2014 Water Year in Review, Part 3: Groundwater, Delta smelt, and Sacramento’s response to the drought
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 final installment, Mary Scruggs from the Department of Water Resources discusses the impact the drought has had on the state’s groundwater resources, Mike Chotkowski with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service discusses the drought’s impact on Delta smelt and Central Valley wildlife refuges, and Tom Gohring with the Sacramento Water Forum discusses the region’s response to drought conditions.
Mary Scruggs, Supervising Engineering Geologist, Department of Water Resources
Mary Scruggs began by summarizing the importance of groundwater. “Groundwater is critical to California,” she said. “It provides up to 40% during normal years; during dry years, it can provide a lot more. There’s been a lot of pressure on groundwater over the last few years. With the dry years and the extreme drought, some areas are using a lot more groundwater then they have. The drought, and pumping of the groundwater also can create problems in some of the areas, including subsidence, saline intrusion, movement of contamination, and there’s also impacts on some of the agricultural areas because some of the areas have been fallowed.”
Ms Scruggs said that the Department of Water Resources will soon be releasing a drought report, and some of figures in her presentation are from the draft report. (The report has since been released; you can read it here: Groundwater Report).
Groundwater is used differently throughout the state depending on hydrologic region, she said. “From the California Water Plan, 16.5 million acre-feet was estimated for groundwater use from 2005 to 2010,” she said, presenting a chart showing groundwater use from the water plan. She noted that the darker blue is the groundwater use and the lighter bar is the total amount of water use per hydrologic region. She pointed out that the cylinder off to the right shows total water supply, and the slice shows the amount of groundwater used, broken down by hydrologic region.
She then presented a chart showing water year types, acknowledging it’s a bit hard to see. She noted that it shows the water year type with the left hand side the Sacramento Valley and the right hand side is the San Joaquin Valley. “Anything closer to the middle in red are going to be critically dry or dry years; those in blues and greens are the wetter years. This shows the type of water year from around 1904 … you can see they don’t always match each other because they are in different parts of the valley, butat the end of 2014, there were very dry years on both sides.”
“As surface water supplies have dried up or have not been available, people have been resorting to groundwater, and in areas where they have already been using groundwater, they are pumping even more,” she said, presenting a graph showing the new wells that have been drilled. “The number of new wells being drilled has increased. DWR gets well completion reports, but there is definitely a huge time lag until we get that, but based on what we do have, you can see … Fresno and Tulare has had over 300 new wells drilled in 2014, and those are records that have been given to DWR. It’s probably much more than that … Merced I believe had over 200 wells, so there’s been a lot of well drilling.” She noted that a lot of these are domestic wells, which are typically shallower wells.
“There’s also been pressure on the groundwater in some of those areas when they’ve been putting in permanent crops in areas that used to be dryland ranching and they weren’t using the water at all,” she said, noting that ag wells tend to be deeper wells.
She then presented a slide showing groundwater level changes from spring 2013 to spring 2014, noting that when comparing groundwater elevations, it’s important to compare the same time frame. “The highest levels for groundwater are in the spring, because if you’ve had any recharge or wet year, it would be the highest in the springtime,” she said. “You expect your lowest levels in the fall, because you would have done your irrigation in the summer when people have been using it.”
She pointed out the red dots on the diagram and noted that these are the wells where the groundwater levels have decreased more than 10 feet. “In some of those areas, it could be much larger than 10 feet – we’re talking 50 to over 100 feet. The orange is going to be 2.5 to 10 feet, so anything that’s orange and red has dropped since the spring measurement a year ago. Yellow is essentially no change, and green is an increase. You don’t see a lot of green; there’s been a lot of pressure on the groundwater.” She added that the report further analysis that includes a comparison of data from 2010 to 2014.
She then presented a graph showing groundwater levels from fall 2013 to fall of 2014, noting that for this map, they only have about 60% of the wells used in the last map. She noted that in some cases, the groundwater is not measured or is only measured twice a year, and in some cases, the agencies weren’t able to get their data in time. “You can see in some of those areas that groundwater levels have risen, but in other areas we have a lot of red,” she said. “In some of these areas, we are looking at historical lows.”
