The California Department of Water Resources underwent a management shakeup Wednesday, less than a week after investigators released a scathing report on last February’s crisis at Oroville Dam and how the department handled it.
Grant Davis resigned as DWR’s director barely seven months after taking over the embattled department, which has been heavily criticized following the near-catastrophe at the dam’s two flood-control spillways. Davis will go back to his old job as general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency.
Karla Nemeth, deputy secretary and senior adviser for water policy at the Natural Resources Agency since 2014, was named the new DWR director by Gov. Jerry Brown. Brown’s administration said Nemeth’s appointment was part of a larger restructuring of DWR to place more emphasis on flood control and dam safety.
An independent forensic team, in a wide-ranging critical report on the causes of the Oroville emergency, said last week that dam safety must become a higher priority at DWR. The department owns and operates Oroville Dam and runs the State Water Project, which delivers billions of gallons of Northern California river water to agencies as far away as San Diego.
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“In the past year alone, the most severe drought in California’s recorded history was interrupted by one of the wettest seasons on record, putting extreme pressure on our flood control infrastructure and exposing vulnerabilities,” Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said in a prepared statement. “This new team will help the state better prepare for ever-greater challenges to our infrastructure and flood management systems, and ensure that California is doing everything possible to ensure dam and flood safety.” As part of the reorganization, DWR created a new position, deputy director for flood management and dam safety.
Davis, in a statement released by Sonoma County officials, said, “My home and passion is Sonoma County, and I am dedicated to helping the Water Agency achieve its ongoing goals while restoring our watersheds impacted by the wildfires.” He didn’t return calls seeking additional comment.
The forensic team’s report on Oroville blamed a series of long-standing problems at DWR, all of which predated Davis’ arrival at the agency.
Mark Cowin, who retired as DWR director in December 2016, said it appeared there was “a personality conflict between Grant and a number of people, including the governor. ... It was a bad fit to start with.”
Among other things, he said Davis sometimes was too aggressive about suggesting changes at DWR. “He got ahead of the curve,” Cowin said.
Davis was scheduled to appear at a legislative oversight hearing on Oroville on Wednesday morning at the Capitol, but was represented instead by DWR’s chief deputy director. No explanation was given for his absence from the hearing, and his exit from DWR was announced about an hour after the hearing ended.
Nemeth has played a significant role in Brown’s controversial proposal to overhaul the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta’s plumbing with a pair of water tunnels. She has worked for Natural Resources since 2009 and is married to Tom Philp, a former Sacramento Bee editorial writer who is a strategist for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – the largest member agency of DWR’s State Water Project.
She becomes the fourth DWR director in a little more than a year. Those include two interim directors, one of whom, Bill Croyle, ran the department during the Oroville emergency.
The crisis began when a giant crater erupted in the main flood-control spillway Feb. 7. DWR tried to limit the damage by curtailing water releases, but a heavy rainstorm filled the reservoir and water began flowing over the never-before-used emergency spillway – a concrete lip atop an unlined hillside. When the hillside started eroding badly, putting the concrete lip in peril, officials ordered the immediate evacuation of 188,000 downstream residents.
In its report last week, the forensic team said the main spillway was poorly designed, and then poorly maintained in the decades following the dam’s 1968 completion. The panel also faulted DWR’s handling of the crisis, saying different decisions could have prevented water from flowing over the untested emergency spillway. Among other things, the investigators said DWR officials disregarded geologists’ warnings that the emergency spillway might not withstand water flows, and also were influenced by a desire to keep water deliveries flowing to State Water Project member agencies. DWR officials denied that water delivery played a role in their decision-making.
At Wednesday’s legislative hearing, forensic team leader John France reiterated his belief that dam safety hasn’t been made a high enough priority at DWR.
“We’d like to see it have a bit of a louder voice,” France told lawmakers.
He also warned that dam safety officials, in California and elsewhere, need to overhaul how they inspect structures. The flaws at Oroville, including a poorly designed drainage system, were lurking there for decades but weren’t visible to inspectors. To truly understand if dams are working properly, inspectors have to review old blueprints and other documents, he said.
The problem isn’t limited to California, he stressed. Across the industry, “we’re not diving as deeply as we need to, to find these ticking time bombs,” France said.
DWR officials pushed back on suggestions that they’ve neglected dam safety, but acknowledged that they’re reforming the agency in response to France’s team’s report. Eric Koch, who takes over the newly created role of deputy director for flood management and dam safety, said DWR has traditionally concentrated much of its firepower on preventing failures of the dams themselves but hasn’t paid enough attention to spillways and other related structures. That will change, he said.
“We are shifting the paradigm of dam safety across California,” he told lawmakers. Already, several dam owners have pledged to replace their spillways, based on a flurry of post-Oroville inspections ordered by DWR.
But change will take time. Cindy Messer, DWR’s chief deputy director, said a comprehensive blueprint for reform will take at least four months to develop. She said the agency is talking with Brown’s staff about getting the personnel needed to ramp up the inspection procedures.
“I believe that we do prioritize dam safety,” she said. “Is the group big enough? No.”
Lawmakers remained skeptical. Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, whose family was evacuated in February, called the Oroville crisis a “monumental organizational failure.”
Added state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama, addressing the DWR officials: “The agency is not trusted. You have been great under the pressure ... but there’s no trust.”