CA WATER COMMISSION: California Water Plan 2023 Update

The California Water Plan is the state’s strategic plan for sustainably managing and developing water resources for current and future generations.  The plan is updated every five years, and work is in progress for the 2023 update.  At the January meeting of the California Water Commission, Kamyar Guivetchi with DWR’s Division of Planning briefed the Commission on the timeline and process for developing the California Water Plan Update 2023.

Kamyar Guivetchi began by noting that his mantra is connecting the dots, so we learn by design and not happenstance.  “I really have a passion for spanning our institutional silos and a vision that our state government agencies will be working in close collaboration going forward.  My superpower is the rose-colored glasses that allow me to come back for my 40-plus years of service here at the Department of Water Resources.”

The first California Water Plan was prepared by the Department of Water Resources in 1957 and has been updated 12 times, most recently in 2018.   Since 2000, the legislature passed an amendment to the water code requiring that water plan updates come out regularly at five-year intervals.  The water code also requires that the water plan include information on water uses and supplies, both for current and future conditions and at a statewide and regional scale.  The Water Plan describes the ten hydrologic regions that, because of the state’s size and diversity, really have to be managed and planned for at a regional scale.

The water code also states that while DWR must prepare it every five years, the plan can have no mandates and cannot automatically appropriate funds.  

What that means is that the legislature and the governor really have to take additional action to implement the plan,” said Mr. Guivetchi.

The California Water Plan has reflected the signs of the times over the years.  The first plan set the foundation for the State Water Project working in coordination with the federal Central Valley Project.  Over time, as society became more informed and interested in unintended consequences, environmental protection and public trust began being reflected in the plan.  Since the 2005 update, integrated water management and sustainability have been themes.  Watershed resilience, climate change, and racial equity will be a big part of the plan in this update.

Some of the challenges and opportunities that we see going forward in this update is that California’s water governance is very decentralized, and we have many institutions and many sectors that manage water,” said Mr. Guivetchi.  “Some estimate there are over 2400 of those entities.  That results in siloed data, siloed analysis, siloed decisions, siloed incentives, oversight, and metrics which makes it very difficult to have that alignment that we are going to need in the future with climate change, even at a local and regional level.”

The Water Resilience Portfolio has provided us an opportunity to have it as a cornerstone for alignment among state government.  And with the recent funding for the climate package, the drought package, and recent state bonds, we really do have the resources to make this happen.”

The Water Plan is becoming a venue to help shape conversations and support decision-making about California water.  Over the last 22 years, the Water Plan team has transformed and pioneered innovations.  They have expanded participation in the plan preparation, including other state agencies, many diverse stakeholders, and tribes.  They have worked to increase the transparency of the plan’s data methods and assumptions that go into the plan.  They have worked to broaden the water plan to include multiple sectors and promote sustainability and resilience.  The water plan also includes a roadmap for improving data analysis and research.

In terms of the context for the plan, the water code requirements are just the floor, said Mr. Guivetchi.  The Water Resilience Portfolio provides the foundational guiding principles, the emphasis of regional watershed approaches, and the need for state support and oversight to empower and make those regions successful.  Another principle is that state government needs to be more integrated with its investments, policies, and programs.  

The plan is also informed by the stakeholders.  Mr. Guivetchi noted that they synthesized all the input stakeholders provided for the Water Resilience Portfolio and used that to guide the focus of the plan update.

The portfolio provides us a number of priorities, so we don’t have to start from scratch,” he said.  “Understanding climate change impacts, vulnerabilities, and risks; making sure that we secure racial and social justice by overcoming existing inequities; and maintaining, diversifying, and connecting surface and groundwater supplies in ways that we haven’t even done, much less imagine.  There is also protecting surface and groundwater quality, protecting and enhancing the natural ecosystems, and using natural infrastructure as a way of meeting many of our benefits.  Promoting climate-smart agriculture, and preparing and responding to disasters, such as the drought that we’re in now, and will experience in the future, floods, and wildfires.”

There are three key themes for the update:
  • Understanding climate change science, how it is and will continue to make our watersheds vulnerable. The update will provide cutting-edge information on how climate change is and will continue to impact California water.  In addition, the update will highlight the importance of the global climate model approach for understanding climate vulnerability and the likelihood or probability of different climate futures.  The water plan will also include more robust, risk-based, decision-scaling approaches for understanding vulnerabilities.
  • Developing watershed resilience framework, recognizing that we have to customize how water is managed in each of our watersheds, from headwater to groundwater, and that the water plan can and should provide guidance and tools that can help customize those approaches throughout California.
  • Ensuring equity in water management, improving and strengthening the engagement and access to decision making, project planning and implementation, and the distribution of benefits and impacts. The water plan will work to integrate and synthesize the human right to water policies, ensure there is equitable risk reduction and adaptation amongst various programs, projects, and investments, and ensure that outreach and representation are a genuine part of decision-making. 

This will be accomplished through two types of activities:
  • Promote watershed networks that work from headwaters to groundwater by bringing together the many existing collaborative groups, such as integrated regional water management groups, groundwater sustainability agencies, regional flood management groups, the Central Valley SALTS coalitions, environmental stewardship groups, and others.
  • Improve the alignment of state agencies and initiatives to help support and empower those networks by setting policies and providing incentives and assistance to make them successful at that watershed scale.

