Delta Stewardship Council: 2016: El Nino and Beyond: A look at water operations in the year ahead
John Leahigh with the State Water Project, David Guy with the Northern California Water Association, and Ara Azdherian with the San Luis-Delta Mendota Water Authority give their perspective on water operations for the coming year
So far, this water year, which began on October 1st, 2015 has brought California its wettest winter in years due to El Nino bringing above average precipitation; however, the drought persists. While some key reservoirs are exceeding historical averages for this time of year, the majority of storage is by no means full. The snowpack is improved over last year, and state and federal water project allocations are higher than last year, but still many are still receiving diminished supplies, and various pumping restrictions remain.
At the April meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, councilmemers were briefed on the water supply situation for the upcoming summer and fall months by a panel consisting of John Leahigh, State Water Project Operations Chief at the Department of Water Resources; David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association; and Ara Azhderian, water policy administrator at the San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority.
Here’s what they had to say:
JOHN LEAHIGH, State Water Project/Department of Water Resources
John Leahigh, Chief of Water Operations for the State Water Project, began with the expectations for this past winter season. “There was all of the talk of El Nino, and not only was this in the category of the stronger El Ninos, it was the “Godzilla El Nino”; only two other years were at the level at what we saw this year, the very wet 82-83 water year and 97-98. That really set expectations and concerns for flooding.” He presented NOAA’s prediction for precipitation, pointing out that the prediction was for wetter than typical, with the chances for increased precipitation greater in the southern portion of the state.
So what did we actually receive? “Observations were a bit of a flip on what we would have expected,” he said. “We did see some above average precipitation areas in the northern part of the state, but the south was largely much drier than normal, especially in the LA Basin and the southern Sierra. Maybe one lesson here is two data points does not give you very good robust prediction for your seasonal climate forecast.”
This has resulted in now a fifth year of drought, he said. “The recent drought monitor still shows much of the state is in the exceptionally dry category. There’s been some improvement in the northern part of the state as expected with the precipitation, but we’re still in drought conditions, so this is affecting the soil moisture, surface storages, groundwater levels. It took a while to get into this drought; it’s going to take a while to get out of it.”
In the Northern Sierra, precipitation is above average; however, that does not tell the whole story, he said. “Looking at the cumulative precipitation since the beginning of the drought, since water year 2012, and you can see that although we haven’t had record dry years with the exception of 2013 calendar year, which was the driest calendar year on record … but you take a look at this cumulative effect, we are about three-quarters of a total water years’ total behind on the cumulative total for the northern Sierra as we sit here today. We made up just a slight amount of ground on that cumulative total this year because of the slightly above average precipitation, but we’re still lagging.”
The San Joaquin Basin is also right above average, which is a significant improvement for the basin, as the last couple years on the San Joaquin have been near record dry precipitation, which is one of the differences, he said. “Their cumulative total is not quite two entire water years volume of precipitation but it’s fairly close … so they didn’t lose any additional ground this year, but they certainly have gone nowhere towards making up that cumulative deficit.”
The other aspect and the bigger impact in the last few years has been a combination of the dry conditions plus the warm conditions, Mr. Leahigh said. “That’s resulted in the four year average runoff being the lowest on record, and that’s despite the fact that we’ve had periods of very dry conditions in the 30s. It’s been the combination of the dryness plus the warmth that has created the big deficit in the runoff that we’ve seen.”
“That was played out in the snowpack,” he said, presenting a graphic showing the cumulative April 1st snowpack totals, explaining that April 1st is typically used because that’s the historic peak of the accumulated snowpack. “You can see for the last few years, very low percent of average water content snowpack. Beginning in 2014, we actually tied the previous record, which was 1977, as far as low snowpack, that was 25% of an average snowpack. That record held up exactly one year; the record was shattered the following year when in 2015, it was only 5% of the average snowpack.”
Mr. Leahigh noted that these amounts are even lower than what would be expected in a long-term average decline in the snowpack. “It was absolutely off the charts last year,” he said. “This is one of the biggest parts of our storage for the projects. In addition to the surface storage, we rely on the snowpack, and so when looking at our annual plans, the last couple of years, there was just insufficient storage to meet all of the Delta requirements, all of the salinity requirements, and even to meet all of the contracted amounts to some of the senior water contractors, so that’s the reason the projects petitioned the water board the last few years for some reduced standards early on – so that we would ensure we had enough of that storage to make it through the entire season with at least some semblance of control on that salinity condition as we got towards the end of the year.”
