The Devil Canyon Powerplant, a power recovery facility within the East Branch Aqueduct for the California Department of Water Resources. The facility located near the mouth of Devil Canyon at the southern base of the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California. California Department of Water Resources

CA WATER COMMISSION: Ensuring the reliability of the State Water Project, part 2: Assessing climate change vulnerabilities and addressing aging infrastructure

One of the California Water Commission‘s statutory responsibilities is to conduct an annual review of the construction and operation of the State Water Project and make a report on its findings to the Department of Water Resources and the Legislature, with any recommendations it may have.  Having just finished the 2020 State Water Project review, the Commission has launched its 2021 review with a theme focused on creating a resilient State Water Project by addressing climate change and aging infrastructure to provide multiple benefits for California. The goal of this year’s briefings is to deepen the Commission and the public’s awareness of how the State Water Project serves California and the challenges the State Water Project faces.

At the California Water Commission‘s March meeting, Commissioners heard a series of presentations on the State Water Project.  The first half of this meeting’s coverage featured Karla Nemeth, the Director of the Department of Water Resources, and Ted Craddock, Deputy Director for the State Water Project, who discussed the administrative issues regarding the operation of the State Water Project and can be found here: CA WATER COMMISSION: Ensuring the reliability of the State Water Project, part 1: Strategic priorities and programs

In the second and last installment, John Andrew, Assistant Deputy Director, gave a presentation on the climate change vulnerability for the State Water Project, and Behzad Soltanzadeh, Assistant Division Chief, discussed the Department’s efforts to address issues related to aging infrastructure.


John Andrew is the Assistant Deputy Director for the Department of Water Resources, where since 2006, he has overseen the Department’s climate change activities.  In his presentation, he discussed the climate change vulnerability assessment that was released in May of 2019. 

The vulnerability assessment is part of a broader a three-phase Climate Action Plan that the Department is taking to address climate change.  The first phase, completed in 2012, focused on greenhouse gas emissions reduction.  The second phase focused on climate change analysis guidance, which acknowledged the complexity of incorporating climate change projections, assumptions, and other information into a project. So an entire phase of the Climate Action Plan is aimed at the Department’s project managers to provide guidance on incorporating climate change.

The final phase is phase three, which includes the vulnerability assessment and adaptation plan. For this presentation, Mr. Andrew will provide an overview of the vulnerability assessment, which identifies the impacts that need to be addressed.  He will return in a few months to discuss the adaptation plan to discuss how the Department plans to address those issues.

Mr. Andrew noted that the vulnerability assessment is not an assessment of the entire California water sector.  The California water sector’s vulnerability assessment is part of the state’s climate change assessment, the most recent produced in 2018.  Rather, this vulnerability assessment assesses the Department as an organization, and as such, focuses on staff, facilities, operations, and landscapes.

The time horizon for the assessment is mid-century, which was chosen for several reasons.  For one, end-of-century projections are especially problematic to grapple with due to their high uncertainty and the range of possible futures at the end of the century, which incorporate many assumptions. At mid-century, there’s more consensus with the models regarding the direction the climate is going, but not so much for the end-of-century projections.  Mid-century is also the time horizon for most project planning at the Department.  However, he acknowledged that the term, mid-century, can be rather broad and certainly not one size fits all; it can be as soon as ten years from now or as much as 50 years from now. 

The scope of the assessment

The vulnerability assessment considered six categories of vulnerabilities:  wildfire, extreme heat, sea level rise, long-term persistent hydrologic changes, short-term extreme hydrologic changes, and habitat and ecosystem services impacts.  One of the assessment criteria was that the Department needed to have some level of ownership control or significant influence on that vulnerability, as the adaptation plan will only address the issues to the assets that DWR has ownership or a considerable amount of control over.

One of the things that was not assessed was the Delta levee system, as it is a patchwork quilt of local, federal state, and private landowner responsibility and is not owned or operated by the Department.  Also, The Delta Stewardship Council is doing a vulnerability assessment of the Delta. The assessment likewise did not address subsidence in the Delta.

The vulnerability assessment does not address the Western Electrical Grid. Mr. Andrew acknowledged that the grid is highly vulnerable to many different climate impacts, but DWR does not own or control that grid.  Addressing those vulnerabilities would require working in partnership with numerous agencies and organizations to reduce those vulnerabilities.

The vulnerability assessment did not look at sedimentation behind the Department’s dams due to post-fire erosion as most of the Department’s dams are actually off-stream storage, so it isn’t a concern.  However, they have had some experience with wildfires in the area of Lake Oroville to take a look at that in real-time.

Even with those exclusions, there is still an enormous amount within the scope, including the Department’s infrastructure, facilities, lands, staff activities, and State Water Project operations. 

Methodology of assessing vulnerability

The equation commonly used for assessing vulnerability, shown on the slide, looks at a combination of exposure to a hazard and sensitivity to that hazard to come up with an assessment of risk.  At that point, actions that can be taken to cope with the risk are then considered to arrive at vulnerability.

