CA WATER COMMISSION: DWR Director Karla Nemeth on the Department’s Strategic Plan, Delta conveyance

Aerial view looking South-West, of the Dutch Slough Tidal Marsh Restoration Project
Photo by Ken James/DWR

At the August meeting of the California Water Commission, Karla Nemeth, Director of the Department of Water Resources (DWR), spoke to the commissioners about the Department’s strategic plan and the work underway on the Delta conveyance project, which she noted nests into the strategic plan as a key feature of what needs to be done to modernize the State Water Project.

DWR’S STRATEGIC PLAN

DWR completed a strategic plan in 2018, which remains a work in progress.  It is updated twice a year and republished in October, so next month, they will update it and check off the things that have been accomplished.

It does start with core values of the Department that I believe are critical to enable us to achieve the Department’s mission, especially in response to the world that is changing around us,” she said.  “The Department prides itself on being a world-class safety organization, and that’s a really big deal when you think about the extent of the State Water Project and the extent of flood projects that the Department works on.  This past year we had our first ever DWR response which was an all-DWR virtual town hall meeting on workplace safety and emergency response.”

The second is partnership and transparency.  Given the increasingly integrated nature of water management in California, partnerships are essential, not just across state government agencies, but certainly with our colleagues in academia, local agencies at the federal level, and the communities that we serve.

The third is that science drives our decision making,” Director Nemeth continued.  “That means that within the Department, we are fostering the ability to work off of shared science, we’re improving access to scientific literature, and providing consistency across the Department as it relates to climate science, fishery science, and other things.”

Environmental stewardship – it’s our goal to meet all of our responsibilities in an environmentally pro-active way, and that is certainly expressed most recently in our new division for multi-benefit projects.  In the Department’s organizational structure, we have a deputy director for integrated watershed management.  Within that Department, we are hiring for a new division chief for multi-benefit projects, where we look at the outset of a project to generate environmental benefits as part of the project objectives.

Then lastly, professionalism and respect.  It feels obvious but in my experience, it can’t be said too often.  The work that we do can be rather intense, there are conflicting objectives at times, and people are very passionate.  It’s a core value of the Department to make sure that we are treating our colleagues with professionalism and respect.”

Director Nemeth said that the strategic plan has 21 goals; she would highlight four:

Goal #1: Invest and be innovative in solutions to modernize the State Water Project infrastructure.

In the fall of 2018, the primary objective was to complete the Oroville Spillway Recovery Project on time, and having done so, they are now working on a comprehensive needs assessment that lays out the permanent improvements and long-term improvements that enable the facility to be safe for the public, meet its flood control needs, as well as meet water supply and recreation needs that is expected to be completed by June of 2020.

Nothing like a stunning example of all the work that we need to do to lay out the capital investment that’s going to be required to make sure the State Water Project continues to meet the needs of the state into the future,” she noted.

Goal #13: Develop strategic long-term plans and data resources to address California’s water management challenges.

This goal focuses on the Department’s planning functions.  “One of the things that I want to emphasize is the Department’s interest in the next version of the California Water Plan and doing that in a way that more proactively integrates with the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan,” said Director Nemeth.  “That picks up on that theme of working across more traditional boundaries within the Department, and to the extent that the Water Commission and the Flood Board and the State Board as governor’s appointees are meeting together, that certainly helps the Department achieve its vision and be better able to integrate across state agencies.”

Goal #15:  Restore critical ecosystem functions to California’s watersheds through the multi-benefit habitat and flood risk reduction projects.

To that end, the Department is creating a new position to handle multi-benefit project delivery within the Integrated Regional Water Management.

One of our flagship projects is Lookout Slough, which provides an opportunity for 3000 acres of tidal marsh restoration,” she said.  “It’s important because at that scale, it’s essential for us to be able to monitor and measure effectiveness as it relates to native fish species needs in the Delta, but we are doing that in a coordinated way with a flood project.  It’s bringing monies from both the flood portion of Proposition 1 together with dollars from the State Water Project for needed mitigation for fish species, and having those combined objectives at the outset of a significant project.  In the Delta, it also helps us as a Department to work better with local government, work better with Solano and Yolo counties, and the reclamation districts in that area.”

Goal #18:  Support pathways to leadership and increase knowledge transfer across the Department.

This goal is one of several in the strategic plan about making DWR an employer of choice for those working in water management and flood management, she said.  They are identifying specific ways they can grow the next generation of water leadership within the Department.  Recently, Cal HR assumed some of the basic training which then enables the Department’s training office to develop capacity in key areas, such as risk based decision making and diversity and inclusion.

Part of my job and the job of the entire executive team is to help information flow better within the Department about where we’re seeing success and where we’re having challenges, and to do that in an open way so we can identify those roadblocks and try and move them out of the way,” said Ms. Nemeth.  “We can’t resolve problems that we don’t know about, and so it may be that through that process that identifies ways in which we can be working better with other state agencies, it may identify ways that we can work better with the Commission to help us work through issues that are challenging the Department and are really beyond our control.”

