This just in … State and federal officials announce increased Delta pumping to occur to capture runoff from recent storms

This just inEarlier this afternoon, state and federal officials held a media call to announce that increased pumping will be allowed from the Delta over the next few days to capture runoff from precipitation events.  On the call to explain the situation was Mark Cowin, Director of the Department of Water Resources; David Murillo, Regional Director, Mid-Pacific Region, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; Ren Lohoefener, Regional Director, Pacific Southwest Region, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service;  Will Stelle, Regional Administrator, West Coast Region, National Marine Fisheries Service; and Chuck Bonham, Director, California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Here’s a transcript of what they had to say:

Mark Cowin, Director of the Department of Water Resources

Our objective today is to update you on another important action that the state and federal agencies are taking to manage operations of our state’s two largest water projects, the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project.  As I’m sure you’re all aware, a series of actions over the course of the year have been taken to help us navigate through the regulations that drive operations of the projects and we are continuing to seek the appropriate balance of the objectives of water supply and water quality and environmental protection as best we can under these severe drought conditions.

Before we get into this specific action, just a couple of words on where we stand this year in terms of water supply.  Water conditions in general, as you know, today is the day of our April 1st snow survey.  I haven’t got all the information back from that survey yet, but suffice it to say that February and March storms have probably kept us from breaking records for historic drought this year, but they certainly haven’t rescued us from the drought.  We’re probably tracking somewhere in the range of the sixth, seventh or eighth driest year on record.

As I speak today, water equivalents for snowpack as measured today appear to be about one-third of normal for this date, so that’s significant.  In addition to that, our major reservoirs aren’t as full as we’d like, although we’ve seen improvement over the last couple of months.  Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir is at 60% of average for this date, Lake Oroville at 64%, and Lake Folsom at 69%, so still well below average.  We certainly appreciate and are trying to make best use of this additional precipitation that has resulted in additional snowpack and runoff over the course of the last few weeks, but of course, the storm window is closing on the time of year when we expect to receive significant precipitation and snowpack; it is coming to an end over the course of the next few weeks and so we need to continue to be extremely prudent with how we manage our limited water supplies.

This latest action we wanted to brief you on today is the result of the extensive discussion among the Department of Water Resources, US Bureau of Reclamation, National Marine Fisheries Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife over the course of the last week or so.  Yesterday we took action to take advantage of the water runoff we’re seeing from recent storms, and DWR and Reclamation asked the NMFS to adjust one of its measures within the set of rules that come from the Endangered Species Act known as the biological opinion that would have gone into effect on April 1.  That measure is known as the inflow/export ratio,  and it would normally limit the amount of water in a critically dry year that could be diverted from the Delta by the state and federal water projects to the amount of water flowing into the Delta from the San Joaquin River.  That measure is designed to specifically protect Central Valley and San Joaquin River steelehead, I should say.  If not adjusted, it would have pretty severe limitations on the amount of water from these current storms that we could have diverted into storage to provide for critical needs for the remainder of this year.

So in an exchange of emails yesterday, NMFS officials concurred that this temporary adjustment to the inflow/export ratio won’t jeopardize listed salmonids and is consistent with the federal Endangered Species Act.  And during this period of time when this adjustment is in effect, another flow requirement that restricts the level of reverse flows in the Old and Middle River channels in the Delta, it’s called OMR, those restrictions will govern pumping levels over the course of the coming days and provide minimum protections for all fish species currently making their way through the Delta.

As a result of this temporary adjustment, combined pumping levels at the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project will rise from about 1500 cfs to no more than 6500 cfs over the course of the next few days.  The adjustment will remain in effect as long as the rivers carrying stormwater into the Delta continue to run relatively high.  We expect that to last for at least a week and we’ll see how long those inflows are sustained.

Meanwhile we continue to work collaboratively on a longer term plan for 2014 operations, taking into consideration other actions that we have previously taken that are projected to be needed in the future, and again, trying to strike an appropriate balance between providing minimal water supplies, providing minimal environmental protections, and preserving water quality for all beneficial uses.

So with that …

David Murillo, Regional Director at the US Bureau of Reclamation

I’ll keep this fairly short.  Pretty much what Mark has conveyed.  We have the same views.  This plan and these actions that we’re taking, this is an illustration of a collaborative effort and an agreement by the five agencies to try to address the demands that exist in front of us, and we’re looking at a balanced approach.

I think the other point I do want to make is that this year, if you look at the events that we’ve had pass through the early part of this year, the five agencies have come together to really provide enough flexibility within the standards and regulations we have in place to try to also increase our pumping as these events have come through.   If you look at the last few events, you’ll see that we demonstrated that our pumping has come up.  At the same time, we also want to make sure that we take into consideration the impacts to the environment.  And I think we’re doing that as we move through this plan.

I think that’s pretty much it.

Ren Lohoefener, Regional Director, Pacific Southwest Region, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

We manage many interests that are imperiled by the drought this year.  We need cool water for the national fish hatcheries, our national wildlife refuge system depends on water for waterfowl and other trust species and of course we have trust species of fish, especially the Delta smelt.  I’m happy to say that so far this year, this plan is in full compliance with the 2008 biological opinion, and we’re not seeing any need for deviation from that opinion.