For example, consider sea level rise along the coast.  The Department has exactly one facility on the California coast, which a flood center in Eureka.  The facility is at an elevation of 20 feet above sea level.  Between now and mid-century, that level of sea level rise is not expected, so the exposure of that facility to sea level rise is low or even none.  At that point, in the interest of using resources wisely, they would not continue to assess that facility’s sensitivity because its exposure is zero.

Another example would be heat stress for the Department’s employees.  The State Water Project operates in some hot areas of the state and the southern San Joaquin Valley in particular, which exposes employees to high and extreme heat.  Humans are definitely sensitive to extreme heat, and the aging workforce perhaps means they are a bit more sensitive than others, so there is a high risk for staff.  Fortunately, the Department does have a lot of adaptive capacity; they can adjust schedules, provide water, and air conditioning.  He noted that the Department already has an overall heat illness prevention plan in place.

Results of the vulnerability assessment

Mr. Andrew then turned to the results.  The Department does not have any exposure along the coast for sea level rise, but there is exposure in the Delta.  However, this vulnerability assessment’s time horizon is between now and mid-century, so they do not see a lot of risk for the Department’s Delta facilities.  He also noted that the Delta levee system has been assessed through another process at the Delta Stewardship Council.

We certainly do have concerns with salinity intrusion, and that was accounted for in our operations study for hydrology,” he said. “We have facilities like the entrance to the State Water project pumping facility at Clifton Court forebay, so there is some risk there in terms of rising sea levels in the Delta.”

There are some concerns for sea level rise in the Suisun Marsh, which was evaluated because although the Department of Water Resources does not own the Suisun Marsh, they do have a significant responsibility there that is tied to the State Water Project operations.  The Department does have salinity control gates that are vulnerable to sea level rise. But more importantly, that landscape is vulnerable to changes from sea level rise, he said. 

In terms of wildfire, most of the Department’s facilities are exposed to increased wildfire or wildfire risk, but many are actually not sensitive to wildfire.  Many of their facilities are concrete, for example, so there’s some resistance built in already to wildfire.  Mr. Andrew pointed out that they do have a lot of adaptive capacity, such as practicing defensible space.  That is something that the Department currently does, and they can practice it even further, he said.

In terms of wildfire, the thing that I think we’re most concerned about is what’s going on with the upper Feather River watershed,” he said. “At the time that we wrapped up this vulnerability assessment, probably in 2016, or 2017, it was before the Camp and the Bear complex fires – the big infernos of the last few years. Even at that time, we projected a rather large increase in wildfire risk in that watershed that we needed to start being concerned about. And sure enough, Mother Nature beat us to it … our projections actually made it real much sooner than we were expecting.”

The ecosystems portion of the vulnerability assessment is the only qualitative part; all other parts of the assessment are quantitative.  Mr. Andrew said that even if we didn’t have a climate change crisis on this planet, we would still have a biodiversity crisis, and so it is important to the State Water project and the Department in terms of operations, and specifically how their habitat projects are going to change in a changing climate.

In terms of hydrology and extreme events, flood management is a particular concern.  It is an area that is somewhat in and out of scope because the Central Valley Flood Protection Board makes decisions over the planning for the Central Valley flood system, and similar to Delta levees, it is a patchwork quilt of local, federal, and state responsibilities.

However, the Department does have flood yards in West Sacramento and Sutter County.  One of the issues for the Department in terms of climate change and flood management is the effect on the staff, to the extent that they have entered a phase of having to be in emergency response mode more often and for more extended periods.  There are concerns about the effects on the staff assigned to work out in the field to combat flooding and operate flood emergency centers in Sacramento or elsewhere.  So there are some real personnel and staffing issues that we need to be keeping an eye on, he said.

New research was conducted to assess the effect of projected hydrologic changes on the State Water Project’s long-term performance that was published as part of the fourth climate change assessment produced by the state in 2018.

What we found was an ability of the heart of the State Water Project to continue to meet a number of the objectives related to Delta outflow and salinity, which are legal obligations upon the Department,” Mr. Andrew said. “But the ability to do that comes at the cost of significant reductions in performance and the ability of the State Water Project to deliver water, as well as carryover storage, or the water that we carry over from one year to another. In fact, the likelihood of a couple of these in terms of, again, delivery and carryover storage and Oroville in particular, were at significantly high likelihoods, almost certainties.”

A look at the heat assessment

One of the first adaptation priorities that we must have as a Department or that any utility must have is its people, and we do deploy people in some areas of the state that are extremely warm,” Mr. Andrew said. “We believe that our current safety plans have the adaptive capacity to keep up with increases in extreme heat.”

He then presented a slide showing the numbers of days above 95 degrees Fahrenheit and 105 degrees Fahrenheit at some of the Department’s locations. 

We see some very significant increases in extreme heat. And we’re going to need to be especially careful with the deployment of personnel to operate the aqueduct, to conduct field surveys, to do biological assessments, and things like that,” he said.

