Statewide Water Conditions and Preparing for a Dry 2015
Deputy Drought Manager Jeanine Jones with a look at statewide hydrologic conditions and what to expect in the coming dry year
“We are looking at a fourth year of drought,” said Jeanine Jones, the Deputy Drought Manager for the Department of Water Resources as she kicked off the National Water Resources Institute Drought Response Workshop on February 25, 2015 in Irvine.
“As I like to say in my world, drought’s are good for business,” said Ms. Jones. “If things are okay, if water is coming out your tap, and no one is yelling at you about watering your lawn too much, life is good, but we tend to think about planning and investing for the future and improving our infrastructure when we have conditions that challenge us. Those conditions could be on the flood side or they could be on the drought side, so it’s like that old adage about looking at the challenge as an opportunity, because certainly we are being challenged now on the dry side.”
Water year 2014 was the fourth driest year of the hydrologic record. Ms. Jones noted that overall in the historic record, the driest times were the droughts in the 1920s and 1930s. “At that time, California’s population was only 6 million people, so even if you were water short, you didn’t have to spread that water too far to make it go around,” she said.
It’s also worth noting that last year was the warmest year out of 120 years on the record, in both California and some of the Colorado River basin states, which are also important for our water supply, she said. “Warm temperatures tend to increase water use, all things being equal, and frankly they are not at all good for snowpack. Snowpack is very important to us, and our snowpack is continually to be challenged by record warmth that we’ve been experiencing so far in 2015 in the Sierra Nevada,” she said.
“The last three years set a record for the driest three consecutive years in terms of statewide precipitation,” Ms. Jones said, pointing out that the other drought periods were back in the 1920s and 1930s. “We haven’t had a lot of these kinds of conditions in recent years.”
When the hydrology is dry, it tends to have negative effects on water project allocations, she said. “We had record low allocations on some of the projects last year, particularly the Central Valley Project and the agricultural contractors in the Sacramento Valley and San Joaquin Valley, and the State Water Project only had a 5% allocation, so obviously those aren’t good numbers if you’re a customer of those projects.”
A lot of small water systems and private well owners were impacted last year, and we’re expecting so see more of that this year, Ms. Jones said. “These are people who are in rural unincorporated areas, typically outside the service area of the urban purveyors, and unlike the urban agencies that have a lot of resources to do the planning and preparation for dry conditions, these small systems don’t have those same kinds of capabilities, so they are really the canary in the coal mine when it comes to drought. We’re spending a lot of emergency response time on these kinds of problems.”
The one good point about this water year is that it’s not as bad as last year, Ms. Jones said, admitting that it is trying very hard to see the half-empty glass as half-full instead. “But there are some parts of Northern California that have actually received something approaching normal precipitation. Parts of the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California generally staying very dry.”
“This year we really only had two significant storm events of note; both atmospheric river storms, the one in the first half of December and then the one in the early part of February, and it was really those two storms that brought us the water supply,” she said. “Also the track of the storms was such that it was northern California that ended up getting most of that water.”
It really illustrates that the water budget in California is determined by a small number of storms, maybe less than ten, she said. “Back in the 1987-92 drought, then Governor Pete Wilson gave a well known drought speech in which he opened by saying San Diego is a desert facing the ocean,” she said. “This really illustrates the absence of one or two storms can put us into pretty severe hydrologic conditions, because much of California would be a desert absent just a few storms.”
Ms. Jones then presented a slide of the Northern California 8-station precipitation index, explaining that it is a way to illustrate the wetness of the important watersheds in the Sacramento River Valley. “The shaded blue area is average, so we’re about 90% of average there.”
She then presented a slide of the San Joaquin 5-station index for the southern half of the Central Valley. “We’re about half of average there because they didn’t benefit from those big winter storms,” she said.
“As for the snowpack, the words that come to mind are things like dismal, poor, abysmal, miserable – all those kinds of adjectives because the snowpack is only in the ballpark of 20% of average right now,” she said. “In February, because it’s been so warm, the snowpack has been melting, which is not supposed to happen in February; this snowpack is supposed to be growing, not diminishing.”
