Dollars and Drought – Windfalls for innovation or entrenchment?

by Jay Lund

California’s Governor Newsom recently declared a drought emergency throughout much of California and announced over $5 billion in new water program investments.  These twin emergency and funding announcements are a classic “bad-news creates good news story” (and potentially vice versa) for California’s water problems. They are opportunities for innovation and making long-term improvements for California’s water problems.  They also can reward and entrench less effective programs and approaches.

Problems and opportunities

“Money is like muck, not good except it be spread.” – Sir Francis Bacon (1625)

As a diverse dynamic state in a semi-arid region, California will always have water problems.  Compared to other regions with Mediterranean climates, California has done relatively well with water and environmental problems.  But in absolute terms, we need to do much better for some problems, especially with climate change.  The Governor’s proposed infusion of funds can help.  Here are several areas most needing improvement from additional attention (drought) and investment (budget surplus).

  • Ecosystem management is California’s greatest and least effectively organized water challenge.  California’s diverse native ecosystems are mostly declining from human development and climate change.  So far, agencies and expenditures have only slowed declines, but been unable to systematically stop or reverse these declines.  Research and small field successes point to some promising directions.  More money will help, but more fundamental changes in approach, organization, and sustained resources are needed to save and support what can be saved of what remains.
  • Groundwater overdraft and quality is a major challenge that is becoming much better organized since passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) during the previous drought.  Deeper technical and policy coordination between California’s Department of Water Resources and Water Resources Control Board is needed to help local efforts address state objectives, particularly for drought management, and achieve the painful pumping reductions often needed for groundwater sustainability. (The state’s Flood-MAR efforts are useful, but excessive and distract from deeper needs to reduce pumping in the most overdrafted areas.)
  • The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is at the hub of California’s major water and environmental systems, and so is inherently controversial.  Its problems are also dynamic and face growing challenges from sea level rise and higher temperatures with climate change.  The State has recognized these challenges, but has yet to build broadly effective multi-agency science and policy programs to explore long-term solutions for these evolving challenges.  Particularly with climate change, broader and more comprehensive solutions seem needed.
  • Rural water systems always face problems of few resources, small size, and diverse supply and safety vulnerabilities.  These problems manifest as unreliable well supplies during drought, nitrate and other drinking water safety problems, and unaffordable costs for service.  These water problems parallel other health, safety, welfare, education, and environmental problems for rural households and communities.  Ideally, state funds can be integrated with other resources and changes to help counties improve capabilities to support rural communities.
  • Floods are the other water extreme which will increase with climate change.  It seems odd to invest in flood protection during a drought, but, like drought, the best way to reduce flood damages and loss of life is from preparation before the flood.
  • Water accounting is fundamental to all water management.  A common inter-agency water accounting system is needed to civilize and improve water management, including implementation of SGMA, water rights administration, and support environmental flows, water markets, and negotiated agreements of all sorts.  Developing a common state water accounting system will be difficult, but is a neglected foundation for good management. 
  • A common scientific and technical program is needed across state agencies for many water problems.  Scientific and technical work on water is currently fragmented across state agencies with insufficient connective tissue across agency and intra-agency silos.  This has expensively hindered the development and use of solid information for informing agencies and stakeholders in operations, planning, and policy problem and solution discussions.

The Governor’s proposed funding support responds, sometimes specifically, to many of these problems.

More than money is needed. 

Sending money to these problems will always be appreciated, but will not always be proportionately helpful.  The state should take complementary actions to make the best use of these additional funds, and not cultivate additional long-term dependence on state general revenue and bond funding.  These include:

  • Changes in government procedures.  State agencies have excellent, dedicated, and creative people, as well as highly risk-averse staff who hinder state and agency missions by excessive dedication to process.  Government timeliness, budget accounting, personnel, and accountability are plagued and often break down from internal frictions.  Such frictions are inevitable and have some useful purposes, but must be managed to keep any bureaucracy effective.
  • Long-term spending, long-term performance, and accountability.  Each agency receiving additional funds should detail plans for this spending, how long-term performance will be maintained when these funds are exhausted, and how the agency will be accountable for this performance from expenditures.  Then keep score.
  • Internal and external inspections and reviews of program effectiveness, as discussed below. 
  • Embrace interagency science.  Many state water challenges fall increasingly across agency boundaries, especially with climate change.  The state needs stronger and more explicitly organized scientific efforts to help lead us into the future.
  • Sustained dedicated funding is needed for under-resourced areas, such as ecosystems and safe drinking water for poor communities.  Special water or other taxes or fees should provide some of this funding, perhaps matched with general revenue funds.