“It is also the reason the DWR constructed the salinity barrier in the Delta this last year. There was insufficient storage to hydraulically block the salinity intrusion and so we needed some help from a physical barrier, which was that rock barrier that was installed for much of the summer last year.”
This year, conditions are significantly improved, Mr. Leahigh said. “Still below average snowpack, but from where we’ve been, it’s a huge improvement. The real positive on the hydrologic conditions is certainly the major northern Sierra surface storages; Lake Oroville and Lake Shasta are looking very good with above average precipitation to date. We’re losing the snowpack quite rapidly, but one of the reasons we’re above average to date on storage is that we’ve been trying to work with that balance between flood control and water supply, and we’re trying to capture as much of this runoff as we can before the snowpack is completely exhausted.”
So while Northern California surface storage is the bright spot, storage in the southern portion of the state remains low, some of them well below half of their capacity, he said. San Luis Reservoir is also about half full, and that’s one of the big drivers for the State Water Project and Central Valley Water project allocations, he said.
Mr. Leahigh explained why: “San Luis is an offstream storage, so the way the water is captured is through the project’s south Delta pumping plants, and that’s dependent on the direct runoff that occurs in the winter and spring period that cannot be captured upstream; these would be flows from precipitation that falls on the valley flows, or from unregulated rivers that come into the system upstream of the Delta.”
He presented a graphic of the San Luis Reservoir levels, noting that the dark blue line is this year’s storage, the thinner blue line is last year’s storage. “We’ve been struggling with that component of the water supply picture and that’s how do we capture enough of those unregulated flows into San Luis Reservoir. If you compare the thin blue with the dark blue, you can see we were a week or two behind starting to fill San Luis than we were last year. Part of that is a function of the drought; the salinity conditions had gotten so bad towards the end of the fall, it took quite a bit of the initial precipitation to really prime the system before there were really excess flows that the projects could start pumping. At the time we started pumping, it was also then the fisheries sensitive period, which is when many of the water board regulations and the biological opinion RPAs, including the Old and Middle River flow criteria, that really restricts greatly our ability to capture a lot of this direct runoff in the Delta to store into San Luis to help supplement the allocations for both projects later. That’s been the real challenge over the last few years and I think it will continue to be a challenge.”
He then presented a schematic showing where the State Water Project’s water supplies comes from, noting that one could substitute Shasta and Folsom for Lake Oroville in the diagram for the Central Valley Project. “It’s the natural flows that were captured in upstream storage at Lake Oroville, and it’s also a function of the natural flow we capture directly in the Delta in the winter and spring period. We pump at Banks, store at San Luis, and in the summertime when deliveries are at their highest, that’s when we’re releasing some of that stored water in Oroville and rediverting it at Banks in the summer period and making those deliveries. We supplement those deliveries with the previously stored water in San Luis to meet those peak demands during the summer period.”
Lastly, he presented a slide showing the State Water Project allocation in recent years. “We’re now looking at 60% of the requested deliveries by our contractors, which is a vast improvement over where we’ve been the last couple of years,” he said. “The project has contracted to deliver 4 MAF to its various contractors, and the ask has been the full 4 MAF, so we have made the calculation that throughout the year, we will be able to deliver 60% of those total requests. You can see we’re essentially in a chronic shortage condition over the past ten years or so. A big part of that is the drought, so we’re talking about the last five years, but even prior to those five years, the last 9 out of the last 10 years have been classified as either below normal or drier, so we’re in an exceptionally dry streak as far as hydrology is concerned.”
“There is also the dynamic of 2008, 2009 biological opinions and the new RPAs in regards to Old and Middle River, and management has also had some impact on our ability to capture those unregulated flows in the winter and the spring,” he said. “The combination of two things, I’d say primarily the drought, but certainly there has been this other aspect as far as the regulations.”
“By contract, the State Water Project is required to make its initial allocation in December prior to the calendar year, and our allocations are for the calendar year,” replied Mr. Leahigh. “There’s very little information as far as the hydrology that early, so we use a very conservative estimate of the amount of rainfall that we’re expected to see in the coming year using the 90% exceedance, which is that level of precipitation that was exceeded 90% of the years historically, so it’s a conservative estimate of the water supply.”
