Jeanine Jones: Current water conditions and preparing for 2017

NWRI J Jones_Page_01DWR’s Deputy Drought Manager Jeanine Jones talks about statewide water conditions and the implications for state water management

At the National Water Research Institute Drought Response Workshop held earlier this month in Irvine, Jeanine Jones, Deputy Drought Manager with the Department of Water Resources, gave an update on the drought and statewide water conditions, touching on some of the implications of what it means in terms of state water management.

NWRI J Jones_Page_02Ms. Jones began by stating that drought is not a strange event in California.  “We can reconstruct long term paleo records of stream flow, such as these shown here for the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Colorado Rivers, and we know that droughts in the paleo record have been actually far more severe than what we’ve seen in our short slice of not much over 100 years of recorded history, so we shouldn’t be surprised when drought happens.  This is an impetus for us to be prepared for them.”

NWRI J Jones_Page_03 In the relatively short approximately 100 years of a historical record as compared to the long-term reconstructed paleo records, the drought in the 1920s and 1930s was on par with some of the biggest droughts in the reconstructed records in terms of the lowest ten year averages.  “Of course, none of us were around in the 1920s and 1930s so we don’t personally have an experience of how severe that drought was, but that was at a time when California’s population was only about 6 million people and irrigated acreage was less than half of what it is today, so the impacts of that drought were, relatively speaking, a lot less then what we have to manage for now,” she said.

NWRI J Jones_Page_04One thing that is starting to change is that in the latter part of the last century, there was a shift to much warmer temperatures, Ms. Jones said, presenting a chart of mean statewide temperatures.  “Warm temperatures are not really good for our mountain snowpack, which is something that our extensive system of water infrastructure in much of the state was designed to manage, so we are looking at a future with changing if not already changed conditions.”

The last statewide drought was from 2007 to 2009.  Out the last nine water years (2007 to 2015), one was normal and one was wet.  “We’ve been in prolonged dry conditions and the question we’d all like to know the answer to is are we going to be coming out of this dry period or are we looking at a long-term dry period, and frankly that’s not a question we can answer,” she said.

NWRI J Jones_Page_06If we want to think about how dry has it been recently in a historical context, and if we want to go shopping for a first place record so to speak, one that we could look at is that our prior four water years do rank as the driest in the historical record if you use statewide precipitation as a metric,” she said.  “If you look at this chart, you see a dominance of many of other years from that very dry period in the 1920s and the 1930s.”

NWRI J Jones_Page_07Ms. Jones said that in terms of statewide runoff single year ranking, 2014 ranks fourth out of 115 years.  She noted that 1977 holds the record as driest, but 2015 also in the top dozen as well.  “So clearly in terms of looking at the historical record, we have some fairly significant metrics here.”

NWRI J Jones_Page_08Fortunately, this water year has been better, and I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of media coverage especially in Northern California talking about the drought is over – well it is not quite sort of, and this is what they mean,” Ms. Jones said, presenting a map of statewide precipitation for the current water year to date.  “All of those areas in yellow and orange are below average precipitation, and significantly below average precipitation particularly in Southern California, and for those folks the drought certainly isn’t over,” she said.  “It is also dry over the southern part of the Sierra Nevada which provides water supplies for the San Joaquin Valley, and actually below average in the Sacramento Valley as well, so a mixed bag in terms of precipitation this water year.  People wouldn’t be so excited about this year being such a great year had it not been for the fact that we just had four really dry prior years.

Ms. Jones noted that the Northern California 8 station index, the index for precipitation for the Sacramento Valley is about 120% of average to date; but the San Joaquin 5-station index is pretty much at average.  “Certainly this has been better than some of the more immediately prior years, but it’s not exact as much as we would hope for.

NWRI J Jones_Page_11Ms. Jones then presented a plot of snow water content for the northern, central, and southern Sierra, noting that the blue shaded curve depicts the average.  “So we sort of touched average, just barely in the northern part of the state, and below average to the south.  90% would be the statewide average in terms of percent of April 1 snowpack, which is a metric that we use to gauge snow conditions because that’s historically been about the time of maximum accumulation.  The bottom trace on this graph was last year when we set the record.”

