The Stockholm Syndrome in Water Planning in California

Jeffrey F. Mount, Founding Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California – Davis

“…plans are nothing, planning is indispensable” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

“If planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing” – Aaron Wildofsky.

Robert Arneson's "See No Evil/Hear No Evil"

Robert Arneson's "See No Evil/Hear No Evil" from The Egghead Series on the UC Davis Campus ( Photo Credit: Carson Jeffres

We all know the Stockholm Syndrome: the hostage falls in love with the hostage taker.  Well, for those of us who work on California water management issues, we have become the willing, if not adoring hostage, in love with the hostage taker: water planning processes.

To illustrate this point, look at the Fifth Staff Draft Delta Plan being prepared for the Delta Stewardship Council.  This Delta Plan (“the Plan”) will guide the activities of the Council as they set and administer policy under the Delta Reform Act of 2009.

The Draft Delta Plan depends upon many tributary plans. And since these plans are incomplete, operate on widely different timelines, and, in some cases, may never come to fruition, the Plan is a hostage to other plans, with little hope of being set free.

Table 1 presents an incomplete list of plans that are either to inform or at least be incorporated into the Plan.  The Plan describes more than 25 major planning efforts–either underway or anticipated—as needed to inform its various components.  And once the Plan itself is adopted, an unknown (but still larger) number of local and regional water management plans will also be needed to implement the Plan.

We who are willing hostages to Delta planning efforts tend to forget that there is more to the Delta than simply the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan and the Delta Plan.  There is a thriving planning industry, working on innumerable efforts that are largely uncoordinated.  I know of no one who has all of these in his/her head and can see how they fit together.

Why do we spend so much time and money on planning (the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan alone has cost over $150 million…so far)?

It is disingenuous and wrong to blame regulation as the sole culprit.  The Federal and State Endangered Species Act, the Porter-Cologne and Clean Water Act, and others like them evolved because we didn’t plan enough, and we degraded our waters for all uses (Hanak et al., 2009).  Indeed, from Table 1, most planning is mandated by the California legislature, not existing regulations.

The real culprit may well be us, the happy hostages.  We find comfort in Eisenhower’s comment that planning is indispensable.  After all, good planning identifies key problems, organizes available information, identifies and compares potential solutions, includes all stakeholders’ voices, and plots a way forward.  What’s not to like?

Perhaps the real reason we are happy hostages is that most water interests either benefit directly from planning, or prolong planning to avoid decisions unfavorable to them.  For the former, include universities, agency staff, some non-profits, and the burgeoning agency-consultant industrial complex that thrives off of water planning.  All are made relevant during planning and not so relevant once the plan is done.

On the latter, many have discovered that the best way to ward off an action or decision that may not favor your interests is to declare the current plan insufficient and demand more planning.  This maneuver comes in many forms.

Remember the “sound science” movement that erupted in the 1990’s?  Its premise was that if you didn’t like a policy decision, ask for more science until you get some science you like the sound of.  The result: more planning and less action.

Many stakeholder groups, fearing alternatives to the status quo (even when they know it is unsustainable), but unable to advance their preferred solutions, will demand more planning.  The result: we fail into a solution.

Finally, all happy hostages are guilty of demanding more specifics and fewer uncertainties than time, money, and science can provide.  Although these same hostages proclaim that adaptive management is the solution, they remain unwilling to actually manage adaptively.  The result: an endless cycle of planning and study.

Although hostage to plans, it is an inescapable fact that planning is, as Eisenhower wisely noted, indispensable. Planning allows us to explore options and make intelligent, strategic decisions.  Eisenhower’s planning was motivated and urgent, war was underway, failure would be truly catastrophic, and success and lives hinged on effective planning.  For California and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta we need to find a better balance with more effective and motivated planning and more ability to make and implement decisions, albeit adaptively, of course.

Robert Arneson, "See No Evil/Hear No Evil",

Robert Arneson's "See No Evil/Hear No Evil" from The Egghead Series on the UC Davis Campus (

Table 1.

Delta Plans required by 2009 legislation

  • Delta Plan
  • Strategic and Implementation Plan, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy
  • Delta Protection Commission’s Delta Economic Sustainability Plan

Delta Science Program

  • A Plan for a Delta Science Program
  • Recommendations for Delta stressor reductions

California Department of Water Resources

  • Central Valley Flood Protection Plan
  • Multiple FloodSAFE Initiatives
  • California’s Groundwater Resources (Bulletin 118)
  • California Water Plan
  • Surface Water Storage Investigations
  • California Statewide Groundwater Elevation Monitoring Program
  • Framework for DWR Investments in Delta Integrated Flood Management

California Department of Fish and Game

  • Ecosystem Restoration Program’s Conservation Strategy

State Water Resources Control Board and Central Valley Water Quality Control Board

  • Delta Flow Standards
  • Regional Water Quality Control Board Basin Plan
  • Central Valley Drinking Water Policy Plan
  • Central Valley Pesticide TMDL and Basin Plan Amendments

US Army Corps of Engineers

  • Delta Islands Levees Feasibility Study
  • Long Term Management Strategy for Dredging and Dredge Material Placement,
  • Periodic Levee Inspection System
  • Levee Safety Portfolio risk Management System
  • USACE Expected Annual Damages tool

State-Federal Plans

  • Bay-Delta Conservation Plan
  • System Reoperation Task Force
  • Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Multi-Hazard Coordination Taskforce Report
  • Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Flood Catastrophic Incident Plan
  • Regional Mass Evacuation Plan
  •  Interoperable Communications Plan

Regional Plans

  • Urban Water Management Plan(s) including Water Reliability Element
  • Agricultural Water Management Plan including Water Reliability Element
  • Integrated Regional Water Management Plans
  • Groundwater management plans (regional and local)
  • North Bay Aqueduct Alternate Intake Project EIR


Further Reading

Clarke, J.N., and H. M. Ingram, 2010.  A founder: Aaron Wildavsky and the Study of Public Policy.  Policy Studies Journal Vol. 38, p. 565-575. DOI: 10.1111/j.1541-0072.2010.00374.x

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, and B. Thompson. 2011.  Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation. Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, 482 pp.

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, and B. Thompson. 2009. California Water Myths. Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco.

Wildavsky, A. 1973.  If planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing.  Policy Sciences vol. 4, p. 127-153. DOI: 10.1007/BF01405729

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