Panelists discuss water operations and supply, climate change, the regulatory environment, water conservation, and water supply economics
Earlier this year, the Delta Science Program tasked the four former Delta lead scientists with developing a brief report for policy makers and the general public that explains the challenges, complexities, and controversies operating in the Delta. The Delta Challenges Workshop, held in March, gave the scientists a chance to hear perspectives from a number of expert scientists and managers on what they saw as the key challenges working in the Delta.
The second panel explored water operations in the Delta, climate change, water supply economics, and water conservation. Seated on the second panel was John Leahigh, State Water Project Operations, Department of Water Resources; Dr. Dan Cayan, Scripps Institute of Oceanography; Fran Spivy-Weber, Vice-Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board; Dr. Richard Howitt, UC Davis; and Joe Grindstaff, Inland Empire Utilities Agency.
Here’s what they had to say.
JOHN LEAHIGH, Department of Water Resources, State Water Project Operations
Water operations and supply
John Leahigh, is the principal water manager for State Water Project (SWP) operations, and he began by defining his role. “For the more shorter-term decisions on allocations for the SWP, my responsibilities are assessing the snow survey information that gets reduced down to runoff forecasts for the year, and putting that in combination with our Delta conveyance opportunities for the current year, and marry that with the demand patterns from our customers, which are ag users in the Central Valley and urban users in the LA Basin,” he said.
“In addition to that, there’s the real time day to day water management decisions that are being made as part of the coordinated operations between the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project,” Mr. Leahigh said. “This includes all the decisions that are made in terms of timings of releases from the reservoirs at Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom on a real time basis, and meeting the various Delta outflow standards in the Delta, meaning the salinity standards, with the coordination of those releases from upstream and the exports from the south Delta.”
Mr. Leahigh said he has narrowed the challenges down to three types: hydrologic uncertainty, the regulatory uncertainty, and operational flexibility.
Mr. Leahigh pointed out that there’s a foundation uncertainty inherent in our water management system which is the variability of the California’s hydrology. “The state is unique in its variability throughout the United States,” he said. “We’re dependent on just a handful of storms from year to year that produce the majority of our water supply. This year is a great example – we’ve received about 90% of our precipitation in the last three months in probably three days that occurred in early February. So, it’s really hit or miss on that supply. It presents a real challenge in managing that supply.”
“To add to that, if you looked at the storage capabilities and the carryover storage capabilities of the two projects as it relates to the average annual runoff, it really pales in comparison to that snowpack that we are highly dependent upon on a year to year basis for supply,” he said. “We have very little help from prior years as far as the water supply coming in to the next year, and so in some sense, we’re almost a run of the river type operation as far as managing the system and as far as it relates to hydrology.”
“Over time, we have had layer upon layer of regulatory rules in place that govern the operations of both the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project,” Mr. Leahigh said. “It goes back to the original water rights Decision 1485 in 1978 and the Coordinated Operations Agreement (COA) which essentially is a default settlement agreement between the two projects on how we meet those responsibilities that are in D1485 and beyond. Then the CVPIA which came online in the early 1990s reallocated 800,000 acre-feet of the CVP supplies to the environment.”
“As we continue to gain more knowledge as to what the needs are for the ecosystem for the Delta, we’ve had more layers included in D1641 such as Spring X2, E-I Ratio export to inflow ratio that we operate to,” he said. “Most recently, we’ve had two new biological opinions in the late 2008-2009 that has further increased the conflict between being able to capture supplies in the supplies in the winter and spring when the majority of the flows are occurring, and when those periods are most sensitive to the fishery. And then next, the Water Quality Control Plan periodic review.”
There are a combination of factors increasing demands on the project, such as the increased demands of other senior water rights holders and area of origin water users in the Sacramento Valley, he said. “In addition, we’ve had new constraints on the export capabilities, so a combination of those facts have really put us in a position of a chronic shortage as far as the both the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project are concerned, so it’s a combination of all these factors coming together has put us where we are today.”
