David Gutierrez, executive program manager of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Program for the California Department of Water Resources, talks with Brown and Caldwell Vice President Jim Graydon about building programs, his new role in implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and building dams as chief of the Division of Safety of Dams for DWR.

AUG. 11, 2015

I understand youíre wearing two hats at DWR and Iím curious, what was it in your career path that led to you having two key roles at DWR?
Iíve been around the DWR for 35 years now, and Iíve had the great opportunity to spend a lot of time in the Division of Safety of Dams, mainly because I really enjoy that kind of work. I love the engineering, and I love the projects that we complete. Although Iíve worked throughout the department in different functions, Iíve always come back to DSOD. The last several DWR directors have asked me to take on special assignments here and there, and I think the director chose me for the Sustainable Groundwater Management Program because of my familiarity with the DWR and my previous experience managing big programs. This is an important program for the state of California, and he wanted high-level executive oversight directly working on this one. When launching a new program like this, you have to be careful that you donít grow too quickly. This is completely new, with new responsibilities. Itís unlike anything before. You have to grow at a constant and efficient pace. If you put too many people together too quickly, itís hard to manage, and thatís why Iím involved instead of hiring somebody whoís unfamiliar with the department.

Now, to be clear, I donít really wear two hats when I get these kinds of assignments. Iím still Chief of DSOD, but my DSOD workload has to go way down. Iím fortunate to have two great branch chiefs who take the reins for a while. Iíll stay connected with some of the high level projects, but Iím pretty much 100 percent on SMGA and a small amount on DSOD.

What would you like our readers to know about the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act?
Thereís no such thing as perfect legislation, but this is a really good piece of legislation. Itís obvious that something was needed. Our groundwater situation has been deteriorating for decades and itís about time that we deal with it. I think the act is well balanced — thereís enough direction, and thereís enough flexibility for us to implement it. I really like the way they laid out the undesirable results that weíre trying to avoid in the future. Those are some really good specifics and, though the timelines are somewhat aggressive, theyíre aggressive because we need to deal with this. By the same token, the authors of the legislation understood that it took us 100 years to get to this situation, and weíre not going to turn it around overnight. Weíre going to turn this around over a period of decades, making immediate progress along the way.

How does SGMA compare to the way groundwater is managed in other states?
Groundwater use varies so much across the country, so itís like comparing apples to oranges. Some states use groundwater as little as 3 percent of their portfolio, and in other states, itís as high as 96 percent. In California, we have seawater intrusion and subsidence, whereas other states might not have those concerns. On top of that, our geology is complex, and we have a huge population and a diverse economy to deal with. The way weíre implementing this in California is unique. The state is setting up the framework, but itís going to be up to the local agencies to manage groundwater on a regional basis.

Some would say itís taken much too long to get this in place and others argue that itís overreaching and intrusive government. How do you strike the right balance in developing the regulations?
Striking a balance is key. Youíve got to be careful not to damage our economy by swinging too far one way too quickly. We have to balance our water supply and our water demand more effectively, and we have to do that carefully and thoughtfully. Weíre able to do that because of the planning horizon weíre given in SGMA. We have to understand the impacts of taking too much groundwater as well as the impacts of changing the supply-demand balance in a timely manner. It is something weíre keenly aware of as we try to work through the issues to solve the problem.

There are sweeping changes anticipated in water law and policy ushered in by SGMA. How will DWR keep all of the parties informed as regulations are developed? What are your key methods for communication and what are the roles of the advisory groups?
Communication and outreach are crucial components to our success.

One good thing is that right now water is always in the news. The media is keeping it front and center, and theyíre teaching the public about this. We have to make sure that itís accurate, and weíre fortunate that we have a very thorough website. In addition, weíre all over the state. Weíve probably done 60 or 70 public meetings as part of our outreach effort. Weíre working hard and will continue to do so. A key part of the act is that groundwater should be managed at the local level. The act clearly states that, the governor supports that, and the DWR supports that. Now if you buy into that key principle, which I certainly do, you must have a robust outreach effort. The last thing youíd want is for the DWR to go into the corner and figure out what the rules and the tools should be on their own. Instead, we are trying to interact with all of the stakeholders all the way through.

It should be understood that itís our agencyís job to make tough decisions, and weíre not asking these groups to do it for us. Whatís important is that we have a common understanding of what the issues are. There are some pluses and minuses of only having public meetings, in that if you get too diverse of a group you have different levels of knowledge, and they have different interests. And itís difficult to get into the particulars of something as complex as this. So weíve enlisted several advisory groups (close to a dozen statewide), in addition to public meetings, to take advantage of both forums and obtain feedback.

This is a heavy lift, and it is taking a lot of resources, but I feel itís absolutely critical that we have a common understanding of issues with locals, who are going to run the show in the future.

What are the top success factors for the SGMA program, and how will progress be measured?
One is development of the governance structure. Itís all about that local agency management and local control. Multiple potential groundwater sustainability agencies must coordinate for this to be successful. Groundwater is unique in that you have these jurisdictional lines, but the groundwater doesnít know itís supposed to stop at those lines, so folks have to work together. We will be able to measure that pretty easily because thereís a deadline of June 2017 to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies. Another factor is the Groundwater Sustainability Plan and the implementation of that plan over the years. Each plan will be different, and each plan will have measurable objectives. This is necessary due to the regional differences across California. There is a lot of uncertainty; there are a lot of data gaps we need to recognize, and we have to understand that weíre not necessarily going to hit our goals perfectly every time. We have to be adaptive yet always be making progress.

