2014 Water Year in Review, part 2: Urban water conservation, agricultural impacts, water transfers
At the November meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, council members heard from numerous agency and water officials on how the state has responded to the drought conditions. In this installment of the coverage, Eric Oppenheimer, Director with the State Water Resources Control Board’s Office of Research, Planning and Performance reviewed the statistics for urban water conservation; Dr. Richard Howitt, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics, at UC Davis, discussed the impacts of the drought on agriculture; and Bill Croyle, DWR’s Drought Manager, reviewed the water transfer activity for the year.
Eric Oppenheimer, State Water Resource Control Board, Office of Research, Planning and Performance
Eric Oppenheimer then discussed the State Water Resources Control Board’s emergency water conservation regulation.
He began with a review of the timeline. “In January, the Governor declared the drought emergency, and issued a call for all Californians to reduce their water use by 20%; there was also a directive to urban water suppliers to invoke or implement their water shortage contingency plans,” he said. “The drought declaration was then followed up with the April executive order, basically asking Californians to redouble their efforts on a number of fronts. Included in that executive order was a request to the State Water Board that we evaluate what urban water suppliers were doing and determine essentially if sufficient actions were being taken in terms of water conservation, and if needed, to adopt emergency regulations to compel further conservation.”
“So immediately following that executive order, in May, we put out a survey to the roughly 400 urban water suppliers in the state,” he said. “There are many more than 400, but we were focused on the 400 defined as urban water suppliers under the water code, so the ones with basically more than 3000 service connections or deliver more than 3000 acre-feet of water.”
The survey results showed that there were definitely districts doing a lot, but more could and should be done, he said. “So in July, the State Water Board adopted an emergency water conservation regulation; that regulation was approved by OAL, and because effective July 28th. It has a life of 270 days, so if it’s not continued or further action is not taken, it will expire sometime toward the end of April.”
Mr. Oppenheimer said the emergency regulation did a number of things. “First off, it included prohibited water uses that apply to all Californians across the state regardless of where they get their water supply from, whether it’s a large water supplier or a small one, whether it’s from a private well, it applies to everybody equally. It basically echoed what was in the Governor’s drought declaration in terms of what was considered wasteful practices, and it was pretty basic: You can’t wash your car with a hose that doesn’t have a shut-off nozzle, you can’t use or operate a fountain or aesthetic water feature unless the water is recirculated within the system; you can’t irrigate your lawn or your landscape to the extent that there is visible runoff from the site – water flowing down the gutter, and you can’t use water to wash your driveways or sidewalks. Pretty basic things, but they applied to everyone equally across the state.”
The emergency regulation also included directives toward urban water suppliers, he said. “For the 400 larger urban water suppliers, there is a requirement that they all invoke their water shortage contingency plan to the first stage, at a minimum, in their plan that requires a mandatory outdoor restriction on water use. It must be mandatory. … It also required monthly reporting from the large urban water suppliers. For the smaller suppliers, the ones with less than 3000 customers, or for those that did not adopt a shortage contingency plan, there was a requirement that they either go to two days a week watering or implement other comparable measures.”
“Lastly, the regulation included new enforcement tools that water suppliers and cities and counties can use. Primarily it bestowed upon these public agencies, the ability to issue citations, much like a moving violation, for violations of those prohibited water uses and it allowed them to fine water wasters up to $500 per infraction.”
He then presented a graphic showing water production for June through September for both 2014 and 2013. He noted that the blue bars are the water production by the 400 large water suppliers in 2013, and the yellow bars represent the production numbers for the same time period for 2014. “We clearly have seen a reduction in water production compared to last year,” he said. “If you add up all the savings across those four months, it equals about 77 billion gallons of water, which is significant. That’s roughly enough water to provide about a million Californians with their water supply for a year, so we’re talking about real savings here. It does appear that the regulations and the efforts by everybody in the state have resulted in significant savings.”
He then presented a graph showing the percentage reduction during that same four month period. “In June we were at 4.3%; we’ve sort of been edging our way up. In August and September, we hit roughly 10, 11%. It looks like things are leveling off.” He noted that they are collecting data for October now which will be reported at the December 2nd meeting. “We’re hoping that we’re still seeing significant savings; it’s certainly not the 20% that was in the Governor’s call, but it has been significant.”
