Taking the LAFCO Report A Step Further: Anticipating System Failures and Exploring Effective Scenario Planning

Roland Dumas holds a Ph.D. from Stanford and was a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF. He has decades of experience consulting with large and small companies in the application of quantitative methods in planning and operations. He is a member of the Napa Vision 2050 Steering Committee.

By Roland Dumas, Ph.D.

The newly released LAFCO Water Report is a well-researched and well-written audit of the various water and wastewater systems in Napa Valley. It goes beyond the narrow compliance mission of an audit and points at important climate change factors that constitute risk in projecting water supplies. It makes a strong recommendation that the various water agencies be combined into one efficient, sustainable water agency.

However, the report needs to go one step further, and that is to challenge the county government and the Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) to address combinations of potential events that can trigger serious water emergencies without much warning. This is called scenario planning and it includes the examination of events that may be inevitable, even though they might not be predictable when looking at isolated probabilities.

Explore Scenarios, Examine Challenges, Anticipate Solutions 
The LAFCO report describes the elements of scenarios but doesn’t go to the next step, which is to build them and find solutions. For instance, a scenario might be that the state water spigot is turned off completely and local supply is diminished by 50%. What happens in that scenario? What is the cascade of events, decisions, and reactions in that scenario?

Let’s also explore a scenario in which the front-loading of the water supply (all water happens in a short period, early in the rain season) is so strong that it breaks parts of the storage and transport infrastructure, and then is followed by a severe drought?

We should consider some extreme cases with multiple failures and then play out how it will impact each stakeholder, including cities, watersheds, and fire responses. Such scenarios will impact each municipality differently, and cause conflicts between stakeholders. “Commons” problems will occur. We should look for and plan for them, and consider what principles are at play. 

Consider Possible Failures Due to Outside Influences
There are scenarios that are just over the horizon, or perhaps lurking in the dark closet of our future. They are not meteorological, nor hydrological, yet may be in plain sight, but out of mind when we are thinking about water supply. They are failures in non-water systems and processes that will ultimately impact our water supply. 

A prime example of outside influence is a seismic event. Earthquakes can damage infrastructure at moments when the integrity of the infrastructure is most critical.

In addition, scenario planning addresses the compound effects of multiple influences that have not been experienced before but have a high likelihood of happening at some point in the coming decades. County officials suppressed inquiry and discussion of alternative modeling methods which effectively suppressed inquiry into both improbable and inevitable scenarios.

Political events and trends are also a category of exogenous influences that can occur rapidly. Whether it is southern California laying a claim on Delta water or failure of our own county’s political system to allow discussion of critical analyses, there are failure modes in systems that are not hydrologic that will impact our preparedness for water events.

Failures due to political constraints on knowledge are also a distinct possibility. Before the current pandemic, we couldn’t imagine such a scenario, but we are now experiencing that force and it is a monstrously large multiplier of the ongoing damage.

For an example of a current local pitfall, Napa County has its own political issues and constraints. The county has just established a Groundwater Sustainability Agency, after a contentious fight with the state Department of Water Resources in the attempt to avoid such a responsibility. The first move of the county elected officials was to appoint themselves as the GSA, making the agency a political body in one stroke, beholding to the political and economic interests that the elected officials represent. The elected politicians then were required to appoint an advisory board and though they selected representatives from the various municipal water interests, additional members that were chosen are those most aligned with the political interests of the current supervisors.

Moving Forward: Recommendations
•    LAFCO report should daylight political influences and issues such as the above, and acknowledge that these decisions may have a material impact on planning for the inevitable surprises.

•    LAFCO should ideally challenge the county to discover and address classes of events that represent interactions of forces within the County agency’s area of responsibility and define those that are from outside those responsibilities.

•    LAFCO should lay out the need for scenario planning using the low probability, but inevitable cases for various determinants of water availability. LAFCO might list some ‘starter’ scenarios that should be considered and anticipated. A strong recommendation should be made to use the services of a qualified scenario planning consultant along with the traditional water-focused consultants. 

Considering all these recommendations would add strength and further sustainability to the LAFCO Report, giving all of us who need water, in the end, the security of a well-considered, carefully planned water system for our future.