“We then look at the amount of storage that we have carried over from the previous year, we take a look at what are the likely standards under D-1641, any of the flow standards as they will vary by year type,” he continued. “We first see if we can meet the standards, we then look to see if we can meet our senior settlement contracts, and after both of those are satisfied, then we will start allocating water to our customers primarily south of the Delta. This process starts in December, we update it each month as we gain more information on the snowpack. Typically about this time, that’s a known. The unknown factor is to the extent that .. the biological opinions present a further challenge in the uncertainty of the level of requirements. Whereas the water board’s standards are very prescriptive based on water year types and the amount of precipitation we’ve received, the RPAs area challenge because they are going to be based on the distribution of fish at the time and other factors, which are very hard to predict earlier in the year, so we typically make some conservative assumptions with respect to what requirements will be required under those RPAs as well, earlier in the year.”
“The last year, our allocation was 20%,” he continued. “Last year was an interesting case because there was no storage available for our deliveries south of the Delta last year, so the entire 20% came from capturing some of those direct flows and storing them in San Luis early on. All of the stored water in Oroville went towards meeting the modified standards plus the greatly shorted supplies to our settlement contractors, so there was no storage in Oroville for the allocation. Now this year, we have plenty of storage in Oroville, so we’re going to meet all the joint standards for the Delta, we’re going to meet 100% of our senior settlement contractors, and we also have enough to fill up all of our pumping at Banks pumping plant during the summer period, so that’s the reason for the larger allocation this year.”
“What we don’t have control over is how much of that direct runoff we can capture – the unstored flows that’s occurring in the winter and the spring. And that’s a function partially of the dry conditions and partially because of the regulations that we’re unable to, 60% is essentially our ceiling for this year. We’ve already maxed out all of our capability as far as capacity to move water during the window when we’re outside the fishery-sensitive period.”
DAVID GUY, Northern California Water Association
David Guy began by talking about who the Northern California Water Association is. “We represent the water supply entities and the local governments north of here, from Sacramento to Redding, and that includes about 2 million acres of farmland, 5 national wildlife refuges, and 50 state wildlife areas; we have four runs of salmon and of course the cities and rural communities that are sprinkled throughout the region. The way we approach management is trying to manage water for all of those beneficial purposes, and it gets very challenging during some of the dry years.”
“For 2016, the current water year, there are full allocations in the Sacramento Valley,” he said. “We’re blessed and real thankful for that. There are three things that I’ll just acknowledge that I think are important that should be noted. The first is that I think this is going to be a good opportunity this year for folks to rest their groundwater resources. Like any dry period, there’s been a lot of additional utilization of the groundwater resources over the last several years, and I think the opportunity to rest those groundwater resources is a welcome by all the resource managers throughout the region.”
“The second thing is that there is definitely an interest and a desire to be helpful with respect to transfers this year from the Sacramento Valley, but there simply is no capacity that we see to be able to transfer any of that water, so in this year, there will be no water transfers across the Delta, unless something changes or something emerges that we have not seen at this point. That’s not for lack of interest; it’s just for a simple lack of capacity.”
“And finally … if Sites Reservoir were to exist this year, according to DWR’s estimates, by early April, we would have been able to capture about 900,000 acre-feet of water, which sure would be nice to have that sitting up there for all of these beneficial purposes, for farms, cities, fish, birds, and then additional water south of the Delta as well,” said Mr. Guy.
“Looking back on 2014 and 2015, those years were very challenging for everybody in this room, and for the Sacramento Valley as well,” he said, presenting a picture showing the allocations in 2015, and how all the beneficial water uses have suffered really in the Sacramento Valley over the last several years. “The water resource managers over the last several years have worked very closely with the fish agencies, water supply agencies, DWR, and the Bureau, and I think everybody’s been stretching every drop they can and that’s been really important.”
Mr. Guy then highlighted five issues he thought have been important over the last couple of years which will be instructive going forward. “You’ve heard a lot about the Sacramento River and the salmon mortality which has been covered in the press quite a bit and in other places, and there’s no question there was mortality of the salmon over the last several years on the Sacramento River and elsewhere,” he said. “I think everything was suffering in the region because of the dry year. That has been largely attributed to temperature. We don’t think that’s quite the case. Obviously temperature does have a major factor, particularly at that incubation phase of the salmon, but we think there’s a much larger picture than temperature, and to characterize that as a temperature issue, I don’t think tells the whole story. I give credit to the independent science review that you did for the biological opinions; I think you highlighted that quite effectively, so thank you for raising some of those issues.”
