Delta Stewardship Council Drought Update: Water management actions and the status of Delta fisheries

Delta aerial sliderboxDWR Drought Manager Jeanine Jones with an update on hydrologic conditions; DWR Lead Scientist Ted Sommer with an update on Delta fish species, and Delta Watermaster Michael George reviews the actions of the State Water Board

At the April meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, councilmembers received an update on the continuing extremely dry conditions and how the state is responding.  In this second panel, DWR’s Deputy Drought Manager Jeanine Jones gave an update on current hydrologic conditions and how the Department is responding to the dry conditions; Lead Scientist Ted Sommer gave an update on the Delta’s fish species, and Delta Watermaster Michael George discussed the actions the State Water Resources Control Board is taking.

Here’s what they had to say.

JEANINE JONES, Deputy Drought Manager for the Department of Water Resources

Item 10 Panel 2 - 1-Jeanine Jones  DWR_Page_01Jeanine Jones, Deputy Drought Manager for the Department of Water Resources, began by showing a picture of a seriously depleted Lake McClure, noting that the thing that looks like a pool toy in the middle of the reservoir is actually the intake for a small water system that serves 3000 people. “It’s projected to be on the bottom of the reservoir by about August, so it’s one of the areas where we are doing an emergency response action in conjunction with the State Water Resources Control Board which includes trying to find a well that will yield water and looking at other emergency response capabilities, which has been a hallmark of the current drought conditions,” she said.

Item 10 Panel 2 - 1-Jeanine Jones  DWR_Page_02She then presented a slide of showing precipitation for the last three years, noting that it is in fact the driest consecutive three year period in the state’s recorded hydrology. “This year was also dry, although not as dry, fortunately, but once again, it was severely dry in parts of the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.”

Item 10 Panel 2 - 1-Jeanine Jones  DWR_Page_05She presented a slide of the Northern Sierra 8-station index, noting that the blue shaded area is average. “While we’re certainly not average, we’re at least better than we were last year, is one way to put it,” she said.

Item 10 Panel 2 - 1-Jeanine Jones  DWR_Page_06But when you turn to the San Joaquin precipitation index, we see that we were in the half of average range, not as good, reflecting the drier conditions in the San Joaquin Valley,” she said.

Item 10 Panel 2 - 1-Jeanine Jones  DWR_Page_07Snowpack has been a non-starter this year. “The blue shaded area again is average and we’re down in the cellar; in fact we set a record for records kept since 1950 for a record low April 1st snowpack,” she said. “Currently we’re at about 3% of average, and you may have noticed that we canceled the May 1st snow survey because there would really be nothing to survey and our surveyors would just be taking a nice hike in the Sierras.”

Item 10 Panel 2 - 1-Jeanine Jones  DWR_Page_08She then presented a slide showing average temperature ranks for the nation, noting that the record heat is part of the reason for the meager snowpack. “Last calendar year, the western US including California set a record for all-time high average temperatures,” she said. “Unfortunately that trend is continuing so far this spring, so far at this point, we’re the second warmest, following last year. And obviously these conditions are not good for snow.”

Atmospheric river storms play a major part in California’s precipitation; we had two major storm events, one in the early part of December and one in the early part of February. “They were both very warm storms with the snow level around 8000 feet, so we didn’t’ get the lower elevation snowpack that we normally would, and what did land up there melted rather rapidly,” she said. “The snowpack is very important for being the runoff that fills our reservoirs, which are generally not where we would like them to be, in terms of reservoir storage.”

Ms. Jones pointed out that atmospheric river storms have fairly narrow storm tracks. “So like the real estate agents say, it is location, location, location,” she said. “Shasta happened to be in a good location, so they did somewhat better than others, such as Lake Oroville, which is not doing so well. Another reservoir that’s important for managing the Delta is Folsom; the characteristics of the Folsom River watershed are such that the reservoir tends to fill quickly and empty quickly, but we have a good shot on refill there. But for some of the San Joaquin Valley reservoirs, like Lake McClure, which is down in the 5% of capacity range, that reservoir just was not in a good location and the storm track simply didn’t hit it, and that’s part of the problem in the San Joaquin Valley.”

