reposition ourselves to do better, to use water more efficiently, to get more value out of that water in our ecosystems, and to develop water using less energy – all of these things are interconnected and our investment and ability to embrace technology is really our renewed expression of the value of water.”

Last year, through a partnership with the UC Davis Hydrologic Laboratory and the state climatologist’s office, the Department installed new forecasting monitors in the Feather River watershed which is meant to improve the management of the reservoirs as well as to assist local managers.  The Department also supported forecasting and response strategies by reconstructing historical extreme precipitation events and determining how they interacted with the watershed.  A pilot study was conducted on the Feather, Yuba, and American Rivers in 2013 through 2015, and a study on the Upper Sacramento and the Kings Rivers is currently in progress, she noted.

So it’s these new technologies that allow us to do real-time forecasting and really plan to push the envelope in how we manage our infrastructure into the future,” she said.  “Because of the boom-bust nature of water supplies in California, which is getting evermore extreme, we must use the best available technologies to narrow the forecasting gap and improve our ability to predict and plan for variable weather.

Ms. Nemeth said the over the last few years, DWR has launched a host of new technologies and equipment to collect real-time data in the Delta, which allows them to adapt more quickly in response to changing conditions.  She acknowledged that the state of the Delta is complicated, changing, and humbling.  “With that attitude, I think it’s really important that the Department continues to invest in our Delta smelt resiliency strategy which identifies multiple stressors on Delta smelt and creates discrete and near-term projects to address them, and explores sedimentation, habitat restoration, and some localized interactions between freshwater flow, tidal action, and physical habitat restoration to help those species.”

Other new technologies include the new high-tech smelt cam, which makes it possible to county fish populations without having to capture them so they can better analyze endangered fish populations; and the new research vessel, the Sentinel, which is a state-of-the-art floating research laboratory that combined with the new water quality monitoring equipment, now has DWR positioned throughout the Delta to assess water quality in real-time.  “These are all things that are absolutely fundamental to our future investment in water, and enabling us to use water more efficiently and for all the multiple purposes upon which we rely,” she said.

Ms. Nemeth also noted that the Department is releasing the next round of grants for desalination projects, which now includes small grants for research institutions.  She acknowledged that support for more cutting edge research is not yet embraced by the Department in a focused way, and said that’s one of things Department needs to do moving forward.

On the sustainable groundwater management front, the Department recently launched a visual tool that allows local agencies and the public access to statewide land use datasets that have been collected for the last 30 years.  “This consistent and centralized data is going to improve coordination across the state and across groundwater sustainability agencies to meet the new requirements under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,” she said.  “So there’s a lot of stuff going on that tends to fly under the radar, but it is absolutely essential information to get out to our local agencies, to get out into the public, and use it as part of our public dialog in how we make decisions on managing water in California.”

Ms. Nemeth noted that a big part of her job is sorting out how to marry new technology with the reality of the state’s aging infrastructure.  Every sector of the economy really has lived off the largesse of investments of prior generations, and now the decision is what to do with those assets that have provided for the state’s well being for so long.   “How do we reinvest in them that acknowledges their fundamental nature to our prosperity and quality of life, but do so in a way that takes advantage of new technologies and new approaches to managing water,” she said.  “One of the most interesting policy discussions I engage in is what is the relationship between concrete and flexibility, and how do we make these bigger infrastructure backbone kinds of infrastructure projects respond more flexibly in real time and what are the design and engineering considerations in doing so.  We’re going to have to do it, there’s simply no doubt, and that’s the challenge that we bring into this conversation about how do we replace and upgrade our aging infrastructure.”

Nowhere was the reality of that more evident than in the Oroville crisis of last year, and the emergency was an absolute wakeup call for the Department, she said, acknowledging it has been a difficult year for the Department, and more difficult for those communities on the ground.  “Ultimately, I think when all the dust settles, I think the Department did a pretty fine job in managing the multiple cascade of effects up at Oroville that were affecting decision making and affecting the Department’s ability to protect public safety,” she said.  “While the evacuation was traumatic, no doubt, the Department is engaged in a long-term partnership with that community to have a discussion about risk and what that means to live next to Oroville Dam, and work with that community to make sure that they trust the Department as a good source of information about their safety and livelihood.  The Department itself, during those agonizing few moments came together in way that it hadn’t in a long time.

