This just in … Media call: Federal and state officials announce increased SWP allocations to 5%, water for refuges, barriers in the Delta, and actions being taken to benefit fish

Earlier this afternoon, the Department of Water Resources held a drought update media call.  On the call today, Mark Cowin, Director of the Department of Water Resources; Chuck Bonham, Director of Department of Fish and Wildlife; David Murillo, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Ren Lohefener, US Fish and Wildlife Service; and Maria Rea, NOAA Fisheries.

Here’s what they said.

Mark Cowin, Department of Water Resources

Last week, state and federal agencies rolled out our Drought Operations Plan that details SWP and CVP operational priorities for this year, describes some of the measures that we’ve taken to date, and laid out some additional measures that we’re considering for the rest of the year in our continuing effort to balance water supply, water quality, and environmental protection in this very critically dry year.

One thing that we stressed in the plan is that we need to continue to update our actions based upon the most recent hydrologic information and forecasts, and that’s what we’ve been working at for the last couple of weeks, specifically trying to incorporate April forecasts, including snowpack information and runoff that we received from March storms, into the decisions that are before us.

So based upon that work, we’re ready to make a set of decisions and announcements today.  I’m going to lead things off with a couple of announcements from the State Water Project side, and then ask David Murillo to speak to actions that the federal Central Valley Project will be taking.

One of the more critical issues that we’ve looked at over the course of this year is how to maintain salinity control in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.  Back in early January when we were in the midst of what appeared to be historical drought year, we began some contingency planning on emergency salinity barriers for the Delta.  These would be temporary rock structures that we would place in channels in order to reduce the need for releases from upstream reservoirs in order to push salt water back into the bay and maintain fresh enough water in the Delta for diversion and use by all of those who depend upon those diversions.

We had honed our plan down to a proposal to install three of these temporary barriers – two barriers in the northern Delta on Sutter Slough and Steamboat Slough and one barrier in the Western Delta on west False River.  We’ve continued to look at the need for those barriers in light of the precipitation, snow and rainfall that we received in February and March, and we’re ready to make the decision today that we can defer our plan to install those barriers.  We’ve looked at weighing the balance between the potential water savings the barriers would provide, and what the downside of barriers are that include considerable impacts to fisheries; water quality impacts to a subset of Delta diverters that would be on the wrong side of those barriers; the considerable expense associated with installing the barriers estimated about $30 million; and importantly, the trade-off between meeting water quality standards in the Delta with and without the barriers, so we now estimate and forecast that we’ll be able to maintain adequate water quality within the Delta without the barriers.  There will be modest water costs in additional releases from upstream reservoirs, but that will be offset if we’re granted out petition to the state board to change a key salinity compliance point on the Sacramento River known as the Emmaton Standard, and move that upstream a few miles to Three Mile Slough.

So with that in mind at this point in time, we are deferring our plan to install barriers.  We would have potentially begin construction in the next couple of weeks, but we’re going to put that off for now and continue to monitor the situation. Some communities that draw water from the Delta remain concerned that they have adequate water quality to meet drinking water standards, so we will continue to monitor the situation and revisit the need for barriers if things don’t break the way we expect them to.

With that in mind, we’re going to continue to complete the permitting process for the barriers and go ahead with some contracting for some of the critical materials necessary to construct the barriers so that we will be ready to move quickly if things don’t break as we expect them to later this summer or fall.

So that was the first announcement, the second announcement is that due to those improvements in storage from March and April precipitation, we are able to announce an increase in SWP allocation from that historic 0 to 5% allocation.  This is a small amount of water of course compared to the amounts of water normally delivered by the SWP.  It amounts to a little over 200,000 acre-feet of water, but even that is considerable in this extremely dry year and will allow some increased flexibility for providing for exchanges of water between water agencies and more flexibility in getting water to its most critical points of need.

One caveat goes along with that allocation.  We are asking our water contractors not to take delivery any of that new water before September 1st, so that we can hold it in storage in San Luis Reservoir, south of the Delta.  The higher reservoir storage will allow us to maintain water quality for deliveries to Santa Clara Valley through the year, so even with that caveat, this is all of a bit of good news in an otherwise very bleak water year.  And before I turn things over to David, let me just once again say that I just cannot over emphasize the continuing need for all Californians to use water as efficiently as possible over the course of the coming dry hot months.

And with that …

David Murillo, US Bureau of Reclamation

He talked about the current conditions and how we’re able to take advantage of those so I’ll just talk briefly about some of the decisions we made.  So based on our review, we’ve also concluded that we can increase water supplies for the north of Delta senior contractors, that’s the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors, so they’ll be going up from a 40% water supply up to a 75% water supply.  In addition to that, we’re also able to increase the north of Delta refuge water supply from a 40% to a 75% water supply.

