Delta Stewardship Council’s drought panel: “Unprecedented conditions may result in unprecedented actions.”

Lake Oroville, January 2014 Photo by DWR
Lake Oroville, January 2014
Photo by DWR

The news seems to get worse every day.  A stubborn Mother Nature appears to be refusing to provide any relief for the ongoing dry conditions, instead delivering weather that has us reaching for sunscreen rather than umbrellas.

Conditions are bad, to say the least – unprecedented in modern times. There’s been almost no precipitation this year, virtually no snowpack, and long-range forecasts continue to predict continued below-average precipitation.  In addition, this is the first time that the state of California has encountered a serious drought since the 2009 water legislation that established the coequal goals.  How will these current conditions impact the Delta, the state, and the coequal goals?

Against this backdrop, the Delta Stewardship Council brought together a panel of water officials at their January 23rd meeting to discuss how the state is managing through these tough times.  On the panel were Bill Croyle, Drought Manager for the Department of Water Resources; Craig Wilson, Delta Watermaster; Elizabeth Kiteck, Chief of the Water Operations Division of the Central Valley Project, and Tom Gohring, with the Water Forum in Sacramento.

Craig Wilson, Delta Watermaster

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We’re basically in uncharted waters,” began Delta Watermaster Craig Wilson.  Carryover storage is low; there’s been almost no precipitation this year, there isn’t any appreciable snowpack so little runoff is expected, and weather forecasts are all showing continued below-average precipitation levels.  This adds up to is drought conditions likely worse than any in recorded history, perhaps even the last 500 years, he said.

So while things could change, we have to plan for the worst, he said.  “We have to do the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt, so based on these unprecedented conditions, we have to consider taking unprecedented actions,” he said.  “Unprecedented conditions may result in unprecedented actions.”

The Governor’s drought proclamation directs the State Water Board to take action in three areas: water transfers, modification of water quality control standards and objectives, and curtailing water diversions.

Regarding water transfers, the proclamation has specific provisions for expediting transfers.  It allows the state and federal projects to consolidate their places of use which makes it easier to conduct transfers.  “Because of the different purposes of the project, there is some concern about consolidating places of use,” said Mr. Wilson.  “All I would say to that is the decision that would be made to consolidate those uses is a temporary one, it’s subject to reopener, and it doesn’t create any vested rights, so it’s just a temporary measure to try to ease transfers.”

DSC Watermaster 1The water board does approve water transfers that don’t involve the water projects, and last year, over a dozen transfers of over 250,000 acre-feet were approved, he said.  “The process works well and it will work well this year,” he said.  “The question is how much water will really be available to transfer, and only time will tell on that.”

The water board will have to consider possible modification of water quality standards and objectives in the Delta, he said.  The Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Water Resources are obligated in their operating water right permits to ensure that the water quality control plan’s standards and objectives are met.  Those standards include things such as flow standards, inflow standards, Delta outflow standards, and various salinity standards in portions of the Delta, he explained.  On February 1st, the Delta outflow standard is scheduled to substantially increase from 4500 cfs to 7100 cfs, a dramatic increase.  “If nothing is done about that and given the low natural runoff that’s occurring, if the projects attempted to meet that standard, the reservoirs would virtually be drained,” he said.  “I’m not sure if even there would be enough water to meet those standards even if that happens, so we’re going to expect some requests for relief.”

The Governor’s drought proclamation modified some provisions of state law that will allow the water board to consider temporary urgency change petitions to the project’s operating permits to allow modifications of standards, he said. “The Board’s process to issue temporary urgency change orders is expedited,” he said.  “Once a change comes in, we would have a minimal amount of notice but staff has been delegated authority to act on those in a matter of just a few days.  The Board could hold hearings and workshops after that decision is made to receive public input more widely and to consider any modifications would be necessary.”

Folsom Lake
Folsom Lake

There are a range of options that the water board can consider, such as actions to preserve cold water pool to meet later needs for temperature control and fish protection, or modifications to lower the outflow requirement, which will have salinity impacts on the Delta.  Right now, the water projects are the entity responsible for meeting outflow standards, he said.  “It could be a situation where the projects are preserving a much of a pool in the reservoirs as possible, they are exporting as little as possible, they are minimizing meeting diversion demands of their contractors and if there’s very little water left over, they may ask that they not be required to release additional stored water to meet water quality standards.  If that happens, and if the Board approved that, there would be very little water left over for anyone else.”

