This just in … Media Call: Administration officials release Drought Operations Plan, request to extend provisions of Temporary Urgency Change Petitions through June

This just in

On Wednesday afternoon, administration officials held a media call to discuss the release of the Drought Operations Plan and the latest request of the federal state and water projects to extend the provisions in the Temporary Urgency Change Petition that dictate Delta outflow and export limits for May through June.

On the media call today is Mark Cowin from the Department of Water Resources, David Murillo from the Bureau of Reclamation, Chuck Bonham form the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Dan Casgtelberry from the USFWS, and Maria Rea from NOAA.

Here’s what they had to say.

Mark Cowin, Department of Water Resources

I ‘ll start by saying I don’t think anyone’s enjoyed the recent storm events in Northern California more than I have recently, but it’s pretty clear that our dry and warm weather has returned and I expect that the reality of drought will become much more apparent to us moving forward.  So despite these recent storms, as you all know, we’re still suffering very low reservoir storage levels, and snowpack is also very low so we must continue to plan for a very dry 2014 and prepare for a potentially dry 2015.  That means we need to continue to use every drop of water wisely and probably with more consideration than we ever have before, so I’d like to start this by renewing our call for all Californians to conserve water, do everything they can to help get us through this crisis.

Also, since December of 2013, the state and federal agencies that are in this room have been working together to eek out as much regulatory flexibility as possible and adapt quickly to changing weather and environmental conditions to bolster water supplies to the extent possible while minimizing impacts to fish and wildlife.  Our collective goal in working together is to balance the operations of the state water project and the Central Valley Project to provide for whatever limited water supplies are possible while maintaining adequate water quality and minimal environmental protections in this extraordinarily dry year, even as we know many water users as well as fish and wildlife will suffer hardship this year.

We’ve made a number of different decisions regarding project operations over the course of the last three months which we have attempted to communicate in real time.  What this drought operations plan does for the first time this year is allow us to put those decisions in context and also frame the decisions before us in a way we haven’t been able to do up until now, describe the major goals in project operations and the balance we are trying to strike between the different objectives we’re pursuing.

As you know, this is a plan that was prepared primarily by the Department of Water Resources and the US Bureau of Reclamation, but we have done so in close collaboration and with technical assistance from the US FWS, the NMFS, CDFW and SWRCB.  We’ve all been working to prepare this comprehensive drought operations plan that describes the cumulative impacts of the decisions we’ve made on operations up until now and provide a framework for future water management decisions through essentially the rest of 2014.

This has been an extraordinary effort on the part of the staff of all of our agencies and I’d like to take a moment to personally thank them for their professionalism and dedication.  This has been difficult work under extremely harsh circumstances, and they’ll have my thanks.

I describe this plan as a framework rather than a blueprint because we will continue to consider changes in hydrology and other conditions as we consider the water management decisions that are laid out in the plan.  Importantly the plan is based upon hydrologoic conditions as of early March.  Since that time, we received above average  precipitation.

For those of you who take the deep dive into this plan, you’ll see to support the analysis that’s included in the plan, we include two bookend forecasts to frame the ramifications of the decisions we are contemplating.  Both of those forecasts are based on hydrology as it occurred up until March 1, but we consider a dry forecast which includes extremely dry conditions for March 1 forward, and then to bookend that, we also consider an average forecast to contemplate what might happen if conditions are improved from March 1st or forward.  Obviously we’ve had pretty good conditions in March, so just one caveat as you review the plan – at this point we can say that we’re more likely to achieve the conditions described under the 50% or average forecast described in the past than the more dire 90% forecast that’s included in the plan.  Of course, we’re working very hard right now to update the information based upon the April 1 snow survey and forecasts that we are developing as we speak.

Perhaps with that I’ll also point to a future decision that is described in the plan regarding emergency salinity barriers in the Delta.  Just to frame this a bit, the DWR began contemplating the need for these emergency salinity barriers back in December, when we were experiencing historically dry conditions.  We went about the process of looking at what combinations of barriers might accomplish. Our real concern was being able to maintain enough water in our upstream reservoirs above the so called dead pool, where you reach a point where you can’t make adequate releases from those reservoirs in order to provide for any number of different needs including species needs and importantly, the need to control salinity in the Delta.  This means having enough water to push salt back through the tidal action that occurs between the Bay and the Delta to maintain fresh enough water that folks can access it through the state and federal water projects but also the cities and farmers that draw their water directly from the Delta.

I will note that we have pursued the planning including the acquisition of a number of permits and potential contracting necessary to install those barriers, but we have always considered this a contingency plan and we’ll only implement it under very dire circumstances.  I’m going to withhold making news on whether or not we’re going to do that today, but note that we are going to incorporate our April 1 forecasts and make a determination on the need to go forward with barriers within the next couple of weeks, and at this point, it would appear to be less of a likelihood that we would have thought a few months ago.