Item 10 Panel 2 - 1-Jeanine Jones  DWR_Page_14Low snowpack isn’t good for reservoir inflows because rely on the snowpack to act as that frozen reservoir up in the mountains that contributes the runoff that fills our reservoirs, she said. “Probably the best word I could use to describe the forecasts of runoff for this season is dismal. In essence, we’re at the end of the rainy season, for all practical purposes. What we have for this year is what we have left now. … We’re left with managing what we have.”

Item 10 Panel 2 - 1-Jeanine Jones  DWR_Page_15Last year, we saw record zero allocations to some of the Central Valley Project contractors who have never seen a zero allocation before – granted low allocations, but not zero allocations,” she said. “This year again, zero allocation to some of the CVP’s agricultural contractors in the Central Valley. The State Water Project doing a little bit better than last year at a whopping 20%. The one are of the state that is the bright picture is the Colorado River, where California will be getting its full interstate apportionment, thanks to all of the upstream reservoir storage capacity on the Colorado River system.”

“Small water systems in rural areas are a big problem,” she said. “They are a continuing challenge during droughts; they were a significant challenge last year, and one that we expect will increase this year.”

Item 10 Panel 2 - 1-Jeanine Jones  DWR_Page_17The Governor has taken many drought response actions, which has meant we’ve been really busy, Ms. Jones said. “The January emergency proclamation, 20 to do items,” she said. “We had the March emergency drought relief funding that provided money for IRWM grants for local agencies. We had yet another emergency proclamation last April, again once again with 20 to do items. In September of last fall, we had another Executive Order which focused particularly on the critical health and safety issues of the small water systems that were running out of water, and emergency financial assistance for them. Then, in March of this year, we had more emergency drought legislation, funding legislation, fueled in part by the voters approval of the new water bond at the end of last year. Then we had our latest Executive Order that among other things, directed us at DWR to install a temporary urgency barriers in the Delta. It also contained the Governor’s call for the 25% conservation, and directed the State Board to take actions in that regard.”

Item 10 Panel 2 - 1-Jeanine Jones  DWR_Page_29Operating the state and federal water projects under these hydrologic conditions is very challenging,” she said. “To give you the idea of what we mean by challenges, last winter, we had a very long period in which it didn’t rain during what would normally be the state’s wettest time of year. In fact, many communities set records for length of time without rain, including in our normally wetter parts of Northern California. During that period, there was a time in which only 5% of the flow in the Central Valley was natural flow; everything else was reservoir releases. That is really an unprecedented condition in terms of managing our project facilities.”

Where does the water come from that we use to manage the system during the wet period?” she said. “Some of it comes from natural flow that is not being affected by reservoir operations because it may be on unmanaged tributaries, or it simply may be larger than the amounts of water that are being diverted to storage; then we have reservoir releases. Those are the two tools we have to manage with, whether it’s managing inflows to the Delta or managing flows in a more local scale on a particular river system, so with a record low snowpack this year, we are once again in the condition of where we have extremely low natural flows and we also have depleted reservoir storage, so that really reduces our capabilities to manage the system.”

Emergency assistance for small water systems and private well owners has been another big issue, Ms. Jones said. “It illustrates the need to deal with some of the needs of these rural communities that have less than reliable supplies and have high drought vulnerability,” she said. “How do we bring them along into the world in which we manage water in the bigger systems, and how do we bring them into our integrated regional water management programs, because that’s where there is a lot of state financial assistance available for these systems.”