Conversely, the water board could decide to modify the standards and reduce it to a more reasonable level under the circumstances but still have the obligation on the projects to meet that either in whole or in part, Mr. Wilson said.  “If that happens, there would be more water available in the Delta and north of the Delta for other diversions.”

There are a lot of key decisions that are going to be made just in the next couple of weeks, he said.  “We expect to get a petition for temporary urgency use change probably next week from the projects and the Board staff will act upon that in a matter of days.  That will probably be followed up by a public proceeding by the Board to get more thorough public comment.”

The third aspect of Board activity called out by the Governor’s proclamation is the possible curtailment of water diversions other than project contractors, he said.  ‘Term 91’ is a condition in the water right permits that are junior in priority to the state and federal water projects that authorizes the Board to curtail diversions under those permits and licenses and when the projects are releasing stored water for downstream beneficial uses, he explained.  “The Board certainly could consider extending term 91-like curtailments on a wider range of more senior permits and licensees, and under a worst case scenario, even to riparian users.  It could be that drastic.”  He noted that on the same day the Governor issued his drought proclamation, the Board did issue a notice of possible curtailment and sent it out to a very wide group of water diverters, putting them on notice that they could be curtailed later in the season.

As we move forward this year and as some curtailments happen, we will try to have a greater field presence to try and make sure there is an even playing field by people who are diverting and people who are subject to curtailments,” he said.  “We also could have instances where we are looking at possible instances of waste or unreasonable use scenarios.  In a drought situation like this, what might have been a method of diversion in times of plenty might be considered reasonable now.”

So just to wrap up, the Board will be intimately involved in expediting water transfers, considering modifications of water quality control standards and objectives, and considering a wide range of curtailment of diversions by non-project water users,” he concluded.

Elizabeth Kiteck, Central Valley Project

Elizabeth Kiteck, Chief of the Water Operations Division of the Central Valley Project, then gave a presentation on current reservoir storage.  For the first portion of her presentation, she presented slides of the reservoir conditions and precipitation as of the date of the meeting which basically showed that most of the storage in reservoirs across the state is low, and inflow into the reservoirs is running behind the 1977 totals, as are the precipitation totals.  You can view those slides by clicking here.

DSC Kiteck Slide 7 Shasta InflowMs. Kiteck presented an inflow forecast for Lake Shasta prepared by the CA/NV River Forecast Center, which does a daily inflow forecasts.  The graph showed the 50%, 90%, and 10% forecasts for inflows.  “What you see is that the 10% and the 50% are dropping rapidly to meet the 90% numbers,” she said.  “Usually they will start coming together closer to April to May, but we’re starting to see that they are converging this early, and they are converging to a very dry projection for inflow for this water year.”  She then presented similar projections for Sacramento River Basin reservoirs, as well as San Joaquin River Basin reservoirs.  They all tell a similar story, she said.  “Our 90% and our 50% forecast are dropping rapidly.”

Water Supply Forecast BoxEven normal precipitation for the rest of the year won’t dig us out of the hole we’re in, she said, noting that the 90-day precipitation outlook does not look good.  “We are at minimum releases on Shasta,” she said.  “I think though that everything’s on the table right now because if we don’t have the water in the reservoir to release, we’re certainly not going to even be able to meet some of our minimum flows, and there are a lot of discussions going on at higher levels as to what we can do.”

She noted that New Melones is actually in the best shape of all of the Central Valley Project reservoirs.  “It takes a long time to fill but once it’s filled, it takes a long time to empty.”

All of our contractors are looking at reductions,” she said.  “That would be our settlement contractors, and the exchange contractors down south.  The Shasta critical criterion is if the inflow is projected to be under 3.2 MAF, and we’re definitely there in both the 90 and the 50% forecast.  According to the contracts, our settlement contractors would be subject to a 75% reduction as well as the refuges would have a 75% reduction.”

