DWR Director Karla Nemeth discusses the Department’s efforts to respond to the drought and why she is optimistic we can meet the challenge of climate change
Last week, the Regional Water Authority hosted a discussion with Karla Nemeth, the Director of the Department of Water Resources, as part of RWA’s “Coffee and Conversation” series. The discussion was led by RWA’s Executive Director, Jim Piefer.
The Regional Water Authority represents 20 water providers serving 2 million people in the Sacramento region. The RWA is a regional convener focused on coordinating efforts of regional water providers to create a resilient water system that benefits the Sacramento region and the statewide water system.
Director Karla Namath was appointed director of the California Department of Water Resources by Governor Brown in 2018 and reappointed by Governor Newsom in 2019. Prior to her leading DWR, she worked for the California Natural Resources Agency as Governor Brown’s Deputy Secretary and Senior Advisor for Water Policy. She was the Bay Delta Conservation Plan Project Manager from 2009 to 2014.
Here’s what Director Nemeth had to say, edited for length and clarity.
Director Nemeth began with some thoughts.
“We are in a period of what some people call the new normal. Our hydrology in California is changing at an accelerated pace. We’ve always had extreme hydrology in California, but one of the things that we’re starting to understand is that the events that used to come along once every couple of decades, then started showing up once a decade, and now have moved from the episodic deep drought and or intense rain events, to something that’s occurring almost every year or every other year. So that is what we mean by the new normal here in California.
One of the most interesting and challenging things about this time is we all anticipate our precipitation, especially here in Northern California, to stay generally about the same overall when looking at the gross averages of precipitation in Northern California. But what’s really changing are the ambient temperatures; those are headed just in one direction. They’ve been heading in one direction for quite a while, relative to averages – the ‘hot hots’, and just warming low conditions in California.
I want to raise that because it really is that new information and how it influences or affects our hydrology and then how that new hydrology affects the decisions that we all need to make as water managers.
We’re absolutely up for this challenge as water managers in California. We all have been watching and studying climate science as it’s been developed over the last 10 to 15 years. … There’s a tremendous opportunity for water users across the state and water managers across the state to do some things that we’ve always known were important for our resilience over time. But that time is now.
This year is a perfect example. First, we had that crazy, very intense dry spell. We broke a record for consecutive rainless days at 240-something last October, and then a few days later, here in Sacramento, we had our largest single-day rainfall total. Then we moved into a November that was below average for precipitation. And then we moved into a December that broke a set of records for precipitation and snowpack; we were at least 150% of average across the Sierra by January 1. We’re now down to about 63% of average in the driest January-February period on record.
So here we all sit, working hard to respond. Folks call it weather whiplash. But, as water managers, we’re all starting to take stock collectively about what this means for how we operate the system.
In a note of optimism, I think we’re absolutely up for this challenge as water managers in California. We all have been watching and studying climate science as it’s been developed over the last 10 to 15 years. I think we’re at a moment where we can push and make really important decisions for Californians because we’re now starting to really feel the effects of climate in a very tangible way. So there’s a tremendous opportunity for water users across the state and water managers across the state to do some things that we’ve always known were important for our resilience over time. But that time is now.
So that’s a good place to be because we do have a lot of information. We do have strong working relationships throughout the state, across regions in California, and right here along the American River. We have strong relationships with environmental organizations that really want us to do more and do better by the environment as we’re making these investments for the future. So that is a good place to be.
So I’m just very grateful for the opportunity to discuss this in more detail with you all today.
QUESTION: You talked a little bit about the drought and what’s in store. What are you hopeful for in 2022?
“I’m hopeful for rain in 2022. We’ve not yet given up. But it is a serious situation. The past 60 days have been bone dry, and they’ve been running warm. But I would say this: I think we are in a better position than last year in a certain respect. Despite coming in with low reservoir storage this year, we’re in a better position because we are, frankly, more nimble at responding to the deepening challenge we now have.
And by that, I mean collectively, we’ve made some improvements to forecasting, which was a big challenge last year. I don’t think as water managers, we understood quickly enough what was happening around us in that March timeframe last year, and that landed us at a period between April 1 and May 31 where we saw an enormous drop off from anticipated runoff into reservoirs, rivers, and streams to what was actually happening on the ground.
