Breaking: Karla Nemeth appointed as new director of Department of Water Resources

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The embattled California Department of Water Resources (DWR) today announced a new director, Karla Nemeth, who has worked in key management positions at DWR since 2009, and the “restructuring” of key positions at the agency.

The appointment of Nemeth comes in the wake of the release of a scathing independent report of the agency’s handling of the Oroville Dam spillway disaster. The report said a flawed safety culture and “long-term and systemic failures” contributed to the disaster that resulted in the evacuation of 188,000 people on an hour’s notice from Butte, Yuba and Sutter counties in February 2017.

It also comes at a time when the Delta Tunnels project that the DWR is the lead agency for faces mounting opposition by fishing groups, Tribes, conservation organizations, environmental justice advocates, family farmers, water agencies, cities and counties and the public.

Nemeth has been the deputy secretary and senior advisor for water policy at the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) since 2014 and was the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan project manager at the agency from 2009 to 2014, overseeing the planning of the controversial Delta Tunnels proposal.

“In the past year alone, the most severe drought in California’s recorded history was interrupted by one of the wettest seasons on record, putting extreme pressure on our flood control infrastructure and exposing vulnerabilities,” Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said in a statement. “This new team will help the state better prepare for ever-greater challenges to our infrastructure and flood management systems, and ensure that California is doing everything possible to ensure dam and flood safety.”

In a potential conflict of interest, Nemeth is married to Tom Philp, a former Sacramento Bee editorial writer who now works as a senior strategist for the Metropolitan Water District (MWDM) of Southern California. MWD is the largest member agency of the State Water Project that DWR oversees and is a key promoter of the Delta Tunnels.

“She brings extensive knowledge of the state’s water  system, California Water Action Plan and California WaterFix to the position,” according to Laird.

This latest example of conflict of interest is just one example of the multitude of those that infest California water and environmental politics. For example, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, President of the Western States Petroleum Association, chaired the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Blue Ribbon Task Force to create so-called “marine protected areas on the North Coast from 2009 to 2012. At the same time she was overseeing the development of “marine protected areas” in the state’s offshore oil drilling region, her husband, James Boyd, was the vice chair of the California Energy Commission.

Nemeth replaces Grant Davis, who is returning to his position as General Manager at the Sonoma County Water Agency. Governor Brown  appointed Davis to become DWR director on August 1, 2017 after the Acting DWR Director William R. Croyle retired on July 1, 2017.

“I want to thank Grant Davis for his service to California,” said Secretary Laird.  “I also welcome Karla Nemeth to this important role and am confident she will do a great job at this critical time for the Department.”

For his part, Davis praised Governor Jerry Brown’s leadership in a news release issued by the Sonoma County Water Agency,

“Working with Governor Brown and his Administration as the Director of the California Department of Water Resources was a tremendous experience,” said Davis. “I am thankful for the opportunity to serve Governor Brown. It was a true honor and privilege. This is going to be a very important year in California for water. I am confident that the Governor and the state are on a solid pathway forward.”

Nemeth will be the fourth person to serve as DWR director over the past year. The current shake-up as DWR began when Mark Cowin, former DWR Director, and Carl Torgersen, the former DWR Chief Deputy Director, announced they would be retiring from their positions at the embattled agency at the end of 2016.

News of those two officials’ retirement, common knowledge in DWR for some time, was confirmed on December 6, 2016, by Nancy Vogel, Deputy Secretary for Communications of the California Natural Resources Agency, in response to my email:

Vogel is no longer at the agency either.

DWR also announced the restructuring and elevation of a number of positions on its executive team to “help improve long-term planning and day-to-day management of key water programs, dam safety and flood control ­– functions that are increasingly critical in the face of climate change,”

This includes replacing an existing executive position – Deputy Director for Integrated Water Management – with two positions tightly focused on priority areas.

“The first of these positions, Deputy Director for Flood Management and Dam Safety, will focus specifically on  flood management, dam safety and the operation of DWR’s dams, consistent with recommendations from the Independent Forensic Team tasked with examining the Oroville Dam spillways incident,” according to Laird’s news release.

Eric Koch, who has served in numerous leadership roles at DWR over the past decade, will serve in this new role effective today and will oversee the Division of Flood Management and the Division of Safety of Dams.

The second position, Deputy Director for Integrated Water Management and Multi-Benefit Programs, will focus on long-range planning and integrated water management, as well as local water supply sustainability and DWR’s EcoRestore Program. This person also will oversee programs that “achieve multiple benefits in the areas of flood control, surface water, groundwater and ecosystem health.”

Finally, DWR is consolidating responsibilities for management of the newly established Executive Sustainable Groundwater Management Program with Deputy Director for Special Initiatives Taryn Ravazzini. The move will help with the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, a key priority of the Brown administration. Ravazzini has served as Deputy Director since 2014.

“Together these changes will help make California more safe and resilient in the face of future droughts and floods,” Laird claimed.

However, critics of DWR’s handling of the Oroville Dam crisis and its fast-tracking of the Delta Tunnels project are less than confident than the reshuffling of positions in the agency will change the agency’s entrenched culture of service to the state water contractors at the expense of public safety, salmon and other fisheries and environmental justice – and the agency’s lack of accountability to the public.

“True to form, no one is ever held responsible for anything in the John Laird Natural Resources Agency,” said Bill Wells, Executive Director of the California Delta Chambers & Visitor’s Bureau.

To read the Independent Forensic Report on the Oroville Dam Spillway Incident, go here:

To read about the deep connections between the Delta Tunnels project that Nemeth will oversee and the privately funded Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative, go here:…