“The annual implementation of some of the water rights requirements from the State Board D1485 and D1641 are very prescriptive in terms of based on water year and based on hydrology; they set certain outflow requirements, sets a certain salinity requirement, whereas some of the new regulatory rules associated with the biological opinions are much more real-time management focused,” said Mr. Leahigh. “They are highly dependent upon ecological parameters such as distribution of the fishery. Distribution of turbidity is now the new issue du jour. Decisions are made more on a real time basis and those regulatory restrictions will vary significantly on a day to day basis, and it’s a very cumbersome process between both the two project operators and the fishery agencies in order to establish what those operating rules will be, so it’s kind of a two edged sword.”
“It’s an effort to not necessarily take a prescriptive step, regardless of the real time, but at the same, it’s a very resource intensive effort in order to try to maximize the supply that we can while still providing sufficient protections for the fishery,” he said.
He then presented a slide of an example of an annual forecast for the State Water Project allocation, noting that it is a generic example and not drawn for this year. “These are the kinds of variabilities that we’re looking at, depending upon what kind of precipitation we get for the coming year,” he said. “It can be all over the map, from dry to wet, so that will have a big factor in what our final allocation would be for the project.”
“There is this additional parameter now which is the regulatory variability, and that the real-time management,” Mr. Leahigh said. “We won’t know ahead of time what that distribution is going to look like for the fishery or the other ecological parameters, and that introduces a new degree of variation in terms of what the final delivery capabilities of the projects are.”
DR. DAN CAYAN, Scripps Institute of Oceanography
Dan Cayan began by saying that his message is that there’s an advancing phenomena of climate change that’s going to affect really processes across the board in a variety of ways, but will also be overlain by California’s natural variability, which can make these problems perhaps not so bad in some cases, but in other cases, much more acute.
He presented a time series of annual precipitation from the Sierran region. “What we’re seeing in this present spell – this isn’t just a one year wet, next year dry phenomena all the time,” he said. “It’s marked by these low frequency fluctuations.”
He noted this was another view of the previous graph. “We have these multi-year swings which really characterize administrations and lead scientist’s tenures and so forth,” he said. “We’re in a really dry one right now, but an interesting thing is that these multi-year swings and in fact the inter-annual variations are driven exquisitely strongly by a handful of storms. The 5% highest events are the ones shown here in the red trace and those are dominating the inter-annual to decadal variability; the presence or absence of those really large storms really drive our water supply here in California. Of course they are also the flood generators, so they are a doubled edged sword.”
“We’re in an unprecedented era in earth’s history where temperatures are rising over the last few decades as greenhouse gases have accumulated in the atmosphere and those greenhouse gas accumulations, depending upon which emissions pathway globally we ride upon, have really profound implications on where we go in the future,” Dr. Cayan said.
He noted that the dashed line represents +2 degrees Celsius over today’s summer temperatures. “Two degrees C has been labeled as dangerous by a number of pundits in the science community for a variety of reasons,” he said. “Charitably by mid-century, just about every global climate model scenario starts to flirt with that +2 Celsius in the summertime.”
“It goes beyond that, particularly with the higher emissions scenario, so the emissions pathways really begin to matter beyond about mid-Century,” he said. “It’s kind of like accumulating credit card debt, so the more flagrant we are today, the more our progeny are going to have to deal with.”
“The natural variation is actually a big, big part of the story as we get on into the future,” he added.
Dr. Cayan said that sea level rise is projected to be somewhere 1 meter over recent historical levels. “That is an acceleration over what we’ve seen,” he said. “Historically we’ve been accustomed to about half of a foot in a century, and the new rates are really going to eclipse this if projections are correct.”
“Our snowpack is going to suffer as climate warms,” he said. “We’ve seen two winters now where precipitation has been low and snow has been extraordinarily low because of the warming that we’ve had in these last couple of winters. I don’t mean to attribute that entirely to climate change. I’m just saying it’s an analog, but as the century wears on, by the latter part of the century, the color scale is the fraction of today’s snow that is left, and by the time you get to these red shades, you’re 30% or less than today.”