“If you listen how it is publicly being reported, this shortage of water supply is so draconian and is so extreme that no one could have predicted it; it’s never happened before in history, and therefore nobody could have anticipated it,” asked Phil Isenberg.  “True or false?

DSC Recl Lady“I would say yes, we’re in uncharted territory,” said Ms. Kiteck.  “It’s very difficult for even the NWS and DWR to do these inflow forecasts.  They don’t have any snow for a snow survey.  They are using historical information and this is just off the charts historically.”

Mr. Isenberg asked Ms. Kiteck how, as a professional water manager, how she manages the expectation of users with the need to maintain storage.  How do you balance the interests?

“It’s very difficult,” she said.  “We get pressure, as you say, from our water contractors or from fishery agencies.  I think people see the water in the reservoir and they want it now, because next year, there’s a good chance we’ll get more rain and inflow, and we’ll just fill them up again.  But we’re in the third year of this.  Two years ago it would have been hard to say no, we can’t give you more allocation or we can’t release more down the river for the fish because we might need that in two years.  It’s very difficult to convince people, because we don’t know.  Something could change, we could get a whole slew of rain in February, we could have another Miracle March …

When we will have the flood and emergency response people sitting at this table, talking about what all the problems are from flooding,” added Mr. Isenberg.

Tom Gohring, Sacramento Water Forum

DSC Gohring Slide 2 SWF RegionTom Gohring, Executive Director of the Sacramento Water Forum, then discussed how the drought was impacting the Sacramento region.  He began by explaining that Water Forum is the result of a truce that was negotiated for nearly a decade and signed in 2000; the agreement was a series of gives and gets between the local environmental community and the local water community.  “The Water Forum was the first organization to coin the term “coequal objectives”,” he said, “and our coequal objectives were to provide a reliable water supply for this region until the year 2030, and to protect the environmental assets of the lower American River.

DSC Gohring Slide 3 PurveyorsThe American River and the Sacramento River are the sources of water to the region, and Folsom Reservoir provides storage.  There are over 20 different water purveyors in the region, he explained.  Some derive all of their water supplies from surface water, while others get all of their water supplies from groundwater.  The remainder of the agencies utilize a mix of surface water and groundwater.  Some, such as Sacramento Suburban Water District, have a completely dual system; they take surface water in wet years, and in-lieu bank their groundwater, and in a year like this, they will take no surface water, they will rely completely on their groundwater – it is a truly conjunctive use strategy, he said.  Others, although they have a mix of surface and groundwater, their surface and groundwater systems serve different parts of their service area, so they can’t switch to groundwater as an alternate supply, he said.

For the environmental members, the Water Forum exists to protect the Lower American River, its fishery and its salmonid species, he said.  “They are delighted that the Lower American River is considered the crown jewel of the Sacramento Region, that it’s part of the American River parkway, and that the American River protected under the Wild and Scenic River statutes.”

The drought outlook looks bad for the foreseeable future, Mr. Gohring said.  “From a precipitation standpoint, for this water year, we’re lower than we were in 76-77,” he said.  “When you combine that with essentially no precipitation for all of 2013, we’re in many ways worse off today than we were in 76-77.

DSC Gohring Slide 10 Folsom Reservoir GraphHe then displayed a graph of the water levels in Folsom Reservoir.  “Because so many of the purveyors in this region are either wholly or partially dependent on the storage in Folsom Reservoir, this graph scares the crap out of us,” he said.  “Folsom has been lower than it is today, but it’s never been this low on this date, ever, and if you do a simple extrapolation, it just keeps going down.”

The people who do the projections are finding those analyses completely useless right now.  “We are so far off the book that history will not give us any clue about what is going to happen over the next 6 or 9 months.  We have never experienced this before.  Our history of dealing with these kinds of years leaves us no clues as to how much worse it will get.”

DSC Gohring Slide 12 Am River 500When Folsom Reservoir goes below 322,000 acre-feet, the City of Folsom, San Juan Water District, and the City of Roseville can no longer get sufficient water out of the reservoir to meet their historical summer supply, he said, noting that they can currently meet supplies because right now there’s virtually no outdoor irrigation.  “At about 90,000 acre-feet, they can no longer take water at all from the reservoir, and again, all of the City of Folsom, the community of Granite Bay and about 80% of the City of Roseville are completely dependent on surface water,” he said.  “Big problem.”

