PERSPECTIVES: DWR Director Karla Nemeth on Oroville Dam, the Governor’s water resilience portfolio, Delta conveyance, the Voluntary Agreements, and more …

Sacramento River and Tower Bridge (Photo by DWR)

Interview and write-up by Lisa Beutler, Stantec (Sacramento, CA).  This article appeared first in The Water Report and is reprinted here with permission.

In late August, California Department of Water Resources (DWR) Director Karla Nemeth graciously set aside some time to talk with us about the Department she leads and its role in confronting California’s water challenges.  The wide-ranging interview included background information about the Department and discussion of a significant list of issues she is charged with addressing.  Topics included: plans for DWR’s workforce; the response to the Oroville Dam spillway crisis; the Governor’s proposal for a California Water Resilience Portfolio and the administration’s approach to management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta) — among other things.

Background on DWR

Director Nemeth’s recognition of the importance of organizational context is reflected by the massive organizational chart covering the wall adjacent to her desk.  She began the interview talking about DWR’s many responsibilities and programs.

Karla Nemeth, Director of CA Department of Water Resources (Photo by DWR)

From the beginning DWR has been a product of its time.  A modern engineering organization capable of re-plumbing the State’s natural infrastructure, for decades nothing seemed out of the question and some remarkable accomplishments ensued.  It is a proud history and DWR operations have often set national standards.  During our discussion Nemeth pointed to DWR’s accomplishments and expressed her own admiration for the continuing professionalism and skill of the DWR staff.

Given the organization’s responsibilities, many DWR leaders have been engineers.  Nemeth is not.  She is an accomplished public administrator (with degrees in that field as well as political science).  She has been immersed in water policy work for most of her professional career.  Her particularly relevant skill set was recognized by both Governor Jerry Brown (who tapped her to fill the directorship after several temporary appointments ended) and Governor Gavin Newsom (who recently reappointed her).

Returning to the present context, in recent years DWR’s role has sometimes been called into question, most particularly with its management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta), and with its response to significant spillway damage at Oroville Dam.

California Department of Water Resources

DWR has a proud history dating back more than a half-century.  Conceived as a response to deadly flooding in 1955, the organization is tasked with providing for overall statewide management needs and specifically the planning, designing, constructing, and overseeing of the nation’s largest state-built, multi-benefit water conveyance system — the State Water Project (SWP).

Tasks include:

  • Ensuring public safety, and preventing and responding to floods, droughts, and catastrophic events
  • Informing and educating the public on water issues
  • Developing scientific solutions and restoring habitats
  • Planning for future water needs, climate change impacts, and flood protection
  • Constructing and maintaining facilities, and generating power
  • Providing recreational opportunities

Preparation for the Job

Nemeth is extremely familiar with Delta issues.  She spent over five years as a program manager for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (a habitat conservation and natural community conservation planning effort focused on the Delta).  This required serving as the principal in bilateral negotiations among state and federal fish and wildlife agencies, water project operators, and the stakeholder community at large.  After demonstrating her policy chops in this role, she was elevated by Governor Brown to be Deputy Secretary for Water Policy in California’s Natural Resources Agency where she continued as a negotiator and water resources policy advisor on behalf of the administration.

Response to the Oroville Spillway Damage Incident

While being asked to manage continuing discussions on the future of Delta management, Nemeth concurrently was tasked with guiding DWR during its recovery from the 2017 Oroville Dam incident.

Oroville Dam Incident

At 770 feet high, Oroville is the tallest dam in the United States.  In 2017, heavy rainfall resulted in damage to a main spillway and an emergency spillway.  Fears that accelerating erosion would lead to a spillway failure (which could have sent a 30-foot wall of water down the Feather River) led to a February 12, 2017, evacuation order by the Butte County Sheriff.  This order displaced nearly 200,000 people who were evacuated from the low-lying areas along the Feather River Basin in three downstream counties.

DWR, supported by an interagency team, successfully prevented a flood disaster.  However, along with the spillways, the relationships with downstream communities were severely damaged.  An independent forensic investigation of the incident included highly critical findings, including a view that DWR needed to address its “safety culture.”  Further, Oroville Dam had just been inspected in 2016, indicating flaws in the inspection process.  The impact of these disturbing findings on the organization and DWR morale was significant.  The investigators also flagged the failures as a cautionary tale for the entire industry as DWR was long considered to be an international leader in dam safety.  Many found it incomprehensible that this type of incident could occur under the watch of such accomplished professionals.

Nemeth was not hesitant in responding to questions about the Oroville incident.  She was pragmatic about what needed to be done and cognizant of the organizational and water industry implications.

Nemeth explained the importance of Oroville to California’s flood and water supply management systems.  She noted that the crisis had served as something of an organizational wake-up call.  In 2016 DWR had already initiated development of an asset management plan but following the spillway incident it also initiated a comprehensive needs assessment.

Oroville Spillway, March 17, 2017.
Photo by DWR

She explained that the issues extended beyond infrastructure and described the need to improve data and management for precipitation forecasting and informed reservoir operations (dam operating rules).  She also noted a key lesson learned was the need to fully appreciate the range of skills available in the water profession.  As an example she pointed to how there are new investigation, design and construction techniques available now that weren’t used in the 1950s/60s that were able to incorporate into the new spillway. One new innovation was epoxy coated rebar and improvements to erosion resistant concrete.