“That doesn’t mean we’ve lost water, it does mean however that water becomes more of a challenge to manage,” he said.
Upstream, there are wildfires, Dr. Cayan noted. “Over the period since the mid 80s when we had a spate of warm springs and summers, we’ve seen a fourfold increase over the west in large wildfires and a six-fold increase roughly in the amount of acres burned. Those events have happened in years where springs have come early, so less snowpack and early drying of forest fuels adds a lot more volatility to wildfires.”
Dr. Cayan then gave his conclusions. “We anticipate warmer temperature conditions, both air and water in the Delta. Very likely we would see larger floods as snow lines in storms are elevated and there’s more runoff for a given watershed. Drought is probably a phenomena that will continue as our variability in the system is going to persist, but it will occur in an increasingly warm climate.”
“Sea level rise will exacerbate things from the oceanic side. Probably we’ll have less stored water, certainly in the form of snowpack and possibly in our reservoirs since reservoirs are used for dual purposes, not only water storage but flood protection,” he said.
“These changes, at least the way we face them, are not going to be gradual,” he said. “They will probably be very episodic, and they will be episodic because we have this enormous natural variability that compounds things in certain cases, so that it’s not something that we can afford to wait until 2050; we really have to confront this because it could happen next year.”
FRAN SPIVY-WEBER, State Water Resources Control Board
The regulatory environment
“We definitely have data out there among our various agencies, in the universities, and in various and sundry places, but it’s not organized very well, it’s not easily accessible, and it’s something that we really do need to get a grip on because as we’re going to need to be able to act flexibly,” began Fran Spivy-Weber. “We’re uncertain about so many things, and we’re going to need to have data and models to help devise the scenarios for making decisions.”
Technology is important as well. “I think there’s a lot of technology that’s out there that is being developed for being smarter and being more real time,” she said. “We need to be using the smart technologies of the future. Now what are those and which ones? Do we need to be doing more with aerial photography? Do we need to be doing more with metering and smart meters? I don’t even know all the things that are out there right now but I do know we need to be on top of this.”
Ms. Spivy-Weber noted that the State Water Resources Control Board has a number of regulatory authorities. “We are the regulatory authority for water rights, for water quality, and now for drinking water,” she said. “We also have funding. Almost every agency does have some kind of funding, whether it be fond funding or whether it be revolving loan funds for us for drinking water or for clean water, and I think again the idea of coordinating with the federal government, with the state government, and at the local level, which is where most of the funding resides, you need to be looking at the agencies as to what kind of assets they can bring to the table. No single agency is going to have all the assets, nor should we want that.”
“There have been a lot of changes over the last 25 years, and some of them in the last year or two,” she said. “We’re putting increasingly faith in what’s happening in the science, and none of it says we’re going back to the past, so how are good are we at forecasting with uncertainty into the future? We’re not very good. We don’t have that capability. We tend to use the past as our guide, both for regulations as well as for management, and so we need to be able to move forward in this area of forecasting.”
There is a lot more integrated regional management of resources, with most urban areas having a wide portfolio of resources, she said. “There is recycled water, stormwater capture, and desalination in some areas. The area for gray water for growing, there is lots and lots of conservation, and there are greater opportunities now for improved operations.”
“So my request to this science team is not to look at where we’ve been, but where we need to be going, and help us put into place the technologies, the models, and the data organizing,” she said. “Maybe there’s new data needed, but if there’s the data there somewhere, we should be able to have it organized such that people can get access to it and use it as they need.”
JOE GRINDSTAFF, Inland Empire Utilities Agency
Joe Grindstaff started by presenting a graphic from a newspaper article from Australia. “It said in this article that they had a 12-year drought, they finally got serious in year 9, which reminds me of us, and we do things,” he said. “The number one thing they would have done, they would have saved more water much sooner, so that speaks to conservation. I think is absolutely critical to unite the public behind water conservation and water policy reforms.”
