The Flow of California Water Policy – A Chart

by Jay Lund

California water policy is often discussed and depicted as being impossibly complex.  In its essentials, it can be seen much more simply, as in the flow chart below.  Without extreme events (such as floods and droughts), the policy process would be simpler, but ironically less effective, and less well funded.

California’s remarkable water history shows that frequent extreme events have activated enough innovation and preparations over 170 years such that floods, droughts, and earthquakes are now much less threatening to California’s population and economy.  However, frequent failures have not yet motivated adequate preparation and management for ecosystems and rural water supplies.

Given predictions of climate and ecological disasters, the future looks simultaneously bright, terrible, and worse for those not prepared.

Further reading

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

Dynamic inaction –;

Yes Minister –

About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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2 Responses to The Flow of California Water Policy – A Chart

  1. The last three actions on the yes side of the flow chart summarize well where I live on Delta issues.

  2. Michael Mierzwa says:

    Nice article. My key take away is a commentary that we have a reactive water management mentality … I certainly feel it is that way it is now but that it does not need to be that way!

    There are two things that I think contribute to this feeling, and both are related to a fog of knowledge:

    1) a lack of understanding what planning is about. Though focused on watersheds, the UNESCO publication on “river basin planning” really nailed what planning is about –> plans are to inform, not MAKE decisions. General (before becoming President) Eisenhower exactly understood planning, “Plans are worthless, planning is everything”. He recognized that planning builds capacity, but you can never exactly predict the future. With this in mind, I wish that there was even more time spent in aligning planning efforts and less fear with any agency, institution or group printing ideas. Way back when, white papers seemed like a good means to getting ideas circulated about without the weight of thousands of pages of technical supporting information.

    2) Tracking. If we are going to be stuck in a cycle of emergency / reactive management, then we need more after action reports, perhaps geared to slightly different levels of decision making vs. the general public. For example, there used to be a series of annual high water reports following any flood losses. The format was consistent from the 1960s through 1990s. This helped daylight the complexity of flood management. I would think our capacity to respond to either droughts or floods would be increased if there were more high level “what happened” after action reports focusing on both the hydrologic conditions and the human responses *and* if these reports were easy to find.

    The best after action report I’ve read is the post 1997 Flood Emergency Action Team report. The State was given 90 days (amazing huh) to prepare a report summarizing the impacts / consequences of the 1997 floods, what programs existed to prepare in advance and respond to the event, and recommend next steps. I can help practice what I preach by making this report required reading for my small team! 🙂

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