The regulation also required water suppliers to estimate their residential gallons per capita per day use, he said. “There’s a lot of things that affect the quality of the data,” he said. “It is an estimate at this point. It’s very sensitive to estimates of how much population that a supplier serves, so if that data is off or if the water use data is off … We’ve put out guidance on how to calculate this, but there’s room for flexibility within that guidance. The Department of Water Resources also put out some fairly detailed guidance on how to get better estimates of the population within each one of these service areas. You might think that should be straight forward, but it’s not.”
Mr. Oppenheimer said that the data is posted in spreadsheet form on the State Water Board website that includes both the water production data and the residential gallons per capita per day estimates. “There are some caveats,” he said. “People tend to want to make comparisons from one district to another or from one area of the state to another, but you need to be careful when making comparisons that you take into account things like population growth, evapotranspiration, temperature, urban density, lot sizes … “
He then presented a slide showing the residential gallons per capita per day for the state’s hydrologic regions, noting that the blue bars depict per capita water use data and the yellow lines show the total percent reduction in water use for that region. “You can see there is a lot of variability in the data, but it is instructive when you look at areas like the San Francisco Bay area. I would expect fairly low per capita water use data and we see the San Francisco Bay region does in fact have 85 gallons per day. But that’s also combined with a 15.4% reduction in overall water use compared to last year, so to me that’s a pretty good sign that they’ve done a fairly good job in that region both keeping their water use down and also conserving compared to last year. There are other areas throughout the state where the percent savings is not as high as the state average, for example the Colorado River, and also where the total per capita water use is also higher than other areas of the state, so again you need to be careful when comparing the data.”
For next steps, the October data for statewide conservation will be updated at the December 2 board meeting. The State Water Board will also be holding a workshop in Los Angeles on the 17th to get receive input on what, if any, next steps the board should take to compel additional conservation. “If the weather turns, and we all hope it does, and the situation improves, it’s not going to require as much action,” he said. “If we continue with the drought or it worsens, we want to get input from a range of people under different scenarios as to what additional actions should the board consider.”
Mr. Oppenheimer said that they are now looking at compliance and enforcement. “In terms of the compliance with the reporting, frankly it’s been excellent – we have almost every urban water supplier providing data. There are some that are not, and we’ve recently issued some violation letters and we’re going to hopefully reach 100% compliance shortly. With the next set of data that comes in, we’re also going to be looking at the suppliers who are reporting that they’ve implemented a mandatory restriction on outdoor water use; if they indicate they have not, that’s an indication that they are likely not in compliance with the regulations so we’ll be following up with them with just compliance letters to try to clarify with how they are complying with the regulation.”
Mr. Oppenheimer then briefly discussed curtailments. “The water board has the authority and responsibility to essentially cutback water diverters during times of shortage to ensure that people with senior water rights get their water before junior water right holders can divert,” he said. “This isn’t done every year, but this year was a year where supply was short to the point that the water board had to issue curtailments. … In total, there were about 9400 water rights that were curtailed, so there were definitely a lot of people who were affected.”
“As we move into the wetter season now, two things are happening,” he said. “We’re seeing a bit more flow and we’re also seeing a drop off in water right demand. As you move into the fall, the season of diversion has now ended for a lot of the water rights, so demand is reduced. … We’re going through the process now of constantly evaluating when we can lift the curtailments.”
Dr. Richard Howitt, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis
Dr. Richard Howitt then gave an update on a study on the impact of the drought on the agricultural economy that was completed back in March. He noted that it was originally based on results from a survey of water districts and estimates of how much groundwater pumping would take place.
“Back in March and April, we estimated that we were going to be short 6.6 MAF of surface water deliveries, but we estimated that 5 MAF would be compensated by an increase in groundwater pumping, leaving us a net shortage of 1.6 MAF from the agricultural system,” he said. “We estimated that would give us a total loss of $2.2 billion out of $42 billion industry. Really the major impact was in loss of farm jobs and farmworker associated jobs, and we estimated that at 17,000 jobs – note this is not full time equivalent because the average field worker only works about 6 months a year. We estimated 410,000 acres fallowed because of drought; that’s additional fallowing on top of the normal fallowing rotation.”