Ms. Nemeth said she thought the crisis at Oroville really brought something good, important, and healthy to the Department of Water Resources.  “In that moment, we had a lot of our internal walls really break down because everyone rallied around the crucial task at hand.  We had a moment where the Department was getting a lot of feedback that’s very important from independent experts throughout the county about organizationally what we need to do differently with our approach to design and engineering.  We’re having more conversations across more typically siloed divisions then we have ever had, and part and parcel to that conversation is how we interact with the community in Oroville … So I think while the Department responded some important and successful ways during the emergency itself, we do have a more humbled approach, a more reflective and soul-searching approach on how we reshape the Department so that we don’t experience that kind of situation again.”

The Department is working on a comprehensive needs assessment to reevaluate the effectiveness of all the appurtenances on the Oroville facility, a process that is guided by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other experts in the state that will produce its own documentation about Oroville’s future and things the Department ought to be doing.  “Many of these things are going to take a long time to implement, and that information is going to ultimately help set the stage for the rest of the work we need to do in the state of California, and in all likelihood will probably be embraced by other dam experts throughout the country and really throughout the world,” she said.

The Department is working both under the legislative mandate and direction from Governor Brown to improve dam safety regulations as a result of the crisis.  For a long time, the dam safety program was funded by the general fund that ended in the mid-2000s when the state switched to a fee program that could never quite keep up with the work that needed to be done, she said.  “So we’re going to have to reconcile ourselves as a society about how we generate income to reinvest in our public safety associated with those dams.”

The Department has been working on its asset management plan for the State Water Project which will lay out for the state water contractors who pay for the project what the state’s plan is to prioritize the maintenance and rebuilding of some of the key SWP features.  “I think it’s going to be a moment for us to reconnect with how much this infrastructure does in our daily lives,” she said.  “It’s kind of invisible.  For those of you working at local water agencies, some of us like the invisibility because it means we’re doing our job great, but at moments such as this when we really need to reinvest, then we have a lot of work to do to help remind people why the work that we’re doing is important in their daily lives.”

Ms. Nemeth then turned to the California Water Fix project, acknowledging that there are those who see the project as a stubborn insistence on last century’s technology, and say that the state needs to look to the future and embrace different water supply sources instead of building the Delta tunnels.  “I respectfully yet absolutely and thoroughly disagree,” she said.  “I think that Water Fix is a new diversion point that we know protects water supplies from earthquake, sea level rise, extreme storm events, and quite frankly provides a remedy for a very discrete, long, troubling environmental problem in the south Delta. I think it’s essential.  I think it’s essential to all the other things we want to do in California.  It’s essential to recharging our subsided groundwater basins, it’s essential to our recycled water projects, and it’s going to be essential to have a reliable supply that we’re using more efficiently and using in combination with some of our recently adopted landscape water use ordinances.  It’s absolutely an underpinning of what we’re doing.”

I would even argue that it’s not the project that’s dated, it’s the debate that’s dated,” she continued.  “It’s gone stale.  We’ve been at it for a very long time, we really need to summon the will to fix the conveyance problem in the Delta.  No disrespect to our forefathers and grandfathers, but this is not your grandfather’s conveyance project.  It’s significantly smaller, we know a lot more, we are ready with new technologies for fish screens that are very impressive, and we should not be afraid of embracing that.  In fact, it’s my view that it’s making those bold choices that really honors the legacy of all of the folks who helped us develop water in California over the last many decades.”

In all of these efforts, partnership is going to be 1000% key to their success, and there is good news to report on the partnership and collaboration front.  “We’ve made really great strides that demonstrate the power of collaboration, and I think the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is one of them,” she said.  “In our medium and high priority basins, we have 99% of those basins that now effectively have formulated a sustainable groundwater management agency.  This is huge.  This is bringing parties together that have never come together to start talking about how to jointly manage their groundwater basin and make investments in the future so that it’s sustainable and supports the community.”