Jeanine Jones 1The State Water Resources Control Board has been very busy with things like their urban water conservation regulations and curtailments,” she said. “It’s interesting to reflect that not only have we been busy on drought, but in a period of a little over six months, we have had historic groundwater legislation enacted last fall, and we’ve had the new water bond; there is a considerable nexus among the activities associated with all of these and a lot of interconnections.”

The 2009 legislation created the California Statewide Groundwater Elevation Monitoring or CASGEM, so we’re fortunate to have groundwater data to work with to understand at a big picture, Ms. Jones said. We are also moving forward with implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and certainly in the long term, SGMA will be a very important tool in being able to use groundwater sustainably in future droughts, she said.

Ms. Jones said they have been working with their partners at NASA to develop estimates of fallowed agricultural land in the Central Valley during the growing season. She explained the advantage to knowing this during the growing season it that can have big impacts on rural communities, such as local food banks running out of food, and large needs for job assistance and social services assistance, so it gives the social service agencies and idea of where to direct priorities.

The Department has been working with NASA to use satellite infrared synthetic aperture radar technology to monitor land subsidence in the Central Valley as a hot spot screening tool. “We know that people whose surface supplies are cut off will pump more groundwater if its available to them, and that can increase land subsidence which causes impacts to water supply and flood control infrastructure as well as other infrastructure, not to mention long term effects on groundwater management capability,” she said. “We saw preliminary results from last year suggesting some areas experienced as much as half a foot in half a year, in essence, so six inches during a growing season, and obviously we hope that does not continue going forward.”

We are continuing to administer the financial assistance programs, she noted.

In response to the extreme dry conditions, the state and federal project agencies, together with the state and federal fish agencies and with the State Water Resources Control Board, got together to develop a drought contingency plan of project operations for that year, seeking under this extreme hydrology, to figure out what are the best ways to balance the competing demands between health and safety needs, water project deliveries and fishery requirements, whether it’s temperature or flows,” she said. “Those discussions started early this year, and this year’s plan was released in January.”

Item 10 Panel 2 - 1-Jeanine Jones  DWR_Page_31Ms. Jones said there is a lot of effort being put in on small water systems and private wells. “The Office of Emergency Services has been very active in bulk water, bottled water, shower trailers, all of these kinds of things, as well as the State Board, and we have been participating in emergency assistance grants to some of these small rural communities. Some of them are in areas where fractured rock groundwater is the issue, others are in areas where they may be in an alluvial groundwater basin but their wells are too shallow, so this has been a huge area of activity for us at the state level.”

Item 10 Panel 2 - 1-Jeanine Jones  DWR_Page_32Temporary emergency barriers were last used in the 76-77 drought when the Department not only installed a number of barriers throughout the Delta, but also some temporary emergency pipelines in various locations to move water around to locations of need, she said. “One of the iconic symbols of the 77 drought was the emergency pipeline to Marin County over the San Rafael bridge; that water actually made it to the pipeline through a complicated series of exchanges that involved some temporary pipeline and emergency swaps across the Delta to get to there to get it to Marin County, so there was a lot of creative engineering that had to be employed to make that possible.

The January 2014 emergency proclamation directed DWR to consider the need to install emergency barriers in the Delta, Ms. Jones noted. The Department began the planning for that, but with late season rains, the barriers were not needed. “We continued with the planning for them, and at one point we were looking at three barriers that, based on the hydrologic conditions and other considerations, has emerged as being one barrier which will be located on West False River. The construction contract was awarded yesterday, install expected in the first week of May. We expect removal by the middle of November.”

Item 10 Panel 2 - 1-Jeanine Jones  DWR_Page_33Ms. Jones explained that the reason for the barrier is simply that in a normal year, there would be water in the system to work with to control salinity, but since natural flows and water deliveries are low, we have limited ability to reduce pumping or use pumping to control salinity in the Delta, and since we don’t know if next year will be wet or dry, no one wants to use reservoir storage if other options are available because we have to think about emergency health and safety carryovers if next year is dry.