Water year 2014 was a very dry year in terms of precipitation.  “We set a statewide snowpack record of 25% and that was an all time low,” she said.  “Except for the fact in 2015, we subsequently set a new all-time low record of only 5% of average.  That is really, really dry and that relates very much to those extremely warm temperatures that we had.  Since our system of reservoirs and water infrastructure was not designed to handle these kinds of conditions and because we rely on snowpack to be up there in the wintertime to hold water in storage and then to let it melt out gradually in spring when the flood risk is diminished so we can use that water for urban and agricultural uses, this is a changed condition that’s going to be likely more problematic as we go forward into the future.  Even though this year we did much better in terms of snowpack then the last couple of years, we still didn’t hit average statewide, and we still had an early melt and we still had warm temperatures, things that don’t bode well when you think about the future.

NWRI J Jones_Page_12In terms of reservoir storage, the good news is that the big northern reservoirs, Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom, New Bullards Bar, they are at or above historical averages; the bad news is that you can’t say the same for the big reservoirs in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley, nor for MWD’s Diamond Valley Lake, she said.  “Surface water storage definitely hasn’t recovered, particularly for San Luis Reservoir which is important for our SWP water supplies.”

NWRI J Jones_Page_13Ms. Jones then presented a slide showing a comparison of water allocations for the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project in recent years.  “If we think about the Central Valley Project and the supplies to the San Joaquin Valley which have really been one of the major drought impacts in this last cycle, two years in a row of zero supplies unprecedented and the cuts to their San Joaquin Valley agricultural customers, well this year the good news is they are getting 5% supply.  Clearly that’s not enough to sustain the agriculture that has developed a reliance on Central Valley Project supplies and therefore people have to turn to groundwater to make up the difference.  For the State Water Project, we’re up to a 60% allocation for the project now as compared to 20% last year.

NWRI J Jones_Page_14 Ms. Jones then turned to the major reservoirs on the Colorado River, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which are important for Southern California.  “The latest forecast from the River Forecast Center is 77% of average runoff for the water year,” she said.  “That’s not exactly great, and we know that the Colorado River basin has been in even more prolonged drought conditions than our intrastate system in the rivers that drain from the Sierra, and this is why you’ve been hearing the noise in the news media about shortage conditions and the risk of shortage occurring in the Colorado River system.  The latest modeling the Bureau has performed suggests that not this coming water delivery year, but next year the risk of shortage to the lower basin is greater than 50%, so a greater than a flip of a coin chance.  When that happens, that would be a first-ever shortage condition for the lower basin, and it’s something that the water agencies in the basin states have been planning for in terms of how to respond to those impacts of shortages.”

NWRI J Jones_Page_16Drought has a number of different kinds of impacts that have been the focus of a lot of attention, resources and effort in the last few years.  “One of those impacts is on groundwater,” Ms. Jones said, presenting groundwater level maps from the CASGEM program for the fall of 2015.  “Some wells particularly in the southern San Joaquin Valley over this time period have dropped more than 50 feet and frankly some have dropped more than 100 feet in elevation, which is not surprising because people whose surface water supplies are reduced to nothing or almost nothing will turn to groundwater if that resource is available to them.  We are just about to post the spring groundwater level change maps on our groundwater website now, and they too show similar impacts in terms of long-term effects of dry conditions.”

NWRI J Jones_Page_17Another area where the state has devoted a lot of resources to is helping small water systems and private well owners, particularly in areas of the San Joaquin Valley where there’s have been a number of very small systems struggling to keep their drinking water supplies going, said Ms. Jones.  “This graphic from the State Water Resources Control Board illustrates that there has been a lot of state emergency financial assistance targeted to these systems, particularly in areas like Tulare County.”

The Department of Water Resources is also responding to private well owners, some of whom may not have had water from their wells for a couple of years, she said.  “This has resulted in provision of emergency water supplies through bottled water, truck hauling and tanks, and those kinds of things that we would certainly not want to have to do under normal water conditions.”

NWRI J Jones_Page_18If another metric of the severity of the drought is the number of executive orders and emergency proclamations that have been issued, we’ve set another record, said Ms. Jones.  “None of our historical droughts have had more emergency proclamations or executive orders than this one,” she said.  “There has been a very high level of state response, including provision of emergency funding and a couple special funding bills from the legislature in that regard, so many, many activities going on at the state government level.  The Governor’s drought task force continues to meet on a regular basis to talk about how impacts are emerging and changing, hopefully some of them being resolved, and what do we have to think about in terms of this summer and then going forward into what 2017 could look like.”