Last year, we had about 22% runoff efficiency on average across the Sierra watershed; we’re usually in the 60%. So that’s a big flag and a big problem right there. But we’re looking at all that information sooner this year, which means there will be fewer surprises down the road. The earlier we can make decisions about preparing for a conservative sense of available water supplies, I think the better off we’ll be for our communities, our economy, and the environment in California.
So my hope for this year is that we make improvements in the way we plan for and communicate what’s happening with our hydrology and our water supplies.”
QUESTION: What can local agencies do to help out in these drought times?
“I think we all need to do more in the water conservation space. And it’s a challenge, given the context of COVID-19 and a general public that has emergency fatigue. I think we can all see that, collectively, when we look at where we are with water conservation. Typically when it gets warmer, especially over the last two months, we’ve seen water use bump up a little bit, which is not a surprise. When it gets warm, we know that people water their lawns, and we see that elevation in outdoor use, which is the lion’s share of urban water use.
So we do need to do more and get connected with our messaging and the tools that people can avail themselves to lower their water use, not just as this year plays out as dry, but certainly in the event that we experience a dry 2023 as well. So we have more work to do there.
I also think that we have more work to do on what it means to be resilient. So we all, myself included, took comfort over the last many years in this ‘all of the above strategy,’ meaning we have to take care of our surface water supplies and connect our surface water supplies with how we manage our groundwater. So conjunctive use programs, efforts to recycle water supplies, efforts to conserve water supplies – all of those things go into a diverse water supply portfolio that we know is going to make our communities resilient.
But we need to start getting more specific about what that means and how those projects work together. And get a little bit more ambitious with our ability to identify projects and really schedule them for completion. The state obviously plays a really important role in the funding to support groundwater management or regulatory processes to support the expanded use of recycled water. But we want to make those connections with our local water districts and understand what that portfolio is and how we can work to implement it hand in hand.
I also think as water managers, we have a significant challenge with the cost of all these kinds of programs and projects that make our suppliers more resilient. And we know we have deepening economic challenges around us in terms of just a deepening income inequality that does make it difficult for water districts with the traditional approaches to managing for low water rates to ensure that water is affordable, especially when we’re serving parts of our community that really do have limited income.
So all of those things need to be working together. This is an enormous opportunity for state, federal, and local water district partnerships to intentionally enable us to maintain the affordability of water supplies, which is important as we look to meet the needs of our communities, regardless of income level.”
QUESTION: What is DWR’s long-term strategy for adapting to climate change? And where do you see the big challenges?
“We touched on one already, which is the quality of our forecasting. This year, we’ve implemented some immediate improvements. We are investing in a broader understanding together with our partner, the US Bureau of Reclamation, who, particularly out of their Denver office, does very sophisticated kinds of forecasting. We’re also partners with the US Geological Survey, NASA, and others to develop the next generation of hydrologic modeling that can take into account real-world conditions and things like soil moisture and increases in evaporation that come with the increase in ambient temperatures. So that will be a big challenge for us over the next many years to make that shift.
Some is the human institutional challenge. We’re all very comfortable with our probabilistic approaches to observed history, which is obviously extremely important to sound science and how we look at the data we’ve relied on over time. But we also have to make space for the fact that that data is changing and that we have had multiple years recently where our real-world conditions are outside of historical observation.
Then we need to decide what we do about that, how we adjust our forecasting and expectations for water supplies that will materialize as a result of precipitation and snowpack, and how that’s changing by the seasons.
So one of the things that the Department is working on over the next several years with our federal partners and good communication with local water districts is how do we adjust those? It will require a significant amount of peer review because everyone will need to know and want to know how conditions around us are changing in ways that manifest in water availability. So that’s an enormous challenge for the Department.
