Delta Stewardship Council hears about dry conditions and Shasta’s cold water pool, plus the Delta Watermaster’s latest report

Upper Sac River

Upper Sacramento River
by flickr photographer M. Hendersen

The operators of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project have concerns that the releases of water now from Shasta Dam to maintain water quality standards in the Delta are jeopardizing the cold water pool needed to support salmon spawning in the fall, leading the State Water Board to agree to allow the projects to operate under the ‘critically dry year’ standard.

Theae current dry conditions and their effect on the cold water pool in Shasta Lake as well as water quality standards in the Western Delta were the subject of presentations by Deputy Director of the Department of Water Resources Paul Helliker and Delta Watermaster Craig Wilson at the June 27th meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, who both discussed the situation and how the decision was made.

Also on the agenda, Mr. Wilson presented his report on the use of gates and barriers in the Delta in this first of three-part coverage from the Council meeting.



At the Council’s request, Delta Watermaster Craig Wilson discussed the recent State Water Board letter to the heads of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project regarding the request to see what could be done to conserve the cold water pool and carryover storage in Shasta Reservoir.  Mr. Wilson explained that he was involved with this issue because the authority of the Delta Watermaster’s office extends not only to diversions in the Delta, but also to water right permits outside the legal Delta to the extent that conditions in those permits may affect the Delta.

The major projects have water right permits and many conditions in those water right permits that require the release of water into the Delta to protect beneficial uses including agriculture, municipal and fish and wildlife, so this issue was basically a subset of the fact that we’re in a very dry period and there’s not enough water to go around,” said Mr. Wilson.  “The specific question was whether it was reasonable to relax some of the water quality standards for salinity in the western Delta in order to conserve water in Shasta to ensure that another water quality standard, the cold water temperature standard in the upper Sacramento River, could be met, a standard that was implemented and adopted for the protection of fisheries.”

It’s a balance of two issues, Mr. Wilson explained:  “The amount of flow required to be released from Shasta Reservoir to meet salinity standards versus this need to retain a sufficient cold water pool at Shasta for protection of salmon, meeting water quality standards, and also having carryover storage for next year.

Last year was unusual in that there were fairly significant rains in November and December, Mr. Wilson noted, and then virtually bone-dry after that.  Although it seemed like it was a dry year, because of the early precipitation, the water year mathematically was considered dry and not critically dry, and the projects were having to release water to meet more stringent western Delta water quality standards, Mr. Wilson said.

The State Water Board was approached a month ago and asked about getting relief from some of these standards – can they be changed, an exception be made?” continued Mr. Wilson.  “The Division of Water Rights and myself, we cannot actually change the standards in the water quality control plan; the courts have told us we can’t modify or make exceptions to them.  But what we can do, considered doing, and then did do was to exercise our compliance and enforcement discretion and said that we would not object to and take action if the projects were operated on the critical dry year standard, and we filed the letter.”

The letter was contingent on the projects coming up with a plan on how they were going to use that water to, in fact, conserve water and meet the temperature objective.  That plan was submitted to us.  It was a tough call, quite frankly.  We had two competing water quality standards; they were in conflict, and we just had to balance the benefits and make a judgment call,” said Mr. Wilson.  “I know people in the Delta are obviously unhappy with what was done, about the only thing I can say is that we don’t think there’s going to be an unreasonable impact on agricultural operations.  Obviously there will be some impact as water will be saltier in the western Delta.”

We also indicated that we would be monitoring the releases and how the projects were being operated to make sure that any of this water that was conserved was only going to be used for the purpose of meeting these temperature objectives and wouldn’t be used for other purposes,” added Mr. Wilson.

The Board is considering amendments to its water quality control plan; we’re hoping to build into those amendments a more flexible approach based on adaptive management-type principles so will hopefully allow us to anticipate and deal with these unique aspects a little bit better,” said Mr. Wilson.

Councilman Randy Fiorini said he agreed with the State Water Board’s decision.  It’s a huge conflict trying to meet all of those objectives, such as having enough cold water supply for spawning below the dams and having enough water to push back the salt for X2 in the fall.  “Even in better years than we have had this current year, two out of five years, it’s going to be hard to balance those,” said Mr. Fiorini.  “I think it points to the need that many people have been calling for that if you’re going to reoperate the system and be environmentally sensitive, you’ve got to have more storage.  You cannot meet the biological opinion demands and balance cold water supply and X2 and all of the other requirements that have been placed on a system that wasn’t designed to operate this way.  I hope that out of this will come a statement from the State Board affirming for operational purposes the need to expand storage capacity in California to meet future demands.”

