Retiring Delta Watermaster advises “pray for rain” but “plan for drought”

January 6, 2023
Rose Horowitch, SJV Water reporting intern
by Rose Horowitch, SJV Water reporting intern
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers. It is a complex ecosystem covering more than 1,000 square miles. GOOGLE EARTH
Rose Horowitch, SJV Water reporting intern
Rose Horowitch, SJV Water reporting intern

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It may be raining now but Michael George, Watermaster for the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta, urged his colleagues at the State Water Resources Control Board to always be planning for drought.

​​“The Delta mantra: we pray for rain; we’re getting it. We plan for drought; it will be back,” George said during his final report before the Water Board on Jan. 4. 

George, also an experienced water lawyer, retired Jan. 5 as Delta Watermaster after completing two four-year terms in the position. 

The well-liked and respected George said he is retiring in part to make way for an expert in data management, as that is what he sees as the next frontier for the Watermaster’s office.

In his final report, George listed a host of “to dos” for his successor including restoring the state’s aging levee system. In fact, the current string of storms had already broken levees in several places around the Sacramento area, flooding sections of Highway 99.

Michael George

George emphasized the theme of collaboration between agencies as a guiding philosophy from his tenure.

For example, his office helped construct a master plan to address deterioration in the South Delta. People who had been working on the problem were siloed, he said, and had to be brought into conversation.

George held that door open for others in the water world as well.

“I respected the fact that he made himself available to understand the wide range of perspectives in Delta water use, highlighted by the time he spent an entire day with valley farmers touring the Delta and exchanging ideas and perspectives in way that was productive and not agenda driven,” said Dan Vink, former General Manager for the Lower Tule Irrigation District in Tulare County and now a consultant with Six-33 Solutions LLC.

The Watermaster office also worked on the Delta Drought Response Pilot Program, which began in 2022 and helps outline steps the region can take during a drought. A draft report on the program has been completed and will be released by George’s successor.

Another high point from his tenure was eliminating the chronic failure to file water usage reports on time. When he assumed control of the office, less than 30% of licensees were providing timely reports on their water usage.

“That’s an amount of delinquency that you almost can’t deal with,” George said.

The office developed a “post and push” communication strategy, posting more on its website to encourage people to rely on it for information and creating email distribution lists to directly contact water users in the Delta. The office tried to practice “regulatory humility,” which George described as helping people understand the importance of providing accurate and timely data, rather than forcing people to comply with regulations. 

The office also clarified the water rights system by developing a protocol for understanding water rights, identifying mistakes, and overcoming attempts to “bamboozle” the system, he said.

George also pointed to ongoing projects that his successor must take over. In particular, the office must continue to analyze data about water diversion and evapotranspiration, as understanding potential connections could help conserve water in the Delta. The office must embrace data analysis and machine learning as it moves into the future, he added.

“We’ve got to plan for drought,” George said. “We cannot treat every drought as though it’s an emergency.”

He proposed adding several new positions to the office and moving it out from the umbrella of the executive division. 

George added that the region is at an inflection point, as he believes water rights will change in the coming years. Though the system has always been imperfect, people have resisted change for fear of a revised system creating fresh issues. But George said that people must recognize that the current system is an “engine of systemic racism.”

“The most valuable resource in the system was allocated to old white guys like me,” he said. “We ossified a system of allocating the most valuable water rights at a time when it was a public resource but only allocated to a few. So we’re going to have to change.”

The office of the Delta Watermaster was created in 2009 and is an independent officer of the state appointed to a four-year term by the Water Board. The position reports jointly to the Water Board and the Delta Stewardship Council.

The Watermaster administers water rights within the delta and the Suisun Marsh and advices the Water Board and Stewardship Council on rights, water quality and operations in the Delta.

The Water Board is in the process of working on George’s replacement and will have an announcement in the next few weeks, according to a spokesperson.

Rose Horowitch, SJV Water reporting intern }

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.

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