The one thing I want to mention is that we have been working with Sacramento River Settlement Contractors this last several weeks and we’ve worked out a flow schedule that not only provides them their deliveries to meet the 75% water supply for the Sac River Settlement Contractors but it also, in addition to that, it helps address some temperature targets we are needing to meet on the Sacramento River so we really do appreciate the work that they’ve done with us. We also do appreciate the work and collaboration that we’ve had with the fish agencies to try and develop this flow schedule that not only meets the needs of the deliveries but also the temperature requirements.

That’s all I have, thank you.

Chuck Bonham, Department of Fish and Wildlife

Three or four quick things.  I can’t underscore enough our Department’s appreciation for the collaboration with Mark and the DWR and their decision and announcement decision about barriers is substantial because it helps avoid further impacts to fisheries in this sensitive drought atmosphere.  I would say the same for David and the close and willing collaboration by him and the Bureau. Their announcement today that they intend to bring the north of Delta refuges up to 75% allocation is good news for the couple hundred thousand Californians who hunt, fish, and otherwise recreate on our public lands, and the tens of millions of birds that use them on the Pacific Flyway, and I think Ren Lohefener will tell you a little more about that in a minute.

Our Department today is also announcing that we’re taking immediate steps to go out in the field and implement emergency monitoring, particularly around winter run and the upper Sacramento.  Winter run are not yet out of the woods even though the hydrology is improving some, so in close coordination with the NMFS and the USFWS, we expect to be out in the field.  We expect to be doing things like additive monitoring, creating temperature monitoring stations in the upper Sacramento, placing water level and temperature sensors in appropriate indicator locations, and pulling our environmental scientists and fisheries biologists into important secondary river tributary channels.  We’ll be keeping an eye on things like redds, which are the river spots where new fish eggs are incubating, keeping an eye on dewatering, keep an eye on juvenile fish stranding, and in particular keeping an eye on temperature criteria at certain key locations for winter run.

Simultaneously, you will remember last week when we discussed the Drought Operations Plan that there’s a reference in that plan to Attachment 1, which is our Delta smelt monitoring plan, through the end of the year.  Our Department with our federal counterparts next week will be focusing on making sure that the resources on those monitoring elements around smelt like making sure we’ve got the capacity to do the supplemental sampling we need, run each of these studies through the (indistinguishable) efficiency studies.

And also in the Drought Operations Plan, there is Attachment J which is our science and monitoring plan for salmon and steelhead.  We’ll be doing the same thing next week and through the immediate time frame ahead of us to make sure we’ve got the capacity immediately deployed in the field for our field crews, for our additional monitoring stations and maybe bringing in some new technology like cameras, acoustic arrays, and (indistinguishable).

And then we’re also announcing today that our department anticipates later this year in collaboration with NMFS and FWS being able to go out and complete some of the good common sense non-flow habitat fixes in the upper Sacramento for the benefit of winter, spring and fall run, things like we know we have some passage problems at Small Bends or real surgical habitat restoration projects, all of which are for benefit of fish need to be done and we anticipate to do some of those things towards the end of this year.

And I know Maria is going to talk about it next, but I would just say David described an incredible discussion with the Sacramento Valley CVP contractors to meet their 75% allocation but do it in a way that’s fish friendly, and to me that’s exactly the thing the agencies have been talking with you all about, going through this difficult together is the way we can come up with solutions which are good for farmers and for fish.  And I think Maria will explain that a little more.

Ren Lohefener, US Fish and Wildlife Service

I’ll just pick up from Chuck and reiterate Chuck’s gratitude to DWR, DFW, SWRCB, BOR, and NOAA fisheries, without whose great collaboration getting through this dry year has been really difficult. It’s been difficult as it is, but it would have been much more so without that level of collaboration.

As Chuck said, the refuges in the Central Valley are just a remnant of the wetlands that have been lost in the last 150 years, and there’s a whole host of waterfowl, shorebirds, threatened and endangered species that rely upon those refuges in addition to the public.

We’re in a very much drought year in California extending all the way up to the Klamath Basin, but they’ve actually had a wet year up in Canada which has really increased the production of waterfowl, so until just recently, we were looking at a really bad situation of probably great number of birds coming down from Canada this fall and they would find no water on the refuges and very little water in the traditionally wet rice fields.  Certainly the situation isn’t great but with the recent announcements by the BOR and some precipitation up north, it’s looking a lot better than it was.  I certainly thank BOR for really watching that situation and helping those state, federal and private refuges out there and resources that depend upon them.