She then concluded with a few remarks about the recent news articles about ‘the blob.’ “It is not a science fiction movie, but if it were a science fiction movie, the title of the movie would probably be something like, ‘Equatorial Kid aka El Nino Returns and Saves Us From The Drought’. This is very much starting to go around in the blogosphere right now because NOAA issued its initial projection that we would have perhaps a strong El Nino next year. If you remember what happened last year, there was a similar forecast that El Nino was coming, it would save us from the drought – not, because unless it is a strong El Nino, there’s really not a lot of correlation for Northern California.”

We would really like to get ahead of this kind of messaging because it really sends the wrong message when we’re encouraging people to do conservation programs and really focus on that, because in our world, we have to plan for the worst, hope for the best,” she said. “It would be wonderful if we did have a wet year next year, but spring forecasts of El Nino are notoriously not very reliable and it would really take a strong El Nino that would give us those hopes of having a better year next year.”

So that’s all that I have …

TED SOMMER, Lead Scientist for the Department of Water Resources

Ted Sommer said he would be mostly representing the thoughts of the a group he is working with as part of the Interagency Ecological Program, which is participating in a big multi-agency effort working to synthesize the information coming in from the drought. At the end, he would give some of his own thoughts, acknowledging that there is some disagreement.

Item 10 panel 2 -2-Ted Sommer Delta Stewardship Counci Drought Briefing Sommer April 2015_Page_03Mr. Sommer began with the status of the Delta’s fish species, starting with the winter-run Chinook salmon. The numbers were really low in 2014 – about 3000 fish, Mr. Sommer said. He acknowledged those numbers aren’t great, but aren’t as bad as back in the 1990s when population levels were in the low hundreds. “The fact that during a drought we have numbers like this is kind of a testament to some of the improvements that have been made in the system for temperature control, habitat, and so forth, and so from the adult standpoint, not terrible,” he said.

Juveniles really faced a hard road this past year,” he said. “We had major temperature problems in the Sacramento River trying to maintain the cold water pool, and the result of that was we had extremely low numbers of juveniles being produced in 2015. Our estimates were that only about 400,000 juveniles passed Red Bluff diversion dam; this is half of the lowest number that we’ve seen at that location based on some of the recent surveys. It’s typical to get in the order of 1 to 4 million based on some of the recent years, so this was pretty disappointing. A number of those fish are going to die before they get to the Delta, so the estimate right now is maybe 100,000 of these young fish made it to the Delta.”

On the positive side, we had pretty good success with fish protections, but we had really low cumulative salvage of these fish at the pumps,” he said. “This is in part due to the fact that there’s few fish out there, there’s been low exports, but there were also some protective measures.”

Mr. Sommer said the story with spring run Chinook salmon is pretty similar to winter-run. “Mixed adult population numbers, much reduced juvenile levels, and very, very low salvage downstream,” he said.

Item 10 panel 2 -2-Ted Sommer Delta Stewardship Counci Drought Briefing Sommer April 2015_Page_04He then presented a slide showing long term trends for the different life stages of the Delta smelt. “We have a small army of people who go out there every season and do these surveys,” he said. “Last fall, we saw our record low in the Fall Midwater Trawl index, and we’re just starting to get some of the survey data from the winter and the spring for the spawning adults and the larval production. Really disappointing results. The adult numbers, spring Kodiak trawl that catches the adult stock in the winter, caught one fish in the last survey, and that’s a survey that’s designed specifically to catch Delta smelt.

He noted that he has heard they are catching some larval fish in the Deep Water Ship Channel, so there is some spawning going on. “But overall, we’re looking at record low numbers for adults and for larvae, we believe, if this continues,” he said.

Mr. Sommer said that similar to the salmon, the fish protective measures that we had in place meant that we had very low salvage of fish down at the pumps. “I think the total adults for the calculated expanded salvage was around 68 fish; that’s a nice low number and we haven’t seen any fish in the vicinity of the pumps since March 16th or so, so probably not going to see much in the way of salvage for the rest of the year, but again the pumping is quite low.”