“Over the last several years, the water suppliers did defer some of their diversions over the last couple of years with the idea of trying to keep that water in Lake Shasta as long as possible to help with the temperature issues, and that was done in a voluntary way in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation and others and NOAA fisheries, so I think there was a real cooperative effort for folks to do what they could for the benefit of salmon. We also have a whole salmon recovery action plan that I don’t have time to talk about today, but there’s a lot of exciting work going on out on the ground with respect to salmon recovery and our efforts there.”
“Second thing is in the fall, there was also a deferral of some diversions that was very important for a couple of reasons: one, the contractors deferred the diversions because it was beneficial for the Pacific Flyway to be able to get as much water spread out over the ground,” he said. “It also had the benefit of allowing the water that Ara and his folks had stored in Lake Shasta and be able to move that through the system and get that south of the Delta, it’s water they had purchased earlier in the year. Those are the kind of things that I think are real significant during these dry years; it’s people rolling up their sleeves and working hard at it.”
Transfers over the last several years were important, he said. “Last year, several hundred thousand acre-feet of water was transferred to the San Luis Delta Mendota Authority. Last year, there was not any ability to transfer water on the Feather side, but the year before in 2014, the Feather contractors did transfer water to the state project, so transfers have been a flexible way to manage some of the water, and that’s been very important during the last several years.”
“Even though 2015 was the really dry year with no snowpack, if Sites Reservoir would have been in place, we had two storms last year that were pretty significant,” Mr. Guy said. “Sites would have been able to store about 400,000 acre-feet of water, just based on those two storms, mostly from those ephemeral streams on the west side of the valley. It sure would have been nice last year to have 400,000 acre-feet of water sitting above the Delta for all the beneficial purposes that we all care about.”
“We’ve been looking at the groundwater very closely in the Sacramento Valley,” he said. “Traditionally, the groundwater resources in the Sacramento Valley have been in balance, there are not areas of identified overdraft. There are a couple of pockets that we watch very closely, and there were definitely some areas that saw some groundwater drawdown over the last couple of years. There were a variety of things that went into effect, so we’re watching that very closely. We don’t think there is any long-term overdraft at this point, but obviously by having a wet year and hopefully we’ll ultimately have a couple more wet years, we’ll be able to look to see if those groundwater resources in fact rebound the way they historically have. We suspect they will in most areas, but we’re going to be looking at that empirically to make sure.”
“I don’t think enough credit has been given to some of the folks in Southern California and to some of the folks in the San Joaquin Valley, with respect to the efforts they’ve taken over the last decade and plus to be able to shore up their supplies,” Mr. Guy said. “I think if we would have had the drought conditions that we had last year in the early 90s, we would have been hitting the panic button in a major way. Yes, there was a lot of suffering, there was a lot of hardship, but there was nothing like we saw in the early90s. Things like Diamond Valley, Los Vaqueros, a lot of the work that has been done on the Colorado River, and a lot of work that has been done in the San Joaquin Valley, I think should be acknowledged that it’s really helped us get through these last couple of years, and I don’t think enough credit has been given those folks in that regard.”
“The first is the work of the Independent Science Board that Dr. Dahm and your team is doing I think has been really helpful to the whole discourse around the Delta and the water supply picture in California for all these beneficial purposes,” he said. “I think some of the reports that you’ve been presenting have been real helpful to the discourse and I just want to encourage you to keep doing that good work.”
“The second thing is predation, and the more we look at the system and what goes on particularly during some of these dry years, predation is rising its head more and more in places we haven’t seen it before, and I think part of the Delta Plan that talks about the non-native species is well thought through and is something that as a state, we ought to be focusing more attention on. I suspect the California Fish & Game Commission is going to have to take a look at that over the next several months and with the legislation in Washington, I think there’s a growing body of work. I don’t want to suggest that if we’re successful there, that will somehow be the solution, but it sure seems to be a large problem according to the biological evidence.”
“Third thing, the functional flow part of your water plan is becoming more important, and I think we’re starting to see that those functional flows are really what we need to be striving for,” he said. “There is still some discourse about flow for the sake of flow, and we just seen the last couple of years, we don’t’ have the luxury of that in this state, so we’ve got to be very strategic in the way we think about functional flow. I think the Delta Plan captures that well and will hopefully inform some of that going forward.”
