Department of Water Resources chief ousted after report blames Oroville dam crisis on lax safety culture

Grant Davis, director of the California Water Resources Department, was replaced Wednesday just days after an independent investigation of the Oroville dam spillway incident last year found that a flawed safety culture contributed to the disaster.

The agency said Gov. Jerry Brown replaced Davis with Karla Nemeth, who has been deputy secretary and senior advisor for water policy at the California Natural Resources Agency since 2014. The announcement was made by Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, who oversees the water department.

“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," Laird said.

Davis took over the department only last summer, after the spillway incident in February. He came from the Sonoma County Water Agency, where he will return to serve as general manager, the department said.

An independent panel of experts said the department is insular, beset by complacency and a flawed safety culture. It failed to recognize for decades warning signs that the spillway had design and construction defects, which ultimately caused it to break apart in February after the Feather River was swollen by rains. It caused the evacuation of 188,000 people living nearby.

Davis’ exit was part of a larger restructuring at the department, a likely response to both the spillway incident and some of the findings of investigators that faulted its safety culture. Outside engineering experts speculated that a housecleaning could occur at the department to help bring a rapid change to its culture.

The department created three deputy directors, one specifically focused on safety and flood management, led by Eric Koch, a Department of Water Resources veteran. The department said that was consistent with the investigators’ recommendations.

The two others include deputies for water management and environmental issues; and one for sustainable ground water management, a job that went to an existing department deputy director since 2014.

In a news release by the Sonoma County Water Agency, Davis praised Brown. “This is going to be a very important year in California for water,” Davis said. “I am confident that the governor and the state are on a solid pathway forward.”

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @rvartabedian


UPDATES:

5:45 p.m.: This article was updated to include news that the department will install three deputy directions, including one specifically focused on safety and flood management.

This article was originally published at 2:40 p.m.

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