2014 Water Year, part 1: A review of the third year of the drought: How the administration responded, an overview of SWP operations

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At the November meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, council members heard from numerous agency and water officials on how the state responded to the drought. In his introduction to the agenda item, Supervising Engineer Kevan Samsam reminded the Council, “Never will the coequal goals be more tested than in one of these epic droughts. I think what we will hear today is that there was a lot of work done, a lot of hard decisions made … we bent, but nothing broke. Everybody suffered a little, including the environment, but nobody failed. A lot of work and a lot of effort was done to save the environment and to save the fisheries as well as everybody’s water supply.”

This panel will be covered in three parts, grouped together more by topic and not by the actual sequence in which they presented.

Part 1 will begin with Karla Nemeth, Deputy Secretary for Water Policy with the California Natural Resources Agency; Charles Rabamad, Assistant Director for Recovery with the Cal Office of Emergency Services; and John Leahigh, Principal Engineer with the State Water Project.

Part 2, posting on Wednesday, will feature Eric Oppenheimer, Director with the State Water Resources Control Board’s Office of Research, Planning and Performance; Dr. Richard Howitt, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis; and Bill Croyle, DWR’s Drought Manager.

Part 3, posting on Thursday, will feature with Mary Scruggs, Supervising Engineering Geologist with DWR, Mike Chotkowski, Field Supervisor with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Bay-Delta Fish and Wildlife Office, and Tom Gohring, Executive Director of the Sacramento Water Forum.

Karla Nemeth, Deputy Secretary for Water Policy in California Natural Resources Agency

Karla Nemeth noted the upcoming panels of experts who are doing double and triple duty on managing the drought, and said, “I have the honor to be in more of a coordinating role with the Governor’s office,” she said. The Drought Task Force is where all the elements are brought together, from environmental monitoring to working with water agencies to reduce use, to bringing in resources to areas where the drought impacts are acute. “It’s certainly been an education for me about all of the considerations around managing a drought, and particularly as it has the potential to deepen over the course of the next 12 months.”

DSC Nemeth 2The Governor convened the Drought Task Force in December 2013 as the state was coming off the driest calendar year on record; that was followed up by three executive orders. “The January 17 order which declared the state of emergency essentially enabled different state agencies, particularly the State Board and the Department of Water Resources, to work more closely together in understanding how we might operate the state and federal water projects moving forward in drought conditions so that we could take advantage of real time storm events and make sure we were planning for human health and safety needs, as well as longer terms needs in terms of preserving storage in the system in the event of a dry 2015. And also addressing some of the species needs and preserving cold water pool.”

We started a very intensive effort to start balancing human health and safety needs with environmental considerations in the state as many of the state’s ecosystems were becoming increasingly taxed, all of this done in the rubric of water rights,” she said. “I think it really was a year in which the state of California went to its bedrock water rights system and exercised that structure in a way that it hadn’t had to do before, so these were really the themes that guided all of our activities over the spring.”

In April, the Governor released another executive order that was largely geared at helping us manage through wildfire season; that was also the time at which the Governor went into the more advanced water conservation needs for the state of California,” said Ms. Nemeth. “Then in September of this year, as we got through the bulk of some of the immediate questions on how to manage the water supply system, the Governor issued a third executive order in September that was heavily focused on some of the more acute water needs in rural parts of the state.”

Ms. Nemeth said there are multiple ways in which they are monitoring conditions. At the broad water agency level, the State Water Board is collecting data from the water agencies. “The water conservation efforts underway in the state are going to continue to be very important as the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation start to make their allocations coming up for this next water year, which are anticipated to be very low.”

Lake Oroville, September 2014

Lake Oroville, September 2014

The Departments of Health and Human Services and others are working with federal agencies to provide food assistance, bottled water, hauling and other things in places having acute problems with drinking water supplies, she said.

We’ve also engaged with UC Davis to do a study of the impacts of the drought, and that has been helpful, she said. “I think that was one of the lessons learned from 2009 was to get a little bit ahead on how we might start to assess the impacts on the agricultural sector, what are some of the things we can do as the effects of the drought deepen, and how we can best focus our resources on really trying to mitigate some of the economic damage to the agricultural sector.”

There has also been monitoring efforts underway of the stream resources, fishery resources, waterfowl and other species that have been affected by essentially the third year of drought, she said.

The legislature passed an emergency drought bill this year that provided over $400 million for the Integrated Regional Water Management program. “We knew the grants weren’t going to necessarily affect 2014, but we really wanted to get state monies out the door for local projects that were close to ready to go that could help minimize the effect of drought should it continue into 2015. We issued about $200 million of those grants in October of this year; we have another $200 million that we will issue next spring.”