She then presented a slide showing the groundwater basins that were prioritized through the California Statewide Groundwater Elevation Monitoring (CASGEM) program according to the criteria given in the water code. “We identified 127 high and medium priority basins, and those basins cover 96% of the groundwater used in California; about 88% of the population that overlie those basins.” She noted that the basin prioritization only applies to alluvial basins, and not hardrock or bedrock groundwater.
Ms. Scruggs said that the slide shows which basins have complied with CASGEM and now have monitoring programs as of October 7. She noted that this date was used because compliance with CASGEM was a requirement for eligibility for drought grants. “Currently, as of the latest data, 78% of the medium and high priority basins have monitoring for the entire basin under CASGEM, and 87% of those medium and high priority basins have monitoring but there may be portions of the basins that are not.” She noted they continue to update the information as the data comes in.
Land subsidence is an adverse impact of groundwater pumping, she said. “There’s been renewed subsidence in the San Joaquin Valley,” she said. “We have a contract and we’re working on getting InSar data from JPL, and processing it to see what the change in surface elevations are.” She noted that the yellows and red indicated six to ten inches of subsidence from May 3rd to October 15th. “Over a five month period, some of these areas of showing several inches to up to ten inches of subsidence.”
She said they were also using satellite data to look at fallowing and the impact on agriculture, presenting a map from July of 2014. “The green areas are cultivated; white are the fields that are just coming up, so when compared to 2011, there are less areas of green currently,” she said. “There’s about 700,000 acres of fields that were fallowed between 2014 and 2011, and 2011 was the last wet year. So there’s been a big drop in agriculture due to the drought.”
Ms. Scruggs said there was much more information in report, including more information on subsidence, time frame comparisons, and more. “We’re putting this information on the groundwater information center on the DWR website,” she said. “For people that are interested, it’s interactive so you can pull that data off, you can get the shape files, compare between years, and things like that.”
Mike Chotkowski, Field Supervisor with US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bay Delta Office
Mike Chotkowski began by praising the level of integration and cooperation between the fish and wildlife agencies and project operations this year. “We have worked together on a weekly or twice a week basis on a number of issues, all the way back to January and I think it’s been a key to the year turning out as well as it did. Water year 2014 was shatteringly dry, and there were a lot of challenges for the fish and wildlife agencies as well as for the project operators.”
Mr. Chotkowski said that one of NOAA’s concerns this past year has been balancing issues that are related to fish passage in the Delta with upstream storage for water temperature control. “Their species are different from the Delta resident species that the Fish and Wildlife Service deals with,” he said. “I’ll primarily speak about Delta smelt issues this past year, and also about the refuge issues that the FWS has had to address, not only in the Central Valley but elsewhere in California this past year.”
“For those of you who are not familiar with the Delta smelt, it’s a smelt species that is native to California,” he said. “It’s severely imperiled, it occurs in and around the Delta year round, and it has a life history in which it is usually downstream in saltier water during the summer and fall months, and upstream in fresher water in the winter months when spawning occurs.”
“This past year is because it was so dry, and the only significant sources of freshwater flowing into the Delta were on the Sacramento River side, the smelt distribution throughout the entire year was largely on the Sacramento River side of the estuary, and the result is we had relatively few concerns about Delta smelt,” he said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service did not issue any determinations in water year 2014 that affected water operations. There was essentially no salvage of Delta smelt adults this past year and there was very low salvage of larvae.”
“In recent years like this where the biological signals that control where Delta smelt migrate during the winter months favor the Sacramento River system, which they generally do, smelt will tend to want to stay on that side of the system, and as such they will end up being fairly far away from the export pumps,” he said. “In future years, I think we have a reasonably good expectation that if we can manage water operations early in the year so that Delta smelt stay out of the Central and South Delta, then we’re likely to have relatively clear sailing for the rest of the winter and spring season, so the key months are December and early January for this.”
“In 2014, we basically got no precipitation during that period so we didn’t really have any signals, any freshets, any turbidity or flow signals passing through Delta during that period that needed to be managed and the result was that we had a very easy year from the Delta smelt point of view,” he said.
“We are working pretty hard on dealing with some lessons learned from this past year,” he said. “We’re going to be presenting a new water operations plan for the next year around January 15; in fact we’re working on a strategy right now that addresses lessons learned last year and what we could do that would streamline things this coming year. There’s a lot of focus now on preparing for the worst case scenario where this coming year turns out to be very dry, because in that circumstance, it will be very important for us to work together to manage the flow events that do occur so that as much water can be exported as possible. I think we’re on track to have some clearer ideas as to how we would manage those events from a biological point of view, and some of those might represent an improvement over what we did last year.”