Low snowpack means low runoff forecasts, and runoff is what fills reservoirs, she said, presenting a graphic of the levels in the larger statewide reservoirs. “The only bright spot is Folsom Lake above Sacramento,” she said. “It’s a one million acre-foot reservoir that is over 100% of capacity for this time of year, but because all the big reservoirs are now on flood control reservation, it means they have a lot of empty space in them. Folsom is only a little over half full in terms of total capacity because it’s being held down for flood control purposes. The other large reservoirs are not in as good of shape in terms of percentage conditions as Folsom.”
“To fill the empty space in those reservoirs, we need runoff, and these are our latest runoff forecasts for the big reservoirs,” she said. “Only one of them is over 50% of average, and that’s only 64% of average for Shasta, so this is not looking good with respect for the water supplies for this summer.”
At the present time, the State Water Project has a 15% allocation, which is better than last year’s 5% allocation, and the Central Valley Project will be announcing shortly, she said. (Note: this presentation was given the day before CVP allocation announcement.) “The good news is the Colorado River, which has a full apportionment thanks to the fact that we have lots of storage capacity on the Colorado River so even though the reservoir system storage is only half full, or half empty so to speak, that still provides us a full supply, even though the Colorado has been in drought for more than a decade,” she said.
Where we really see the problems are the small water systems that don’t have storage, don’t have facilities and tend to rely on groundwater from typically unreliable sources such as fractured rock aquifers, Ms. Jones said. “We’ll be continuing to do a lot of emergency response actions in partnership with the State Water Resources Control Board, the Office of Emergency Services, and local agencies for some of these small areas and concentrations of private well owners that are running out of water,” she said. “Conservation is obviously very important during drought, and the Department of Water Resources in partnership with ACWA is sponsoring the Save Our Water program, a conservation education campaign.”
“Every cloud has a silver lining,” she said. “Because of the drought last year, it did enable the enactment of California’s groundbreaking groundwater management legislation, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. This is a new and changed condition since last drought, so although we won’t see its implementation affect things immediately because it takes time to put the measures that are in the statute into place, this is a good tool over time for us to be better prepared to respond to future droughts.”
“We’re improving the monitoring of groundwater levels to enable better statewide picture of what our drought conditions are like, and we’re monitoring other kinds of impacts to such as extended ag land being fallowed in the Central Valley and the increasing land subsidence in areas where it can affect either water project or flood control infrastructure,” she said.
In the middle of January, the state and federal water projects filed their drought contingency plan with the State Water Resources Control Board. “This was prepared after very intense discussions among the two project agencies with the two federal wildlife agencies and the state fish and wildlife department,” she said. “Last year, because of the extreme hydrology last year, we also did one, but it wasn’t completed until April. Everyone agreed we needed to get one done earlier this year to figure out how we navigate some of these operational difficulties with the projects under extremely challenging hydrology and to meet all the requirements the project has to meet, such as trying to find enough cold water for salmon, controlling sea water intrusion in the Delta, and making sure we protect the Delta smelt as required by the Endangered Species Act biological opinions, as well as thinking about carryover storage for the next year.”
“One reason we were able to have a 15% allocation for the state project this year is we thought last year about how much carryover for this year,” Ms. Jones said. “You always have to ask yourself, what will the next year be? We don’t really know, so we want to make sure we at least have a minimum amount of carryover for health and safety purposes.”
“Speaking of health and safety purposes, one of the problem areas is small water systems,” she said. “These are small water systems are not required to file urban water management plans because they are under 3000 connections and are located outside of our developed groundwater basins. These are basically systems on fractured rock groundwater, and these are typically where we see the reliability problems. They are unfortunately quite predictable because they really are in marginal conditions often, and this translates to a lot of emergency response work for us.”
“This is where I’ll wrap up my remarks … “