Another challenge for the Department is how we approach groundwater management and, importantly, recharge that can support depleted aquifers. Typically, there is an approach where we look at acquiring water rights to take floodwaters and recharge a groundwater basin. A lot of local water districts are looking at the same surface water. It is a big challenge going forward that, in all likelihood, will occur in the context of implementing sustainable groundwater management, so how do we, in an organized way, take to scale the identification of floodwaters available for recharge and secure the water rights to do so.
Obviously, that requires a significant partnership between the Department and my colleagues at the Water Resources Control Board, but I view that as a big challenge for state agencies working with local agencies moving forward.
One of the things that I find fascinating is the way in which we think about and talk about the integration of flood and water supply. Some water districts in California are a water supply agency and a flood agency, but some water districts are not. So how do we put those two things together? How do we put the technical information together that enables us to capture water when we have very wet periods to be more drought resilient when the inevitable, longer kind of drought comes along?
A light bulb went on for me when I delved more deeply into the work we’re doing at the Department. We have very different mindsets when it comes to flood management and water supply. For hopefully obvious reasons, for flood management, the top priority is public safety, protecting lives and property. But what that means is we really look at instantaneous flows, so all of our flood modeling and support tools are focused on that very important goal. On the other hand, over in our water supply world, what we do is we average over time, and it’s the average over time that helps us understand what investments we want to make to ensure that we have reliable water supplies.
When we put those things together, and we need those things to be talking to each other, we are going to need to confront and establish new ways of talking about and providing the technical information that can support what it really means to integrate a flood protection approach with a water supply reliability approach.
The American River watershed is, in many ways, a hotspot for that, if you will; there is a lot of opportunities given the flashiness and the expansiveness of the American River watershed as compared to the Folsom Reservoir and how we manage water in the system. So it’s the really important partnerships that the Department establishes with water supply providers and our big flood control agencies. All these folks need to be talking with each other. That has given rise to a lot of the state’s thinking about how we think through state funding that supports this kind of multi-benefit approach: flood, water supply, and the environment?”
QUESTION: In the Delta adapts report, the Delta Stewardship Council estimated that sea level rise by mid-century would require an additional million acre-feet of freshwater Delta outflow to meet current Delta water quality standards. That’s a large increase in outflows, a million acre-feet of additional storage from upstream needing to go out to the Delta to maintain the standards on the books today. I think that’s a shared problem, not just DWR and with the Bureau of Reclamation and local water agencies.
“That’s a pretty thorny issue, to be sure. But I think it does speak to more broadly to some of the work that we need to do moving forward to understand the available water-based on hydrology and the rights to use that water. There is some conversation in the public sphere about modernizing our water rights system.
As a general matter, we don’t have a system for administering water rights that adequately understands what’s happening in our system. I’ll give you an example.
Last year, both Reclamation and the Department of Water Resources, as junior water rights holders in the system, were required to meet downstream water quality needs. However, when things get very, very dry, that becomes not possible, given a need to protect upstream storage, both for environmental purposes and for longer-term drought planning in the event of a follow-on year that’s dry.
One of our challenges last year was the Department’s pursued regulatory relief for certain parts of water quality requirements down in the Delta. We also installed an emergency drought barrier, which we did in the previous drought. Before the previous drought, the last time we had done that was the 1970s, so I think it is indicative that these conditions are upon us – the fact that six or seven years later, we needed to do the same thing versus decades later.
Nevertheless, in working to meet those already revised water quality requirements, the releases from the reservoirs were not making it down to the Delta. Typically, Reclamation and the Department know there are losses in the system when moving water out of the reservoirs and down to the pumps for transfer purposes, so we already account for that.
But what we saw last year was the depletion of water released from the reservoirs down to the Delta at a rate that we had not seen before. Some of that can be water sinking into the ground, some of that is diverted under multiple overlapping water rights, and some of it is probably diversions that are not legal.
One of the things we need to do to deal with this, understanding what the Stewardship Council has laid out, is we need to start doing work right now to make sure that we understand the water that’s extracted from the system because it’ll make our water rights system work better. The existing system needs to work better, given the challenges coming at us.
Our ability to do that will inform the next generation of discussion about how do we address the challenges that we have and the challenges that will be upon us by mid-century around water quality in the Delta, and what is the best way to balance out needs that we have upstream, downstream, and for the environment.
