Delta tunnel EIR shows predictable megaproject management biases

Professor Brent Flyvbjerg is an internationally renowned expert in megaprojects. His research has shown how megaprojects are systematically subject to “survival of the unfittest.”

Flyvbjerg’s 2021 paper, Top Ten Behavioral Biases in Project Management: An Overview, describes several behavioral biases which are relevant to the Delta tunnel project.

They include strategic misrepresentation, optimism bias, planning fallacy (writ large), and escalation of commitment.  Flyvbjerg described them as follows:

Name of bias Description
Strategic misrepresentation The tendency to deliberately and systematically distort or misstate information for strategic purposes. A.k.a. political bias, strategic bias, or power bias
Optimism bias The tendency to be overly optimistic about the outcome of planned actions, including overestimation of the frequency and size of positive events and underestimation of the frequency and size of negative ones
Planning fallacy (writ large) The tendency to underestimate costs, schedule, and risk and overestimate benefits and opportunities.
Escalation of commitment The tendency to justify increased investment in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment, despite new evidence suggesting the decision may be wrong. Also known as the sunk-cost fallacy

Strategic misrepresentation appears to be present in the Delta tunnel Environmental Impact Report analyses of climate change impacts, as well as planning fallacy (writ large) and escalation of commitment.

Flyvbjerg explains why strategic misrepresentation is common in megaprojects:

Imagine a scale for measuring political-organizational pressures, from weak to strong. At the lower end of the scale, one would expect optimism bias to have more explanatory power of outcomes relative to strategic misrepresentation… Big projects, whether in business or government, are typically at the upper end of the scale, with high political-organizational pressures and strategic misrepresentation.

One of the clearer examples of strategic misrepresentation is the assertion in the Climate Change chapter that “intakes in the north Delta were found to not be vulnerable to future salinity intrusion conditions evaluated under the H++ scenario at year 2100 (10.2 feet or 3.11 meters.)” (p. 30-23.)

This statement is extremely misleading. Looking at the modeling technical appendix, one discovers that the hydrodynamic modeling of sea level rise did not address Delta levee failure or island flooding. Appendix 5A-F states:

… there remains uncertainty over the degree of salinity intrusion for a specific sea level rise assumption because many issues that affect model results were not addressed in the Study, e.g., levee failure, changes in water use, continued dredging of the ship channels, changing morphology, island flooding, and potential landscape level defenses.

The SCHISM model documentation shows that the mesh only represents existing Delta channels, and simply fails at simulating long-term Delta levee failure and island flooding:

The SCHISM model is thus clearly extremely limited in modeling high sea level rise. DWR’s failure to adequately model the performance of the North Delta intakes with high sea level rise and island flooding is long-standing. The Delta Independent Science Board’s 2014 comments on the project stated:

If the effects of major environmental disruptions such as climate change, sea-level rise, levee breaches, floods, and the like are not considered… one must [not] assume that the actions will have the stated outcomes.

In June of 2019, I met with the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority (DCDCA) Director, Kathryn Mallon, and Engineering Design Manager, Phil Ryan and urged them to do new modeling of the intakes with high sea level rise. Information obtained from a Public Records Act request shows that Ryan and former WaterFix lead engineer Gwen Buccholz then re-evaluated the WaterFix intake locations between September and December of 2019. Their reviews appear to have been done before the new SCHISM modeling was completed.

In January of 2020, Ryan told the DCDCA’s Stakeholder Engagement Committee that the engineering team had reviewed possible intake sites and decided that the five sites selected for the WaterFix project were the best sites. In March of 2020, the Department of Water Resources began a consultation with the US Army Corps of Engineers on modification of the Sacramento River levees to construct the intakes.

These early actions clearly resulted in escalation of commitment to the WaterFix North Delta intake locations, which then influenced what new modeling would be done.

The result is that the benefits of the Delta Conveyance project as an adaptation to sea level rise are being overestimated, and the risks are being greatly underestimated. This is Flyvbjerg’s planning fallacy (writ large.)

Further reading

California Department of Water Resources. 2022a. Delta Conveyance Project Public Draft Environmental Impact Report, Chapter 30, Climate Change. July 2022.

California Department of Water Resources. 2022b. Delta Conveyance Project Public Draft Environmental Impact Report, Appendix 5-AF Sea Level Rise and Delta Water Quality Modeling. July 2022.

Delta Independent Science Board. 2014. Review of the Draft EIR/EIS for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. May 15, 2014.

Flyvbjerg, Bent. 2021. Top Ten Behavioral Biases in Project Management: An Overview.” Project Management Journal, vol. 52, no. 6, pp. 531–546.

Related blog posts:

Delta ISB review of Delta tunnel project proceeding under huge time pressure. July 25, 2022.

On the Delta Independent Science Board and Inconvenient Truths. April 19, 2021.



One thought on “Delta tunnel EIR shows predictable megaproject management biases

  1. Dr. Des Jardins;
    I’m greatly enjoying your posts and forwarded this most recent one to a friend of mine presently managing the Honolulu Mass Transit project – which has many of the mega-project complexities mentioned in the article.
    I’d be interested in your take on Mark Arax’s 2019 book “The Dreamt Land – Chasing Water and Dust Across California’. Following my 42 year absence from California (1975-2017) I was absolutely amazed at the quantity of land in the valley that has been converted from desert or annual crops to permanent (almonds, grapes) crops. Arax’s book writes a well documented history of this development – and it’s “tragedy of the commons” impact upon water resources.
    Bob Bourke

Leave a Reply