He then turned to discussing the National Wildlife Refuge System that are located in the Central Valley. “Since most of California is in a drought, our offices around the state are reporting drought effects pretty much without exception,” said Mr. Chotkowski. “We operate a number of refuges in the Central Valley; most of those are wetland refuges and they provide a number of functions. One of the big ones is that they provide habitat for migratory birds that pass through California, including a fair number of game species. They, like everyone else, they’ve been suffering from the dry conditions. In 2014, they received about 65% of their level 2 water allocation.”
“The consequence of the dry year is that a fair number of the units had some wetland areas that were not managed during the summer,” he said. “They weren’t irrigated … some of those units have some former wetland areas that have now been colonized by upper wetland vegetation. The question was raised earlier, how long is it going to take to recover after the drought? I think it’s not only going to take time for the water delivery system to recover, it’s also going to take time for our refuge units to recover, because they will need several years of management and higher water flow in order to get those wetlands completely up and running again.”
The picture has been pretty bleak this year, and it’s cheering that the National Weather Service is predicting a better than average chance of precipitation in the next several weeks, Mr. Chotkowski said. “It will help if that happens. We need to plan not only for this coming year, and but also for the possibility that we’re going to have a lot more years like this last year in the future. Some of the climate change predictions suggest that we’re going to have much lower levels of precipitation 50 years from now in California and we are going to need to be able to adapt to that, both in terms of our delivery of water and in terms of our expectation for what sorts of conservation actions are actually feasible. It will be important for us to continue to work on that and to continue to plan for it.”
“It’s also worth reminding everyone that from the biological side, most of the species that we steward are species that have evolved in a system where droughts occur from time to time, and estuarine fish in particular are accustomed to drought, so I think some of the drought effects we are seeing are not especially surprising,” he said. “They are not things that are attributable to water project operations and I think everyone needs to remind themselves from time to time that these years are simply part of the natural sequence of hydrologies and something that we can deal with.”
“And I’ll stop at that point … “
Tom Gohring, Executive Director of the Sacramento Water Forum
Tom Gohring began by saying that he works for this odd agency called the Sacramento Water Forum, which covers the Sacramento County and parts of Placer and El Dorado County. “We’re a non-entity,” he said. “We’re not a JPA, we’re not a public agency, we’re not a non-profit, we’re just kind of there, and we’re made up some very diverse interests from the water community, the business community, and the environmental communities.”
“My water community views the region this way,” he said, presenting a water supply schematic of the region. “Most of the water comes through Folsom Reservoir and down the American River to get to where it’s going and they extract it along the way. Some of them 100% surface water users; some are 100% groundwater users; and most of them are a combination of both. Their purpose in life is to deliver safe water, reliably, at the lowest possible cost.”
“The water purveyors sit down on a regular basis with the local environmentalists who view the world differently,” he said. “To them, it’s all about the stream; it’s all about protecting some natural resources and it amazes me that these people with some very fundamental values and some very fundamental views on water resources get together and make joint decisions and joint recommendations.”
The main concerns in 2014 were how low Folsom Lake was and how low it would get; there were water supply issues and environmental issues due to the low flows in the Sacramento and American Rivers, as well as problems with the water intakes on the rivers.
“Before we got to February, we were just freaking out,” he said. “We were off the books. We’d never seen a year like this before. Luckily we got some amazing storms in February and then later that changed the world for us, changing it from certain disaster to just bad.”
“In late January, we were lower in Folsom Reservoir than we’d ever seen before, setting aside the first year they built it,” he said. “We were concerned about not only seeing the reservoir bottom out, but we were worried about the reservoir being so low in the summer that one of the main intakes that hangs off the dam wouldn’t function, but we were also worried hitting what we call dead pool, which is the point that the main M&I intake that hangs on the dam would just be daylighted … And then we had this amazing storm in early February. We saw the storage in Folsom Reservoir go up 100,000 acre-feet, 10% in a week. It was crazy. We saw virtually no snowpack added, but we had a big empty hole so we could capture a lot of runoff and we did.”