National fish hatcheries up in the northern part of California – we will continue to manage that on an event by event measure while we’re in this drought.  You know those fish hatcheries pretty much produce salmon throughout the year.  It’s definitely our preference as best science to release those salmon in the rivers close to the hatcheries.  Earlier this year, we were prevented from doing that, from the warm water and low water conditions. We had to truck the salmon.  That’s not a good solution, we don’t’ think, and we’re going to try and get back to releasing those fish in the river, which we’ve done most recently.  Hopefully we’ll be able to do that for the remainder of the year.

We’ve got about two months to go to get out of the Delta smelt water year.  Right now we’re in the juvenile Delta smelt phase, so far we haven’t’ seen any indications that those Delta smelt are being entrained by water operations and we certainly hope that that continues for the next two months and we kinda think it will, so that will be a good thing.

Maria Rea, NOAA Fisheries

I’ll just highlight my thanks to the other agencies for the great collaboration and highlight a couple of things we’ve been working on in the last week.

First, we continue to focus our attention on projected poor temperature conditions in the upper Sacramento River as a result of the low storage at Shasta, and again those temperatures affect endangered winter run Chinook salmon that spawn in the summer, and their eggs need cool temperatures to incubate successfully throughout the summer and into the early fall.  The March projections in our previous plan that we approved looked pretty grim for those species. We’ve worked very closely over the last week with Reclamation to update those forecasts, given new hydrology and given the shifted diversion pattern which I’ll go into a bit more depth – both of those things have resulted in improved Shasta storage.  We’re seeing some improved temperature profiles that show that it’s possible we’ll have some successful production of that species this summer, so that’s really good to see.

It comes as a result of some very hard work, and I really want to thank the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors and the leadership of the BOR for engaging in a new operation.  The settlement contractors have agreed to shift the timing of their diversions.  Normally they would start diverting water for their growing season in March, April and into May; they have largely shifted that timing to start in May and go into June.  As a result of that, they’ve been able to save, we estimate, about 132,000 to150,000 acre-feet of water in Shasta for storage. That water will be delivered to them later in the season in June, July, and August when temperatures are very hot, and cold water will  be delivered, and successfully we hope maintain egg incubation temperatures for winter run Chinook salmon.

As a result of those temperature profiles, Reclamation sent to us a request with that information to support a 75% allocation for the Sac River Settlement Contractors and north of Delta refuges this morning, and as of about half an hour ago, we were able to sign off on that a letter of agreement and that’s available for posting, so again I think that shifting of the diversions and the dallying of the growing seasons, by doing that they Sac River Settlement Contractors have made a significant contributions to conserving winter run Chinook salmon and done that in a very collaborative and solution oriented approach.  It’s a good example of what can be done through collaboration in some really tough conditions.

The second thing I’ll just briefly highlight is very thankful for DFW’s leadership on expediting a lot of the monitoring that we’ll still need to do this summer.  The species is not out of the woods.  We’re still very concerned and have a contingency plan in place and we’ll be working in partnership with DFW to get increased monitoring in place.  And we look forward to also expediting some restoration projects that have been on the books for a while and seeing what can be done to try and offset additional affects that will occur later this summer and fall.  And I’ll stop there, thanks.

Discussion highlights

Regarding CVP allocations, David Murillo:  What we did here is we did some modeling for the Sac River Settlement Contractors.  The full forecast, we’ll be completing that modeling here in the next 7 to 10 days, and what we’re going to do is we’ll go ahead and plug in some of the decisions that were made today so increasing some of the allocations and also no barriers, so there’s a number of things we’ll plug into that in addition to the new hydrology, and then what we’ll do is the next 7 to 10 days, we’ll see what the impacts will be to the south of Delta.  In addition to that, we’re also sitting down with exchange contractors and some of the other ones and just talking through what ideas they have to maybe help increase water supplies, so that package should go out to the fish agencies within the next 7 to 10 days and we probably would come out with some type of announcement of an adjustments soon after that.  As far as M&I, right now, all the rest of the M&I users even south of Delta, they still remain at 50%.

In comparison to 1991, Mark Cowin: Yes there was a higher allocation of water in 91 and reservoir storage was looking a bit worse at this point in time; however, snowpack was looking better at that point in time, and of course it’s the combination of those two things that really drive our decision making, so that’s one part of the equation here.  The other part of course is just the regulatory environment that the projects operate in.  I was looking back at SWP allocations and sort of surprised to see that back in 1977, we actually allocated 90% to urban agencies and I think that is largely a reflection of the balance struck in 1977 between environmental purposes and water supply and water quality purposes versus the way we’re drawing that balance today.

Regarding the possibility of increasing SWP allocation, Mark Cowin:  We will consider the next forecast at the end of April.  Frankly I would be very surprised if there’s any additional increase at this point in time.

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