“Finally, water transfers and the amendment to the Delta Plan earlier this year I think is in sync with what the Governor has been trying to do to facilitate short-term water transfers and the work that has been done, and I thank you for those efforts there,” said Mr. Guy. “Again, I wish this year that there could be some more water transfers that could take place to help Ara and some of his folks as well as others, but the Delta capacity seems to be a limitation, so I’ll stop there … “
ARA AZHDERIAN, San Luis-Delta Mendota Water Authority
Ara Azhderian, Water Policy Administrator for the San Luis-Delta Mendota Water Authority, began by talking about his organization. The San Luis-Delta Mendota Water Authority was formed in 1992 as a joint powers authority serving 29 member agencies south of the Delta, primarily along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and also in San Benito and Santa Clara Counties.
“The main thing that they have in common is that they hold contracts with the federal Central Valley Project,” he said. “Our most senior water right holders are often referred to as the exchange contractors. We also have a major wildlife complex in the heart of our service area, federal, state and private managed wetlands. The Silicon Valley is our largest urban center, but beyond San Jose and those cities, we also serve the city of Tracy in the north which is our general northern boundary, and Kettleman City is essentially our rough southern boundary; in between we have a number of rural agricultural communities that we serve like Huron and others, many of which are disadvantaged, ag dependent economies.”
“The managed wetlands that we deliver water to are the second largest contiguous wetlands in the United States, second only to the Everglades,” he said. “Besides being a critical part of the Pacific Flyway, they also serve many terrestrial species, several of which are listed: the giant garter snake, California kit fox, kangaroo rat, and so forth. So a major wildlife management effort in the middle of our service area, and then of course agriculture which we are most noted for and is certainly the largest part of our water delivery service.”
“With respect the drought, we are in better shape,” he said, noting that there was a lot of hope built up around El Nino. “I like to say that El Nino translated into English is a coin toss. It didn’t turn out exactly the way we had hoped, but it is significantly better in terms of the areas of the state that are affected by extreme drought. But as you can see, virtually all of the state continues to be in some form of drought with the most northwestern portion of the state being the sole exception. Still a great challenge before us.”
Northern California fared fairly well, he said. “We’ve seen good recovery in the north, but recovery in the north isn’t drought recovery for the state of California. It’s not just capturing water in the north where it falls abundantly; it’s also being able to deliver it to points south where the vast majority of Californians reside, and so for the San Joaquin Valley and other parts of the southern part of the state, the drought continues. We will have several hundred thousand acres of land fallowed again this year, and it’s quite a desperate situation and continues to be such for us.”
“Why is that? The simple matter of the fact is that project operations are now completely divorced from hydrology, at least in terms of project pumping in the south Delta,” he said, presenting a bar graph and explaining that the blue bar is how much water flowed through the Delta and into the Pacific, and the red bar is indicating how much water the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project were able to capture. “Essentially we pumped the same volume of water this year that we pumped last year, and the main reason for that is the biological opinions that were set in place in 2008-2009.”
He next presented a graph of 2016 export constraints, noting that the blue dashed line indicates Delta outflow. “It very closely follows the different rainfall events that we had,” he said. “But as we move from left to right, what is constraining project operations changes from the water quality control plan standards on the left to the biological opinions, beginning with the green bar which is the salmon opinion controlling, the big orange band which is the Delta smelt opinion controlling. … Project pumping today is controlled by Old and Middle River (or OMR) reverse flows, and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you increase pumping, you increase negative OMR and so the two run very closely together. It’s this OMR that’s going to define how much water gets pumped, not how much water is available in the system, and so the reason we pumped essentially the same amount of water last year as we did this year was because OMR controlled, not the weather.”
“It’s a significant problem when you think about the future, and what does that mean in terms of the rest of the state being able to recover from drought, and what does it mean down the road, being able to fill San Luis, the Diamond Valley, the Kern County water bank and being able to prepare ourselves for the next drought that will come along. It has serious implications that I think we’ve yet to begin to really wrestle with.”
Mr. Azhderian said in their service area, the ag allocation is 5%. “This year, we are actually in worse shape in terms of water supply for ag service contractors then we were at this time last year, and the reason is we are unable to do any transfers this year,” he said. “Annual transfers have been our lifeblood over the last couple of years, but because of the inability of either the state or federal project to move transferred water this year, they are not an option for us. Last year, we had about 130,000 acre-feet of transfer water lined up; right now we’re sitting on 90,000 acre-feet of project water, and so a worse situation, despite the fact that we’ve had reasonable rainfall. We do have some long-term transfers in place that will help supplement that, and they were well in place last year, so they are not a changing variable, but it is desperate.”