When they first published the study, they estimated there would be a 5% increase in California specialty crops. “We were told we were completely wrong, and some of my colleagues in Arizona and other places were predicting 28%, 24%. However, we felt that farmers were very adept at changing their cropping patterns such that the highest value crops, which are key to California agriculture, would continue to be produced in 2014, so we forecasted 5%, and we’ll see that it was significantly lower than that.”
“Prices – essentially this is the dog that didn’t bark,” he said. “Prices didn’t go up because farmers moved crops around. We know that processing tomatoes and pole tomatoes moved north to Sacramento Valley, and so we’ve overall got about a 1% increase in food prices. … We think what the predictions in terms of economic losses to the consumer were greatly exaggerated.”
Dr. Howitt said they ran a series of satellite checks on fallowing, presenting a slide of the Tulare Lake Basin. “We’re now able to measure greenness, irrigated, non-irrigated, and we can measure down to the nearest acre how many fields are being idled; then we can draw from the 2012 comparison, and determine those which are idled because of drought versus standard fallowing practices. This is a new tool that we’re using to measure how the drought impacts on agriculture are progressing as we extend through the drought.”
Dr. Howitt explained that they also broke out the Central Valley into 27 agronomic regions, based on their water institutions, crops, farm size, water contracts, water quality, and to some extent, the microclimate. The initial estimates made in April were followed up by two estimates, based on satellite information, he said. “Fundamentally, it looks as if our estimate of 410,000 acres fallowed was low by about 12-15%, but it wasn’t that far off,” he said. “It wasn’t in the million-plus that was forecasted by other people in March.”
The job figures are going to be difficult to check until they see the payroll figures, he said. “But we have one indicator, and that is food aid,” he said. “We were asked to interact with the OES and tell them where we thought the unemployment would be greatest. Red is the worst, green is the best in terms of people out of work. The thing black dots are in proportion to the number of food aid baskets given out, and for instance, there were 88,000 baskets given out by emergency aid in the Tulare region up until this date, so what we’re finding are that our predictions of unemployment actually correlate quite well with the observed indicators of social stress which are emergency food aid uptake.”
“So what about 2015? We did some analysis on the probabilities,” he said. “The probability of a critical year at random is only 13%, but if we are already in a critical year, the probability of getting another one is much higher at 29%. Likewise for a dry year, normally we see it 21% of the time, but we’re going to see it 30% of the time if we are already in a critical year. So if you take them together, there is a 64% chance of a critical year or a dry year being in 2015.”
“It’s a very significant chance that the groundwater basins on which we’ve relied will not be fully replenished by 2015, and therefore we’re going to see even more wells, both domestic wells and agricultural wells going out of production partway through the season in 2015,” Dr. Howitt warned. “We have to think about what to do about that and to make some forecasts of that impact, which is already biting in some places this year.”
And lastly, what about the El Nino? Dr. Howitt said that instead of looking at rainfall, they instead plotted annual runoff. “Essentially El Nino does have wetter years, but most of them are in the southern part of the state, which makes a small contribution to runoff, and runoff is what fills our dams. So if you’re looking at runoff, and you map it against an index of El Nino, very strong to the left and very weak to the right, you can see by this plot that you can certainly see a clear relationship – ie, none – between the existence of El Nino and runoff, which is the critical parameter for filling the dams. So don’t hold your hats and hope for El Nino, just hope for moisture.”
So in conclusion, Dr. Howitt said that droughts are part of our California climate and are inevitable. He said that one interesting thing was the lack of pushback from the urban sector for agricultural water, which was quite an issue back in 2009. “If you dial back to 2009 in your memories, it was an ag-urban battle, but in 2014, not, because the urbans, and particularly the urbans in the south, took some really successful countervailing portfolio actions. They spread their supplies on a greater range of different types of supply, and therefore this year, they’ve been remarkably resilient. Now we have to acknowledge the big role that conservation, publicity and public reactions have taken place in this.”
“However, we need to take a portfolio approach with agriculture as well,” he said. “We need three things: surface water, groundwater, and also water trading.”