DELTA CONVEYANCE PROJECT

Next, Ms. Nemeth turned to the Delta conveyance project.  She noted that conveyance in the Delta as has been long discussed in California.  To recap the history, the recent decade-plus effort began as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan which ultimately became the California Water Fix; in July of 2017, the California Water Fix project was approved by the Department, and further refined in 2018 and 2019.

During Governor Newsom’s State of the State address, he identified a smaller single tunnel project that he wanted his administration to pursue, so the Department has been working on that since February.  In late April, he issued an executive order which directed state agencies to develop the Water Resiliency Portfolio, and he identified and reiterated his support for a single tunnel project in the Delta to help connect water management in California and enable it to take water during times of intense precipitation.  In the beginning of May, the Department of Water Resources withdrew all of the California Water Fix approvals and in August, they terminated the last permit associated with the project.

We are starting anew with our planning,” said Ms. Nemeth.  “The Department of Water Resources is launching a new environmental review process for a single tunnel conveyance project and alternatives to that project.  That is taking place in several ways.  One is to produce a project that will be more responsive to the level of impact in the Delta, which is crucial having a better discussion around the purpose of the project, the need for the project, and building greater trust around how that project will be operated.”

She presented a chart depicting the roles and responsibilities of the Department of Water Resources, the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority, and the public water agencies in the project’s construction.  The Department of Water Resources is the lead agency for the CEQA document, and they are working very closely with the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority (or DCA) which is a JPA of state water contractors that was established towards the end of last year to originally work on the design and construction of the California Water Fix.

As someone having been around this conveyance project for a long time, it was significant when the Department in 2009 put the project underground as a way to avoid a significant amount of permanent impact in the Delta,” Ms. Nemeth said.  “I think one of the things we learned in the California Water Fix project, particularly over the course of sorting through issues around Delta as a place, was that the logistics and potential construction of the project really drives a lot of the construction impacts, and those construction impacts would take place over a ten year period and would be very intense for people and communities living in the Delta.”

So the Design and Construction Authority is charged with additional engineering work and logistics work that would help us determine an alignment that can improve upon the ‘temporary’ impacts of construction,” she continued.  “I want to be clear about the asterisks around temporary.  Ten years is a long time to live in a construction zone, there’s no question, and the Design and Construction Authority is going to start very shortly a very intensive public involvement process to help generate more information that can feed into both our Notice of Preparation and into the alternatives that the Department would propose.”

Ms. Nemeth noted that they are working on initiating stakeholder engagement for Delta conveyance, assessing lessons learned from the 90,000+-page Cal Water Fix documents, and developing an approach for soil investigations.

The Department is also working with the state water contractors to generate an Agreement in Principle around cost allocation for the project.  “Simply put, this is for folks who don’t see the benefit of a conveyance project making arrangements for them to be shielded from any costs associated with the project, but also helping the state water contractors articulate their benefit and subscribe up front so that we can work with the Governor and with the Natural Resources Agency and the Governor to determine a right-sized project.”

As for next steps, later this year, the Department will issue a Notice of Preparation for the CEQA document.  In early 2020, there will be scoping meetings and activities to generate important public involvement on alternatives.  Then later in 2020, they will have some early design and engineering completed to help people understand what the project is.

Our goal is to have that information developed in enough detail that we can generate significant discussion around ideas for not only mitigating and avoiding or minimizing the impacts of the project, but also identifying potential benefits that could come with the location of these facilities,” Ms. Nemeth said.  “Some of it is related to the construction effort, such housing for folks during the construction period, but also longer term benefits where we can co-locate community amenities with the facilities.”

They will then begin working on all the permits required for the project, such as compliance with the Endangered Species Act, the California Endangered Species Act, the water right change for the point of diversion, and a consistency determination with the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan.

Regarding the soil investigations, they are now mapping out a 36-month period of soil testing in the Delta, both on land and over water; this will be drilling core samples the size of a softball or a basetball, she said.  They are also working towards more geophysical surveys.  “We most recently have had some interaction with the tribes based on AB 52 and a new requirement for tribal involvement in the project and much to my pleasure, we have active engagement from about 15 or 16 tribes in the Delta, particularly around this topic of soil investigation.”

So that’s all I have for you today …

DISCUSSION PERIOD

Commissioner Andrew Ball asks about the soil and geotechnical surveys for the tunnel.  “We were just talking about some of the early years of the Water Commission and the contentious meetings that occurred here around the borings and the taking of land, the mitigation of their property, and how everybody was upset about that.  So it appears that with the new geotech reports that you’re planning a new route or new routes for this and abandoning the old routes?  I just want to confirm you’re not going to run the tunnel in the old location where all the geotech tests were done and that you’re planning a new route, and when will that new route or routes be made available?”