Today’s combination of drought and financial windfall provide a unique opportunity to implement more fundamental and long-lasting reforms.  California has both carrots and sticks, simultaneously, to make changes needed for the future.

Reforming underperforming state assets

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy (1877)

State agencies are the Governor and legislature’s main means to address difficult challenges.  Given the hard important problems typically delegated to government agencies, these assets often under-perform relative to hopes and expectations.

Governance is hard, and better policies generally come from consulting broadly.  However, many state agencies and programs prolong policy discussions into “dynamic inaction”, a safe form of perpetual inclusion, satisfying interests who enjoying the status quo, and avoiding controversies from substantive action.  Dynamic inaction diminishes government’s reputation.  Some agency programs might become more effective with sunset deadlines or effectiveness assessments.

  • Sunset deadlines might be as simple as a deadline for a final report with conclusions and actions, or be further motivated, in this case, by a sunset on the program or availability of funds if specified objectives are not achieved.
  • Internal agency assessments of agency program effectiveness.  Such assessments are common in private industry, academia, and for major military and federal government programs.  These might occur bi-annually for major agency programs, and provide opportunities for agency leadership to reform (and occasionally cull) less effective programs, and identify and reward better middle managers, as well as an opportunity to identify larger agency problems of coordination, personnel development, budgeting, and administration.  (Developing effective mission-focused middle managers is a major gap in state government.)
  • External assessments of program effectiveness are vital, as shown by the 2018 external assessments of DWR and SWP dam safety inspections from Oroville spillway’s failure in 2017.  External assessments of major programs should occur regularly, before catastrophic failures.  Major problems, such as SGMA implementation, would benefit from honest external assessment and recommendations.  California’s Delta Independent Science Board (DISB) is an attempt to provide some periodic external assessments of scientific programs supporting adaptive management of the Delta, across all agencies.  Its recent disruption and effective defunding by the Delta Stewardship Council shows how bureaucratically difficult and important external reviews are for the effectiveness of government programs.

If you want to make any program fail, give it too much money relative to its leadership and management capabilities.  Rarely does a weak program become strong by only adding money – strong leadership, management support, and accountability also are needed.  These last three resources often are scarcer than money.

The drought and state budget windfall provide opportunities to reduce California’s water problems, but also can distract from longer-term solutions. 

Long-term success will rely on how effectively the money is spent, as much as how much is spent. 

Further reading

Lund, J.R., J. Medellin-Azuara, J. Durand, and K. Stone, “Lessons from California’s 2012-2016 Drought,” J. of Water Resources Planning and Management, Vol 144, No. 10, October 2018.

Pinter, N., J. Lund, and P. Moyle. “The California Water Model: Resilience through Failure,” Hydrological Processes, Vol. 22, Iss. 12, pp. 1775-1779, 2019.

Oroville spillway forensic investigation and presentations:

Video #1 COGGE: Oroville Dam Webinar Series – March, 5, 2018 on physical failure mechanism (58 min):

Video #2 COGGE: Oroville Dam Webinar Series – March 14, 2018 on overall failure mechanism and lessons (59 min):

February 2018 forensics report:

Jay Lund is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California – Davis.

About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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2 Responses to Dollars and Drought – Windfalls for innovation or entrenchment?

  1. Jim Brobeck says:

    “needs to reduce pumping in the most overdrafted areas.” Agreed! But turning to Sac Valley aquifers to conjunctively transfer surface water and reoperate reservoirs will permanently eliminate the buffer that once allowed streams to flow, valley oak trees to thrive, fish to habitate during past mega-droughts. The early stages of overdraft have the most noticeable GED impacts.

  2. Excellent article. One point I hope you will address moving forward. When it comes to water for fish, rivers, ecosystems . . . more money tends to do more harm than good. Salmon restoration and streamflow enhancement funds are too often diverted for new and improved water diversion infrastructure without corresponding requirements that conserved water is dedicated for instream use. When conserved water is not dedicated for instream use, it is invariably soaked up by paper water rights. The following is a good swing of the hammer, but you miss the nail on water for ecosystems: “More money will help, but more fundamental changes in approach, organization, and sustained resources are needed to save and support what can be saved of what remains.” The missing ingredient is not money, it’s lack of political will to require more water instream.

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