Because supplies are so meager, the flows have been cut drastically, and we expect that without some storms, before this year is out, that flow will probably be halved again, he said.  “We’ll probably be at the minimum allowable under State Board decision 893 and the flow in the river will be 250 cfs, and it will be a very inhospitable environment for our salmonid species.”

DSC Gohring Slide 14 Groundwater IntertiesSo how is the region responding to these unprecedented conditions?  The group of purveyors in the eastern region worked out on agreement prior to the drought on how they would cooperate should they find themselves in this position, Mr. Gohring explained.  Some of those districts will switch only to groundwater and those who can will share with their neighboring districts so that the purveyors who are dependent on surface water can use what limited supplies are available.  In addition, they are working on agreements to purchase additional pumps and other appurtenances to be able to purchase groundwater from Sacramento Suburban Water District.

Virtually every water supplier in the region has announced a 20% reduction in demand he said.  “Some of them have called it a voluntary reduction, some of them have called it a mandatory reduction, but frankly the nuances of what makes it voluntary and mandatory are not a bright line,” he said.  “Bottom line, the folks who may run out of surface water are taking this very seriously.”

The City of Folsom, San Juan Water District, and the City of Roseville take their water out of Folsom Reservoir and are in the most dire straits, he said.  If the reservoir drops low enough, something that could happen in as soon as three months, they would literally be out of water.  Because the situation is so dire, they are moving into a full scarcity mode, he said.  “I think it is very realistic to say that if we don’t have significant storms, you will see a prohibition on outdoor water use in all three of those entities,” he said.  “It’s a big deal.  It’s something we have never experienced before.”

The fishery is of concern, and we are aggressively monitoring the situation, he said.  About 11 to 12 percent of the redds (salmon nests) have been dewatered.   “Now that they have been dewatered, we have field crews out measuring water quality in the redds themselves because dewatered redd doesn’t necessarily mean dead salmon eggs,” he said.  “Whether or not they survive depends on how much water flows through, what the level of dissolved oxygen is, what the turbidity is, etc.  We’re also measuring water temperature.”

DSC Gohring Slide 17 Flow ManagementOur biologists are meeting with biologists from Reclamation, NOAA fisheries, US FWS, and CA DFW on a weekly basis to discuss what we’re learning and to brainstorm ways to minimize the harm to salmonids, he said.  “The salmonids are going to take a hit this year.  The name of the game at this point is to try and minimize the damage.”

If things don’t get better, inevitably the flows will be reduced to 250 cfs.  “Reclamation is doing a really valiant job of holding the flow at 500 now, partly because that helps the City of Sacramento, but also because we don’t want to damage the remaining Chinook salmon redds in the river,” he said.  “We also want to allow the steelhead who are spawning now to complete their spawning.”

No matter what, there will be no cold water pool to work with in Folsom Reservoir this year, he said, so we will be basically stuck with whatever temperature the river warms up to at ambient conditions.  Once it starts getting hot, it will make for some extremely inhospitable conditions for the salmonids.  “There will not be many salmonids in the American River that survive this summer,” he said.

One potential action being discussed is to shave a little of the flow off now to use as a pulse flow in February to help outmigrating salmon, and perhaps another pulse flow later to get the fall-run salmon hatchlings and the single-year class steelhead out of the river, he said.  “The oversummering steelhead and the young of year steelhead may not survive this summer,” he said.  “Our biologists tell us that it’s really bad for the continued survival of those species, but an isolated year does not mean extirpation.  Two years in a row, definitely pushes us in that direction, so we’re beginning not to think about just one year of drought but of multi-years.”

DSC Gorhing Slide 19 Planned InvestmentsIn the midst of scrambling to respond to the current situation, we’re also beginning to discuss accelerating some investments in some long-term projects such as interties and cooperative transmission lines to move water around among the different purveyors.  “Frankly if we do it right, it’s not just moving the water one direction, it’s moving the water two directions, so that we don’t just tap the groundwater in difficult times. It allows us to do true conjunctive use, utilize abundant surface water in wet times and keep our groundwater in a balanced condition, which it currently is in.”

