In 1955, severe flooding killed 64 people and caused $200 million in property damage in Northern and Central California. In response, Governor Goodwin J. Knight called a special session of the Legislature to create the Department of Water Resources (DWR). The new department was tasked with planning, designing, constructing, and overseeing the nation’s largest state-built, multi-benefit water conveyance system – the State Water Project (SWP). DWR also took over the duties of a reconstituted State Water Resources Board, which was renamed the State Water Board and later changed to the California Water Commission.
Since our inception, we've created and maintained a massive system of dams, reservoirs, canals, pumping and power plants, and more that remain the backbone of California’s water supply system. We continue to develop strategic goals and near- and long-term actions to conserve, manage, develop, and sustain our water resources and management systems.
Learn more about our history and key water leaders in the timeline below and in our publication DWR News People 50th Anniversary (PDF). You can also view recent and historical photos and watch our videos.
Timeline of Key Milestones
- DWR was created by Chapter 52, Statutes of 1956, First Extraordinary Session (See Water Code sections 120-127) and signed into law by Governor Goodwin Knight on April 25. The legislation simultaneously dissolved the Water Project Authority and Division of Water Resources within the Department of Public Works.
- On July 5, Governor Knight appointed Harvey O. Banks as our first director.
- We released the first California Water Plan (known as Bulletin 3). Updated every 5 years, the Water Plan serves as the long-term strategic plan for informing and guiding the sound management and development of water resources in the state.
- California voters approved the Burns-Porter Act, a $1.75 billion bond to assist funding the SWP.
- Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown appointed William E. Warne as director.
- We began construction on SWP facilities, including the Oroville Dam, a key water storage facility on the Feather River in the upper Sacramento Valley.
- California and U.S. Government officials signed an agreement to build the San Luis Joint-use Complex, which would eventually include the San Luis Reservoir.
- We completed construction on Whale Rock Reservoir.
- We completed construction on Frenchman Dam.
- President John F. Kennedy and Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown joined in a groundbreaking ceremony for the San Luis Dam and Reservoir.
- The SWP made its first water deliveries, totaling 8,906 acre-feet of water.
- Our staff moved from 19 separate locations into the new headquarters in the Resources Building at 1416 9th Street, Sacramento, where DWR headquarters currently resides today.
- December floods on North Coast rivers killed 24 people. The unfinished Oroville Dam saved Oroville from Feather River flooding.
- We completed the South Bay Aqueduct.
- We elevated the Supervision of Dam Safety Office to the Division of Safety of Dams, as it's known today.
- Governor Ronald Reagan appointed William R. Gianelli as DWR director.
- The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation completed the San Luis Dam, which is operated and maintained by DWR. The dam is part of the San Luis Joint-use Complex that serves our department and the federal Central Valley Project.
- We completed the Feather River Fish Hatchery, which is operated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
- We completed Edward Hyatt Powerplant, an underground, hydroelectric pumping-generating facility located in rock in the left abutment near the axis of Oroville Dam.
- We completed Oroville Dam, the tallest dam the U.S.
- We finished construction on Del Valle Dam.
- The American Society of Civil Engineers designated Edward Hyatt Powerplant as “Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement of 1969.”
- We completed Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant.
- We completed the Skinner Fish Facility.
- We dedicated Edmonston Pumping Plant, which has the world’s highest single lift of water.
- We finished construction on Pyramid Lake.
- Governor Ronald Reagan appointed John J. Teerink as director.
- We finished construction on Pearblossom Pumping Plant.
- We finished construction on Castaic Dam and Lake.
- We finished construction on Perris Dam and Lake.
- Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. appointed Ronald B. Robie as director.
- We transitioned from operations as an integrated system into a bulk power entity. Previously, we had our energy needs met through long-standing contracts. As a bulk power entity, we became a full-fledged electric utility with new responsibilities such as balancing project power needs with project power supplies on a real-time basis, as well as purchasing, selling, and exchanging power on the open market.
