CA WATER COMMISSION: Department of Water Resources’ new Division of Multi-Benefit Projects

A drone provides a bird’s-eye view of the Dutch Slough Tidal Marsh Restoration Project.  Photo taken December 03, 2018, by Ken James, DWR

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) has been undergoing reorganization for several reasons, one of those being to create an institutional structure to support landscape level planning and implementation of multi-benefit projects that focuses on the Delta and the Central Valley.  Another purpose is to better align planning for flood protection, water management, and habitat projects across state agencies.

At the November meeting of the California Water Commission, Kristopher Tjernell, DWR’s Deputy Director for the Integrated Water Management Program, briefed the Commission on the purpose, structure, and activities of the new Multi-Benefit Initiatives Division.

Multi-benefit projects are a priority for the California Water Commission; in its recommendations on the contents of the Portfolio, the Commission recommended supporting the development of multi-benefit projects to achieve statewide and regional goals.  The Commission also recommended an assessment of whether the State has the right tools to promote multi-benefit projects.

One of the things that came out of the strategic plan was the question and commitment to pursuing innovation project planning and project delivery, began Mr. Tjernell.  It goes by lots of different words: integrated planning, integrated projects, multi-benefit projects – but it is a true commitment to institutionalizing the direction the Department has been going for a long time.  So to address that, the position of Deputy Director of Integrated Watershed Management was created, and under that, a new Division of Multi-benefit Initiatives.

Mr. Tjernell noted that although there is a new Division of Multi-benefit initiatives, it is not the only place in the Department where multi-benefit initiatives are being pursued. The term ‘multi-benefit” is a bit of a loaded term, he acknowledged, but there is real value in institutionalizing cultural shifts that are already happening.  There is a need to move towards more multi-benefit projects because more value needs to be drawn from the landscape with the limited funds available, whether it is for drinking water, groundwater protection for disadvantaged communities, flood protection, or species conservation.

One purpose of the new Division of Multi-benefits is to embed into the actual structure of an organization that commitment and develop the teams within that structure to really get that work done so it’s not just a bumper sticker anymore, it’s not just a platitude, but it’s actually how we do business,” he said.


Under the Integrated Water Management Program, there are three divisions: the Division of Planning, the Division of Regional Assistance, and the newly-created Division of Multi-Benefit Initiatives.

The Division of Planning is where the big thinking is done, Mr. Tjernell said.  This division houses the California Water Plan which per statute is the master plan for water resources management statewide; it’s also where ideas like Flood MAR originate.

What’s next on the horizon?  What is new towards the innovative water supply, flood management, integrated projects are out there, and how do we support those so they become not just ideas but real tools that can be used by local agencies and others,” he said.


The Division of Regional Assistance helps local agencies do their work and identifies priorities that also takes into account state planning priorities that are developed by the Division of Planning.   This division includes the Financial Assistance branch led by Carmel Brown who oversees the Integrated Watershed Management Program, arguably the flagship DWR local assistance program designed from the beginning to make integrated and multi-benefit projects happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen but for this program, he said.

This division also includes Special Restoration Initiatives led by Ted Frink which oversees Salton Sea restoration and instream and urban stream projects across the state with a significant focus in the San Joaquin Basin.  It also includes the Water Use Efficiency branch which provides technical assistance to local agencies to implement the requirements of recently-passed water conservation legislation.

Mr. Tjernell acknowledged that while they had big picture planning and support for local agencies, what was the Department itself doing to deliver landscape level multi-benefit projects in the flood space, in the water supply space, and in the ecosystem restoration space?  And how do we create the right teams around that objective?

It is an appropriate role for us, so I really like to see these three pieces under my watch working very well together and certainly being complementary,” he said.


The new Division of Multi-Benefit Initiatives was established July 1 of 2019.  It has three branches:

Statewide Multi-benefit Initiatives

System-wide project management and engineering support is the delivery arm for landscape-level multi-benefit flood and ecosystem restoration projects in the Central Valley, as well as the interface area between the Delta and the Central Valley.  It includes hardcore engineering which is building capacity at the state to deliver these sorts of projects, Mr. Tjernell said.

The system-wide environmental support group will have an equal expertise on the environmental support side.

The third group is handles the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan and is responsible for updating the plan every five years on addressing flood risk reduction in the Central Valley and partial areas of the Delta itself.  It includes a strong mix of environmental work, engineering, and planning, said Mr. Tjernell.

Delta Levee System Integrity and Delta Habitat Restoration

This is a hardcore engineering group that largely oversees the Delta subventions and special projects programs which pursues habitat restoration projects in the Delta that are not associated with any biological opinions in place for the long-term operations of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project.

These projects can be considered to be more voluntary in nature, such as Dutch Slough, McCormick-Williamson Tract, and Twitchell Island.