That’s why in my mind, we need to be doing everything we can to recycle the surface water that’s delivered to our communities and put it to use. That is going to be critical. I also think lowering water use in urban areas, in particular, will be critical.
A lot of folks point to the fact that agriculture uses significantly more water than our cities do, and that is accurate. Agriculture also has significant pressures on it, particularly in managing groundwater basins. And over time, we are going to see multiple things happening in the agricultural sector. It’s not just going to be about groundwater recharge and improved efficiency; ultimately, we’re going to see a contraction of the agricultural acreage planted in California. The state administration is focused on doing that in a way that can help preserve and sustain agriculture on our best agricultural lands and do it in a way that works for communities and those local economies. So I think all of those things will need to happen to deal with the challenge that you just raised.”
QUESTION: At last week’s budget hearing, you mentioned the work DWR is doing to look at entire watersheds in the Merced and Tuolumne, analyzing the impacts of climate change and the work they’re doing on the watershed scale. We’ve been coordinating with DWR on similar work in the American River watershed. We believe that we have to take a whole watershed approach in addressing the threats of not just drought but wildfire, flood, and ecosystem degradation. We call that our “supershed” approach. My question for you is how can we jointly advance this holistic approach?
“You guys are doing incredible work deeper in your watershed; I think you’re ahead of the curve from a lot of places on this. So hats off to you.
I think you all will see an update of the California Water plan that goes to this approach. I like the idea of a supershed. That’s going to be a very natural place for the Department to work together with you all to get some advice and recommendations about what needs to be in the Water Plan that can help you do the things that you want to do, but also incentivize other parts of the state to think the same way … which is starting to understand wildfire impacts and the role of mountain meadow restoration, for example, in water supply and quality.
So that’s probably the biggest opportunity that we have coming up. And the Department is starting right now to get some of that preliminary work done and reaching out to our various stakeholders to seek input on the water plan. And I believe it’s next year when we come out with an actual public draft. But there will be a lot of opportunities for interaction before that time.”
QUESTION: Let’s talk about voluntary agreements and biological opinions. Water suppliers throughout the Sacramento River basin have stepped forward with an “excellent and unprecedented package of flows and projects for the next 15 years as part of the voluntary agreements program.” (Jim noted he is quoting the question as submitted.) There is great frustration right now over that. And we were wondering if you had any advice on how to move the voluntary agreements forward and get to work on the Bay-Delta water quality control plan?
“Having been engaged in the voluntary agreement process since I think 2016, I share that sense of frustration. One of the big challenges with the voluntary agreements that have made it difficult to come to completion is the state’s goal to do something that is comprehensive with the Sacramento watershed, including the American River, but also along the San Joaquin watershed. I would just observe, not only do we have great diversity in our population in California – we have a great diversity of personalities of water districts in California, and people coming at the challenge with different approaches.
So I agree that we’ve done some amazing things in the water user community in terms of a voluntary agreement where water users are funding the acquisition of water for the environment and a governance structure that enables everyone to learn as they go about how best to deploy that water to help support the environment. And that coupled with significant and ambitious restoration programs will be important.
Really at the end of the day … two things. We have significant investment from the state in landscape-scale habitat restoration and, as appropriate, a CEQA exemption for that restoration. We need to do it well and do it right. That was a really important indicator that the state is serious in coming to closure on the voluntary agreements, which is the place where the state, together with water users and environmental groups, are mostly organized around the need for landscape-scale restoration in all of these watersheds.
But it often comes down to water, and enough water, to test hypotheses to help us understand what can be accomplished. So the state is still very focused on bringing these agreements to completion. I would say even more so, given that we have the drought, I think we would like to be in a situation where we can start supporting the species voluntarily as early as next year. And all those conversations are ongoing; I am optimistic that we will come to closure on that so that we can just get going and start implementing.
So while it’s taken a long time, I also think with the challenges across so many multiple watersheds, it’s not surprising that it would take a while to get us to some closure on that term sheet.