NWRI J Jones_Page_20Tree mortality is an important issue.  Just as in the mid-2000s in Southern California when following drought conditions, there was an outbreak of bark beetle, and the resulting proclamation of an emergency for dealing with the dead trees and managing the wildfire risk, there is a similar situation in the central and southern Sierra Nevada, she said.  “There are very large areas of infestation and extensive areas of dead trees that provide a long term high wildfire risk until that situation is managed; our Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, aka CalFire is going through a major exercise right now in terms of what do we with all of this dead wood, how do we manage it, and how do we manage the wildfire risks.

One of the latest developments has been the  Governor’s latest executive order on water conservation, which does several things, she said.  “First of all, with respect to the emergency conservation regulations at the State Water Resources Control Board had put in place in response to the earlier emergency proclamations, it talks about a way forward for those for the rest of this year, but then importantly a transition to long-term conservation framework,” she said. NWRI Jeanine JonesThe Governor’s Water Action Plan item #1 about preparing for a long-term future in which we use water wisely and conservation becomes a way life, so that is one focus of the executive order and there’s a direction to the Department and to the State Board to think about preparing the framework and targets for how would we take the statutory requirement for mandatory conservation of 20% by 2020 and go forward from there with the lessons that have been learned since then.”

There are also provisions in the Executive Order that touch on improving drought resiliency planning to the urban water management plans that local agencies are require to file,” she continued.  “Existing statute calls for planning for a critical water shortage contingency period of three years.  The new executive order extends that to five years; and likewise on the agricultural side, there are revisions that now require smaller agricultural entities, 10,000 acres or more, to now file agricultural water management plans as well as direction to the Department and State Water Resources Control Board to follow up and find a way to make sure that everyone who is supposed to file a plan does.  Historically that’s sort of been on the honor system and most water agencies are doing great in compliance, some have not been, so there’s been a direction to over time figure out how to achieve full compliance with those requirements.”

There are other provisions in the executive order, including one in particular interest to us at the Department on leak detection, outreach and funding for fixing leaks.  “It’s trying to go after some of the lower hanging fruit with respect to conservation,” she said.  “Particularly with some of the smaller water systems we see that have been having problems, they may have leakage rates on the order of 50%, which clearly suggests there’s a lot of room for improvement.

The big question is what happens if 2017 is dry?  “That is the question that really the science community isn’t able to answer for us with any predictive skill at this time,” Ms. Jones said.  “Will next winter be wet or dry? Obviously we have a condition in which not all the surface water storage has recovered,  groundwater storage hasn’t recovered, and we have areas of the state that have quite high wildfire risk such as the tree mortality areas in the Sierra, so what does that mean for us if next year is dry and what should we be thinking about?

NWRI J Jones_Page_22El Nino is beginning to wane as it naturally does, and currently the forecast from NOAA’s climate prediction center is perhaps a 70% or so probability of shifting to La Nina conditions in Southern California, she said.  “In California and in Southern California in particular, probably the best correlation with ENSO status and precipitation that we have is that La Nina events to be drier in Southern California, but a major caveat on that is just as we saw with the predictions of the Godzilla El Nino that did not happen, we have to take these with a grain of salt because the science capability really isn’t there yet.

NWRI J Jones_Page_23Just to illustrate the point, she presented a graph of winter precipitation as related to El Nino, neutral, and La Nina years for the San Joaquin Valley.  “La Nina dots are in blue and that kind of looks like a shotgun plot between El Nino, neutral, and La Nina, so this is why you really can’t take this to the bank and use this to make major investment decisions.”

NWRI J Jones_Page_24One area where there is better scientific predictability is in temperature.  “Here’s NOAA’s long term outlook for November and December of next year in terms of probabilities of warmer temperatures,” she said.  “We’ve had a period of record warmth the last several years and they are essentially saying this may be continuing, and if that happens, that’s not good for snowpack and it results in higher evapotranspiration demands for vegetation so it in essence creating a need for more water supply, whether it’s for landscaping, irrigation, or native vegetation.”

So with that …

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