For those that have looked at the plan or plan to look the Drought Operations Plan, just a quick overview.  It includes an introduction, and describes some of the purposes of the plan.  It describes 2014 water conditions and the operations and some of the decisions we’ve made collectively as state and federal agencies on those operations, for January through March.  Then it describes some of the critical operational considerations, and these are the real drivers for how we will endeavor to balance operations in this historically dry year.  Starting with maintaining enough water for essential human health and safety needs, maintaining salinity control in the Delta with or without emergency drought barriers, preserving reserves for 2015, having enough water in upstream water reservoirs that there is enough cold water in those reservoirs to provide for species needs, providing for refuge water supplies, and facilitating creative exchanges and water transfers willing buyers and sellers might want to engage in to move water to its most critical purposes.

The next part of the plan provides this overview of 2014 operations and forecasts, and then we get into some of the proposed decisions both those that are immediately before us and those that we will contemplate as we move through the year, starting with proposed upstream tributary operations for April through the rest of the year.  These are decisions primarily aimed at assuring that there is enough flow and cold water to provide for minimal species needs in those upstream tributaries.

The next part of the plan contemplates the decisions that we are prospering now for April and May, including extension of the temporary urgency change petitions that we previously asked the executive director of the board to approve; we will be asking to extend those same provisions that dictate outflow and export limits for May through June.

The next part of the plan looks a little further out at potential actions that might be needed for June through the end of the year, essentially, and includes considerations of relaxations in salinity requirements, in the Delta that might be necessary either with or without these emergency salinity barriers.

Then there’s some follow-up sections on measures to offset some of the impacts of operations that we’ve taking this year, measures to offset to San Joaquin steelhead in particular, and some of the emergency fisheries monitoring and science that we want to endeavor to complete so we can get as much knowledge as we can out of this particular crisis and improve our decision making capability.

Attached to the plan are about one hundred pages or so of very detailed technical appendices which support the decisions and frame the future decisions that are in the plan.  A whole lot of information here. I think is our first opportunity to frame all the decisions we have made and are contemplating this year and describe that balance between water supply, water quality, and environmental protection that we are striving to maintain. …

And with that ..

David Murillo, Bureau of Reclamation

 … This is a five agency collaborative effort, and one thing I want to mention is we are getting this plan out, but we are not done.  We will continue to work with our stakeholders and do our best to address their concerns and trying to minimize the impact.  We know that that’s going to be an ongoing effort for the rest of the year … about increased water supplies for our water users.  We’ll do our best to try and address that within the next week or two …

Chuck Bonham, Department of Fish and Wildlife

Severe drought presents significant peril and risks which is true for fish and wildlife just as it is for people and agriculture.  I think the bottom line newsworthy aspect of today is you now have before you one plan from many agencies for seven months instead of disparate plans from a lot of agencies about isolated decisions and actions.  It’s the first time we’ve been able to come with one plan from our relevant agencies that will take us seven months out, and I think that’s an important milestone. …

Dan Castleberry, US Fish and Wildlife Service

 … I want to point out from a fish and wildlife perspective that we as well as being interested in or focused on fish in the Delta, Delta smelt for us in particular, we also have concerns with refuges and hatcheries, and you’ll see both refuges and hatcheries addressed at different places in this plan as well.

Maria Rea, NOAA Fisheries

We appreciate working very intensively with the project agencies, DWR and BOR on their requests for flexibility for the biops in place under the FESA for salmon, and through those discussions, we’ve been able to provide that flexibility while also ensuring that our decisions are based on the best available science.  This plan is accompanied by an extensive biological review that has pulled together all the current real time information for this water year in hydrology and species needs, and all of that has been considered as we looked to provide the endangered species act assurances on this plan that were sought.  And so in that regards, the BOR transmitted this plan to us yesterday for concurrence under the ESA and we have concurred on that plan as of yesterday evening that the plan is consistent with the biological opinions that are currently in place.

I also would just highlight that through these conversations we’ve had and through the ability to look at the project comprehensively, we found solutions that wouldn’t have otherwise have found, and I would particularly call attention to very encouraging conversations that are still ongoing with some of the senior water rights holders, the Sacramento Settlement Contractors, and their willingness to withhold some of their current diversions in April and May, push those back into late May or June in order to provide for additional cold water in Shasta, and that will have a significant benefit to endangered species listed winter run Chinook salmon this summer, so we’re very thankful for those discussions and those voluntary actions.

Note:  Due to transcription under harsh circumstances and the late hour, I’m not going to cover questions.  But you can listen here – questions start about 19 minutes in.  Audio recording of media call

For more information …


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constantly watching over the world of California water

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