What needs to happen, though – I’m banking on success here – when we do that, the voluntary agreement goes to the Water Board. They will incorporate it as an alternative into the water quality control plan process. So we will have a two-year period where we are working to implement in advance of the Water Board coming to closure. But I think that’s worthwhile. There’s quite a bit of work that we can get done, particularly with available state and federal funding, hopefully, and then certainly, financial contributions from the water agencies. So I hear you loud and clear on that. I hope for closure on that, too, so we can just get to implementing.”
QUESTION: Regarding DWR’s desire to increase water use efficiency and the concern for unintended consequences on affordability and overarching urban climate adaptation, what are the next steps for DWR in urban water use efficiency? Has the Department looked at ways in which the cost of implementation and impacts in particular to urban tree canopies can be mitigated?
“I’m grateful for this question because one of the things that I’ve learned over the past year and a half is California passed a complicated set of legislation under the banner of conservation as a way of life. It had three components: One was water loss work that’s happening at the water board; the second is an indoor efficiency standard, which was a joint recommendation from DWR and the Water Board to the legislature for the legislature to determine what next to do with that; and the third piece is outdoor efficiency standards; the Department transmits its recommendations for the proposed regulation to the Water Board and the Water Board itself deliberates on that regulation.
One of the things that has been unsatisfying to water users is that those regulations go over to the Water Board. Then the Water Board does the more traditional CEQA analysis that captures some of the broader impacts of implementation.
The indoor water use efficiency standard is a two-step phase process. We have a 47 gallons per capita per day recommendation to the legislature for 2025. Then, by 2030, that efficiency standard would be lowered to 42 gallons per capita per day to give water agencies an opportunity to get on that glide path. I do believe that most water agencies in California are at about 48.
There is a big challenge of implementing this legislation in components: there is pretty big variability across the state in terms of indoor and outdoor use efficiency. But the legislation was designed to enable water districts to pursue a mix and match if you will; these components generate an overall water budget. But if in putting these pieces together, agencies are not able to get to that water budget, there are ways in which water districts can apply for a variance, for unintended consequences or things happening economically that we weren’t ready for.
A really good example of that is COVID-19. Some of our communities were bedroom communities where people live, and then they commute to work somewhere else, but when we went into COVID-19, that changed the water use pattern. So you may be working in a place that has a water district and live in a place served by a different water district. And so when your place of work changes, that’s going to change the use patterns. So that’s just as an example of kind of an unforeseen circumstance that would potentially drive the need for a degree of variance.
For the outdoor standard, the Department understands that we absolutely need to protect tree canopy when we think about water-efficient landscapes. There are also places where turf is important: schools and other parks where people really use turf. It’s quality of life, and it has a very important public health aspect to it.
That turf itself could probably be more efficient. Depending on where you are in the state, incredible adaptations are being made by the turf industry. I meet with them and talk to them about some of the innovations they are making in terms of water use, so we want to make sure that it is still available for folks.
There is $100 million in the budget to support water conservation programs this year: $75 million for the bigger urban water districts and $25 million for smaller water districts. Those are dollars that are separate from other drought resiliency projects. That was on purpose because we want to generate ideas around water use efficiency that can be piloted and/or taken to scale. And it was a way which we thought was an important incentive for water districts and knowing that there’s some sensitivity to water rates, certainly in a drought, but frankly, over time, given the amount of reinvestment we need to do in our water system. But that was a way for the state, quite right from a policy perspective, to draw out some good ideas that maybe wouldn’t be as implementable, given some of the cost pressures, without state funding. So we want to make sure that we’re stimulating good ideas, and those ideas can help inform the way state and local partnerships work on water use efficiency into the future. So that’s our thinking there.
But absolutely, we want to maintain tree canopy for so many reasons here in California.“
QUESTION: Will the forecasted climate impacts be made available to local water agencies in California, so they can start planning out farther than what’s typically required in an urban water management plan? Looking out beyond the next 20,30, perhaps 50 years, forecasting those climate impacts? Would that information be available to local agencies to plan for long-term impacts?
