Delta Stewardship Council Drought Update: Delta perspectives on drought management

Delta field #1 July 2010 25pctCCWD's Leah Orloff and Delta farmer Steve Mello discuss how the drought is affecting operations within the Delta

The April meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council included an update on the continuing drought and its impacts.  In the last installment of coverage, 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.

Here's what they had to say.

LEAH ORLOFF, Water Resources Manager with the Contra Costa Water District

Leah Orloff began with some basic information about her agency and the region they serve. “We serve about 500,000 people; we serve retail and wholesale water in northern and eastern Contra Costa County,” she said. “Our main source of supply is the Central Valley Project; we’re a CVP contractor. We also divert a small amount of water under our own water rights and within our service area. We don’t supply it, but others in our service area have groundwater and recycled water in smaller amounts.”

Item 10 Panel 3 - 1-Leah Orloff - CCWD_Page_02She presented a map, noting that the legal Delta is outlined in yellow, and water district’s service area is shown in green, and is in and immediately adjacent to the Delta. “Our intakes, indicated by the stars on the map, are all in the Delta, so we are in a unique position in California water. We’re also sort of the canary in the coal mine, in that everything that happens pretty much in Contra Costa water affects us, and in particular is likely to affect water quality at our intakes.”

Item 10 Panel 3 - 1-Leah Orloff - CCWD_Page_03She then presented a plot showing how their Los Vaqueros reservoir is operated, explaining that it was built in 1998 for water quality purposes. “It’s often hard for people to get their minds around this concept; this is not a reservoir was not built for supply. It doesn’t allow us to deliver any more water or divert any more water,” she said. “What it does allow us to do is ameliorate the effects of being in the Delta where the water quality at our intakes has significant variation, both seasonally and interannually. The way we operate it typically is when water is sweet in the Delta in the winter and the spring, we divert at our intakes directly and serve our customers. We also divert some extra water, put it up in the reservoir, and then in the summer and the fall typically when the seawater comes into the Delta and water at our intakes salts up, we use the good water in our reservoir to blend with our source water so that we can maintain a steady supply of high quality water to our customers.”

Ms. Orloff explained that the plot shows how they would have expected to operate, had this been a normal series of years. “We expanded our reservoir in 2012 by 60%, so we drew it down in order to raise the dam, and we fully expected to be able to refill to the top to 160,000 acre-feet in two years. Had that happened and had this been a normal year, we would have drawn down for releases a bit, and then had the opportunity to refill. Well, that didn’t happen.”

Item 10 Panel 3 - 1-Leah Orloff - CCWD_Page_04She presented a plot showing the effect of the drought on their operations. “We started much lower than expected because of previous drought years, and we had a very limited fill opportunity; that was sort of an anomaly,” she said. “We expect to be serving the water from Los Vaqueros, so a steady decrease in storage for the rest of the year. We expect to end the year at roughly half the storage that we would have normally expected.

Ms. Orloff said the need for releases from Los Vaqueros are due to a number of things. “The first one being water quality, which is not going to be good. That’s because of the dry hydrology; it’s also because of the relaxations in Delta flow and salinity objectives. The barrier at West False River will help take the edge of the degradation but it won’t remove it. So we would have to use water in our reservoir for water quality.”

The other thing is that we have to use it for water supply this year,” she said. “That is because we have a historically low allocation from the CVP coming right on the heels of our previous historically low allocation which we got last year, so that even if water quality was great at our intakes, we would still have to use our reservoir in order to meet our customer demand, even the reduced conservation demand.”

Leah OrloffSo in spite of that tale of woe, we do realize that we’re in better shape than many; we have water to make it through this year, no question; we’ll even have some left for next year, and that is in large part of recent investments that we’ve made,” she said. She noted that the yellow star in the corner of the graph shows where their storage would be, had they not built the new intake on Victoria Canal, which extends the period of time when there’s good water at the intakes, and had they not enlarged the reservoir. “We would have been down at emergency storage levels and staying there, and in big trouble.”

