This just in … Modifications announced for the State and Federal Water Projects Temporary Urgency Change Petitions

This just inToday, the State Water Resources Control Board held a media call to explain the latest modifications to the Temporary Urgency Change orders for the state and federal water projects.  Speaking on the call were Mark Cowin, Director of the Department of Water Resources; Pablo Arroyave, Deputy Regional Director, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; and Tom Howard, Executive Director of State Water Resources Control Board.  Here is a transcript of that call:

Mark Cowin, Director of the Department of Water Resources

In response to the severe drought circumstances we find ourselves in here in California, state and federal agencies have been working together to try to operate our state and federal water projects in a balanced way under these extraordinary circumstances.  This began for us back in late January when the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, working with other state and federal agencies, petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB or State Board) to modify Delta outflow requirements that would otherwise be in place for the month of February in order to preserve water in upstream storage and enable us to retain that water for use in the dry summer and the months to come.

We also sought some additional flexibility on operating Delta Cross Channel gates in order to use less water to keep the Delta fresh, repel salinity, and provide for using water for all Delta purposes.  That order was granted by the State Board by Tom Howard, Executive Director of the State Board.  In his order, Tom directed state and federal agencies to form a Real-Time Drought Operations Management Team which consists of representatives of DWR, Reclamation, the state and federal fish agencies, and the State Board.  Those agencies have been working together on pretty much a daily basis since February 1 to look at the operating requirements, seek flexibility for improving opportunities to retain water in upstream storage and export water to storage south of the Delta while meeting the needs of fisheries and providing for water quality in the Delta.

So that process has been underway now for about six weeks and we have managed to find opportunities to find flexibility within both the Endangered Species Act and the State Board requirements and have managed to optimize operations such that we could store additional water both upstream of the Delta and south of the Delta.

Today we’re taking another important step in that process, and DWR and USBR will again ask the State Board to modify the temporary urgency change order that was issued on February 1 in order to provide some additional flexibility and specifically what we’re doing are really two things.  We’re asking that outflow requirements that would normally be in play in the month of March be modified.  Normally, an 11,000 cfs would be in place.  We’re asking that that requirement be lowered to 7100 cfs and as long as we are maintaining an outflow above that amount, that we would operate exports in compliance with other requirements, essentially other requirements that would come into play through the endangered species act.  If outflow drops below 7100 cfs, then we would be limited to the 1500 cfs export rate as described in the original order, so this is really just a modification for the March outflow requirement, which is greater than the February-March outflow requirement, so we’re responding to both the recent hydrology and the different requirements for the month of February and March in this request.

Beyond that, we are requesting that the State Board provide some additional latitude in the use of that export water that was originally limited to essential public health and safety purposes, so we are requesting that under the modified order, the projects would still be expected to meet those essential public health and safety needs, and by that we mean those needs limited to human consumption, sanitation, and safety needs, but once those needs are met, then the DWR and USBR would use any remaining water in storage or exported into storage for other critical purposes as determined by the projects.

So those are the two important things that we are seeking to modify in the temporary urgency change order.

Pablo Arroyave, Deputy Regional Director, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

I think today is another example of the real time decision making that all of us are going to need to maneuver through the intense really changing daily drought challenges that we face and I thank the Real Time Drought Operations Management Team that was set up in the February order of the State Water Resources Control Board is really proving be the perfect mechanism to explore flexibility within all of our regulatory constraints as we have both the federal agencies and the state regulatory agencies in that very small group.  I think it’s proving very effective.

Reclamation certainly appreciates the very swift response that the SWRCB has exhibited throughout this and I think today is just the latest example of that, and I’d also need to mention that we’re very thankful for all the support that we have from the state and federal agencies that’s really allowing us to take advantage of additional water in a manner that does not harm others.

As Mark stated, the requested modification will request that if we are meeting minimum health and safety, that the projects, Reclamation and DWR, will exercise the discretion on what the best use of that water within authorized project purposes, and I think this is a very good step in the right direction that recognizes that Reclamation and DWR’s expertise in operating the projects and is also indicative of how critical water supplies are in a drought year like this, as long as we can meet minimum health and safety, which we’re confident that we can.

Tom Howard, Executive Director of the State Water Resources Control Board

I’d like to emphasize again from the Water Board’s perspective, this is an extraordinary drought and we’re required to take extraordinary actions to try to both protect aquatic habitat and maximize the state’s water supply.  With respect to the first action which is the reduction in the maximum outflow requirements of the projects, we’ve consulted with the fishery agencies to make sure that this will not endanger the winter run Chinook that are present in the Delta, nor Delta smelt, and we’ve received concurrence from the fishery agencies, the two federal fish agencies and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, and predicated on that, it seems like it’s a worthwhile activity to undertake to ensure that we maximize our water supplies.