There is a need for more information, Dr. Howitt pointed out. “We are getting through the 2014 drought on the basis of groundwater and water trading, and we know very little about either of them,” he said. “There is no central clearinghouse of information of how much water is being traded. We’ve read the newspaper reports of farmers who made a bid to buy water they thought was essential, and they thought they were bidding a really high price and they got missed out in the end clearance of the market. That’s not to say the markets are wrong, but what we want to have is market information, so that those people who want to get into the market can work from a basis of knowledge of how much water is available and what it’s going for.”
“Finally, we need to beef up our potential for using these remote sensing estimates so we can tell what’s going on in physical terms on the ground when it’s going on.” He noted they would be doing a retrospective analysis of the drought.
“2015 is likely to be another very difficult year, more difficult than this year because the reserves have been run down and the groundwater levels are lowered, but we have to prepare for it,” Dr. Howitt concluded.
Council member Patrick Johnston asked Dr. Howitt what the implications were for policymakers beyond ameliorating the immediate crisis. “In the long term, should this area continue to farm at the rate that it does with declining groundwater and imported water, which is in short supply?”
“We know that with the recent legislation, groundwater overdraft is going to have to be stabilized,” Dr. Howitt replied. “We also know that the southern part of the valley has an overdraft of 1.5 MAF per year on average over the last 20 years, and we know that this cannot continue indefinitely and has to be stabilized by 2027. So how are we going to do that? We can do it either by cutting back on groundwater pumping, or importing more water. The probability of importing more water, where from and how, is extremely unlikely. We will get some sort of Delta fix, I hope, which is satisfactory to the different perceptions, ie coequal goals, but at the same time we have to start looking at farming in a slightly different way with more what I call flex farming and fallow to compensate for the overdraft reduction that is going to have to happen.”
Bill Croyle, drought manager for the Department of Water Resources
Bill Croyle then gave an update on water transfers. He said that the process began in 2013 with an executive order to line up the state agencies to the extent possible, to increase the collaboration and coordination, and facilitation of water transfers. “So the agencies began working together and as the dry conditions persisted, we ended up with a number of executive orders and proclamations that gave further direction and alignment with these agencies to again further our efforts in streamlining of our water transfers as a way to deal with some of our water shortages as we have in the state.”
He noted that water transfers are also part of the tools integrated into the California Water Action Plan for dealing with or managing for critically dry periods. “So the drought team that we formed at DWR put the water transfers group right into the drought team and allowed us some more energy, more resources, and more access to our executive office to make sure that we could facilitate the transfers that were possible in these dry conditions.”
There were a number of things that occurred that brought the state and federal agencies together with the local agencies, he said. “A lot of things happened because of that close coordination. We’ve been doing it for a long time, it’s been getting better and improved, but this drought in my view forced a number of silos to come down, the conversation to change, and some different people to sit at the table.”
An interagency workgroup was formed around water transfers to improve communication and information sharing. “By inviting the fish resource agencies to the table, and making sure that we could plug them in as we’re become aware of potential proposals or actually having proposals in our hands, then we could have them at the table and help us in evaluating those transfers in real time,” he said. “That was huge for us.”
Nonetheless, the times were tough, he said.
The Real Time Operations Team, which is comprised of high-level policy people as well as key staff and managers have come together on a weekly basis, or more often as needed, to try to get on top of our critical water needs and how to manage the state and federal projects, Mr. Croyle said. “Because the group had those key state and federal resource agencies, as well as state and federal water projects and the State Water Board, it was used as a policy forum as we hit some of those tough spots, so we could reach out to that policy group as a whole and address those challenges. That worked very well, and if this state is dry, we’ll look to that group to make sure we can move forward as fast as possible during these dry conditions.”
Mr. Croyle then reviewed the numbers: Almost a half a million acre-feet of water (466,000 acre-feet) was transferred, with 300,000 acre-feet conveyed through DWR or state facilities. There were 12 short term and 3 long term agreements processed. Some of those agreements had multiple transfer types: there were 6 crop idling, 7 groundwater substitution, and 5 reservoir releases.
“Almost the first transfer that made it through the process was a multi-benefit transfer where we saw an opportunity to try to address an environmental stress in the American River with some timing on that release,” he said. “We had the benefit of improving the environmental conditions in the American River, and then moving that water off for the transfer. We sent a couple of those this year so that was kind of new.”