In conclusion …

The Climate Action Plan is for the Department as a business, but not only are they a business, but they are also the state’s water planning and management agency. “So what we do needs to be conducted in a way that it can provide an example to others.  I’m happy to report that each of the three phases of the Climate Action Plan has actually been picked up by other organizations in California and used as an example. And I think it’s a real tribute to the quality of this work and the thought leadership that is providing.”

He then closed by acknowledged the team of people and project managers who worked on the assessment.


For more coverage of the climate change vulnerability assessment of the State Water Project, click here:  CA WATER COMMISSION: Climate change effects on the State Water Project and Central Valley Project


Lastly, Behzad Soltanzadeh, Assistant Division Chief of the Division of Operation and Maintenance, then discussed the Department’s efforts to address the State Water Project’s aging infrastructure.

He noted a recent report recently released by the American Society of Civil Engineers on the condition of the nation’s infrastructure, issuing an overall grade of C- for the condition of 18 different sectors, including bridges, broadband, dams, energy, waterways, and roads.  The State Water Project is 50-60 years old, and while they believe the State Water Project’s infrastructure is in better condition than C-, measures do have to be taken to ensure the resiliency and the reliability of the infrastructure for future generations.

He also noted that the report acknowledged that maintenance backlogs continue to be an issue, but Asset Management Programs helps prioritize limited funding by developing a clear picture of where available funding is most needed, improving the overall system performance and public safety.

The State Water Project has a wide diversity of assets spread out over 700 miles across the entire state.  There are over 36 storage facilities, 26 dams, 30 pumping generating plants, and over 700 miles of conveyance facilities, both aqueducts and pipelines from the Feather River Basin and the Oroville all the way down to Los Angeles and San Bernardino, and Riverside counties.   It also includes a web of control and communication systems that connect the facilities together and make it possible to control them either locally or remotely.  This infrastructure has to work in tandem and in series, meaning that any weak link in the middle could result in water deliveries and a lack of reliability.

We have to make sure that the system holistically is reliable and resilient so that we can make the water deliveries and take care of the infrastructure as a whole,” said Mr. Soltanzadeh.

With aging infrastructure that is between 50 and 60 years old, each asset poses a unique challenge; some have reached their end of useful life but can be extended through projects, while others are obsolete, don’t meet the current standards and must be replaced. There has also been some encroachment by the public as the population of California grows on and around the infrastructure.  Mr. Soltanzadeh said that all of these factors have made maintaining and making repairs more challenging for this infrastructure. 

The Department of Water Resources is taking a three-phase approach to address this.  The first is the asset management program; the second is the maintenance management program; and the third is the efficiency to execute and deliver refurbishment, replacement, or modernization projects to extend the life of the infrastructure.

The Asset Management Program utilizes a risk-informed decision-making process to prioritize the resources to perform the maintenance needed to reduce the risks associated with infrastructure and execute repair and refurbishment projects to extend the life of some of the assets.

In order to prioritize, you need to have a robust Asset Management Program to be able to facilitate that,” said Mr. Soltanzadeh. “That’s going to be extremely important because all of that will allow us to optimize, prioritize, and financially plan for the projects to address the aging infrastructure based on risk.  That goes a long way to providing quality and affordable water for the districts of the 29 water contractors that we have.”

The asset management program began in 2015.  The first step was to perform condition assessments on the assets and develop strategies to deal with different assets. Maintenance procedures need to be scheduled, tracked and documented.  Data is collected from maintenance operations that must be gathered and interpreted for both analysis and to improve maintenance processes continually; this reduces the risk to the assets and improves their performance.  Developing risk for prioritized long-term capital investment plans and updating strategies and plans is important for continually improving the process.

Mr. Soltanzadeh said that they are now working to develop a centralized maintenance approach that will ensure that maintenance is documented and used to make decisions on things such as reducing the risk or what capital improvement project should be started.  

The third phase is the ability to deliver the projects, which requires two major tools in the toolbox.  One is a contracting method that is flexible enough to be applied to many different types of projects.  They are pursuing legislation to allow a ‘design-build and construction manager’ concept that brings in the construction manager at the outset of design which gives the ability to look at the constructability of that complex project and the construction risk and work to mitigate or eliminate those risks. Mr. Soltanzadeh said it would go a long way to executing those and deliver those projects more effectively and more efficiently. The second part of improving project delivery is improving project management abilities by having dedicated project managers for certain large projects and having project offices that are in charge of ensuring best practices are used.

He noted that when they initiate a project, they perform a climate change analysis to see if climate change will affect the asset. Based on that, some design aspects can be rolled into the project to ensure the project is resilient to climate change.

By enhancing these maintenance activities, Mr. Soltanzadeh said that Department will maintain the capacity of critical infrastructure. Enhancement projects, such as modernization, refurbishments, and replacement projects, will extend the remaining useful life of existing infrastructure, increase infrastructure and public safety, and ensure the affordability and predictable, consistent water for our water contractors.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email