“It’s an unprecedented situation; I’ve never seen it before,” he said.  “Our previous investments in hardware and in cooperation are really paying off.”  He noted that the Water Forum has been meeting regularly since December, and at the last session a week ago, virtually every water provider and most of the local environmental community were there to discuss the situation.  “It’s really gratifying to see folks, who often have fundamental value differences about how to use the water resource, talk about how to share the pain and the fact that we’re all in a world of hurt and we’re going to try and make this work.”

Never let a good crisis go to waste,” he added.  “It is an opportunity for us to communicate to the rate payers and the property owners in this region that some long-term drought proof investments are a good idea, and maybe that can be one of the silver linings of this crisis.

Bill Croyle, Department of Water Resources

Bill Croyle is the Drought Manager for the Department of Water Resources.  He began by saying that he is often asked how bad is it and it really only northern or southern California.  “This is a statewide drought,” he said.  “This is a serious drought, the worst dry conditions we’ve seen since recorded history, since 1850, so we’re out of the box.  We’re out of the box when it comes to reservoir operations, Detla flows, allocations, beneficial uses, and a lot of things.”

DSC Croyle Slide 11 Task ForceThe task force is discussing how all of the agencies and resources can come together and deal with our existing policies and procedures, he said.  “Every day we’re getting new information about the impacts of these dry conditions on small communities, the environment, on agriculture, on labor, and so with that information, we’re being forced to try and plan and do advance planning as well as respond to those impacts.”  Information management is critical to make sure the real time conditions get pushed up to the Governor’s office as requested through California Office of Emergency Services, he added.

The State Water Resources Control Board, the California Department of Food and Ag, the Department of Water Resources and Office of Emergency Services are the key agencies, but there are many other agencies and departments involved, he said.  “We had the Governor’s Chief of Staff make it very clear – it’s all hands on deck,” he said.  “So what that means for us is nights and weekends.

DSC Croyle Slide 10 Gov ProcHe then presented a slide with a list of elements contained in the Governor’s proclamation, and said that each one is a to-do items for the state agencies to be ready with specific actions to execute and complete those tasks.  “Part of it is setting the expectation that involve all levels of government need to really look at what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and if we’re not doing something, why, because we do need to take some action,” he said.

DWR is putting out a lot of information on conservation efforts through the website and radio ads.  “Today we just heard there are 15 communities that have less than 60 days worth of water,” he said.  “Now some of those have been long-term issues and they’ve been working through it, but because of these dry conditions, those kinds of impacts are going to get worse here shortly.  So how are we to deal that? … We are changing how we message, communicate, and really interact and work together to solve this problem.”

The State Water Board and DWR have been working to streamline water transfers, he said, noting that the websites are being updated and technical issues are being worked through.  “We’re just hoping we might have some water to transfer,” he said.  “It’s not looking too good, but to the extent that somewhere along the line here, we get a little bit of rain and the hydrologic conditions change, we want to be able to respond to that request.”

Accelerating projects is easy to say, but when you get into the details, such as funding and just how ready is it – there are concerns, he said.  “But the Governor’s office wants to see to the extent that state government can assist those local agencies in implementing those shovel ready projects for conservation and water recycling, whether it’s ag or urban, they want to see that move forward on fast-track.

The water quality control plans are of concern to everyone, but Director Cowin has made it very clear that we’re looking at a balanced approach and with close coordination and consultation with the State Water Board and the state and federal fish agencies, he said.

DSC Croyle Slide 18 Biggest RisksThe State Water Board is working on groundwater policy issues, and we’ve been tasked with coming up with information on subsidence, impacts, overdraft and other things which will be key to working through this complicated groundwater issues.  “Groundwater is huge,” he said.  “Groundwater does not serve everyone but it’s a precious resource that we all need to respect and care for.”

If there is water in the reservoirs that is sent to the Delta, barriers could potentially be used to maintain Delta standards, but that would be an extreme step, so that would have to be done in close coordination with our partner agencies, he said.  Those decisions are down the line, but we are preparing for the worst case scenario by starting to run the models today and working through various designs with different locations, as well as looking at the environmental impacts.  “We’re looking at this that if we have to pull that trigger, we need to have this completely laid out,” he said.