She also thought there may have been an over-reliance on just meeting State and Federal requirements rather than taking into account new information and technologies that may not always have been incorporated into those standards but that could improve decision-making.

Her response to the incident has been multi-faceted.  First and foremost has been her leadership in evaluation all of DWR’s infrastructure portfolio and ensuring on-time delivery of critical repairs to the Oroville spillways.  Both flood and water supply managers are dependent on robust operations at the dam and this has been expertly managed.

Regarding relations with the community, she believes a key element of regaining trust is transparency.  To her this means making decision-making processes as open and visible as possible and encouraging constructive feedback from stakeholders.

From her first days on the job, utilizing her public administrator’s sensibility, she has also sought to encourage a more integrated DWR culture that capitalizes on the expertise of all the staff.  This is in addition to plans to develop staff skills able to respond to 21st century challenges.  She has implemented an organization reorganization designed to bridge DWR internal organization silos and to improve collaboration.  She has also been engaged in obtaining funding for, and recruiting, needed staff with expertise in dam engineering and safety along with those with climate and forecasting expertise, economics, social science, and more.

DWR Workforce

Nemeth believes one key to organizational success will be responding to the needs of a millennial work force.  Like most of the water industry, DWR is experiencing a “silver tsunami” as large segments of its aging workforce prepares to move into retirement.  Millennials will fill the majority of newly created vacancies.  Nemeth noted that this cohort of workers may have different goals and criteria for job satisfaction.  Given the need for a skilled workforce, retention of these new employees will be a priority.  Nemeth is equally aware of the need to transfer an extensive body of institutional knowledge as the torch is passed from one generation to the next.

Governor’s Climate Resilience Water Portfolio Process

On April 29, 2019 Governor Newsom issued Executive Order N-10-19, directing State agencies to prepare a Climate Resilient Water Portfolio.

Nemeth responded enthusiastically when asked about DWR’s role in this effort.  She noted that DWR had been leading a key task in the effort, the inventorying of existing water management programs in state government, with an eye to improving coordination and creating better integration.  Two agencies — DWR and the State Water Resources Control Board — are directly charged with formal water management and regulatory roles.  However, multiple agencies are engaged in water planning as related to their own missions.  California’s Fish and Wildlife, Forestry, and Fire Departments are quick examples.  Creating an such an inventory is no small task, as over 30 state boards, commissions, offices, and agencies and departments, participate in development of DWR’s California Water Plan.

Bidwell Marina at Lake Oroville in March, 2015. (Photo by DWR)

Nemeth was also excited about the work DWR had been doing to develop “performance dashboards.”  Dashboards will improve transparency and streamline reporting on progress in achieving the final portfolio goals.  She noted her department was the lead for implementation of the Open and Transparent Water Data Act (AB 1755).  She felt a focus on data would be essential to successfully implementing a portfolio.

In discussing data, she relayed an insight originally offered to her by Marybel Batjer, the recently named President of California’s Public Utilities Commission.  Batjer observed that California was a state formed by a Gold Rush and timber extraction heritage but that instead of harvesting precious metals or lumber, the next “gold rush” would involve California’s great skills in mining data.

Nemeth noted that the portfolio process also dovetails nicely with existing DWR programs, including: periodically updating its California Water Plan and Central Valley Flood Protection Plan; implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act; and operation of the State Water Project.

She saw the Governor’s directive creating even more opportunities for synchronization of planning processes and better integration of water investments to create multi-benefit project opportunities.  One example she offered was DWR’s efforts to increase utilization of flood flows for increased managed aquifer recharge (MAR).  Called “Flood MAR,” what was once something that occurred through unmanaged inundation and natural groundwater recharge can now be replicated in by improved water management systems. In promoting the program Nemeth has previously explained, “…The potential benefits of this are significant:groundwater replenishment, peak flood flow attenuation, additional values and uses for agricultural land, a potential source of instream flows during drought or other periods of critical environmental need, and finally, increased efficiencies from reservoir reoperation.”

Two additional, intertwined responsibilities Nemeth is personally focused on are a process called the Voluntary Settlement Agreements (see below) and continued work on infrastructure investments to improve California’s conveyance systems — particularly in the Delta.

Delta Tunnels

Concerning water conveyance in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, most current proposals center on changing the intake locations of existing systems that utilize natural and constructed infrastructure, moving water from Northern California through the Delta, and then withdrawing it into canals that deliver water to farmers and cities further south.

Sacramento San Joaquin Delta Water Conveyance

There have been decades of consensus that the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta water conveyance system is not sustainable.  Governor Brown in his first term (during the 1980’s), backed by the Legislature, proposed a peripheral canal that would move water around the Delta.  This proposal was defeated at the ballot box after significant opposition from Northern California residents that viewed it as a “water grab” and a broader environmental community that was suspicious of adding more built infrastructure.  A broad disagreement about the challenges and causes of problems with the system and the appropriate solutions continues.

