Governor Jerry Brown picks new DWR assistant chief deputy director as Oroville Dam scandal continues

By Dan Bacher | April 17, 2017 |    

Governor Jerry Brown on April 20 appointed Michelle Banonis, 40, of Sacramento as the assistant chief deputy director at the embattled California Department of Water Resources (DWR).

Banonis will serve under William Croyle, Director of the Department of Water Resources, and Cindy Messer, the Chief Deputy Director.   

Banonis has been area manager for the Bay Delta Office at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation since 2016. She has served in several Reclamation positions since 2009 including, special assistant to the regional director, California WaterFix program manager, restoration goal supervisor for the San Joaquin River Restoration Program and natural resources specialist,  according to the Governor’s Office.

Before working at Reclamation, Banonis served in several positions at the Pierce County, Washington State, Department of Public Works and Utilities from 2000 to 2009, including environmental permitting supervisor, environmental biologist and engineering technician.

She earned a Juris Doctor degree from the Humphreys College Laurence Drivon School of Law.
This position does not require Senate confirmation and the compensation is $139,656. Banonis is a registered without party preference.   

Banonis’ appointment comes at a tumultuous time for the Department of Water Resources. The Oroville Dam spillway crisis, including the chaotic evacuation of nearly 200,000 people from Butte, Yuba and Sutter Counties on an hour’s notice on February 12, has focused unprecedented national and international media attention on the state agency.

Most recently, an Associated Press examination of state and federal documents, emails obtained under public records requests and numerous interviews “reveal a sequence of questionable decisions and missteps, some of them made years ago, some of them in the middle of the crisis.”

“Among other things, the dam's federal and state overseers overestimated the durability of the two spillways. And in public statements during the emergency, they failed to acknowledge — or perhaps recognize — that while they were busy dealing with one crisis, they were creating a possible new one," the AP investigative piece by Ellen Knickmeyer and Michael R. Blood stated.

"During the darkest hours of the emergency, the fear was that if the hillside collapsed, ‘it was not whether people would die, but how many would die,’ Sheriff Honea recalled,” according to AP.

In addition to the spillway crisis, the agency and its federal partner, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, have been faced with growing criticism by scientists, economists and public trust advocates over its California WaterFix project to build two 35-mile long tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has released a draft biological opinion documenting the harm the tunnels would cause to salmon, steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt, other fish and wildlife species, and water quality.  An independent peer review panel found the NMFS findings are backed  by comprehensive analyses, new data, and modeling.

The agencies’ questionable handling of the Oroville Dam crisis has spurred further mistrust by Delta advocates about their ability to construct and operate the tunnels project.

“Why would we trust these same agencies to build and operate the Delta Tunnels? asked Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta (RTD). “Did you know the California WaterFix application shows only 10% of the tunnels design completed?"

“Plus, they will figure out via ‘adaptive management’ how much water to take as they go along? If Jerry Brown wants to protect California's water supply, maybe he should clean house at DWR and the State Water Contractors,” Barrigan-Parrilla emphasized. 

The Big Picture: In all of the intense media coverage of Oroville Dam spillway crisis over the past couple of months, the mainstream media haven’t yet discussed the real issue behind the disaster: corporate control of California water politics. For more information, go to:

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