Ms. Nemeth had praise for those doing the hard work of formulating groundwater sustainability agencies and she encouraged them to continue moving forward.  “We are there to support you,” she said.  “We have a great sustainable groundwater management team.  We’ve got new technologies coming online and that’s going to be a critical partnership between the state and the groundwater agencies to get us where we need to be in the next couple of decades.”

The other area of DWR partnerships is the work the Department is doing to develop watershed agreements in the many tributaries the feed into the Delta.   “Governor Brown is very focused on what we as a state government are able to do in bringing partners together across these watersheds to invest in what’s effectively the ecological function of flows – that means a lot of things to different people, but it’s the process of setting out what that means with a degree of specificity that can drive the investment that we need to drive from participating water districts, but also can articulate outcomes for our native species and our ecosystems that are hugely important to all of us.  They are important to our partners in the environmental communities and they are very important to the Department.”

The watershed discussions are going on from the Upper Sacramento all the way to the Stanislaus and they set out 15-year plan of physical restoration projects coupled with revised environmental flows and additive flows in the tributaries that will make some real tangible measurable progress by the end of that 15 year period, she said.  “If we’re successful in forging these agreements, the Department of Water Resources with our Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Natural Resources Agency will take these agreements to the Water Resources Control Board and demonstrate why we think they ought to adopt them as a program of implementation for the water quality control plan,” she said.

With respect to restoration projects, the Department has made great progress over the last two and a half years.  “We had some really great talent at the Natural Resources Agency that, with the imprimatur of the Governor’s office, really helped our own state agencies, our federal partners, and local agencies to actually get some projects in the ground – things that we’d been wanting to do for a very long time such as fixing Wallace Weir and fixing the Knight’s Landing Outfall Gates.  We have some other physical restoration projects in the Central Delta that we’re working on,” she said.  “So my point is that it can be done.  And essential in getting that work done was our partnership with the local reclamation districts and other water agencies.  There is no way the state can do it on its own, so part of our challenge and part of my challenge is how does the Department embrace that reality into the future.”

Then turning to the Department’s organizational transformation, she acknowledged that the Oroville crisis has given her some opportunities to work with leadership in the Department to start really internalizing and redefining what it means for the Department of Water Resources to be an engineering agency, to be an environmental restoration agency, and lots of other things that the Department does.

We need to do those things in relationship to the hydrologic challenges that we all know and share, but we also need to do those things in the context of aging workforce and an organization that sees a lot of expertise walk out the door every couple of weeks, every month,” she said.  “We’re really examining what the Department’s core competencies are and coming to terms with the fact that we can’t do everything and that we have some important state interests that need to be expressed in all the work that we do.  What does it mean to express that state interest in these partnerships that we develop with local agencies, whether it’s working on enabling local water agencies or reclamation districts to engineer some of our solutions – what is the Department’s role in oversight?

One of the Independent Forensics Team comments in the report on Oroville was that DWR was too insular as an organization; she acknowledged that was a legitimate criticism.  “For someone who has been working in and out of government for a long time, I’ve always been a believer that government has to be a force for good in people’s lives, but right now, our cultural zeitgeist isn’t about our government being a force for good in people’s lives, so people get in their comfort zones and they do the things they think they can do and where they think they can be effective, but sometimes they get way too divorced from the overall mission and way too divorced from the vision and decisions that DWR management is making.”

So part of our transformation is going to be about how we communicate up and down our organization and up into our field offices about our values and how we’re going to do the work ahead, and why we’re making some of the decisions we’re making,” she said.  “Nothing is a straight shot.  We’re all managing risk every day, and that has to be explained to folks and they have to have input and they have to understand where the Department is going, so that’s a huge part of the vision I bring every day into the office and it’s a totally invigorating experience.

Ms. Nemeth closed by saying it is a tremendous honor to serve as the Director of the Department of Water Resources.  “It’s a hugely challenging experience, it’s a humbling experience, and I’m learning every day.  It’s a great place for me to be professionally and I am deeply indebted to our governor for giving me the opportunity.  It’s my hope that I will see you all over the course of the next ten short months and we can have some good conversations about how to advance these partnerships together.”

Thank you.