The task force is also preparing for the social impacts of the dry conditions, such as labor impacts, small grocery stores, and housing.

Discussion highlights

Phil Isenberg asked Craig Wilson if the Governor’s Executive Order allowing the board to issue temporary urgency change orders, is that for the purpose of protecting human use of water or is it for environmental purposes or both?

It really is for both,” Mr. Wilson replied.  “There are certain findings that the Board has to make before issuing a temporary urgency change order.  First that there is an urgency for the change requested, but also the Board has to make findings that other legal users of water are protected, there’s not an unreasonable impact on the environment, and overall that the proposed change is in the public interest.  It’s a balancing act.”

He said they are expecting a petition from the water projects requesting modifications of water quality controls standards, probably most particularly the Delta outflow standard.  “We’ll just have to go through that and balance the various factors, what various outflow scenarios mean to the rest of the state and possible curtailments of people north of the Delta, and how much the Bureau and the Department will still be obligated to contribute at least some flows to that standard.  There’s just a lot of variables.”

DSC CouncilMr. Wilson noted that the temporary urgency change petitions do not create vested rights; they are temporary in nature and they are also subject to reopening.  They are only of limited duration and could even be written in a way where they could have a range of actions taking place over the life of the change order itself, he said.

Councilmember Gloria Gray asked Mr. Croyle if the task force was looking at long-term sustainability, rather than just being reactionary to the drought.

Croyle responded that he has reviewed the after-action reports from previous droughts.  “After 1977, Southern California learned a hard lesson, and they spent a couple of billion dollars and they are now in a better spot,” he said.  “Hopefully they can assist others who are in a hard spot.” He noted that other areas, such as the North Bay, have also taken steps to prepare by building interties and relationships, and although it will be tight, they can make it through.   “But to answer the question, they are mostly short-term and mid-term actions, but to come out of this process, there’s a recovery plan.  And the recovery part of the process needs to identify all of those actions that we need to put on the table and hopefully implement.”

There are those who would say that the chickens are coming home to roost,” said Councilmember Larry Ruhstaller.  “Southern California has done a much better job of preparing for this than we have, and that’s because we had the water, we didn’t have to worry. … When it rains again, and it will rain again, if we let this pass like we’ve done every time in the past, then we deserve whatever we get.  … I don’t know how you do the two coequal goals if you don’t’ have any water because at one point they will say we’re going to give water to the people and not the fish, if it gets that bad.”

Councilmember Hank Nordhoff asked Mr. Croyle what he would do if, six months down the road, four or five cities have run out of water.  “How do you treat those towns that are out of water?  What do you do?

Mr. Croyle responded that they were developing advance plans for temporary pipelines and trucking water, as well as dialoguing informally with FEMA and Army Corps.  He added that mobile desalination plants could be deployed to help areas on the Central Coast.

Phil Isenberg said that in his reviews of the lessons learned, one of the things that the 2010 review of the 2007-09 drought recommend that the assumptions on climate and precipitation that are written into the foundation principles of water contracts, water rights, and operational agreements, and they referenced the Colorado River settlement as an example.  “The reality is that those assumptions that have to be brought into question by a drought and adjusted and so …  How are you going to simultaneously solve the short-term problems while laying the foundation for a more rational future?

This is where we’re going to test ourselves,” he replied.  “This is has to be team ball.  This is about all of us at all levels of government getting in the groove that we can all work together and solve this problem and hopefully not just during this dry season.  We’ve got to come out of this … we’ve got to change some things.”

Craig, you began by saying extraordinary times require extraordinary actions, and you’ve all made it clear that we’re in an extraordinary time,” said Chair Randy Fiorini.  “You have all described a number of things that are currently under way or potentially could be underway to help us get through this.  The Delta Stewardship Council pledges our support in any way that we can to assist in cooperating and helping to communicate and coordinate because that’s what we exist to do.  We will continue to keep our eye focused on the long-term, comprehensive sets of solutions that are called for in the Delta Plan, using what we’ve learned from previous years to help continue to call to light what is necessary investment-wise to get us through times like this a little better in the future, but for now, we’re grateful that all of you are on it.”

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