Merced watershed study

The Department of Water Resources conducted a watershed study on the Merced watershed.  Through that study, they have come to understand and demonstrate how the first step in doing watershed-scale water management is to understand how climate change will impact that watershed.  Then they can begin to understand where the opportunities are for adaptation.

In the Merced watershed study, we’re beginning to demonstrate how we can bring together different data layers that exist in the watershed,” he said.  “But those are managed by different entities, different sectors, and different institutions in the watershed.  So by building these watershed networks, we can bring together these data layers, overlay climate risk vulnerability information, and begin looking for those opportunities for adaptation strategies in that particular watershed.”

We see now that state agencies’ participation can help provide the guidance and tools to the different watersheds of California to be able to not only do the climate change vulnerability assessment, but to see how to integrate all their different data layers that they have to come up with adaptation solutions.”

The Merced watershed study also demonstrates the opportunities to bring together climate change science, watershed resilience planning, and equity.  For example, the study utilizes the Groundwater Recharge Assessment Tool or GRAT, developed by Sustainable Conservation and Earth Genome.

With the GRAT tool, we can come up with recharge management zones that can be location specific and begin deciding what mix or array of benefits we want to achieve,” he said.


Communication and engagement are a hallmark of the California Water Plan, and the outreach for the update is just beginning.  There is a webpage for the update at:  A core state agency team is being convened, and they have invited 40 different organizations to participate on a policy advisory committee.  They are also convening another Tribal Advisory Committee, and as part of this update, they will be holding the Fourth Tribal Water Summit in early 2023.  In addition, there will be public workshops scheduled as needed.


This spring, they will release the draft assumptions and estimates report laying out the data and information for the update and giving the public an opportunity to comment.  In the fall of 2022, an administrative draft will be released, with a public review draft following in early 2023.  The final California Water Plan will be released in December of 2023.

Discussion highlights

QUESTION: Commissioner Curtin asked if Mr. Guivetchi thought the SGMA timelines are adequate to the challenges?  Do you think the SGMA timelines need to be revisited and perhaps expedited?

SGMA is part of that foundation of headwater to groundwater management, and without SGMA, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” said Mr. Guivetchi.  “I think that framework is providing many new insights and opportunities for water management at a watershed scale that we have not considered or even imagined.  The timeframe – it’s a big deal.  It took us 100 years to bring our groundwater management to where our surface water management has been.  It’s going to take time to get there.  And SGMA has implicit and embedded in it the way to evergreen and improve because, with each groundwater sustainability plan update, people have an opportunity to learn what’s working, what’s not, and to move forward.”

Deadlines are our friends.  So without deadlines, it becomes hard to get people to focus.  So I think those timelines have gotten us to where we are today.  If you’re asking me in 20 years, will we solve all of our groundwater problems?  I’d say no.  But I think we’ll be on the right trajectory to get us there.”

Climate change and the social change that we need demands that we have to work headwater to groundwater,” he continued.  “That’s the way nature evolved our watersheds, yet our institutional framework has sliced and diced the functioning of our watersheds to the point where a lot of those are dysfunctional.  And so, by bringing the different sectors and institutions together in these watershed networks, we begin to set a new way of planning, a new way of decision making that can allow us to realize the opportunities that are there.”

Integrated Regional Water Management has been a great success for California.  Then along came SGMA, and we created Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, which are doing effective things, yet, there’s no description and statute of how IRWM groups, GSAs, and other collaborative groups need to work together.  And that’s what this water plan update can provide.”

QUESTION: Commissioner Arthur asked if there’s an opportunity in this planning process to help support the local agencies and the GSAs in planning for extreme climate scenarios?  “My understanding is that they are required to do some climate planning in the groundwater sustainability plan development, but not all of them are looking at extreme scenarios.  And I think we all know where we’re living a lot of those out, and they’re becoming more probable.

In the Merced watershed study, we included 30 different climate scenarios, which brings up all of those extremes,” Mr. Guivetchi said.  “As an example, the Merced River is rated at 6000 CFS for flood flows.  And not the worst-case climate scenario, but one that we think would be likely around 2070 would cause a peak flow of 42,000 CFS.  So that’s the level of vulnerability that people have to wrap their minds around.  So we want this to be a big part of this water plan update to share what we’re learning from studies like the Merced watershed study, where people in that watershed are already doing things based on the results of the Merced watershed study.  And we’d like to share as guidance and tools in this water plan update, how people in other watersheds can do the same.”

Mr. Guivetchi also noted that DWR received funding to do similar watershed studies for the Tuolumne, the Calaveras, the Stanislaus, and the upper San Joaquin River during the last budget cycle.  Additional resources will be needed to do the same for the Lower San Joaquin.  

Having done that, I think it’ll be a great example of how people in any watershed of the state can take advantage of the analytical tools and data to get a grasp and understanding of how vulnerable will are and will be to climate change,” he said.

But the other great point is in the Merced study modeling, by employing or implementing flood managed aquifer recharge, forecast informed reservoir operations, and aggressive system reoperation, we brought those flood flows that were 42,000 CFS down to around 6500- 7000 CFS.  But to actually do that in the real world, again, you’re going to have to get the flood managers, the groundwater managers, the ecosystem – all of them working together.  It’s easy to do it in the model, but in real life, it’ll take some major institutional changes.  But the good news is we can get there.  We have the potential.”

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