SGMA touches so many aspects of water in California. How will DWR clarify the numerous linkages between SGMA and urban water management planning efforts, water supply assessments (SB 610/221), and integrated regional water management planning?
This is a tough question. Itís complex because of our complex jurisdictions for water. When you look at SGMA and you look at the basin boundaries, the basin boundaries donít necessarily line up with the local water agencies or counties, and that doesnít necessarily line up with the integrated regional water management lines, etc. It is a complex web that weíre going to have to work through. But we recognize this.

The DWR has already put a team together thatís a combination of our SGMA team as well as our California Water Plan team. Our full intention is to clarify that linkage in the plan. The way I look at it, all of our water components and our planning efforts are going to feed into our Water Plan, and the Water Plan should explain how that all fits together. For instance, SGMA is going to develop a Groundwater Sustainability Plan that will identify some of the water reliability issues. Our hope is that the Water Plan will actually start laying that out for the next plan update in 2018.

Switching gears to your day job, what is the responsibility of the DSOD, and how has that changed over the years?
DSOD is a longstanding program. It was established in 1929 after the failure of St. Francis Dam in 1928. When you look at the mission of the program, itís very simple: prevent dam failures, and prevent the loss of life and damage to property as a result of those failures. Over the years, that hasnít changed, but what has changed is how we go about it. As you can imagine, what we knew in 1928 and what we know now from a technical standpoint is completely different.

What are some of the biggest challenges DSOD has faced?
There are 1,250 dams across the state; more than half of them are over 50 years old, and thereís a good chunk of them that are over 100 years old. Itís not that I worry too much about the fact that they are getting older; I worry more about the fact that they were built to a much lesser standard than what we have today.

In 1971, a major earthquake caused the Lower San Fernando Dam to slump 40 feet. At the end of the day, you had 5 feet remaining between the reservoir and the top of the dam. Luckily, there was already a water level restriction on it. Back then, they didnít know a whole lot about earthquake engineering and dams, but they knew a little, and they got lucky. There were 80,000 people that lived just downstream of the dam, and it could have been the worst man-made disaster in United States history. We barely skated by that one, but we learned from it.

In the 1970s, we started learning about earthquake engineering and dam engineering. Weíve come a long way even over the last decade or so. The DSOD took a statewide approach to looking at all the dams again, and weíve been fixing them up and down the state, including some of the worst dams in California. A perfect example of that is Calaveras Dam, which was built in 1917 and actually failed during construction. It didnít do any harm, but after it failed, they built a 200-foot dam on top of it. Weíve now taken it out, and weíre building a new one.

The DSOD does really good work, and I think weíre one of the leaders in dam safety — not only across the country but the world. Knock on wood that we donít have any problems in the future. Of course, when you do a good job and there are no dam failures, you have to worry about folks reducing the program in some way, shape or form. One of our challenges is making sure people understand the importance of safety of dams.

Are you seeing an increase in permitting and requests for new local storage facilities given the drought?
I have to give Southern California a lot of credit. They foresaw this many decades ago, and they knew that they needed emergency storage for a variety of reasons, not just drought. They went on a robust dam-building program over the last several years, they built off-stream reservoirs, and theyíre pumping water into those reservoirs for future uses. Good examples are the Olivenhain Dam and the East Side Dam. The San Vicente Dam was raised just a few years ago. These projects have helped Southern California with some of the recent drought issues. Weíre going to continue to see that kind of thing.

As you look back at your career, what are you most proud of?
Iíve been very fortunate to have worked on a lot of great projects, but to be honest, when I think about what I am most proud of, itís not the projects. I started at DSOD when I was 18 years old as a student assistant. I was very fortunate because there were a lot of folks who were helpful to me, and they taught me a lot of things. Any success Iíve had, I owe to them. Iíve tried to do that for others over the years. Iíve been able to build programs, but more importantly, build people. I rely on them heavily; I try my hardest to teach them everything I know and more. Oftentimes, I see them passing me up in terms of their knowledge and that makes me feel really, really good. I learned early in my career that the successes of a program are always about the people. If you get the right people in the right place youíre going to win.


Name: David Gutierrez

Title: Chief of Division of Safety of Dams and Program Manager for the Groundwater Sustainability Program within the Department of Water Resources.

Background: Gutierrez has worked for the department in several capacities over the past 35 years including Chief of the Division of Safety of Dams (DSOD), Deputy Director for Public Safety, and Deputy Director for Business Operations. As Chief of DSOD he oversees the regulation of over 1,250 dams in California and as Deputy Director of Public Safety, he oversaw the development of the FloodSAFE California Program. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering and Master of Science degree specializing in Geotechnical Engineering from California State University, Sacramento. He is a registered professional civil and geotechnical engineer in the State of California. David has served on the Board of Directors for the Association of State Dam Safety Officials and also served as president of the organization. He is a member of the National Dam Safety Review Board and the Strong Motion Instrumentation Advisory Committee of the California Division of Mines and Geology.

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