Item 10 panel 2 -2-Ted Sommer Delta Stewardship Counci Drought Briefing Sommer April 2015_Page_05The bad news is that some of the fish we don’t like seem to be doing really, really well,” he said, presenting a slide showing the population numbers for the Mississippi silverside. “They are an introduced species and one of the concerns is that in spring, we think they compete with Delta smelt for food; they also may eat Delta smelt larvae and eggs. As you can see from the plot here, we saw record numbers of these guys in 2014, so that’s not a positive change.”

Item 10 panel 2 -2-Ted Sommer Delta Stewardship Counci Drought Briefing Sommer April 2015_Page_06There have been some unexpected things happening, Mr. Sommer said. “Black bass are one of the popular fisheries in the Delta, but they are of concern because they are a predator of several of our native species,” he said. “One of the long term predictions was that if we just let the Delta get a bit salty, it would knock back the black bass. They are a fresh water species so salt is good. Unfortunately, we did a special survey this last year, and we saw record numbers of black bass again. This was not something that we expected based on salinity. We think it’s mostly due to the proliferation of aquatic weeds in the system. There’s just a ton of habitat out there for them.”

In order to protect the fish during the drought, an army of folks have been mobilized and are working quite hard to provide an early warning system for when fish are in harm’s way or when they are in different regions of the Delta, he said. This has included early trawls, and very high frequency trawling in the lower San Joaquin River in the area thought of as ‘the entrainment corridor.’

Item 10 panel 2 -2-Ted Sommer Delta Stewardship Counci Drought Briefing Sommer April 2015_Page_08The other big change for this year is we added some intensive turbidity sampling,” he said. “These fish like high turbidities. Typically during first flush, when there’s some rains, the water gets turbid and the fish start to move. So one of the hypotheses was to look at turbidity as an indicator of where the fish may be at a given time, so our group started doing boat tows going up and down the main entrainment corridor in the San Joaquin River leading to the pumps.”

He noted the map depicts an example from during a windstorm, with the red indicating the turbidity bridge was open and the fish could make it all the way to the pumps. “So we used those turbidity data quite extensively. Our operators used both the high spatial resolution data and some continuous probes out there to manage specifically for turbidity and try and make sure that the turbidity bridge didn’t open up and make things turbid all the way down to the pumps. So that is a key reason why we managed to keep entrainment levels low, but there were some export reductions in winter during the first flush period to try and limit migration, but overall, some fairly substantial changes and kind of a big improvement in our strategy.”

Item 10 panel 2 -2-Ted Sommer Delta Stewardship Counci Drought Briefing Sommer April 2015_Page_10For salmon, we relied on the very high frequency sampling in the lower San Joaquin River, as well as additional trawls and seining, Mr. Sommer. He explained that trawling is pulling a net from a boat, and seining is pulling a net from the shore, noting that seining is a good way to detect winter-run, as they are often found near the shore.

One thing about salmon is that we just can’t look at them and tell what races they are, Mr. Sommer acknowledged. “There are four different runs of salmon; we actually have to use genetics to figure out who is who, and so this year, we started a program where we collected fish and tried to a really quick turnaround to get a positive ID on who is who to figure out which ones were the really sensitive ones. There were some pretty substantial releases of acoustically tagged salmon that were released in the Delta, so there was a series of receivers in the system that gave us real time information about when the fish were in harm’s way.”

Ted SommerMr. Sommer said that in order to protect salmon this year, we had some earlier shorter term closures of the Delta Cross Channel, more fish were reared in the hatchery as opposed to the river due to about high temperatures, there was also an overall strategy to take the hatchery fish and truck them downstream due to poor conditions in the Delta, and then when fish were present in the Delta, we did some export reductions at critical times to try and avoid major effects.