Mr. Grindstaff said he thinks California has a lot in common with Australia, but the fundamental message about conserving water and saving it for the future is really important. “Conservation is actually the least cost supply, but it has a huge impact on agencies that are actually implementing it, so that’s one of the big challenges as we move ahead.”
“You really have to have the public behind you; you have to have the public agree that we have to change our water use as we move ahead; that’s a fundamental thing,” he said. “If you can achieve the financial objectives, incentivize conservation, and get the public to agree that their way of use needs to change, then we can make major changes as we move ahead.”
Mr. Grindstaff pointed out that it’s critical to have good data. “We do not have great data throughout the state,” he said. “I live and work in the Santa Ana watershed, probably one of the most advanced in the state. It’s an urban area. We have been working together for a long time and we’ve done many things, but we don’t have as much data as we really need to do, so just recently we’ve agreed to gather more specific data on exactly how much landscape we have in the area, and try and estimate what the real needs are for water supply as we move ahead.”
There is state legislation that states the de facto standards for water use, he said. “One of those is indoor use is 55 gallons per person, per day – there’s actually a law that says that’s an appropriate usage. I’m proud to say our agency meets that, so we have almost a million people in San Bernardino County that do that,” he said. “Where we really fall down is on the landscape irrigation, because we don’t honestly truly meet the standards of optimizing water use for landscaping. I try to compare water conservation with changing our attitudes about smoking or seat belts; those required both regulatory things and economic things. Somehow we have to get the public committed to making those changes, and if we do that, I’m convinced we can get where we need to be with conservation.”
He pointed out that the graphic is from one of their member agencies in the Santa Ana watershed that implemented an allocation-based rate structure. “This is where they actually said, here’s what our objectives are, here’s how much water you should be using, and if you use more than what is allocated for your size property, your type of use, then we’re going to charge you a lot more,” he said. “You can see where their per capita demands have significantly decreased.”
“In Australia, it became kind of a badge of honor that they were going to really use water wisely,” Mr. Grindstaff said. “I don’t think it’s that way in California yet, but if we are truly going to make conservation a way of life, which is I think how the Governor’s Water Action Plan started, then we have to get the public to accept that.”
“And so with that … “
DR. RICHARD HOWITT, UC Davis
Water supply economics
“Interesting thing happened a year ago in February, 2014,” began Dr. Howitt. “The bids from the Buena Vista Water District offer of water were published, and water became a commodity. In the 2009 drought, the highest price was paid for water in the San Joaquin Valley was around $550 an acre-foot. Last February, Buena Vista had 12,000 acre-feet up for sale, and they were going to sell it to the highest bidder, provided they were agriculture and in southern San Joaquin Valley, Tulare based. Everyone thought it was probably going to clear for about $650. The bids were oversubscribed six times, all water was sold for over $1000 an acre-foot, boom, the price doubled, and it went from there on up. Basically what happened is what happened in Australia a long time ago. Water is now a commodity and a really valuable one.”
“The other interesting was that the Buena Vista bids were strictly for agriculture, and southern San Joaquin agriculture – none of this urban-agriculture interface and yet the prices were in that same range that urbans find economical to purchase water from agriculture,” he said. “So two things happened. The prices doubled, and the equilibrium between urban and agricultural water occurred in price wise. It is a commodity.”
An acre-foot of water above the Delta is worth about $700 an acre-foot if it’s above the Delta, more if it’s south of the Delta, Dr. Howitt noted. “Some of that, about 30%, is carriage water requirements for getting across the Delta, but the rest of it is due to the regulatory restrictions that we have in passing water through the Delta in drought years,” he said. “So because of those, the Delta has become an even more critical hub than it was, and like any energy or information network hub, there are rents to be extracted.”