Mr. Azhderian says by their calculations, they think Reclamation can probably land around a 15% allocation, given how they might be able to operate in the summer and fall, but the question will be one of timing. “Our guess is they will have to wait probably until June until these biological issues settle out; how does cold temperature management plan work out, what are the Delta smelt concerns, and so that likely leads to a June allocation announcement. It’s very difficult for farmers to plant anything that late in the year, and so the question is will they be allocated water that they ultimately can’t put to use, and there’s a probability that that may occur, so a very different situation then our friends in the Sacramento Valley right now, and it continues to be a very desperate one.”
On the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, the Friant Division currently has a 50% allocation, which is driven by question of whether or not water will have to be drawn from Millerton Lake to satisfy the exchange contractors, which are the prior rights holders on the west side, he said. Kern County Water Agency, the largest ag district on the State Water Project, has a 60% allocation; they would be looking at an 80% or perhaps even more absent the opinions, he said.
“One of the fundamental things that really frustrates folks in our service area is the lack of demonstrable benefit from these regulatory actions,” Mr. Azhderian said. “They’ve been in place now 9 years, and throughout that time frame, we haven’t seen any evidence that they are in fact doing any bit of good. Delta smelt numbers continue to decline, and we continue to turn one knob, at sort of our peril.”
This matters because California is the number one ag state in the nation; nine out of ten of the top producing ag counties in the nation are in California, seven of those are in the San Joaquin Valley. “Several crops we grow exclusively and many we grow the majority of,” he said. “Processing tomatoes are a great example. We probably grow on order of almost 95% of the nations’ processing tomatoes, so if you’re opening a jar of pasta sauce in Maine, if you’re opening a jar of salsa in Florida, if making a pizza in Nebraska, you are serving on your table that night flavored California water. It’s something that has implications just beyond the people who are suffering most directly. It has national and international implications.”
“Reclamation oftentimes get sort of the undo blame for this – it’s kind of like blaming the person who walks off the plank for doing so, ignoring the pistols and sabres behind them,” he said. “At the heart of all of this is the regulatory straightjacket that they’ve been put in. From our point of view, there has been this undue and disproportionate attention on entrainment, on OMR, and on flow in general, and at the absence of addressing other factors and at great peril. Much of what we’ve seen in the failure to be able to stem this decline of important native species stems from this almost myopic view on single factor. It’s really driven I think in large part by statistics and causal correlations or correlations that exist that seem to underpin that, but one thing that I think is coming more and more to light is that because there is a correlation, doesn’t necessarily mean we have a cause.”
Dr. Dahm’s recent testimony at the State Water Board covered a number of reports about the multiple factors affecting species abundance in the Delta. “He made the statement that we need to focus more on the cause and effect relationships, and we agree entirely, and we’re happy to hear more and more people beginning to echo that reality, but this isn’t a new reality,” Mr. Azhderian said. “When you go back to the 2006 independent panel report of the IEP’s pelagic organism decline, and you will find in there, the same statement almost word for word. It’s important to go beyond simply attempting to establish a correlation between the environmental variable and abundance. And if we back up yet again, when the so-called Fish-X2 relationships were first being promulgated into regulations, we find both the Interagency Ecological Program and the USGS cautioning that these correlations, while they are compelling, don’t get to answering the question of what the causal mechanisms are, what’s driving these relationships.”
“We’ve had decades of scientific advice on the need to do more, on the need to better understand what’s driving these statistical relationships so we can do a better job of managing these species, and unfortunately we’re at a point of great desperation, given the numbers such as they are, and so we’re hoping that certainly motivates the folks to sit down and begin to do more than what we’ve done in the past,” he said. “Regrettably we’ve put so much emphasis and time into one aspect, and numerous scientific panels have told us, if we get one thing right but we get the other four things wrong, we’re still going to fail, and I think that’s what we’re beginning to see here, so Henry Ford is attributed for this quote, ‘Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again; this time more intelligently’, and we hope that that’s where we are.”
