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An Unconventional New Captain for California’s Water Agency

Grant Davis of the Sonoma County Water Agency talks about being tapped to be the director of the California Department of Water Resources. He brings an environmentalist background to a job long dominated by engineers.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Excavators remove rock along the lower chute at the Lake Oroville flood control spillway site in Butte County, California. Incoming director for California's Department of Water Resources Grant Davis says that reconstruction of Oroville's spillway with be a number-one priority.Brian Baer/California Department of Water Resources

California Gov. Jerry Brown last week appointed Grant Davis as director of the state’s Department of Water Resources. Davis, 54, general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency, brings an unusual resume to the job.

With a degree in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, he had never worked for a water utility until joining the Sonoma County agency in 2007 as assistant general manager. Previously, he spent a decade as executive director of The Bay Institute in Novato. The non-profit environmental group is a leading critic of WaterFix, Brown’s $17 billion proposal to build two gigantic water diversion tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The controversial tunnels would be built and operated by the DWR, so Davis will have direct oversight of the project. Given his background in environmental advocacy, will he take the project in a new direction?

In other arenas, Davis’s priorities are very much in line with the governor’s. At the Sonoma County agency, he has been a leader in water conservation and recycling, diligent groundwater management and greenhouse gas reduction. He has also pushed for reforms to conventional reservoir operating rules to respond to weather events.

Davis assumes the DWR director’s job on Aug. 1, and Water Deeply recently talked to him about his plans.

Water Deeply: Why do you think you were chosen for this job?

Grant Davis: I’ve yet to determine exactly why [laughing]. But I do believe it’s the fact that I have a combination of a strong background on Bay-Delta watershed issues as head of The Bay Institute, and I’ve been working on the federal level for many years with members of Congress. And now running a wholesale water agency, the largest in Northern California.

That combination, I think, is what the governor was wanting to bring into this particular transition period. It is a rather unique perspective, one that makes me particularly aware of different stakeholder points of view and probably capable of bringing out the best in different regions on how to approach a sustainable water supply and protect our vital public resources.

Water Deeply: What do you plan to bring to the job?

Davis: First and foremost, I’m going to be coming in brand new and I’m looking forward to meeting with the key staff and hearing a bit more about the institutional frameworks inside DWR. It’s a large agency with a very broad scope – along the lines of the work I do on a smaller scale at Sonoma County: flood control, water supply, habitat.

So really, I think the governor is looking for somebody with a particular ability to take a fresh look at where we are currently in this type of transition, and be a steady, capable manager and be looking for opportunities.

But I will just tell you, on the practical side, we have an infrastructure that is in need of new investment. One of my first priorities is to get up to Oroville Dam and make sure we get the spillway back in operation by Nov. 1 and ready for the winter.

I’m very excited about forecast-informed reservoir operations. We’ve been meeting in D.C. with the director of the National Weather Service and a whole team at NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the Office of Atmospheric Research to better understand our extreme weather events, which are atmospheric rivers. There’s not enough support to understand the dynamics at play. We have been leading a $19 million effort called Advanced Quantitative Precipitation Information, funded by DWR: a series of five radars throughout the Bay Area aimed at where atmospheric rivers come in – at the 5,000-feet level – instead of the 10,000-feet level where most forecast radars are aimed.

In our own case, I’m using my existing reservoir, Lake Mendocino, as an example. Back in 2012, the Army Corps of Engineers had to release about 20,000 acre-feet of water because of a rule curve that’s rather dated. And we didn’t get another drop of water, realistically, for another year. That’s half the water we were delivering in a given year, and it put us in a whole world of hurt. I did not have enough water to protect fish below Lake Mendocino. Had we had better forecasting and a rule curve that was a bit more adaptable based on current conditions, that could have been avoided.

Water Deeply: What’s wrong with California water, in your opinion?

Davis: I’m not going to say there’s anything wrong with California water. It’s become very clear we have to secure our water supply and we have to use the best available science to do that. We have to look at how habitat needs require a certain amount of water supply, and we have to look at recapture and recharge.

There’s so much we have at our disposal. We have some of the brightest engineers, the smartest academics. I’m confident we’re going to come up with pathways that will secure our water supply and protect our environment.

This is a time when we need to be smart and efficient. Number One, I want to secure our water supply for future generations. That’s critical. We must put every drop of water to its highest beneficial use to secure our water supply. Obviously, what’s in play is the California Water Action Plan and the WaterFix, and I will be deeply involved in that effort, supporting the governor’s position.

Water Deeply: What is your position on the Delta tunnels (WaterFix) project?

Davis: The governor supports the WaterFix. I’m going to support the WaterFix, but with a caveat – and that is, we have a long way to go. There is a lot of work we have to do on a comprehensive water fix. Most notably, you have to get folks who are going to be the beneficiaries to agree to fund that. I am looking, like I did at The Bay Institute, for a comprehensive view that is going to both protect and restore the San Francisco Bay Delta and secure the water supply for future generations. It’s a true commitment to balancing those competing interests.

It may be one of those opportunities to come in with a fresh pair of eyes and participate in a very longstanding effort to protect the Delta and provide additional water supply. The Bay Institute has been noted for bringing science and technological capability to the table on behalf of the environmental community. I plan on bringing that point of view into the equation to help ensure we come up with a sustainable solution.

Water Deeply: You’ve been a big advocate for water conservation programs. Will that continue at DWR?

Davis: Yes, there’s more that can be done. We have to incentivize it.

I believe, because I’ve lived and breathed it, there are programs that can be enacted at the local level that can combine to meet our state objectives. I just happen to subscribe to the point of view that the most reliable source of water is water you already have – and being more efficient with that before you go to the expense of building additional supply.

But at the same time, it may not be enough to meet growing needs. I’m looking at every tool in the toolbox to manage the water we need in California. We are managing through extremes, and that’s getting more and more difficult.

Water Deeply: You’ve been very involved in water recycling. How will this interest transfer over to DWR?

Davis: I’m a huge fan of making sure you have broad support for recycled water. That requires state and federal dollars, leveraging on local dollars, to put these projects into place. It’s very reliable, drought-proof water.

In my own case at Sonoma County Water Agency, we’ve had a strong relationship with the agricultural community. We ended up building an 8-mile pipeline from one of our treatment plants and bringing a reliable supply of tertiary-treated water to wineries that were over-reliant on groundwater. I think there’s more of those to come with additional support from local and state resources.

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