Right now the state and federal water agencies are heavily focused on how they might manage for a dry 2015,” said Ms. Nemeth. “The next significant effort in that will be a water operations plan due to the state water board in January of 2015. There will be a lot of lessons learned about how we managed the system and some of our assumptions that were in place last spring, some of the lessons learned about how we were able to move water and what works best with some of our species monitoring and how we make some adjustments that can continue to balance the species needs with the needs for water users in other parts of the state.”

The general expectation is even if we get significant rains, the depletions of the groundwater basins is so intense and just the dryness of the ground, in all likelihood, we will have another year of low allocations,” she said. “We’ll really see some of the programs that were initiated this year really ratcheting up where more urban water agencies start to activate their water contingency plans. We’ll continue to monitor some of the more acute drinking water needs in parts of the state and provide for water supplies, whether that’s through hauling or in some places where appropriate, if there’s well drilling that’s necessary.”

So I think with that …

Charles Rabamad, Assistant Director for Recovery, Cal Office of Emergency Services

Charles Rabamad then discussed how Cal Office of Emergency Services (OES) has been responding to the drought.  He began by saying that from the day when the Governor first declared a state of emergency, they activated the SEMS (Standardized Emergency Management System) and began the coordination between the Governor, the state agencies, and the locals, which aided in the flow of information from the locals through the region and to the state. “We dealt with the issues when we found there was a public health and safety issue, or unmet needs immediately, and we provided a type of funding from different state agencies to deal with water system, food assistance, or other assistance.” He said the state operations center is still activated and state agencies remain engaged.

DSC Rabamad 1The Drought Task Force established working groups to deal with small water systems, critical water assistance, food assistance, bottled water, utility and rent, agricultural community impacts, air quality, electricity, and habitat.

One area where there were a lot of unmet needs not covered by any existing programs were individual well systems with less than 15 connections, he said.   “You hear about a lot of communities running out of water with dry wells, so on Sept 19, 2014, the Governor issued an executive order authorizing the California disaster assistance act program to provide funding for emergency water delivery. That is to provide any type of installation of tanks, water delivery to homes, bottled water, emergency water supplies for sanitation, and providing portable toilets.

To prepare for a possible dry 2015, Mr. Rabamad said they were leading the effort on long-term drought planning. “We’re looking at increasing water storage, more conservation measures, implementing existing programs, providing more funding, and creating new programs, as well as providing funding for local agencies to start their long term planning. We felt that they have to have a drought plan for the future, and this is something that we are working on providing.”

We’re tracking all these costs and we’re looking at the impacts and by next year, and if we feel that it’s beyond the local and state capability, we can assure you that we are going to request federal assistance from FEMA to provide funding,” he concluded.

John Leahigh, principal engineer with the State Water Project’s operations office, SWP Operations

Item_9_Panel_1_Leahigh_Presentation_Page_02John Leahigh then gave a summary of the operation of the State Water Project for the year.  “To sum up this year from a water manager’s perspective, it started out quite terrifying, and this graphic was really the one that put the fear of God in us as far as what we were potentially facing, worst case, for this past year,” he said, presenting a graph of precipitation totals for the water year. “At this point in time, January 29th, we typically would see about half of the precipitation for the northern Sierra. Now granted the other data points are the complete water years, whereas 2014 was about half of what we’d expect up to that time, so as you can see, that trend would have taken us not only an outlier, but significantly drier than anything we’d ever seen at that point.”

Another way to put it, in comparison, this year we are actually running below average precipitation since October 1st, but we received more rain in this October through November 1st than we had all the way up until January 29th of last year’s water year,” he said. “That’s not an indication of how well we’re doing this year, but absolutely dismal last year was.”

Item_9_Panel_1_Leahigh_Presentation_Page_03There was no snowpack and no precipitation to speak of. “When I was before this Council in July giving a presentation on salinity management in the Delta, at that time I spoke about how critical it was for the State Water Project and Central Valley Project to store water in the winter in order to release that stored water in the summertime to repel salinity intrusion from occurring in the summer and the fall of the following year,” he said, presenting a graph depicting forecasted insufficient storage for salinity control. He noted that the green bars indicate the average amount in storage that would be in Shasta Oroville, and Folsom, and the orange bars indicate how much was forecasted to be available. “Typically we will see storage gains and already we were coming into this year, slightly greater than half of what would be normal at that time in January. We were forecasting that we would not be collecting any additional storage during the winter and get to record low conditions by the end of September.”

Mr. Leahigh then presented a graph of the Northern California 8-station Index, noting that it shows the precipitation for a number of years, including this year and last year. He noted that the blue line is last year’s precipitation which ended up at 31.3. “You can see the very dry conditions that occurred for that blue line early on through the end of January,” he said. “We did see above average precipitation that really saved us in that February-March period and got us above the outliers in terms of precipitation through the rest of the year.”

He said this year, we’re at 4.3 inches, but that does not include recent precipitation. “We are very early in the water year, so depending on which trajectory we take at this point, if it’s more in the line of what we saw last year or the very dry years of 1977 or 1924, we’re talking about major economic and environmental issues associated with that path. If we’re something more in terms of a normal, perhaps we can start digging ourselves out of this extremely large hole that we’re in.”