“I was struck at in the previous panel, where they said total federal-state money for upgrading levees was $12 million a year,” he said. “Let’s just put $10 an acre-foot export tax from the Delta and that’s $50 million we’re talking about – that’s real money. So what we’ve got to think about is the Delta as a conveyance system if we’re going to be serious about dual criteria.”
Dr. Howitt encouraged the panel to think about what sea level rise means for the X2 interface and what that means for diverting water. “Not only do you want quantity, you have quality, and quality is currently measured in salinity and salinity is affected by X2. This is an inescapable conclusion from sea level rise predictions,” he said.
The Australians turned their water into a commodity with important external impacts on the environment and society, and they then set up an ability to trade it, he said. “I actually have on my iPhone an Australian water trading website and I can tell you what the value of water is on the middle reaches of the Murray-Darling basin right now,” he noted.
“The Australians also set up environmental zones,” Dr. Howitt said. “Within those environmental zones, you can move water quickly and cheaply. If you step over the boundaries, you have to have more regulatory restrictions. What this does is it lowers the cost of trading the commodity. A recent paper in New Zealand … attributed about $2.5 billion savings to the fact that Australians were able to trade water without significant environmental costs.”
“We’re now moved into a phase where we have a valuable commodity,” he said. “The Delta is the hub of that commodity, and hubs for gas or electricity always extract a rent for passing through the hub, and frankly, that’s where the money to restore the Delta and to maintain it is going to come from.”
Dr. Sam Luoma kicked off the discussion period by bringing up performance measures, and asking the panelists what they thought we should be tracking through so policy makers can see what we’re doing and if what we’re doing is working.
Fran Spivy-Weber mentioned that a number of institutions and agencies are looking at performance measures on life stages of salmon and wildlife. She also suggested water use and energy use, as the two are fairly tightly linked.
Joe Grindstaff suggested water use both indoors and outdoors, and what landscape it’s being used on. “If you look at how we’re using water now, very often people just run their sprinklers because it’s just easier to do that, and even if you increase the price, in many parts of Southern California, it would be hard to increase the price enough to impact daily water use for those kinds of things,” he said. “But honestly we don’t even have all the numbers we ought to have so we can then use the established standards and then figure out how we’re going to address that. … I don’t know the answer to it all, but I think gathering data is the first step, because you can’t really make decisions effectively if you don’t really know what you’re doing.”
John Leahigh said improved tools for dealing with the variability are needed. “Improving our skill level at forecasting, such as predictions for water supply runoff for the remainder of the year as it tightens a bit of that uncertainty,” he said. “Just anecdotally, in my experience over the last 20 years, I think our skill level and capabilities at shorter term forecasting has improved immensely. That’s a very key element because of the short duration periods when water supply occurs, and because of the inherent trade off between the flood protection aspects and the water supply aspects, so whether or not we can capture an event as it comes in is going to be highly dependent on what those forecasts are for the amount of precipitation that we’re going to receive and the resulting runoff. It helps us manage those risks between those two primary objectives, which is the water supply and the flood management protection.”
“We need to know what the value of water is in different places and different times, and we need to know its riskiness,” said Dr. Howitt. “Essentially if something is getting more valuable and more risky, we’ve got to manage it more precisely, and substitute information for water. I would certainly not be in favor of telling farmers how much water they should use on crops – I think they are the best judges of that, if they are paying the correct price for it. … I think the role of public outreach is extraordinarily important for urban conservation, but on the agricultural side, I think the role of prices is most effective and for that, we need an expanded and more fluid and above all more public water market.”
Dr. Mike Healey asked the panelists what exactly does ‘water supply reliability’ mean?
“It’s the probability of delivering a quantity at a location,” said Dr. Howitt.
“Somehow it’s matching demands to supplies, so in my mind, you approach it from both sides, and it’s that match that defines your reliability,” said Joe Grindstaff.
