Legislature approves audit of water management by DWR and SWRCB during 2021

On Monday, June 27, the California Joint Legislative Audit Committee approved Assemblymember Adam Gray’s request for an audit of the management of surface water by the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the State Water Resources Control Board in 2021. The Acting State Auditor is also proposing to audit DWR’s plan to uphold its contractual obligation to maintain salinity standards in the Bay-Delta, as well as how frequently the Water Board has granted Temporary Urgency Change Petitions. The audit is expected to take about 6 to 7 months to complete.

This was the statement by Acting State Auditor Michael Tilden on the scope of the proposed audit.

As Mr. Gray indicated, he’s requesting an audit of the management of surface water by the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Resources Control Board. So the scope of the audit would include really identifying the procedures that DWR and the State Water Resources Control Board used to prepare for the 2021 drought. And part of that would be really evaluating the accuracy of the model by comparing DWR’s projections of how much water would be captured with what was actually captured. We’d also quantify any differences and the reasons for those differences, and probably more importantly, identify any actions that DWR has taken to improve the accuracy of those predictive models.

We would also take a look at how much water was released from the state’s reservoirs and also identify any real time feedback mechanisms that DWR used to determine when and how much water to release from the reservoirs, including specifically taking a look at releases from Lake Oroville in July of 2021, and February of 2022. In addition, we would compare the Sierra runoff projections that DWR put together with projections from federal entities as well as local entities to really identify the different factors that resulted in different projections and the magnitude of any differences. And we’d also review the State’s plan to uphold the contractual obligations to maintain the salinity standards in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and to provide adequate flows to sustain native fish populations. That would include determining how frequently the state has granted urgency petitions that release water that was otherwise designated for different purposes. We’d also determine how often these petitions have resulted in legal challenges as well as the outcome of that litigation. We estimate this audit would take about 2900 hours to complete, and that equates to about six or nine months. I’m sorry, 6 to 7 months.

This was the opening statement by Assemblymember Adam Gray in support of the audit request.

Climate change policy has been at the forefront of the legislature’s policymaking process for longer than any of us have been in office. The state has invested billions into renewable energy, zero emission vehicles, energy efficient construction, climate change fueled wildfires and rising sea levels. As extreme climate events become increasingly normal, we are learning that the solutions that worked in the past are simply not sufficient to meet these new challenges. We need to modernize our thinking, which more and more means embracing newer and future looking technologies.

In stark contrast to the advances made in higher priority policy areas. California’s water management strategies are outdated, heavily flawed, increasingly dangerous to the health of humans and the environment alike. As extreme drought conditions persist for longer periods and then are followed by severe and unpredictable downpours, the effect of climate change on California’s water supply has only just begun.

Consider, for example, the Sierra Nevada snowpack. The Sierra accounts for one third of California’s entire water supply and acts as a natural reservoir storing water as snow in the winter and then slowly delivering that water into our manmade reservoirs as it melts into the spring and summer. But as climate change pushes temperatures higher, more snow is falling as rain and what snow does fall melts faster at lower elevations and drier soils act like a sponge absorbing the melt before it ever makes its way into our streams, rivers and reservoirs.

According to their own report, as these factors and others that led the Department of Water Resources to overestimate the runoff for the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Tulare Lake regions by 68%, 45% and 46%, respectively. This amounts to millions of acre feet of water statewide, with the Sacramento area alone accounting for enough water to supply over 2 million households for a year.

Errors on this scale have real and measurable consequences. The managers of the largest local, state and federal reservoirs used this information to determine when they should let water accumulate in places like Shasta, Oroville and Folsom and when to open the gates and let water out to make room for the coming snowmelt. Growers use the information to predict how much water they can expect for their farms and how many acres they can afford to plant. The estimates are also used to inform flood control, power generation and water quality and temperature parameters to protect threatened and endangered species and combat salinity intrusion in the Delta.

Put simply, members, everyone from the Sierra Club and the NRDC to ACWA and the Farm Bureau have an interest in getting this information as close to right as possible after the errors became public. DWR is quick to point out that their runoff forecasts are based on historical data, and of course, historical data becomes less accurate as the effects of climate change grow increasingly real. Last year, they promised to embrace new technology and update the models going forward.

The problem with that explanation is that climate change is not new. Last year was not the first time DWR’s forecasts were wrong. In fact, researchers have been [calling on] DWR to fix their broken forecasting algorithms since the 1990s and DWR and the State Water Board have held dozens of public workshops to discuss these issues. Since then, with little to nothing in the way of progress to show for it, other organizations have proven this is not an impossible task.

The California Nevada River Forecast Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has switched to physics-based forecasting models which produce far superior and more accurate predictions. The same is true for local water districts like the Turlock Irrigation District, who you will hear from this morning. It is this fact that led me to request this audit. Other organizations forecasting the same water content and runoff estimates from the same patches of snow have already adapted and continue to adapt to fail to factor in the effects of climate change. DWR should be a leader in this space, but instead they’re playing catch up to many of the same organizations that have been telling them to fix these problems for decades.

Climate change is a real and complicating factor. No one expects DWR or any of these organizations to get the number exactly right. But when the state’s best forecasts are demonstrated and demonstrably inferior to local and federal forecasts, we need to ask why and we need to fix the problem as soon as possible. My audit request asked the order to go in and answer six questions.

    • What led to the massive miscalculation of water supply last year?
    • What improvements have been adopted or proposed to ensure more accurate predictions going forward?
    • Why were federal and local estimates significantly more accurate than the DWR estimates?
    • What forecasting models were used to prepare for the drought last year and how are those models being replaced or updated?
    • How have the state’s faulty estimates impacted obligations to supply water rights holders and meet environmental requirements like salinity standards in the Delta?
    • What real time feedback mechanisms is our rely on when releasing water to ensure they do not release excessive amounts of water early in the season, leaving less of water available for the environment, municipalities and farms later on.

Further Reading

Assemblymember Adam Gray. 2022. Audit Request of the Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board, March 25, 2022.

Other statements at the Joint Legislative Audit Committee’s hearing on the audit request: Josh Weimer, External Affairs Manager of Turlock Irrigation District, in support; Julie Rentner, President of River Partners, in support, Karla Nemeth, Director of Department of Water Resources, in opposition; Eileen Sobek, Executive Director of the State Water Resources Control Board, in opposition.

Related California Water Research blog posts:

TUCP: California Water Research asks Water Board to require report on 2021 runoff forecast errors June 5, 2021.

In increasing State Water Project allocations, DWR is taking huge risks January 20, 2022.

Dear DWR, in runoff forecasting, stationarity is dead. February 17, 2022.

Fatal errors in DWR’s runoff forecasting: comments to the State Water Resources Control Board. March 18, 2022.


One thought on “Legislature approves audit of water management by DWR and SWRCB during 2021

  1. “California’s water management strategies are outdated, heavily flawed, increasingly dangerous to the health of humans and the environment alike.” This sentence from the auditor’s statement gets straight to the heart of why this audit is desperately needed..

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