He then shared his thoughts on what needs to be done in the coming year. “A lot of the major operational stuff is already contained in our temporary urgency petition; the biological opinions will stay in place, there’s a lot of long-term work that’s been going on with fish habitat in the tributaries; and I’m sure Department of Fish and Wildlife will be doing some pretty courageous actions again with regard to the hatcheries, but I want to share some of the things that I think we learned from last year that we might be able to do a bit better this coming year for management,” he said.

Item 10 panel 2 -2-Ted Sommer Delta Stewardship Counci Drought Briefing Sommer April 2015_Page_12The turbidity measurements really proved to be a powerful tool, he said. “We did this as kind of an ad hoc sampling and this seems like something that would be useful on an ongoing basis, getting these regular maps of turbidity to help with the management of entrainment.

Item 10 panel 2 -2-Ted Sommer Delta Stewardship Counci Drought Briefing Sommer April 2015_Page_13As the status of Delta smelt continues to decline, they are becoming rarer and harder to detect, and actually we have to do some heroic things even to detect them. “I mentioned the high frequency trawling in the lower San Joaquin River,” he said. “Unfortunately, that kills fish. And as smelt continue to decline, we may have to start looking towards a more sensitive or non-lethal ways to provide that early warning data, so one of the examples is the smelt cam that some of you may have heard about. This is a tool developed by USBR, DWR, USGS – it’s basically a towed net, but instead of a bucket at the end, it has a towed video imaging system, so it’s a nonlethal way we can look at smelt and their habitat, and so we are proceeding with a contract to implement this in the coming year.”

Another way to survey for fish which is somewhat extreme and experimental, is when fish get really, really rare, sometimes you can still detect their DNA, he said. “So what we may be doing in the coming year is just taking water samples in different areas and doing DNA analyses. As smelt shed DNA, it’s actually detectable at a very low level.”

The increased genetic testing of salmon was useful last year, but somewhat ad hoc, he said. “It didn’t have a particularly broad geographic area, so we would like to do this broad geographic area, fast turnaround.”

Another management action that would be helpful for smelt and salmon that most people don’t think about is aquatic vegetation control. “It’s completely out of hand in the Delta,” he said. “It creates predator habitat and it acts like a biological filter that cleans out that turbidity; we need turbidity for Delta smelt out there for their habitat. It also creates hellish problems for our fish facilities. We’re not pumping a ton of water these days, but even at the low pumping levels, it’s a huge headache and it causes a lot of fish mortality. And believe it or not, there’s even some evidence at least in other areas, that this aquatic vegetation is actually toxic to plankton out there, so it just kills the base of the food web.”

Item 10 panel 2 -2-Ted Sommer Delta Stewardship Counci Drought Briefing Sommer April 2015_Page_18Also more intensive turbidity management in the Delta,” Mr. Sommer said. “We think we can get good high quality measurements. It’s a tool that we found that we can use when we can’t necessarily detect a fish, we can at least manage for the turbidity field and hopefully provide the sort of protection.”

And lastly, this is something we may or may not get to try in 2015,” he said. “Every fall, a lot of rice fields discharge their water, but in some of the recent years, we saw in the north Delta in fall, when there were agricultural releases, we saw plankton blooms downstream. This was highly unusual because it was something we hadn’t seen in 20 years. And we’ve been doing some studies since then on some small ag pulses that are released from Colusa Drain and they travel through Yolo Bypass. We have the infrastructure in place. If water is available to maybe run more water down this corridor and maybe help support the Delta food web – so we’re doing some research if it’s absolutely extremely dry, there may not even be ag runoff to deal with it, but we’re trying to be creative in using the water sources that are available, even ag drain water.”

So with that …

MICHAEL GEORGE, Delta Watermaster

Michael George said today he would be discussing what the State Water Resources Control Board is doing in terms of drought response and drought management, but he would be returning next month to discuss his activities as the Delta Watermaster.