He then presented a graph of the timescale for the transfers. “We didn’t know if we were going to have enough water to move not only the water stored or in the system, but with the Delta conditions, would we be able to move water across the system from the north to the south,” he said. “Only because we received a pretty good shot of weather in that February-March timeline did we have some options on the table. It did delay the normal submittal of these proposals and the execution of various agreements, but the need for the water was real, so the pressure was on. What that allowed us to do was really focus on some of these early proposals that were pretty easy to process, so we were able to resolve any issues on the table and move those applications through the process.”
Mr. Croyle said that they sought to improve communication and alignment with the agencies through the multi-agency workgroup in 2014, and will continue to do that, drought or otherwise. They worked at fast-tracking of appropriate documents if they had all the tools and all the information and working on guidance documents to communicate the expectations and information needs, he said. They are also looking to improve the contracting process as well.
He said the agencies worked to make the information available within 24 hours on the agency websites. “We were sharing spreadsheets on a constant basis, and those spreadsheets were shared with others outside the water transfer environment so that we made sure that everybody was aware of what was coming in and what was going out, and also where things were getting delayed. That’s been huge. We’ll continue to improve those web resources.”
He said they are also working on a checklist for transfers, and putting those on the web. They also did a lot of outreach and personal communication to make sure everyone had all the available information. “Part of the challenge too is making sure we’re meeting all of our findings, and I think this process has really helped us make sure that we’re making the appropriate findings and supporting the actions of the State Water Board has done to maximize the water transfer process,” he said.
He then presented a timeline they had worked up for the last fiscal year. This is a key document,” he said. “We were geared up on April 1 to hit the road running hard, and we wanted to hear early and often of what people are thinking,” he said. “With the dry conditions that whole process was delayed a little bit, but we tried to plan and execute our work around this table.”
In 2015, we are going to continue the effort for a more streamlined process and to continue to expedite and facilitate the proposals. “That takes some work and communication and some education,” he said. “2014, because of the extremely dry conditions and the really tough operating conditions we’re all working under, it allowed some different conversations and some different discussions to occur. We’re continuing to look at our internal review process – do we have enough staff, are we getting the right kind of information, are we sharing that information internally, making sure we’re all on the same page, and our contracting process. Sometimes we forget about our attorneys and our support staff, but they are absolutely critical to making this work, and we’ve enjoyed strong support from our attorneys, very responsive, and our support staff to move this and turn it around fast.”
He added that they are continuing to work on verification, and the regional offices are assisting in groundwater monitoring, collecting some of the information, crop fallowing, collecting information in real time and getting it back to the home office. “We’re trying to resource up that a little bit and part of my mind is also some succession planning for the future to make sure we have redundancies and expanded capacity. We continue to have these coordination meetings,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s’ an open transparent process.”
“We are really looking for multiple benefits – I think that’s one lesson learned this year,” he said. “To the extent that we can align up especially to support environmental resources in these challenging times, if there’s a way to align that up on top, we want to make every effort to do that.”
Mr. Croyle said they were working on transparency by having more information on the web, technical documents about how they are managing proposals and processing information, and eventually being able to fill out applications or proposals online. “Some of those tools have been used in other environments, again if I can save a phone call, save time on the paperwork, and then use that as a way to increase coordination and communication.”
“We want to work on some of the tough stuff early,” he said, acknowledging that not all transfers made it through the system. “We’re going back working with those potential buyers and sellers to work through some of those tough issues. We might not get them all but I think part of that goes back to making sure our monitoring systems are up and running and that they can produce the data that we want to see that is timely; then we can use that to process our agreements pretty quick.”
“If it stays dry, it’s going to be tough,” he said. “There’s not a lot of water in the system. There’s less water than there was last year … The weather service says we might have a wet December, which would be fantastic, but I want to remind everyone that in 2012, my flood fight teams were pretty busy. We had Truckee going under and Sparks, Nevada looking pretty wet and then it stopped raining for a year. And so we are planning for a dry 2015, we’re hoping for the best. If it does that, we’re going to take a little different approach with water transfers to the extent possible, I look at it as a strike team approach, where we really go in and surgically see if we can make things happen even though we have super-dry conditions.”
“So with that … continue to conserve water, we’re going to need it … “