We plan and implement those to be complementary of and part of that larger landscape restoration that’s being pursued by multiple parts of the Department and other state agencies,” Mr. Tjernell said.


The Eco Restore group is led by Bill Harrell, which Mr. Tjernell described as the group that deals with the complicated project delivery and project management activities where a single project requires multiple parts of the Department and multiple funding sources to be involved.


Mr. Tjernell then discussed three projects that the Department is working on.

Lookout Slough Tidal Habitat and Flood Risk Reduction Project

The existing system of flood bypasses, the Yolo Bypass in particular, represent the best opportunities for expanding floodways to prepare for the large precipitation events that are expected in the future with climate change.  The map on the left is of the Yolo Bypass which shows the places that where the state has identified that levees could be moved back to expand the capacity of the bypass.

The Lookout Slough project is in the southern portion of the Yolo Bypass at a natural constriction point.  It is a 3000-acre multi-benefit project that will provide flood risk reduction benefits and ecosystem restoration benefits.  The project will satisfy 3,000 acres of the 8000-acre tidal marsh restoration obligation under the biological opinions.  As part of the project, the levee is going to be moved back to increase capacity of the bypass.  The $120 million dollar price tag is being funded with $100 million coming from the State Water Project and the last $20 million is coming from flood funding sources.

Subsidence reversal projects

In the western Delta, Sherman and Twitchell Islands are part of the complex of deeply subsided islands in the Delta, largely due to agricultural practices on the Delta’s peat soils which can cause 1-2” of soil loss per year.

If you go for a drive out in the Delta, you can have the Sacramento River or the San Joaquin River 10 feet down on one side and a pear orchard or a corn field 20 or 30 feet down on the other side,” said Mr. Tjernell.  “It creates tremendous hydraulic pressure between the two, massive flood risk, and it adds to the overall specter of unsustainability of much of the Delta that we hear about a lot.”

Tules are native, annual plants and every year they grow, they take in carbon from the air, they die, and lay down; Next year, the cycle repeats.  “If you do this carefully, you can actually grow the soil by as much if not more than you would be losing were you to be keeping traditional agricultural practices on that land,” he said.  “This is an incredibly exciting opportunity.  There are few examples if any where you have both a climate mitigation strategy and an adaptation strategy.  We’re sequestering carbon out of the air and we are building up these peat soils one day, back to where they were and in doing so reducing the risk of flooding that is perpetuated and certainly exacerbated by sea level rise.

The Delta Conservancy has taken the lead on figuring out the economics and how to tape into the AB 32 compliance market and national voluntary carbon markets.  “It’s one thing for public landowners to do these sorts of efforts, but if we really want to make the landscape level change we want to see, we need to be able to tap into an economic driver or an economic equivalent and provide other incentives along the way.”

Lower Elkorn Levee Setback Project

The Lower Elkhorn Levee Setback is also in the Yolo Bypass, and while it’s the same idea as Lookout Slough, the tidal influence doesn’t stretch far enough to be a tidal marsh, so this project will have benefits for rearing and food production for listed salmon, sturgeon, and steelhead species.  The project will move the 7-mile long levee back about 1500 feet, which will create about 1000 acres of new floodplain habitat and increasing the capacity of the Yolo Bypass.

The plan is to leave remnant pieces of the existing levee which will serve as refugia for terrestrial species and plant communities which will slow some of the water down and improve ecological value.


During the discussion period, Chair Quintero noted that he works with the University of California, and the Wheeler Institute out of UC Berkeley is looking into what a multi-benefit program include. 

You start looking at who is making the investments and who ends up getting the benefits so as we move forward, there’s going to be the discovery of benefits and investments, and what’s interesting is that it’s already showing that for example, groundwater agencies could actually get a return by investing in watersheds to improve the water capture and the water quality, and being able to direct the benefit from better management of forests,” he said.  “The thing that excites me is the continued focus on really making it so that land is used wisely and that we look at the economic benefits of the solutions that we’re implementing.”

Chair Quintero noted that the projects are creating a shock absorber for the state, both in terms of sea level rise as well as floods.  “The Delta is 600,000 acres of ag and 6 million people, and so for the state to be making these kinds of investments, there’s a big delivery there for who can benefit, and as you said, this is part of the conveyance system for the California water projects, so protecting that from becoming a body of salt water because of one of these events is really huge.  And it’s interesting because I’ve looked around the state through different lenses and the stuff that I’m involved in; it feels like what we’re doing is we’re reconnecting systems that we disconnected, started doing it a century and a half ago, to figure out how to do this and now we’re going hey wait a minute, there is an advantage to getting this water to onto a floodplain and sink slowly into the ground.”


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