It’s been reported that conditions at the end of this irrigating season and this water year, it will be equivalent of 1977, and anybody that’s been around water for long knows that 76-77 represents the most significant drought that this state has ever experienced in the last 100 years,” Mr. Fiorini continued.  “And we’re here, two years following one of the wettest years on record.  All of these things point to the need for huge investments if we’re going to successfully operate this for the California economy and the California environment, and I think the water board is a great place to be sounding that alarm.”

Chair Phil Isenberg expressed his concurrence with Randy’s observation, and said we need to rethink the available options, “particularly the storage option idea that Randy presented to ACWA three months ago to explore the original list of 1999 projects that identified potential storage north and south of the Delta.  Rather than just looking for giant projects, as there are few around that have a chance of being built, you also start looking at smaller and mid-size projects as well.”

Mr. Isenberg continued, noting that this points to the larger issue of the balance test that the state will be facing in the future.  “You would not normally think that deciding to act as if this year is a critically dry year as opposed to a mathematical calculation that might have allowed you to treat it as merely a dry year would be of great significance, and of course in the water world, everyone wants their own interests satisfied first, but the balance test is ultimately what is at the heart of California’s water supply for the whole state, which is the heart of the Delta Plan,” said Mr. Isenberg.  “That balancing test is damn tough to do.”

  • Click here to read the State Water Board letter.
  • Click here for all documents available regarding this action from the State Water Board.


Paul Helliker, Deputy Director of Department of Water Resources, followed the Delta Watermaster’s presentation with his own on the dry conditions.

Slide 4The year was unusual, being both wet and dry, with the first few months being particularly wet.  “In November and December, over 70% of the normal precipitation occurred, so we were hoping that we were going to be headed toward a good year for water,” said Mr. Helliker.  “But that didn’t turn out to be the case.  Even though it was the tenth wettest December on record, we quickly went into a period in the beginning of this calendar year that turned out to be the driest in 90 years.  This unusual combination of factors has resulted in some challenges that we’ve had that relate to the way that water years are characterized and the requirements that we’re supposed to meet as a result.”

Slide 6
Precipitation has ranged from the upper 80th percentile in Sacramento down to just below half in Fresno and Bakersfield, and in Southern California, it is particularly dry, said Mr. Helliker.  “I know our friends at CalFire are worried about what the year is going to in store in terms of fire risk.”  Snowpack started off well, but then dwindled down to little, if any, he noted.

However, reservoir conditions are not as bad as one might think, he said, noting that most reservoirs are below-average, but not dramatically so, with the exception of San Luis Reservoir.  “The primary reason for that is this year, in addition to the unusual precipitation conditions, we also experienced in January and February large amounts of Delta smelt showing up at the pump stations in the south Delta, so that resulted in reductions in the amount of water that can be moved through the Delta and pumped into storage, so that is why San Luis Reservoir shows such a low storage condition.”

Slide 7We estimate that because of the fact these restrictions were imposed on us this year, we were unable to deliver a million of acre-feet in water supply this year and that’s average of about 20% of the total that we normally do.  It’s been a difficult year for water users in California,” said Mr. Helliker.

If we had our proposed BDCP facilities in place, we would not have had to forego those deliveries.  We would have been able to capture that water and move it through the system because we would have been able to avoid the pumping restrictions in the south Delta and divert water at the north end of the Delta, and would have been able to capture the flows that did go through the Delta,” said Mr. Helliker.  “That’s a pretty clear example of why a tunnels project would be beneficial, not only to maintaining the ecosystem in the Delta, but maintaining the water supply reliability.”

Statewide precipitation as of May 31st is 75% of average; runoff is 65% of average, but reservoir storage is 85% of average, he noted.

The State Water Project allocation is 35% of deliveries; the Central Valley Project ranges from 100% of deliveries for the water rights users in the Sacramento River and refuge level 2, down to 20% for the South of Delta users for agriculture.  M&I is 70% south of the Delta, but that’s a relatively small amount of the total, said Mr. Helliker.  “It’s a different picture because they cover many more basins than we do, but the comparative number we normally hear is the 20% allocation for agricultural users south of the Delta so it’s a more difficult picture for our colleagues down there.”