“So our water situation changed, and in a lot of ways, we had to deal with a very dry year,” Mr. Gohring said. “So a lot of our angst shifted not just on how we’re going to get through this year, but setting ourselves up for 2015, and you can see in my red circle there that this is where we are today with Folsom Reservoir. We’re higher than this point last year, and you can see our glide path there on the first few months of the year is shallower than it was last year, that’s due partly to some amazing demand reduction activities by our citizens and our agencies. It’s also due to lower river releases, frankly, so we have a slower burn rate.”
“So what do we do about it? We responded by making some system improvements, some plumbing improvements, we did some heroic demand management, we triaged our river ecology, and we had some pretty amazing collaboration,” he said.
System (plumbing) improvements
He then presented a map of the region showing the system improvements made this year in response to the drought. He explained that the brown boxes are areas where they either put in new groundwater wells or increased the capacity of existing groundwater wells; the blue circles are booster pumps which were existing interties that needed a head boost to move the water uphill; and the green areas are connections. “Virtually all of those are connections that were on the drawing board but hadn’t been built; they are either being built as we speak or will be built by the time we get to May of next year. The booster pumps and the connections are all about sharing water. We have 21 different water purveyors in our region; we’re the Balkan states, so this concept of sharing water between neighboring districts is amazing, and it ends up taking down some institutional boundaries that allow us to add a whole new level of water supply reliability.”
He then presented a summary table of the projects, noting that they’ve done 7 water supply sharing projects, three demand management projects in addition to what has already been done, 5 groundwater access projects such as new wells or reabbing old wells, and two projects that are in process for addressing low river levels. “DWR and the Governor have been instrumental in freeing up previous bond funds to help with drought response, and I’m happy to report that our region has been able to get in on that as well so you can see how we’re taking advantage of that funding,” he said.
“Although these projects are in response to a drought, every one of them leverages on past investments,” he said. “The intertie projects only help a neighboring district because of the fact that we’ve successfully banked hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of groundwater over the last 10 – 12 years in the Sacramento region. and that can be said about the other projects as well.”
Mr. Gohring said they really stepped up their efforts at demand management this year. “Frankly, the press response to the scary pictures of a dry Folsom Reservoir really played to our advantage this year,” he said. “People got it. I live in the city of Sacramento and I have neighbors who, as long as I have lived on my street, have water their lawn for an hour a day, every day, and some of those activities just stopped. It’s been amazing.”
Mr. Gohring said that virtually every one of the 21 different water purveyors had some form of water restriction. “Some of them called the restrictions voluntary; some of them called the restrictions mandatory,but frankly the line here between voluntary and mandatory is very gray,” he said. “None of our districts allocated a reduction to individual water users or connections. All of these reductions were based on a district basis, the idea being if everybody doesn’t do their part and lead us to a significant reduction, we might have to step in a do other actions.”
“A lot of those actions were coupled by really politically heroic changes in basically water waste policing,” he added. “Thousands of people have received water waste citations; many of them have received second notices and a few of them have even been fined.”
“This region and our citizens did an amazing job,” Mr. Gohring said, noting that their region achieved 19%, the highest reduction in water use in the state.
River ecology triage
They stepped up the monitoring, focusing on a 23 mile stretch of the lower American River. “It may not sound like very much, but that 23 mile stretch represents about 20% of the fall run Chinook salmon spawning grounds, and about 20% of the Sacramento steelhead spawning, so it’s a significant little chunk of river,” he said. “We had biologists out monitoring gravel conditions on a weekly basis, almost a continuous basis. We basically did on the fly adaptive management and we took advantage of some amazing collaboration.”
He then presented a slide showing a side channel of the American River at Sunrise Blvd, and noted that this was just after the peak of the fall run Chinook salmon spawning season. “We knew we had redds stranded,” he said. “They were not all dewatered; the level of water recession we saw left most of the stranded redds alive, but with our ongoing monitoring, we were basically aware that the water quality conditions in those redds in the gravel was declining rapidly.”
“So we used that data and models that we have for the various life stages … and what we did was we instituted a couple of different pulse activities and we did our best to time some river pulses to hit the ideal time for emergence for those redds. That’s when we did the pulses – one in early February and one in mid March.”