“We have a very complicated regulatory regime, one that’s evolved over decades,” he said. “The question is, how many of those are relevant, how many of those are effective, and can we streamline our regulatory regime to make project operations more efficient while at the same time still maintaining an effective regulatory environment. A suggestion that Dr. Dahm offered that we agree with entirely is to expand more integrated science approaches. We have a vast number of great number of scientists doing very good work, but oftentimes they are on their agency or in their silo or in their institution, and finding ways to get them together more often, not just an annual workshops or monthly meetings, but actually working together on projects, and whether that’s some sort of cyber platform or an actual brick and mortar institute where they can go and play with their great ideas, better integration will accelerate the process and hopefully amplify the creativity.”
“Another recommendation that Dr. Dahm offered that we agree with is enhance national and international connections,” he said. “I think that’s vitally important for a variety of reasons. You get groups of people together and there can be a tendency to develop a group-think sort of environment, this is where the value of outside thought and outside discourse, gaining from those other experiences and other ideas and perspectives is truly essential.”
We need to improve our monitoring, analytical, and synthesis capabilities. “One thing we’re hearing from our scientists is we’re collecting lots of data, some of its helpful, some of it isn’t, so how do we monitor more effectively. Timely analysis of the data – this is a huge one. Reclamation is concluding a six year study right now. Only the first two years of data have been processed. We have an analytics bottleneck, and so now a six year study is going to turn into a ten year study by the time they get through processing all that data. And then of course, improving the synthesis of the research so we gain a greater global picture of what may be going on.”
We need to experiment, he said. “There’s been a lot of fear that if we experiment, we might do something even more detrimental than the condition that we’re in, but I think we’ve really come to a place where we need to be able to try things, fail, learn from our failures, and retry, and whether it’s experimenting with OMR, or whether experimenting with tidal marsh habitat, whether its experimenting with predation control, whatever it may be, I think at a policy level, people typically understand the need to do these things, but then we just get bound up in a knot of trying to come up with a perfect experiment as opposed to rather learning by doing.”
“So, a lot of great ideas out there,” concluded Mr. Azhderian. “I think the brightness and the creativity of the people we have working on this should really be controlling the day, and we’re hoping for that, otherwise we’re just kind of left with a hope floats sort of approach which has not been serving us very well. I appreciate the opportunity, and that concludes my remarks.”
“The majority of our customers are south of the Delta, but we do have some, such as the North Bay Aqueduct which services Solano and Napa, and we have a few upstream as well; Marysville, Butte County,” replied Mr. Leahigh. “The 4 MAF is the total contractual amount, and that essentially has been the requests since about the year 2000. It is consistent, and part of the reason for the increase is the investment in some of these other storage facilities which has allowed more conjunctive use, trying to take advantage of supply when its available during the winter years to fill up these storages, whether it be groundwater, surface water, Diamond Valley, new infrastructure in Kern County as far as being able to recharge that groundwater basin. We’re at the point where they are trying to utilize either conjunctively or direct delivery of the water, so since about 2000, it’s been at the full contractual requested amount.”
Councilmember Patrick Johnston asked Mr. Azhderian about the transfers that he said would not be occurring this year. Are they short-term transfers, or does this also affect long-term transfers?
“The transfers that we’re talking about that aren’t happening this year are our annual transfers, and so those are agreements that are negotiated each and every year; the prices fluctuate based on conditions, sellers and buyers fluctuate based on conditions, and it’s those transfers that we won’t be able to execute this year, not because there is any lack of desire on the buyers and the sellers part, but there’s no ability to simply move that water,” said Mr. Azhderian. “The long-term transfers that we have in place such as the Yuba Accord, those are transfers that are negotiated one time for a span of years, and they have conditions around them of course, based on year type and things like that, so they have some fluctuation in quantity and pricing, but basically those continue to remain in place and my understanding is there is capacity to move that Yuba transfer water this year.”
“The projects are going to look at how much of their own stored water are they going to utilize their south Delta pumping to move,” replied Mr. Leahigh. “Because of the condition we’re in, looking very good in Shasta and Oroville, that’s all SWP-CVP water that will fully utilize our pumping capabilities in the window of opportunity to move that stored water, which is the 3 month period of July, August, and September. So we have enough storage to completely fill up that capacity at the pumps to move project water and so there is no excess capacity available for third party transfers, so this would be these south of Delta contractors contracting with willing sellers upstream.”