slide 10The 8 stations northern Sierra index as compared to previous years shows a dramatic difference, said Mr. Helliker.  “In terms of the use between Shasta and the Delta, we found that depletions which were uses by water users in the Sacramento Valley, which, because of the way the allocations are calculated, were able to use 100% of their entitlement, but we found that … the situation we normally face in the summertime was transpiring in the spring,” said Mr. Helliker.  “We were having a difficult time figuring out how we were going to meet the temperature standards in the fall while also meeting the flow standards and the salinity standards in the Delta now.  So we had discussions with the State Water Resources Control Board, and we considered submitting a temporary urgency change petition.  We think that’s probably a better way to go about it, but because of some of the concerns they have about the legal foundation of doing so, they suggested we pursue the option we did, which was to send a letter delineating what the issues were that we were facing, and how we considered this year to be a year more typical of a critically dry year and therefore merited using those standards to apply to the operations in the Delta.”

slide 11We did receive a response on May 29th that said the water board would not exercise their enforcement authority.  We appreciate that and we think that that is a reasonable solution for this year, but it is not how we’d like to proceed in the future, so we are working with the water board to make it a more formal process that is more consistent with the provisions of the water code that allow for urgency changes and all of the procedures that go with that,” said Mr. Helliker.  “But that is the situation for this year, and it is allowing us to be successful in the fall with having enough cold water in storage.  We estimate somewhere between 115,000 to 185,000 acre-feet of water is an amount we can keep in the reservoirs in Shasta and upstream, so that water will be available to provide necessary temperature requirements for salmon in the fall.”

Mr. Helliker noted that the Department of Water Resources is looking to the future and what next year might hold, so he has been tasked with organizing a team to look at what hydrology might be for next year.  “Even with a normal year next year, we’re looking at some shortages of what we would normally deliver, so although we haven’t called this year a drought – it doesn’t really formally qualify – we are taking every measure we can to make sure our customers know that it’s a dry year and the Save Our Water campaign is continuing and looking for ways that we can make sure that the message gets out that you can’t waste water anytime, and this year in particular.

  • Click here to view Paul Helliker’s power point presentation.


delta cross channelDelta Watermaster Craig Wilson presented his latest report, Gates and Barriers in the Delta, to the Council.  This report, unlike previous reports issued by the Watermaster, is more relevant to water quality and conveyance operations, he noted.

Gates and barriers seek to modify the Delta’s hydrodynamics in beneficial ways by improving water quality and/or keeping the fish out of the water supply corridors.  Existing structures in the Delta include the Suisun Marsh salinity gates, which are used to improve water quality in the Suisun Marsh; the Cross Channel Gates in the Central Delta which provide an efficient pathway for water to flow towards the pumps, but are required by the State Water Board to be closed to protect fish; and several temporary barrier projects in the South Delta that are used to improve water quality and affect fish movement.

As for improvements to existing infrastructure, proposals have been made to enlarge size of cross channel gates, and to build permanent structures in the south Delta where temporary barriers are currently used.  Pilot studies to keep fish out of supply corridors using nonphysical barriers have been underway.  Future project possibilities include gates at Franks Tract, and tidal gates just below Chipps Island.

I think when you’re looking into the future, you’re looking for projects that have both water quality and fish protection features to it and are located in areas where boating concerns can be minimized,” said Craig Wilson.

Discussion: Head of Old River Barrier and salmon

Councilman Randy Fiorini noted that the Head of Old River Barrier (HORB) was installed annually to redirect salmon, but there are significant questions as to the impact that the barrier might have had.  “A recent study showed 92% of outmigrating smolt and fry were being eaten by bass, so in the case of the Head of Old River Barrier and the San Joaquin River, predation is a ‘significant issue’.  State Water Board has stated in recent proceedings on the San Joaquin River water quality objectives that predation was an issue, and staff asked us at a recent meeting to help us add rigor to whatever water quality objectives are developed to address predation.  Any thought of how SWB & DSC could engage proper authorities?

DWR submits a plan of operation on how they are going to operate south barriers projects, and they concluded this year, after consulting with a lot of people, including fishery agencies, not to install HORB because of the predation issue,” explained Mr. Wilson.  “They had studies that showed that although the barrier worked to keep the fish from getting into the interior of the South Delta, predation was increased because of the longer route that the fish have to take on the migratory route, perhaps predation was worse than no barrier.

Mr. Wilson continued:  “We need to find appropriate pilot studies and test locations where you could look for areas where the barriers could be located without a predation issue.  Another study is looking at low amounts of electricity to move the predators down to another location where they could be removed and taken to another location.  There are a few things that can be done … This project with low voltage is only one of many.”


  • Delta Watermaster Craig Wilson made essentially the same presentation to the State Water Board on April 23rd. which I covered in more detail then.  Click here for that post.
  • To read the report, Gates and Barriers in the Delta, click here.
  • To visit the Delta Watermaster online, click here.
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