- David N. Kennedy was appointed director by Governor George Deukmejian, and again by Governor Pete Wilson in 1991. Kennedy, our longest-serving director, retired in 1998.
- February floods killed 13 people in California and forced the evacuation of 50,000 Californians from their homes. 14,000 homes and 1,100 businesses were damaged or destroyed statewide.
- After more than 25 years of negotiations, State and federal agencies signed the Coordinated Operations Agreement, which obligated the federal Central Valley Project and SWP to coordinate their operations to address overlapping concerns and interests in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, including meeting water quality standards; ensuring both projects receive an equitable share of the Central Valley’s water; and guaranteeing the 2 systems will operate more efficiently during drought periods than they would operated independently of each other.
- We dedicated Alamo Powerplant in October.
- We established the Environmental Services Office, which plays a major role in collecting and analyzing data for the Interagency Ecological Program investigations on the Bay-Delta Estuary.
- Along with other State and federal agencies, we signed the Framework Agreement and later the Bay-Delta Accord to create the CALFED Bay-Delta Program. CALFED was a collaboration of 25 State and federal agencies with a mission to improve California’s water supply and the ecological health of the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. In 2012, CALFED transitioned to the Delta Stewardship Council.
- We opened the new Joint Operations Center which included the SWP and Central Valley Project Operations Centers, as well as the National Weather Service and our Division of Flood Management.
- We completed the Coastal Branch Aqueduct Phase II.
- The 1997 floods forced more than 120,000 people from their homes, and an estimated 30,000 residential and 2,000 business properties were destroyed. As a result, the 1997 Final Report of the Flood Emergency Action Team was completed.
- We began the East Branch Extension Phase I, expanding service to San Bernardino and San Gorgonio Pass areas.
- Governor Gray Davis appointed Thomas M. Hannigan, former California Assemblymember, as director.
- Governor Gray Davis appointed Linda S. Adams, our first female director.
- Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Lester A. Snow as director.
- Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. appointed Mark W. Cowin as director.
- The Central Valley Flood Protection Board adopted the first Central Valley Flood Protection Plan (CVFPP), which DWR prepared. Updated every 5 years, the CVFPP guides the State’s participation in managing flood risk in areas protected by the State Plan of Flood Control. The CVFPP has guided California’s flood risk management investments to improve emergency preparedness and response capabilities, increase critical flood protection in vulnerable Central Valley communities, and address maintenance deficiencies in the flood system.
- First Atmospheric River Observatory, our joint project with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, was installed in Bodega Bay to better forecast atmospheric river storms.
- Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) into law on September 16. The new law mandated the creation of local groundwater sustainability agencies. These agencies are responsible for developing groundwater sustainability plans that must bring groundwater extraction and replenishment into balance by 2040 for critically over-drafted basins and 2042 for all other high- and medium-priority basins.
- Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. declared a state of emergency due to drought.
- We opened the new Skinner Fish Science Facility in Byron to conduct fish studies to meet regulatory requirements for operation of the SWP.
- Our new research vessel, the Sentinel, is constructed and arrives in California in December to replace the San Carlos vessel.
- We added a solar power facility to our power inventory near the Pearblossom Pumping Plant in Los Angeles County. The project will assist in our long-term effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with its operations.
- After 5 years of drought, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s Executive Order B-40-17 lifted the drought emergency in all California counties, except Fresno, Kings, Tulare, and Tuolumne.
- On June 1, construction began on Lake Oroville’s new flood control spillways after failing due to erosion in February.
- Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. appointed Grant Davis as director in August.
- The 2017 CVFPP Update incorporated the latest information about system-wide and regional flood management needs; advancements in the best available science; refined objectives for improving ecosystem functions along floodways; a robust investment strategy; and a series of policy issues and recommendations needed for CVFPP’s continued implementation.
- Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. appointed Karla Nemeth as director in January.