Item_9_Panel_1_Leahigh_Presentation_Page_05He then put up a graphic and explained that it shows where the runoff resulting from the rains in February and March went in the system. “Starting upstream, the salmon color line shows some of that runoff was diverted to the upstream storage, so this essentially Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom,” he said. “This is the usual interaction of the projects with the system where we are diverting runoff to storage in the winter and spring for later release for salinity control and for temperature management on the rivers for the fishery for the summer and fall. You can see the salmon line drops below; these are storage withdrawals that are occurring beginning in May through the end of fall, and where we are currently as far as storage withdrawals to the system.”

He explained that the red line indicates the runoff that was exported from the projects. “Of course these levels were extremely low compared to normal years with very low allocation levels south of the Delta – only 5% for the SWP, for example,” he said. “There were a small number of water transfers that were moved in the summertime and those were on the nature of 200,000-300,000 acre-feet; they barely show up on this graph as far as the red line through the summer months.”

The remainder is the blue line that represents Delta outflow. “That’s the flow the environment ended up seeing as a result of these storms. The spring is the period when the water supply is showing up in the Delta and when the most sensitive fishery are in the Delta, so there’s a lot of interaction that needs to take place between the fishery agencies and the project agencies as far as day to day, real time decision making as far as managing those exports and those outflow requirements. This year, added to that, the State Water Board was more involved in the real time decision making, as far as doing the balancing with the scarce resources that were available and where were those resources going.”

Because of that dire picture early in the year, in January we petitioned the board for modifications of the Delta standards,” Mr. Leahigh said. “There were dramatic cutbacks in the promised deliveries to our contractors and other senior settlement contractors in the system. Because of the forecasting of the lack of storage for salinity control, we were moving very rapidly for plans for potentially putting in emergency drought barriers to help repel the salinity because of the lack of stored water available to the projects to serve that purpose, but once we received just enough precipitation to fill up some of the storage, we were then projecting that we would have enough storage to just manage that salinity conditions in the summer, so we backed off the emergency drought barrier plan. We actually pulled back from some of the requested modifications of standards as well.”

Item_9_Panel_1_Leahigh_Presentation_Page_06In January, there was salinity intrusion in the Delta, he said. “It was a very extraordinary event for that to occur in the middle of winter, but the lack of inflow created a condition where we came right up to the salinity standards at the State Water Project export facilities and the Central Valley Project export facilities as well, so those freshets did clean up the water quality, so that was the other use of that inflow.”

Item_9_Panel_1_Leahigh_Presentation_Page_07So because of February and March, conditions improved somewhat, so even though the forecast was still pretty low, it was certainly better than what we had been projecting earlier in January,” he said.

Item_9_Panel_1_Leahigh_Presentation_Page_08He then presented a bar graph of storage for Lake Oroville that was color coded to year type. “What you can see is that we often see a series of two or three below normal dry years and typically we’re mitigating the effects of those with withdrawals from storage,” he said. “Now unfortunately, our system is much more depending on the precipitation we receive on a year to year basis than the Colorado system which has orders of magnitude more storage. We’re much more dependent on a year to year precipitation totals. This is the trend that we’ve seen. One thing that jumps out at you here is the last seven of eight years have actually been below normal or drier, so we’re definitely in a dry stretch and we’re definitely testing our system to the limit.”

Item_9_Panel_1_Leahigh_Presentation_Page_09He then presented a similar bar graph, this one showing the SWP allocation coded by water year type. “You can see how that it follows the same general pattern as the storage,” he said. “This last year, we’ve seen an extremely low allocation because of the unprecedented and near-record breaking conditions we’ve seen, so the final review of what the level of runoff was that we saw, it was essentially about the fourth driest as far as the Sacramento Valley runoff … it’s by far the driest in recent record. The San Joaquin even drier – the second driest runoff for the San Joaquin, so we’re in a long stretch of dry, but this particular year was extraordinarily dry. This puts us in not so great position moving forward into 2015.”

My charge was to look at 2014, so I will conclude my remarks there,” said Mr. Leahigh.

Susan Tatayon asks, even if this year is normal, how long will it take to recover, given the conditions?

This is not going to be a quick recovery,” Mr. Leahigh replied.  “We’re talking years. And you saw it in one bar graph where we’ve allocations have been reduced through each subsequent year of this drought, and to the devastating low number this past year of only 5%. That has caused our member units to really dig deep within their own service areas, they are already digging deep, they’re digging a hole in their own service areas.   Even if we were able to get back to moderate levels of allocation at the state level, it’s going to take quite a while before they recoup those depleted groundwater basins, those depleted internal storages in their systems, so we’re most definitely looking at multiple years for recovery on this. And that’s assuming we get a string of good years to do it.”


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