Ms. Orloff said they have had elements of a drought program in place since 2009. In April of 2015, the Board of Directors adopted a stricter program intended to fully comply with the provisions of the Governor’s order and the State Board regulations, she said. “The program has five basic elements,” she said. “The first being conservation services. We want to make it easy for our customers to save water. So we’re offering quite a bit of education information. We also have a number of direct assistance items such as rebates for lawn to garden conversions. We have used that so far to eliminate about 7 football fields of turf. … We have a robust outreach and communication program, we communicate through snail mail, email, on our website, we go to community events, so we’re really trying to get the word out.”

She said they will implement a conservation pricing adjustment in accord with the Governor’s call for pricing signals for conservation. “The way we’re going to do it is as a temporary increase in the quantity charge, so it’s a carrot and a stick approach to getting our customers to conserve,” she said. “The carrot is that if you meet your conservation goal, your water bill will go down from what it otherwise would have been. The stick is if you don’t conserve, your water bill will go up. In fairness to customers who are already big time conservers, we have a threshold below which the quantity charge increase doesn’t apply. It is a temporary charge which will be lifted when the Governor lifts his executive order.”

They have expanded their water use prohibitions to include those on the new list from the State Board, and added fines and penalties to enforce those prohibitions, she said. “Really the main purpose of the fines and penalties is as teaching tool. We have found in our area, usually it doesn’t take more than a single warning to a water waster to cease the wasteful use before they comply, and then it’s no longer an issue.”

Ms. Orloff said this program will get them through this drought, but they know it won’t be the last drought, so they are working with other agencies on regional efforts to improve resiliency for the next drought.

Item 10 Panel 3 - 1-Leah Orloff - CCWD_Page_06One is the Bay Area Regional Reliability Effort, where Bay Area agencies are all working together to look leveraging existing water supplies and facilities to make for greater regional reliability as well as what new supplies and facilities can be added, Ms. Orloff said. She said that a subset of those agencies have been working on a small desal plant located at Contra Costa’s Mallard Slough intake where a successful pilot plant was run in 2009. The project had been put on the back burner for awhile, but now with the extreme drought, it has come back into the discussion.

They are also involved in regional partnerships in Los Vaqueros Reservoir. “These have already provided a benefit to the region,” she said. “For example, at the end of the summer, we were able to use water we had stored in Los Vaqueros to supply 5000 acre-feet to Alameda County Water District when it was literally their only source of supply. We were also able to supply much needed water to Byron Bethany Irrigation District, and this year, we’re working on a 2015-16 project with Alameda County again and Zone 7 Water Agency to use some of our empty storage in Los Vaqueros to park some of their banked Semitropic Water Bank water and then supply it to them later. This is water they would otherwise have no way to get. So these projects have been very successful.”

We’re also looking at further expansion of Los Vaqueros, which would include a direct connection between our system and the Bethany Reservoir, and that has potential to provide enormous regional benefits,” she said. “We are engaging vigorously in the Water Commission process on storage benefits, and we plan to submit an application for state funding at the earliest possible time.”

Ms. Orloff also noted that they are working on expanding their use of recycled water, expecting to apply for Prop 1 money this summer for a project, as well as participating in studies on direct potable reuse.

“And with that … ”

STEVE MELLO, Delta farmer, president of Reclamation District 563, and more …

Steve Mello is a Delta farmer who wears many hats. “I’m president and part owner of Mello Farms, Inc. which is a family owned farming operation with land located in Sacramento County, mostly on Tyler Island, just south of Walnut Grove,” he said. “I am president of Reclamation District 563, Tyler Island. I am chairman of the North Delta Water Agency and a member of the Board of Directors of the Central Valley Flood Control Association. My comments here today are as a farmer, not as a spokesperson of any of the organizations I serve on.”

