Can solid flood planning improve all California water planning?

Jay R. Lund, The Ray B. Krone Chair of Environmental Engineering, University of California – Davis

An atmospheric river hitting California in December 1996 – part of the 1997 flood. Photo: NOAA GOES Image Server

“No single raindrop believes it is to blame for the flood.”  E.L. Kersten

The best time to prepare for floods is during a drought.

In December, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) released their new Central Valley flood plan.  Looking it over, and having seen some of the thinking behind it, the plan seems like the most substantive, serious, and modern state water plan in quite some time.

There will be criticisms that the plan is weak regarding the environment, conjunctive use, water supply, unrealistic funding, and other issues, with some justification.  But, after all, this represents the beginning of one of the first comprehensive state-led examinations of flood problems in a long time, following a technically successful, but politically failed federal “Comprehensive Study” a decade ago.   And this is a flood plan, which attempts to connect with other water management issues, rather than a comprehensive water plan which attempts to address everything at once.

The Good:

  1. The flood plan is a thoughtful preliminary overview of Central Valley flood problems and system-wide management options, and how such options and local problems work together as a system.  All flood problems are local to those whose feet are getting wet, but solutions often have to work together for a river system.
  2. The report is supported by a tremendous wealth of explicit analysis, found in the numerous attachments on the web.  The extensive analysis, albeit preliminary in many areas, provides numbers for many costs, benefits, flows, and capacities.  Such organized analysis and numbers add coherence, perspective, and confidence to the work.
  3. The plan recognizes, in considerable detail for an initial release, the connections, opportunities, and potential conflicts of flood management and environmental objectives.  It can easily be argued that flood management has had more effects on the native ecosystem than any other so-called “stressor”.  Opportunities to get large environmental co-benefits with improved flood management are something for all parties to anticipate and cultivate.  The plan seems especially farsighted and thoughtful in this regard.  It is a good beginning.
  4. It recognizes the many connections of flood management with other water management aspects such as water supply and conjunctive use.
  5. The plan recognizes that Central Valley flood management requires the management and funding involvement of many local, state, and federal agencies, and has some ideas on what should be done to improve these inter-governmental workings and responsibilities.  Many water plans in California dissolve into hand-wringing over decentralized responsibility and decision-making; this plan productively tries to rise above it.
  6. There is recognition that flood improvements, and other potential related benefits will be expensive, and that firm long-term funding is needed.
  7. The plan is of a readable length.  Not so short as to be superficial and glitzy.  Not so long as to be imponderable and debilitating.  (It lacks a good summary, however.)

The Less Than Good:

  1. Funding.  Long-term funding is a hard issue for almost any endeavor these days.  The plan imagines abundant federal and state government funding.  A more realistic funding plan will be needed.  This will make some unhappy.
  2. Environmental plan.  Sadly, the absence of coherent state plans for environmental management and other water issues will lead to pressure for the flood plan to become a general water and environmental plan.  While a comprehensive water plan would ideally address all water problems at all locations for all sorts of current and future conditions, including climate change, this is too much for DWR to take.  Such comprehensive comprehensiveness might even be beyond human capabilities.  For now, pointing out promising opportunities and constraints for co-management across objectives is a major step forward.
  3. Adaptive management?  The flood plan’s conservation framework (a separate document of similar length to the plan) has an adaptive management discussion.  Adaptive management is invoked by almost every regional and state plan these days.  However, no plan seems to have the vaguest practical idea of how to make adaptive management successful.  Clearly, the state needs an overall credible adaptive management plan for the Central Valley, which various state, regional, and local flood, water supply, and other sector plans can connect to.
  4. Where do the numbers come from?  The current plan has a wealth of technical attachments, which are not well referenced in the main plan report.  It is nice to see the beginnings of a coherent plan based on numbers, and the lack of explicit ties between the detailed documentation and the main plan is understandable, for now, given the short time frame.  I giddily look forward to learning much from these supporting analyses and seeing them used more explicitly to support the a major planning document.  Alas, these details will become a devilish obsession among some stakeholders, some of which will be useful.

The Interesting:

Everyone is likely to find some aspects of the plan interesting and thought-provoking.  For me the point was brought home that the Central Valley flood management system’s success for major floods currently relies on unplanned levee failures in more rural areas.  Urban areas benefit from moderately good rural levees (probably better than rural areas could afford on their own) having a lower flow capacity than urban levees.  The positive view of this is that rural and urban areas can benefit from each other.

No plan is perfect, but this flood plan provides thoughtful and informed ideas to move the discussion forward realistically.  This is a noteworthy accomplishment.  In this complex problem with an even more complex array of stakeholders, incrementalism will be necessary, but incrementalism alone is doomed.  Sacramento Valley flood management in the late 1800s and early 1900s had similar controversies, and ultimately illustrated the benefits of rising above incrementalism (Kelley 1989).

Little has come from recent state or federal water planning in California.  If the state becomes effective in managing floods, then our collective prospects are greatly improved for managing the environment, conjunctive use, water supply, and anything else.

Ideally, we would see a greater integration of state plans across functions (floods, water supply, etc.) building on more integrated plans arising from the local and regional levels (such as SAWPA) (Hanak et al. 2011).  This flood plan might become a pragmatic start to such a process.

Further reading

California Department of Water Resources (DWR). 2012 Central Valley Flood Protection Plan; DWR: Sacramento, CA, USA, 2011. Available online:

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, and B. Thompson, Managing California’s Water:  From Conflict to Reconciliation, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA, 500 pp., February 2011.

Hansen, T.R., “A troubled flood plan,” Colusa County Sun-Herald, Friday, Mar 16 2012, 4:53 pm

Kelley, R. Battling the Inland Sea; University of California Press: Berkeley, CA, USA, 1989.

Lund, J.R., “Flood Management in California,” Water, Vol. 4, pp. 157-169; doi:10.3390/w4010157, 2012.

Lund, J.R., E. Hanak, and B. Gray, “Adaptive management means never having to say you’re sorry”,, posted on July 21, 2011.

Mount, J.F., “The Stockholm Syndrome in Water Planning in California,”, posted on September 27, 2011.

About Elena M. Lopez
This entry was posted in California Water, Climate Change, Floodplains, Planning and Management, Water Conservation, Water System Modeling and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Can solid flood planning improve all California water planning?

  1. Pingback: A Few Good Reads (4/2/12): Another Dam on the Yangtze » Hydraulically Inclined

Comments are closed.