“One interesting dynamic that is playing out now is that we have the sensitivity for the species in the spring and the winter; that’s where much of our supply for the projects was dependent on that direct diversion of runoff, so the dynamic that’s kind of developed is we’re relying more on the stored water for project allocations during the summer versus that we’ve been reduced in the amount of the unstored flow that we can capture,” he continued. “The dynamic that’s been created is in the past; we might have had a 60% allocation for the SWP, maybe in a drier type year we would have been able to achieve that, but most of that allocation would have come from the direct diversion during the spring and winter period; we would not have relied as much on the stored water during the summer. There would have been excess capacity that we could have offered up for these third party transfers that would have supplemented the moderate allocation to our contractors. The dynamic we have now, we have those moderate allocation levels, in some cases very extremely low allocations, yet there’s no capacity available for these folks to supplement that very low project supply, so that’s the really broken dynamic that we have right now as far as the ability to supplement the lower project supplies in these type years.”
Councilmember Johnston then asked if Sites Reservoir had been built, and if there was only the three month window, and if that window is capacity when Shasta and Oroville are full, when would you move Sites water for the benefit of south of Delta users, or would you then use it for something else? Why is it a benefit?
“The question was when would you move it this year, and I believe the answer to that is you wouldn’t,” responded Mr. Azhderian. “The projects have abundant CVP supplies, more than they can move now. I think Sites helps in a number of other areas. In terms of rolling into next year, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t fill it and just keep it full for the next dry cycle; it could be used to help augment fish flows at times if that was deemed necessary, it could be used to help augment temperature management, trading cold water in Shasta for water delivered from Sites downstream. So it offers a lot of flexibility, even in years when we wouldn’t’ be able to move it south.”
Councilmember Johnston then says, “Even though Ara’s immediate remedy would be if he can’t prove the OMR biological opinion protocol has saved fish, you ought to get rid of it so he can pump more water. I take it that the administration’s view is that Water Fix allows you to move these flows that, for example, this year you couldn’t move, and you could do so without harm to the Bay or Delta in the wet months, and still rely on storage to deliver in the three month window or I suppose use the tunnels to do that as well. Is that right?”
“Essentially that’s correct,” said Mr. Leahigh. “We recognize we now have this concern with the fishery, an added concern as far as the pumping from the south Delta diversion point. If that diversion point were to move to the north off the Sacramento River, that eliminates some of that conflict, but that’s essentially the heart of it is we do have what’s now an untapped potential. The reason is because our current diversion point is not a good one, as deemed by these opinions that have come out, so this is another way to get at what really is additional flows that we see every year in the winter and spring period in excess of what’s deemed required at this point.”
“Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting that we just do away with OMR necessarily,” said Mr. Azhderian. “What I’m suggesting is that there isn’t evidence that managing to OMR, which has been with respect to Delta smelt almost the sole thing that Fish & Wildlife Service has done in their protection, hasn’t demonstrated an abundance benefit. That’s not to say that there aren’t times when we can see an understand that there are relationships between salvage and OMR, but equally there are times when there aren’t, and even in the times that there aren’t, there’s still an OMR ceiling that’s in place, and so our point is that we can manage that entire dynamic, the proximity of fish or the presence of fish, turbidity, OMR, south Delta hydrodynamics, more effectively than this gross sort of tool that we’re using right now that is this hard ceiling irrespective of other environmental conditions.”
Council Chair Randy Fiorini asks in terms of system capacity, we have watched reporting year after year of the SWP’s capacity or efficiency levels down to about 65% related to maintenance issues, land subsidence of canals, things like that. Are there aspects of that that we should incorporate into our thinking as we’re looking into these amendments that could improve existing facilities?
“Certainly subsidence is a concern to the extent that it starts to limit capacity along our canals,” replied Mr. Leahigh. “For example, I think we’re not at a point where that’s on the critical path, if you will, although having said that, we’ve experienced the last nine out of ten years have been dry and modest allocations so we probably don’t’ know really where we are until we actually see a high delivery year, what those capacities, if they are affected, whatsoever, but right now we don’t’ see that. It’s certainly an issue we’re looking at very carefully. As far as overall maintenance of the project, certainly an aging infrastructure that’s always a concern. I think that we’ve been fairly good as a project identifying those key facilities that are again on the critical path, and we’ve been focusing our resources to ensure that the reliability within the project itself is not the limiting factor, and I think we’ve been successful in not being on that critical path as it relates to our infrastructure reliability.”
For more information …
- Click here for the full agenda and meeting materials for the April 28th meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council. This was agenda item 8.
- Click here to watch the webcast.
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