Karla Nemeth replied that the there isn’t enough information yet to make that the decision.  “The Department, through the Design and Construction Authority, is putting a lot of emphasis on collecting additional information that can help us determine what kind of route is the best for the tunnel and is better for the community in terms of temporary construction impacts in the Delta, so we have not yet decided.  We won’t frankly be able to decide until we go through the extensive CEQA review process, but that’s why we have identified the more detailed set of information that we want to generate through the soil borings.  That information is planned to help us identify an alternative and then move past through that and work through some of the more immediate pre-construction kinds of needs.  So we don’t have an alternative yet as it relates to alignment; it may be that the alignment is very similar to the previous alignment in the California Water Fix project, we just don’t have enough information.”

Commissioner Ball asked if they had a target total capacity for the tunnel.

I think we’ll be in a position to look at multiple ranges of capacities potentially in the range of 7500 cfs down to 3000 cfs and everything in between there,” said Ms. Nemeth.

The total capacity is another topic of significant interest,” said Commissioner Ball.  “All of these things that we thought were behind us are going to be quite contentious, I would assume.”

I think this project has such a history in California, we can’t avoid and we shouldn’t avoid those kinds of discussions,” said Ms. Nemeth.  “It’s my goal to have better information to articulate how capacity matters in the context of moving water when its wet, better information about how the project will operate and what it will physically look like, and tangible ways in which we can either avoid all together or drastically reduce mitigation.  I think the struggle with the previous document which had 15 alternatives and a lot of information is that we had such a wide spectrum of potential impacts that the Department was proposing to mitigate that it was very difficult for people, especially people living and working in the Delta, to understand what they needed to worry about and how to focus on what could be happening right in their backyard, so we want to fix that and improve upon the quality of information that we have in the document.

Commissioner Matthew Swanson asks how the 3000-7500 cfs tunnel compares to the capacity of the two-tunnel project.

The two-tunnel capacity was 9000 cfs,” said Ms. Nemeth.  “If there’s one point that I can leave you with, is that that sort of ultimate size is meant to capture water when its safe for fish and when there are enormous quantities of water moving through the system.   With the previous project, the approach to operating the new facility was that the intakes had specific rules and could only take water when there was significant volumes moving through the Sacramento River.  To me, the thing to really focus on when it comes to capacity and capacity associated with a single tunnel project is how do we do the best that we can during these large storm events which we anticipate will occur with greater frequency?  The other anticipation is that while they occur with greater frequency, it also means we’ll be in longer deeper droughts, so the idea of the project is to be able to capture these bigger storm pulses of water and that’s really what the capacity discussion is around.  I think what you’ll see the Department doing in the future is updating some of our climate assumptions to understand the frequency with which such a facility could operate at capacity, and then what the facilities role would be in our more typical operations in the Delta.

The key feature of a conveyance project is to provide flexibility,” said Ms. Nemeth.  “There are lots of rules in terms of how do we establish environmental flows in the Delta and protect those flows so we can support our native fisheries.  For the Department, in terms of a new intake in the north Delta, a huge benefit is this notion of real-time operations and operating facilities, or being able to operate facilities when fish are not present.  So technology and how we approach the operation of the State Water Project and turning it towards real 21st century kinds of ideas is essential.  You’ll see that when we start talking about the State Water Project generally speaking, and so the notion of another set of intakes on the Sacramento River is meant to provide that degree of flexibility so that we can take water from the system when its safest for fish and have the flexibility to move water and store it, put it in groundwater basins, put it in San Luis Reservoir and use it during drought periods.”

I was talking to Secretary Crowfoot the other day and chatting about how things go fast in an administration and what are the few things you really want to accomplish,” continued Ms. Nemeth.  “Something that’s very important to me is to greatly improve the transparency of the operation of the State Water Project.  It’s difficult, it’s a complicated system, it’s not a very easily accessible system, and we have a lot of technology that I think could tell a better story about how we’re operating the project, even right now, about why and how much water is moving.  I think when we’re working with the communities that we serve to invest significant amounts of money and infrastructure and we’re working with folks in the Delta around this very scary notion of if you build a facility, you’ll just operate it whenever you want to, to the detriment of the Delta, that transparency just becomes increasingly important.  With flexibility comes a greater degree of accountability and transparency in my mind, so that’s going to be one of the things State Water Project writ large, you’re going to see the Department working to improve.”

As you talked about the greater transparency and some of the new division and the tunnel work that you’re about to undertake, do you and can you say anything about how you see the relationship between DWR and the Commission and how that plays into some of those areas?,” asked Executive Officer Joe Yun.

To me, this is a first start, and I envision either coming back myself or someone else from the Executive Team often, especially since the issues are not simple, and they are in fact are quite interrelated,” said Ms. Nemeth.  “We are in a moment where there’s a need for significant reinvestment across the system, and so I am very eager to reinvigorate the partnership between the Department and the Water Commission on all kinds of topics as a way to not only get the benefit of your insights and enable you all to fulfill your responsibilities, but also interact with the public and as an executive agency.  Unless we’re doing projects, we have various touchpoints with the community, but we don’t always have natural touchpoints in public settings on these kinds of integrated topics, so I am very enthusiastic about reinvigorating our relationship so we can serve that function.”

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