Will Stelle, Regional Administrator, West Coast Region, National Marine Fisheries Service

I think both Mark and David described the details of what this immediate action is, and I’d be happy to get into answering more queries about it in the Q&A period.

I would like to step back a little bit to the bigger picture portrait that Mark was also trying to paint about the significant efforts underway right now to develop a seasonal and 2014-2015 drought operations plan that takes into account and tries to target some of these longer term stewardship objectives for what are obviously scarce water resources.  At the same time, as we are crafting our approaches here, we are mindful of the fact that these are difficult to do and the likelihood that there’s going to be lots of disagreements about them is pretty high because this is California water in a difficult year.  And therefore we are being careful in what we do here to make sure that the adjustments that we’re making are based upon sound science as we understand it, that we can justify these adjustments, and that we can defend these adjustments when challenged, so that we can implement them and realize the benefits that this flexibility is intended to achieve.

We’ve received lots of different proposals from lots of different corners to do all sorts of different things over the course of this period of time, and we’ve landed on these measures because we think we can justify them, and defend them, and implement them successfully and realize the benefits they are going to provide both for water supplies and for managing freshwater resources and for the environmental purposes that Mark outlined.

So those are important points of reference for us.  This is not simply an empty exercise; we intend to implement these measures to secure those benefits for California.  And that is an important touchstone for us in everything we do.

I’ll stop there.

Chuck Bonham, Director of the California Department of Fish and Game

After a few quick thoughts of mine, we’ll turn to Q&A.  I’ve said to some of you before that in my opinion, we’re going to make it through this period because we’re working together, and if you are keeping track, since about the end of January, the five agencies, the two federal fish and wildlife agencies, and my department as well as the two water supply agencies have collaborated to manage at least half a dozen changes which allow us to achieve additional flexibility while still remaining within the boundaries of the existing and applicable laws and regulations.

On the state front, under the state Endangered Species Act, typically what happens is the DWR will consult with my department; my department has the benefit of the NMFS or USFWS findings about the proposed changes pursuant to the federal biological opinions and our department will review and then concurs that the findings are consistent with coverage under the California Endangered Species Act. We know right now that we’ve got most of our major fish species in or about the reach the Delta, and at the same time that we know these are our last likely major rainstorm events which matter a lot for water supply.

To be blunt about it, on every decision we’re making here, some constituents will believe we did not go far enough and other constituents will believe we went too far, and I think that’s a reflection of the challenge and the circumstances we’re in.

So with that …

Notes form the discussion period

Mark Cowin:

About the amount of the increased pumping (paraphrased): Roughly we would see roughly 7,000 to 10,000 acre-feet per day than we would have, had we not implemented this change.  Don’t’ know how long this can be sustained, depends on extend of this storm and any follow up storms.  50,000 to 75,000 acre-feet potentially over the week, if conditions allow.

Regarding effect on SWP allocations (paraphrased):Not sure how it will affect allocations.  SWP stands at 0 allocation.  Looking to put the additional water into storage for a potentially dry 2015.  Consider any allocation adjustment within a couple of weeks.

Regarding whether shortage is due to drought or regulations:  “The great majority of water shortage caused this year is purely a basis of drought, it’s not regulations.  Even without regulations we would have very dry conditions this year.”

Will Steele:

On the parameters of the biological opinions (paraphrased): The I/E (inflow/export) ratio, a sort of proportional pumping rule, is one of about five different parameters that are currently operating that are trying to reduce or avoid adverse effects of CVP and SWP operations on migrating juveniles.  The others remain in place, they are:

  • Negative OMR rules – they stipulate a limitation on whatever pumping may be occurring, controlled by how negative the flows are generated by that pumping in Old and Middle Rivers.  A principal parameter for reducing any significant undue strain into the south Delta.  They say no more pumping than will generate negative 5000 cfs in old and middle river with variations on a five day rolling average of up to -6250.
  • Salvage Density Parameters – if the OMRs are not serving to avoid undue strain into the south Delta and we’re seeing juvenile fish at the pumping facilities that meet or exceed these density rates, then they also kick in and will reduce pumping.

On additional protections: “We are also with the Bureau and DWR implementing some additional adjustments that can improve things for juveniles to try to offset the potential risks of this short term increased pumping operation, including a provision that we will be implementing a preferential pumping regime using the federal system as the primary pumps because the incidental take associated with the operation of the federal system is significantly lower than that associated with the state system.”

David Murillo:

Regarding the federal agricultural allocations:  “We’re taking a look at what the hydrology is right now currently and what we’re doing is seeing if we can make any adjustments.  Those that do have allocations assigned to them.  We have some that have 40% allocations and some that have somewhat different than that, we may be looking at making those adjustments.  Those that have 0 allocation applied to them right now, even if we have an improvement in the hydrology here in the near future, we don’t see that those numbers would go off of zero.”

(Note: This post was originally published on April 1 at 5:12PM.  Time stamp adjusted to move position on the front page.)

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