“The data that we collected indicates – doesn’t prove – but it indicates that it helped emerging salmon get out of those redds and get into the stream so that that portion of this year’s population was not lost,” he said. “Making these two pulses happen was a Herculean effort of coordination between our upstream water providers who saw these pulses as their citizen’s water supply heading downstream being wasted, and our local environmental community, but most importantly between BOR, USFWS, NMFS, and DFW – all of those folks got together in a really short time frame and made this happen.”
“The RTDOT, Real Time Drought Operations Team, was a key influencer in making both of these things happen, but it was the ground-up groundswell of ‘you can do this and you’re not going to get beat up in the press by the locals for having done it’ that I think was instrumental in making it happen,” Mr. Gohring added.
Temperature management is important every year in the Lower American River as it’s a limiting factor for both of the salmonid species, he said. “It was even worse in 2014 because we started the year with low storage, and low storage means less cold water pool to deal with temperature management. We also knew we were going to have very low flows in the river which means more warming as the water travels downstream, so we used a level of coordination not seen before in our basin between our state, federal and local agencies and NGOs to take some risks.”
We took a risk in setting a lower target for a water temperature threshold and we also took a risk in starting our power bypass earlier,” he said, presenting a slide showing water temperature and bypass flows, noting that the spiky lines on the graph is water temperature and the green line represents the water bypass. “Water bypass happens when at Folsom Reservoir, there’s a chunk of cold water lower than the penstocks which is lower than we can reach and still generate power,” he said. “When we have a situation like this year where the water is too warm for Chinook salmon to being spawning, we basically forego power generation so that we can tap that cold water and bring conditions in the river down to a healthier level for that spawning run.”
Starting the bypass earlier is a risk because the cold water is a finite supply, and by starting the bypass earlier, we could have ran out too soon and seen a jump in water temperature that could have been lethal to the salmon. “It was a risk and it looks like it paid off,” he said. “The bypass will probably be shut off today or tomorrow because it’s done, and it looks like the risk paid off. Even if the risk hadn’t paid off, I salute the folks – Fish and Wildlife, our local enviros, our local water purveyors, and US BOR – for taking the risk. It’s amazing that they have the ability this year to make some of those decisions on the fly in real time.”
“I want to say a word about the collaboration,” he said. “Who knows if the collaboration would have taken place anyway if we didn’t have this thing we call the Water Forum and the Regional Water Authority, but I think the fact that we have this cross-caucus body that was already in place let us all get together right away,” Mr. Gohring said. “We had a series of seven drought conferences where folks got together and compared real information. As one of our stakeholders said, ‘I’m here showing you my underwear; I’m not dressing up this data to try and make it look good to avoid embarrassment; I’m here showing you exactly what’s going on’, and as a result, the level of coordination and collaboration was amazing. There was deep information sharing, there was a ‘share the pain’ mentality. Our water users and our environment are both going to feel a lot of pain this year, and we’re going to share that. We’re not going to deliver all the pain to one sector or another. There was a lot of interagency common cause.”
“Finally, we were able to expand our collaboration room to include our federal water manager and our state and federal fish agencies,” he said. “Words can’t describe how gratifying it is to me to see this happen. I’m not a water manager, I’m not an environmental manager, I’m a neutral facilitator among a bunch of folks and to see the kind of thing happen this year, it makes life worth living.”
“So what happens next year if the drought continues? Is the whole Sacramento region going to turn into a dust bowl?” said Mr. Gohring. “I don’t’ think so. If the drought conditions do lessen, we will see a faster recovery in the Sacramento region than you heard about for the state of California because we’re smaller, we’ve banked a lot of groundwater, and because Folsom Reservoir is a relatively small reservoir, it resets quickly, unlike Oroville and Shasta. If the drought doesn’t end, we’ll see a lot more of this [shows slide of water conservation signs], and a lot more of this [shows sign of elevated fire danger], and a lot more brown lawns and landscapes.”
“So in conclusion, we dodged a bullet this year,” he said. “We were wounded this year, but it wasn’t a fatal wound. Our previous investments really paid off; investments not only in infrastructure but in relationships and collaboration. We moved quickly to make some improvements, both in order to address biology and to address water supply for people. Our citizen response was amazing. I’m really proud to be a Sacramentan this year. I’m proud every year, but I’m really proud every year.”
“Our river triage really made a difference, I think. We had unhealthy conditions for our salmonids, but we didn’t’ see some of the health problems that we saw in previous dry years,” he said. “I think we have a real collaboration success story, and our fingers are crossed for 2015.”