“In practice, water supply reliability does not necessarily come with conservation,” said Fran Spivy-Weber. “This is one thing that we’ve learned over the last several years. As folks conserve, they may actually reallocate that water that they have to increased acreage or different kinds of commodities, and so when we talk about water supply reliability, we really do have to focus in on for how long, for who, and we have to be more specific about what we mean when we say it.”
“The short definition for me would be the availability of the supply when it’s needed most,” said John Leahigh. “That’s the interplay that I was talking about as far as the overall yield, average annual deliveries versus is the water available in those driest years, and those years of greatest shortage, to the extent that you can reduce those shortages in those types of years, that’s an improvement in your reliability.”
“There are a lot of contradictory discussion about trends in water use in agriculture, all the way from ‘we’re conserving as much as we can’ to ‘this is the big knob that we could turn’,” said Dr. Luoma. “Is there enough data to understand those trends?”
“I think the potential for real conservation in agriculture is quite limited, because for most of the agricultural regions of this state, the water that goes down into deep percolation and even some that goes in surface runoff is used to recharge, and so if you look at the basin efficiencies opposed to field efficiency, you get very different measures,” Dr. Howitt said. “Having said that, I think it’s very important to know where water is being used and it’s essential to know this if we’re going to implement the new groundwater legislation in an equitable way, because if somebody is overpumping, they are essentially taking somebody else’s water.”
“If you’re going to have a market, you have to know what’s out there and you have to know how it’s being used,” said Fran Spivy-Weber.
“We’re talking about water use, but really it is getting a handle on total water budget, because there’s seepage loss, there’s transmission losses,” said Dr. Goodwin. “I think the recent paper that came out last year in the online journal really highlighted the difficulty in closing the water balance for some of those islands, so yes you can measure your agricultural losses, but there’s many other things that you cannot get a handle on.”
“While I think agricultural water use efficiency is improving, I think it differs widely,” said Joe Grindstaff. “If you’re in a district where you only pay $10 an acre-foot, then the incentives to do water conservation are much, much less than is you’re in Westlands or someplace where water is extremely valuable and you treat it much more as a commodity and a huge input in to your business; there are a few places in the state where the cost of water is still so low that water use efficiency is not a high priority. I do agree long-term, most of the water ends up being recaptured and reused someplace else, so it’s not as if it’s all flowing out to the ocean if it’s not being properly used.”
Dr. Johnnie Moore recalled how John Leahigh had said that the older regulations were mostly prescriptive and the newer ones demanded more real-time responses. “One of the things we’ve been talking about as a group is how is the California system different than other big systems that are being managed and what are the different policy implications and issues that make it more challenging,” he said. “What’s the cost of that as the regulatory system having this kind of immediate real time feedback versus planning a year out, or six months out, or is that even a reasonable question?”
“One of the major important issues in the real-time response is the reliance on the unregulated flows that are in the system,” said John Leahigh. “The only other system that I can think of is the Colorado system which is highly regulated with a high degree of dams versus the total runoff that system, whereas there’s just a very much smaller percent of the Sacramento system that is regulated in comparison to its annual runoff. Even though we do regulate with the major rim dams for the watersheds up in the Sierra Nevada, the part of the system to a large degree unregulated is the precipitation that occurs downstream of the dams. This is the piece of the system that we struggle with, and the only way to regulate any of that system is essentially through the exports, and that’s very limited. There can be a substantial amount of runoff that occurs downstream of those dams, and to the extent that the one tool that we have available to us at the exports is restricted because of this conflict with the fishery protection, then that’s the one last tool that was available to us for that type of management of the system.”
“This kind of flexibility as it relates to implementation of the standards is a double edged sword, so it’s to the extent that we can be flexible and when the fishery are out of harm’s way and be able to export that unregulated water when it’s available, that’s the good part, that’s the positive side,” Mr. Leahigh said. “The negative side is it just introduces another area of uncertainty as well as our management capabilities and how much water is going to be available through the year, not knowing how much water we’ll be able to pump on any given day, week, or month.”