The drought has had many impacts on farming activities in the Delta, as well as the environmental benefits these farming activities normally would have provided to wildlife, he said. “Despite our strong water rights and in response to the drought, Mello Farms changed its normal cropping regimen in order to reduce our diversions,” he said. “I planted 849 acres of wheat, and 336 acres of corn this year. We will plant 55 acres of tomatoes. We have 116 acres of established alfalfa and 29 acres of 60+ year old pear trees. I would have planted another 79 acres of alfalfa and 770 more acres of corn and not planted any wheat if not for the uncertainty caused by the drought.”

Steve MelloWe eliminated the normal flooding of fields in November, December, and January as has occurred yearly on our lands since at least 1955; that flooding normally provides roosting and foraging areas for migratory waterfowl, including the greater Sandhill crane which is an endangered specie,” he said. “In addition, the yearly flooding provides other societal and business benefits, including reducing aerobic decomposition of organic soil, reducing tractor passes by decomposing crop residue with the flooding thereby reducing both fuel use and carbon air emissions, and providing a greater moisture based during periods of historically high river flows, which is in the winter, so we reduce the amount f water used in spring and summer, and it also reduces herbicide use.”

Mr. Mello said that these actions will reduce their diversions from the Delta by more than 50%. “Our actions are mostly due to altruistic reasons but partly due to the potential economic loss that would be caused by the inability to irrigate in the event of a governmental decree, cutting off our ability to divert water for crop irrigation,” he said. “We may lose money this year, but not as much as if we planted our normal crops and had been curtailed.”

He then turned to some of the cause and effects of the drought. “For my farm, due to low water surface elevations in river channels, my diversions provide less volume than historically,” he said. “With siphon, it takes more time to irrigate a given acreage, and with electric pumps, it takes more time and it’s more costly because of electrical use.”

Due to warmer water and less volume in winter for flushing flows, aquatic vegetation is much more prevalent,” he said. “We had to hire a diver three times last year to clear intakes, and that’s the first time that’s ever happened. This problem is more prevalent when boat traffic is high at lower tides. Every time we had to hire a diver, it was a big boating day on a low tide cycle.”

Less rainfall means more irrigation, hence more cost. And changing the crop regimens is definitely going to cost us a loss of net revenue,” he said. “For my reclamation district, to which I pay taxes at $55 an acre, it hurts. Less flooding, rainfall and irrigation reduces the district drain pumps electrical usage. Less net revenue for landowners reduces their ability to pay benefit assessments that fund levee maintenance, levee upgrades, canal and pump maintenance, drainage, electrical cost, and the general district administrative costs.”

DWR Delta boat #2Lower water elevation surface and water elevation in river channels cause boat weight damage to impact levees below rip rap protection,” he said. “We can’t place the rip rap below mean low water mark, so when you have abnormally low river water surface elevations, the boat weights typically are going to be impacting sections of the levees that aren’t protected. More boats using the Delta due to low lake levels in the Sierra increases boat weight damage to our levees just because there’s a heck of a lot more boating activity.”

The North Delta Water Agency experienced increased costs due to consultant and administrative hours spent trying to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Water Resources regarding the emergency drought barriers, he said, noting that they never did come to an MOU. “Last year, we told DWR they should get through the EIR process and plan for the future, and once the year was over, they just kind of forgot about it, didn’t come back until this year,” he said.

We at the North Delta Water Agency are also going to experience higher costs to administer the 1981 contract between DWR and NDWA that is for the assurance of a dependable water supply of suitable quality, and those costs are going to be in regarding the emergency drought provisions of the contract, which are kicking in for this year for the first time ever since the inception of the contract,” he said.

And with that, I might mention that most reclamation districts in the Delta are not water supply districts; the water supply facilities are owned by individual land owners. There are a few water supply districts,” he said. “The North Delta Water Agency again is not a water supply district; we only administer the contract.

Thank you.

Previously posted from this meeting …

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