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Executive Summary for January 12th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key water developments around the West, including California’s Department of Water Resources’ new director, deadly mudslides and enduring drought in the Rockies.

Published on Jan. 12, 2018 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Deadly Mudslides

The impacts of the massive Thomas Fire, which tore through Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in December, have continued as heavy rains have triggered deadly debris flows.

Rains that began on Tuesday dumped as much as an inch per hour at times, with the Santa Barbara mountains receiving up to 4 inches of rain. The rain fell onto extremely dry land that had seen less than 1 inch of water in the previous 11 months, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Mudslide conditions were also exacerbated by the impacts of the recent fire, which burned 280,000 acres in the area. “Soil in a burned area can be repellent to water, creating a flood-like flow on the ground that picks up rock and debris,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “In an area that has not burned, soil can become saturated. Pressure builds up underground, and soil starts moving and begins picking up mud and debris as it starts flowing downhill.”

A day after the event the death toll was estimated at 17 but expected to rise.

Leadership Changes in California

News broke on Wednesday that California’s Department of Water Resources had some staffing shakeups, including a change in the agency’s director position, which was only recently filled by Grant Davis.

DWR announced the appointment of a new director, Karla Nemeth, who has been deputy secretary and senior adviser for water policy at the California Natural Resources Agency and previously was the agency’s Bay-Delta Conservation Plan project manager.

Davis was only appointed in August to the helm of DWR and prior to that served as the general manager of Sonoma County Water Agency, which he joined in 2007. It appears he’ll be headed back there with his exit from DWR.

This change comes along with several others at DWR. The position for deputy director for integrated water management will now shift to two positions, deputy director for flood management and dam safety and deputy director for integrated water management and multi-benefit programs.

DWR also announced that Deputy Director for Special Initiatives Taryn Ravazzini will also be overseeing the newly created Executive Sustainable Groundwater Management Program.

“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,” explained Natural Resources Secretary John Laird.

The move comes days after an independent forensic team report identified multiple failures at DWR that contributed to the Oroville Dam disaster last February, although Davis was not at the agency during the time of the crisis.

Low Snowpack Continues

California got walloped by rain and snow this week, but much of the West is still below average for snowpack metrics with Colorado’s statewide snowpack at only 54 percent and trouble in New Mexico, too.

Colorado’s biggest problem area is the southwestern portion of the state where the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan Basins are at only 24 percent of average snowpack.

In New Mexico ski resorts are hurting as drought conditions have spread through most of the state. A lack of snow isn’t the only problem; temperatures have also been too high for snowmaking on many trails.

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