“I’m glad you brought this up because this has been on my mind almost continuously since we had our real challenge last year. For the Department, it’s called Bulletin 120. And that’s what water districts rely on. Some water districts are very sophisticated in their own forecasting, and they understand their own watersheds better than anybody, but some are not. And for groundwater sustainability agencies, some of them are a little bit too removed.
This is why you see the governor continuing to invest in improvements to forecasting and forecast informed reservoir operations. So it’s two parts: one is improving our ability to adapt our forecasting to change with the times. A good example of that is airborne snow observations. We have lots of snow sensors at lower elevations in the Sierra, but over time, with the snow line retreating further upslope, we know that that approach to forecasting isn’t going to give us the accurate information we need. So these airborne surveys and expanding them throughout the Sierra will be really important.
That, combined with new ways to manage our reservoirs that account for really important flood protection needs and water supply reliability needs – again, this part of the world is really at the forefront in doing a lot of that work.
But for groundwater management agencies, ultimately, groundwater plans are on a five-year cycle. They’re self-implementing. We have the adequacy question, but they are self-implementing, so people are implementing them now. Even if it’s a plan that is adequate, it’s a plan that will undergo much more intensive review at the five-year mark.
Our goal as a Department is that in the five-year timeframe, to put the tools on the table that will enable those plans to incorporate climate more fully into their planning parameters for the groundwater basin and really make that part of the regulatory approach to SGMA.
I would just observe that there are plans that looked at it somewhat with limited information; there are some plans that didn’t look at it at all. But when we get to that five-year mark, there are going to be additional requirements to consider what’s happening climate-wise. And that obviously puts a real spotlight on the need for us to develop this forecasting information and develop it in an open way and develop it with important peer review components so that groundwater agencies and water districts can use that information to plan for the future.”
QUESTION: What challenges does DWR see over the next five years for statewide water supply reliability, especially as SGMA plans begin and get implemented, potentially limiting the amount of groundwater agencies can use when surface water supplies are scarce? What can local agencies do now to plan and prepare ourselves for potential supply shortages?
Going back to flood MAR, the state needs to do more thinking together with local water districts and groundwater management agencies about what it’s going to take to actually implement those kinds of projects. The Water Board has a couple of pending applications for 450,000 acre-feet of water coming in from the flood system. So, we are going to have to sort out the ways in which we approach it in an organized and transparent way.
In my view, there are some real challenges to the ‘first come, first served’ approach that has long been part of the way we implement the water rights system. That worked for California for a long time, but that was guided by an abundance mindset. And we will have years of abundance, no question. But over time, as water managers, we need to adopt more of a scarcity mindset. And that is going to demand that we, especially in the context of groundwater management, establish ways in which to work through the development of technical information that supports water rights applications for Flood MAR, but also does it in a way that has an understanding of the system at large.
The Department has done some really interesting work in the Merced watershed and the Tuolumne watershed, which is very similar to the work you all are doing in the American River watershed – the supershed approach from the top all the way down to floodplains. And what we want to do is expand that as quickly as we can. We do have budget dollars to do that. Expand that as quickly as we can over the next five-plus years so that people have better information; that information is publicly available, it’s transparent. And people can understand where that water is meant to come from and how it does or does not necessarily affect your neighbor. Because that’s what we’re going to need to be doing in California.
I’m going to kind of crowdsource something as my close here. One of the things that I think doesn’t serve us as water managers in California is that we all like to misquote Mark Twain, and the ‘whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.’ We need a new phrase that motivates us, and it’s my hope that that phrase embodies some aspect of collaboration. Because again, we’re all enduring a lot of change. And we’ve got a terrific group of water managers and a great group of leaders coming up, ready to take the helm of some of these agencies. We’re going to solve our problems better if we’re talking to each other and if we have a greater reliance on data and information that is provided in a transparent way. So if we all come up with something clever that catches fire and motivates people, let me know because I’m looking for it.“
“We will take that on as a challenge,” said Jim Piefer. “We know that in the American River Basin, collaboration is our asset. It’s the way that we’re going to solve problems. We need to embrace that statewide: water users, NGOs, agriculture – everyone getting together to solve our challenges, and fighting just won’t lead to the outcomes that we want.”