Michael GeorgeIn terms of what the State Board is doing, there is a lot of real time response that’s required,” he said. “Things are changing rapidly and everyone is trying to adapt, and given the processes that we have in state and federal agencies that have responsibility, real time response is a difficult thing to do. However, we are trying to incorporate a lot of the experiences from 2014 and apply those lessons more broadly, so we’re working very closely with other agencies and reaching out more to the water communities to get input. And that input is helping the board to balance the needs for timely decisions on water rights issues and other related issues, as well as for honoring appropriate processes. Even though the Governor’s proclamations have given us a good deal of leeway on process, we’re also trying to make sure that insofar as those processes are necessary to preserve long term values that are at risk during the drought, so we’re trying to focus on that.”

He then discussed five major areas of the State Board’s response to the drought:

1-Data collection and refinement

Here the drive is toward real time information, for as much information that is fresh and accurate will obviously inform everyone’s decisions more intelligently,” he said. “That’s a big challenge, but having reviewed a lot of the data gaps with respect to managing with either late or low quality data, we’ve focused a good deal of attention on trying to figure out how to fill in those gaps, reduce the time period, and take advantage of some technology.”

Mr. George said that recently, the Division of Water Rights of the State Board sent out an information order requiring all diverters in the Delta watershed to report information about their monthly use or diversions of water during 2014, and to predict those diversions for 2015. The information has been received, with an over 92% compliance rate. “That was very positive from our perspective, and it certainly demonstrated the willingness and the ability of the water community to respond to get the information needed to help them manage in the drought,” he said, noting that with a few stragglers and others, the response is now at about 97%.

So the good news is that we got an avalanche of data and the bad news is that we are now trying to manage, organize, and use that data, because when you ask for data, you better be prepared to use it, because the people who are going to the trouble and expense of providing it have an expectation that it will be used,” he said.

Mr. George said they were dividing the data in three primary ways:

First of all, to provide a gross indication, mass balance indications, so we can have a sense for water use versus water demand, and therefore try and figure out how to manage water rights within our priority system,” he said. “Second, we’re trying to get down to a very granular level so that when we have questions that relate to a specific reach on a specific stream, or questions about a specific diversion, we can quickly hone in on the information we received through our data management.”

The third thing we did was realize that our abilities, technical skills and the technology that we had to analyze all this data is limited, so we made all of that data available to anybody who wanted it,” he said. “We put it on the website; we put out a press releases and said if you come to the office, we’ll give you the entire information on a thumb drive as it’s too big to send by email.”

Anecdotally, we think we’re getting what we’d hoped to get, which is by being very transparent about the information, allowing broad access to it, open data, we get a lot of people to analyze it for us and tell us things that it would take us months or longer to figure out,” he said. “We’re having to test it for accuracy and so forth, but that has been an ongoing and will continue to be a big drought response activity, and the good news is that it should pay dividends after the drought through the next drought, and through normal times as well, assuming we ever have normal times again.”

2-Outreach and communication

The State Board has been active in outreach and communication by soliciting constructive criticism from the water community about how they operated last year, as well as suggestions on how they could do better. “For instance, when we start doing these curves between supply demand which inform our curtailment efforts, we’ve gotten a lot of feedback to help us improve that data, so not only did we get new data from the information order, but we’ve had a lot of very creative discussion about how we can use the data we’ve got better and more acutely.”

Mr. George said that they have also found they have received a great deal of ‘crowd correction.’ “By putting it out there, people who would never look at a whole data set can hone down on their backyard, on what they know really well, and can find errors quickly,” he said. “Sometimes those errors are systemic so if we find an error in one place, it gives us information to correct in other places.”