How do you feel that your background and experience in and out of government have helped you in this situation today?

Ms. Nemeth: “My experience in and out of government was partly in the nonprofit sector and partly in the for-profit sector, and always on these kinds of issues that had a public dimension to them.  And I think bringing that degree of understanding of societal partnerships that can make these kinds of projects work is a moment that is important for the Department to understand right now.  Everything comes in good time.  I’ll be the first to say that I was really glad we had someone with extensive emergency management experience at that moment when that spillway failed, no question.”

Every director brings a different set of expertise and experience to the office, and my successor will have a different set of expertise to bring to the office, but I think personally, what I bring is this sense of organizational need to bring our organizational decisions more into the forefront, work with ourselves internally to do so, and bring that out into the community and into our partnerships with local agencies so that people understand what the Department is doing, what it is managing to, and what it’s balancing.  A lot of people don’t know that, and the Department itself doesn’t realize how much people don’t know that because it’s become so internalized and rote, so that’s what I think I’m bringing to the table for the next year.

Question: Let’s assume the tunnels are built, but we know it’s going to be 15 years before they are operational.  What in your mind that we can be doing more, institutionally, collaboratively to improve Delta operations for the water projects and the fish over the next 15 years?

Ms. Nemeth:  “That’s where these voluntary agreements in the watersheds are going to become essential for the next 15 years.  Stepping back a moment, as someone who worked on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan for a long time, I was absolutely part of the decision in 2015 when the state did a gut check on if we could do a Natural Community Conservation Plan and a Habitat Conservation Plan in the Delta, and we struggled with it because we knew those were all the right ingredients; we needed to do something that embraced these decadal time scales, we needed to invest in all kinds of science and get other projects done to start understanding the interface of a whole complicated set of ecosystem responses, and so it was a big decision and it was a hard decision when the state backed away from that.

One of the things that we did at that time was also look towards what the water board was setting out as part of its water quality control plan … that was very much in the background and I think the water quality control plan gives Natural Resources Agency and everyone living and working in those watersheds and those communities where water is so valuably exported out of those watersheds to other parts of the state to work together on a watershed by watershed basis at the local level to start embracing the same things we were embracing in the conservation plan, separate from tunnels.  We can have a long political discussion about how that hindered our ability to move that program forward, but nevertheless those still are the right things, we need to be doing them, and I think for me that’s why the success of those watershed agreements is important – because they would be put in play immediately, and we would start doing that work over the next 15 years.  I think they are essential to what that interim period is, and it will affect the operations of the projects in ways that I hope do better for everything, better for water users, for fish, for everybody.

I would go back to this idea that California could never bring parties together to manage their groundwater basins.  We can do it, we can implement things together.  What I like to tell folks who are working with us around the table is that at the end of this, if we’re successful and at a minimum, at the end of 15 years, we will have such better information on which to base these decisions because we will have made the investment in physical restoration, we will have designed a hydrograph that fits with that physical restoration, and we’ll have a sense of what we’re dealing with.  Will it turn out exactly the way we thought or think?  No, but it’s going to be hugely valuable that we had that experience together and that we get those projects in the ground and get going, because everything is going on without us, whether we like it or not.

Question: What are your thoughts about the future of integrated regional water management?

Integrated Regional Water Management is a flagship DWR program … this is an area where one of my goals is to help the Department do more than just grantmaking, not that that’s not an important function, but I really want some of the Department’s financial resources to work within the context of integrated regional water management partnerships to establish more of a research agenda and more research into new technologies that take advantage of some of the work that’s going on in our university systems.  I think that’s possible, and I think the Department is eager to do it at the staff level, and I’m convinced we have a tremendous amount of expertise, but that expertise hasn’t yet been organized enough in a way that helps set out a direction for the Department more writ large.”

All those integrated water management plans are crucial to the water security of the state.  There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if you’re a State Water Project contractor, the percentage of your water supply that comes from the state is going to decrease over time, so that is the path forward, and that’s going to shift a lot of the water planning burden onto the integrated regional water management plans.  That is absolutely where our new water supplies are going to come from and that’s going to be the way in which we absorb a growing economy in California.”

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