Regarding the second amendment in this order, the public health and safety, there’s certainly been a lot of discussion about this particular limit and just in the way of background, when the water board adopted the January order that was in late January, this really had the markings of incredibly historic drought, one that would have been unprecedented, and we were quite concerned at that time about the issue of public health and safety.  The Department and the Bureau, when they requested the change, said they were going to limit their exports to public health and safety and so we put that into the order as a requirement.  We’ve been very lucky; the month of February was above normal in rainfall in Northern California, at least, so while the drought is still of an incredibly critical nature, it is not – there’s been some ability to relax the public health and safety restriction and allow water that’s available to be used for other uses, and so that seems like an important thing to get out as soon as possible, so we’re putting that amended requirement into the order.

I’d like to say a few words about the Board’s role in this process since I’ve certainly been hearing quite a bit about the Board’s activities that we’ve undertaken, and I think there’s substantial misperception about what those activities are.  Fundamentally what we do for issues like this is we’re responding to temporary urgency change petitions that come to us and we’ve received several from the Bureau and the Department but we’ve also received a number from all over the state, where people are asking for relaxations of fish requirements in order to conserve water for consumptive use, and when we get these requests, we have to make certain assessments of the information that’s provided.  Specifically, we have to make a determination first that it is in fact an urgent request, and we also have to determine that no other legal users of water injured, that’s there’s no unreasonable impact to fish and wildlife, and that change that’s requested is in the public interest.

Our activities are largely in response to requests from various parties and in this case from the DWR and BOR, and the orders that we issue largely reflect the requests that we receive.  One other comment, I would echo the comments of Mark and Pablo that the Real Time Drought Operations Team has been a great success. They’ve found flexibility in a number of ways to allow increased operations while still protecting the fishery resources, it’s a great collaborative effort between the US FWS, NMFS, CADFW, DWR, BOR, and the State Water Board, and both the federal administration and the Brown administration have been supportive of this collaborative approach and in fact, I think we’ve been directed to be as collaborative as we can be.

Discussion highlights

The question is asked to clarify that essentially the January order that said water exported south from the Delta could only be exported if it was necessary for public health and safety, essentially eliminating ag exports and including to the senior water rights holders in the SJV is being relaxed?

Mark Cowin, DWR: I think that’s fair.  I would say that back in the end of January, we expected that the 1500 cfs limitation would be needed for essential human health and safety needs and again I want to reemphasize that by that we mean the very basic needs of drinking water, sanitation, and safety.  Since that time, we’ve had above average precipitation during February which has helped the situation somewhat.  In addition, we’ve been canvassing our water users that depend upon the state and federal [projects for at least a portion of their water supplies and we’re growing more comfortable that between their existing supplies and what they’ll receive from us this year that we’ll be able to meet all essential public health and safety needs this year.

In part, this is clarification that beyond meeting those needs, which we will commit to do, demonstrate to the state board that we will meet those needs, then beyond that, the USBR and DWR will retain their authority to use any additional water for project purposes.

A follow-up question is asked if the extra water will be going to the exchange contractors? Or the Feather River contractors?

Pablo Arroyave, BOR: From BOR’s standpoint, certainly we have an obligation to the exchange contractors south of the Delta.  This should also provide some clarity and certainty regarding our initial allocation as it relates to level 2 refuge supplies.  We’re certainly a couple of weeks out from any necessary updates from our allocation that may lead to water for our water service contractors, but you’re correct. The hydrology is such that there’s an awful long way to go to meet the demands that we have.

Mark Cowin, DWR: I want to be careful here not to raise expectations that this means that we have an abundant amount of water to deliver to our state and federal water contractors but you are correct, to the extent that we have additional water beyond those essential health and safety needs, then our most senior prioritized water users, including federal side the settlement contractors, and on the state side, the Feather River water users, would be first in line.

The question is asked if they were going to be able to meet or exceed the exchange contractors 40% allocation.

Pablo Arroyave, BOR: I think that answering that question is a little premature right now.  We certainly are working very hard to shore up that 40% but make no mistake.  This provides clarity on the water in San Luis and how the projects can use that water but it does not address the lack of water that we have in the system.

Mark Cowin, DWR: We will be refining out estimates of those essential human health and safety needs this year, trying to estimate what we need to go into 2015 in upstream storage in order to again, retain salinity control within the Delta, have enough water to push salt back into the bay and meet 2015 basic human health and safety needs so we need to sharpen our pencil and make sure that we have completed that wok to support these decisions.  We expect to do that over the next couple of weeks and update our allocations for all of our water users around April 1.

For more information …

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