The solution proposed during Brown’s next administration was referred to as the “twin tunnels” and involved bypassing the Delta and taking upstream flows through pipelines for delivery south.  A dual system was preferable as it would allow for more operational flexibility, particularly as tunnels would require periodic maintenance and repairs and the system would not need to shut down to accommodate that.  This proposal was accompanied by ongoing efforts and additional plans and investments to improve the Delta watershed and its habitats.  Nemeth was personally involved with improving Delta habitats earlier in her career.

Significant opposition to the twin tunnels emerged.  Arguments were more complex but generally fell along the lines of earlier disputes and were enhanced by the fact that the Delta ecosystems were viewed as even more degraded than they had been in the 1980’s.

The twin tunnels proposal was the one that Nemeth inherited, and dissent was already well established and vocal.  Nemeth, herself, believed the proposal had challenges and supported the administration’s decision (also supported by incoming Governor Newsom) to return to the drawing board and craft a new option for a downscaled project with one tunnel.

We asked Nemeth about this new proposal and her views about the potential for success in implementing it and improving Delta habitat.  Nemeth began by discussing the need to look at the Delta effort in the context of California’s economic and social setting.  She felt it was unrealistic to dismiss the need for the water conveyance from North to South, particularly given continued population growth and climate change.  She also noted California’s agricultural sector is among the most productive in the world and that Southern California’s economic engine contributes to a State’s economy equivalent to that of the world’s most developed nations.  She was genuinely frustrated by the views of some that existing conveyance structures should somehow be stranded or dismissed.  She felt it essential to leverage the State’s existing water management investments to the benefit of the whole State.  Nemeth explained there was also need for a broader acknowledgement of the balancing of trade-offs that will occur in forging solutions.

The Sacramento River just south of Clarksburg. Photo by DWR.

As noted before, she did see challenges in earlier Delta proposals.  Now that she was directly responsible for advancing a Delta solution, d we asked her to tell us what was different about the one Nemeth, herself, will advance.

Good public administration, transparency, and solid science were at the center of her response.  She began by explaining that this was a vastly scaled down proposal that was grounded in recognizing and reducing impacts.  She believed that previous proposals may not have fully acknowledged and mitigated for their impacts.  She also felt a need to better articulate project benefits and believes stakeholders should be given a more prominent role in expressing localized impacts.  She thinks doing so will create better environmental impact reports and create the opportunity to mitigate through improved engineering and design.  As an example she offered a need to recognize that just building the project might take 10 years and construction impacts should be accounted for and designs potentially even realigned to reduce community disruptions.

At the same time, a new project must be viable — it must be big enough to take “big gulps” when water is abundant and affordable.  Engineering will also be critical.  A new institutional arrangement, a Joint Powers Authority, composed of the key agencies funding construction has been formed with top talent recruited to lead it.  DWR will be prominent in providing governance oversight for the authority and Nemeth’s departmental reorganization includes a new Division dedicated to working with the Authority on implementation of Delta solutions.

Sensitive to criticism of current operations, the Director felt it would be important to address those operations and practices, including both the state’s water managers and the operations of federal facilities.  For example, she pointed to the state’s dams as an area where improved operations would create greater water supply through smarter management of precipitation events.  Current dam operating rules often require water releases at a time when there is capacity for flood flows to be captured.  These releases occur when water suppliers would prefer that water stay behind the dam, knowing that a big storm is not a predictor of future storms.  Better precipitation forecasting will be required as well as more operational flexibility.

Along the same lines, Nemeth saw a need to discuss the challenges of the current water allocation systems that lead some to believe that too much water is taken from natural systems necessary for fish and habitat.  Nemeth was very committed to addressing this through a process called Voluntary Agreements.

Voluntary Agreements

The Voluntary Agreements process is one where key state officials have been working with those with significant water entitlements to determine what voluntary reductions could be agreed to in exchange for regulatory certainty in the future.  This is a complex process involving the jurisdictions of several state agencies and the entitlements of multiple parties.  The negotiation is being conducted under a framework presented to the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) on December 12, 2018, by Nemeth and California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Bonham respectively, as an alternative to the SWRCB’s staff proposal requiring unimpaired river flows under the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan. According to official program descriptions, the state’s restoration strategy “advances Governor Brown’s goal to reach voluntary agreements with water users to improve river flows, restore habitat and help native fish populations.”

Nemeth is an experienced negotiator and a key principal in the negotiation.  In discussing the agreements, she was enthusiastic about the overall benefits of forging common ground, maintaining relationships, advancing holistic solutions, and, achieving voluntary, immediately implementable actions versus initiation of regulatory enforcement.

Closing

We concluded by asking what the Director hoped her legacy would be and her advice to someone new to the water resources field.

She responded to the legacy question by saying she wanted to be remembered for creating a reputation for DWR as a great place to work and ensuring Californian’s had clean reliable water.

Her advice to those following her is that people make all the difference.  She suggested finding role models that help set a marker for excellence and then “igniting your passion shamelessly.”

For Additional Information: Lisa Beutler, Stantec, 916/ 418-8257 or Lisa.Beutler@Stantec.com

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