3-Conservation, a multi-agency effort to help consumers on primarily the urban side to understand how bad the drought is and what they can do to be effective in managing their own water use,” he said. “A lot of very creative work has been done on the ag side where they have had to deal with dramatic reductions in water supply,” he said. “You have a circumstance where farmers know they are getting much less water and they are making tough, often heartbreaking decisions about where to cut, what not to grow, and the effect of that is that the reduction in water is substantially more than the reduction either in crop production or value at the farm gate.”

Finally, we’re also finding that conservation on the environmental side is becoming more intelligent and more acute,” he said. “We’re finding better ways to create objectives, to test those objectives, when we can, how we can, as creatively as we can, because obviously ag, urban, and the environment are all getting very severely cut back and are being put under a lot of stress.”

We’ve just this week announced an agreement, multi-agency multi-party agreement for remanaging the Sacramento River flows,” he said. “We’ll be implementing that, it will come to the State Board as a temporary urgency change petition for changes to conditions to the projects operations.”

4-Fourth, the water rights administration.

Mr. George noted that the first major curtailments have just gone out, and the letter presages additional curtailments to come.

One of the challenges is that anything we do in curtailment by its nature, is never going to be granular enough,” he said. “What I mean by that is we know in issuing a curtailment order, some people are being curtailed probably before they should, and that means that some others that are being able to divert after they should, and we’re trying to get a handle on those anomalies, but we still have to manage a big, complex unruly, very responsive and dynamic system. We know we’re not there, we know we haven’t got the acuity of the data, much less the human ability to manage, much less the regulatory ability to manage those who actually manage.”

One of the things the State Board is trying to do is to frame and hopefully ultimately resolve the very longstanding legal issues. “One of the things that we’ve done is to talk to the water bar, the lawyers who are involved in all of this, and say to them, let’s work together to develop a list of the issues on which there is either murky law, conflicting law, or conflicting points of view about what the law is, and if we can carefully state what the issues are, then let’s go out and see if we can find some fact patterns that will allow us to take those issues and present them to the State Board for initial adjudication.”

There’s no doubt that we’re going to have litigation; there’s too much value at risk, there’s too much uncertainty and there’s too much difference of opinion over what should be done, to not anticipate litigation,” he said. “So instead of managing as to avoid litigation, we’re trying to manage to as to use that litigation to give us greater certainty of what the law is going forward.”

Mr. George said they are also focused on the reasonable use doctrine and how it is evolving through the drought experience. “Reasonable use is heavily fact dependent and dependent on circumstances,” he said. “A lot of thought and discussion is going into how do you use the very powerful authority that the State Board has to determine the reasonability of water use, and to balance those beneficial uses … so watch this space, there will be significant developments there.”

5-Emergency regulatory response

Mr. George then turned to the last item, emergency regulatory response. “You’ve heard about the temporary change petitions, there have been a series of them,” he said. “We’re going to see a number more of those, and because of their nature, we’ve got a group of people, people are working way overtime on some of these things. When a temporary urgency change petition comes in, you have to get staff on it right away, you have to be rigorous about the facts, you have to inquire about what are the long-term outcomes of any short term decision that we make and it’s pretty intense. Part of that intensity is that in any temporary urgency change, we’re asking a lot of agencies with a lot of different mandates to come together and come to an conclusion in real time, make a decision, and make a decision without knowing all the data that they used to having and used to relying on, and stepping up to the risk of being wrong, and knowing that we’re going to be wrong and trying to minimize the extent to which we miss it. And so finally in that process, there’s a very conscious attempt to identify, minimize, and mitigate the harm that is happening in the system because of the drought.”

So those are the five areas of response that the State Board is up to,” he concluded.

Previously posted from this meeting …

Delta Stewardship Council Drought Update, part 1: Policy actions and priorities for addressing the ongoing drought

Coming up tomorrow …

In part 3 of 3, Leah Orloff with the Contra Costa Water District and Steve Mello, a Delta farmer who wears many hats, discuss how the drought is impacting their operations inside the Delta.

For more information …

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