Panel members review the year’s hydrology, discuss ongoing state initiatives
At last month’s ACWA conference, a panel of agency officials discussed current hydrology and some of the factors driving state and federal decision making on the operation of State Water Project and Central Valley Project, as well as touched on ongoing initiatives related to the future of the state’s water system, including implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the California Water Action Plan, and the California Water Commission’s Water Storage Investment Program.
Seated on the panel is Joe Byrne, Chair of the California Water Commission; Taryn Ravazzini, Deputy Director for Special Initiatives with California Department of Water Resources; Ron Milligan, Operations Manager for the Central Valley Operations Office of the US Bureau of Reclamation; and Jay Lund, Director for the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. The panel was moderated by Adam Robin, a Regulatory Advocate with ACWA.
Here’s what they had to say.
DR. JAY LUND
Dr. Jay Lund is Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis. Jay’s principal work is in applied systems analysis and economic ideas to water resource and environmental problems. He has led development and application of a large scale optimization modeling for California’s water supply, as well as other modeling and policy studies. He’s the principal author of many papers and several major books and reports on California water policy, including the Public Policy Institute of California’s Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation, as well as other work on the Bay Delta and nitrate contamination of ground water. His work mostly involves integrating ideas from engineering, economics, hydrology, and operations research to provide policy and management insights. He has been president of the University’s Council on Water Resources, convener of the California Water Environment Modeling Forum, and is currently chair of the Delta Stewardship Council’s independent science board. He’s a frequent contributor to CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, which has become required reading for many in the water policy space.
Dr. Jay Lund began with one of his favorite sayings from Heraclitus, about 500 BC. “’You can never step in the same river twice’; you can never experience the same drought twice, never the same drought year twice,” he said.
“Godzilla El Nino, where did it go? I went back and looked at the last 50 years of Sacramento River runoff and the El Nino Index, and what can you get out of 50 years of history with El Nino and runoff from the Sacramento Basin? Not much. So I show it to you now to remind you, next time your climatologist comes and tells you how great it’s going to be that that’s not going to be a perfect prediction, and they understand that, too.”
He noted the picture of Our Lady of the Waters from a cathedral in Seville, Spain, that one of his colleagues on the Independent Science Board sent him. “Every time during a drought, I’m told, the people of Seville would take out Our Lady of the Waters and parade it around the streets, much like we paraded El Nino around the streets this year. Modern and ancient, some things never change.”
We still don’t know what the weather’s going to be next year, but what about 2016 – is it a drought year? “I would say it’s more like a drought year than not a drought year,” said Dr. Lund. “It’s certainly not a wet year in a larger sense. There was roughly average precipitation and snow pack compared to the last four very dry years. We could argue about how wet or dry the snow pack is, but it’s still a lot better than the last four years.”
Precipitation was distributed somewhat unevenly, with more water to the north, less water to the south; it’s still hotter than usual which is going to increase water demands a bit, he said. “Getting water across the Delta is shaping up to be a problem this year. We’re going to have problems probably with operating again, paying special attention to the winter-run salmon and some of the Delta’s other endangered and threatened species. We’ll probably have much less economic impact; every year for the last 2 or 3 years, we’ve been putting out a report from UC Davis on the impact of the drought on agriculture … the numbers this year are going to be much less interesting.”
There will still be groundwater issues particularly in the southern part of the Central Valley and for rural drinking water systems. “Who knows how long it’s going to take for those groundwater levels to recover so those communities get their groundwater back and they’ll have some water quality implications that might last a long time,” he said.
“There are certainly going to be some long-term effects of this drought on Sierra forests and things like that, so we’re not out of the drought entirely,” said Dr. Lund. “This drought has a very long shadow.”
However, the drought has been an impetus for improving water management, Dr. Lund pointed out. “The drought has been bad to us in many ways, but it’s been good to us in forcing us at the policy level to make some decisions and to make some moves forward, so hopefully we’ll be able to continue to make improvements over the inertia,” he said.
Precipitation in the northern part of the Sacramento Valley was a good bit above average; The San Joaquin Basin didn’t receive quite as much, but was still a little above average; and the Tulare Basin also right around average, but definitely not a wet year, he said.
Reservoirs are in much better shape this year than in 2015, Dr. Lund said. “When we came into October, off of last water year, we were at 8.5 million acre feet of surface storage below the historical average; this year was wet enough so that we’re now only roughly 2 million acre feet below average long-term storage in surface water reservoirs. This is unevenly distributed in the north; most of the reservoirs are basically full or filling except for Trinity, but south of the delta, we haven’t been able to fill them up as much. Again, the issue of getting water across the delta comes to mind.”
Snowpack this year is about average in the northern and central parts of the state, but a bit lower than average in the southern portion, he said, noting that it’s melting off faster than average.
“In terms of project deliveries, for the north of the Delta, both state and federal projects are delivering 100%; south of the Delta, 100% for the exchange contractors and refuges and the Contra Costa Water District, 50% for Friant contracts, which had essentially 0 the last couple of years, and 5% for south of the Delta, non-exchange contractors. The State Water Project 60% of full delivery. So again, hugely better than last year and quite a bit better than 2014 as well.”
With respect to groundwater storage, there was enough precipitation in the northern part of the state that the Sacramento Basin is likely to be recovering pretty well, he said. “In the southern Central Valley, which didn’t receive as much precipitation, I would guess there is still on the order of 10 million acre foot or so of draw down still accumulating from the drought, so we’re still well below pre-drought levels for groundwater storage south of the Delta,” said Dr. Lund. “Most of that is usually almost always the Tulare Basin.”
The urban areas have done pretty well through the drought with a few exceptions, Dr. Lund noted. “The small water systems have been seeing the worst of this drought. In terms of quantity, quality, and financial problems, they’re always in a more fragile situation, particularly in the rural areas where they have water quality problems as well.”
Dr. Lund then presented a graph of fish abundance in the Delta, pointing out that the fish are in horrible shape. “Things are really pretty bad for these fish,” he said. “One of my worries is that just like the 88-92 drought, following that drought, the fish were in such bad shape that we ended up listing quite a few of them as endangered. If that same thing happens again, we can look forward to a very long tail on this drought in terms of curtailments on water delivery, so I think this is something we should really pay attention to.”
Dr. Lund then presented a graph of monthly Delta project diversions for both the state and federal water projects for the past 5 years. “You can see in 2011, it was a nice wet year; we were pumping a lot,” he said. “In 2012, we still had a fair bit of water in the reservoirs and in 2013 similarly, so we could still pump quite a bit during the summer. In 2014 and 2015, there really wasn’t much in the summer to pump. Here we are in 2016. It’s not a wet year and you know, we’re in the middle here … certainly over time, we’ll see what happens.”
It doesn’t look like the drought barrier will be needed this year, who knows about the future, he said. “It was certainly one of the biggest innovations of the drought this year that hopefully gets people thinking that the Delta as it is now is not God given, and we should be thinking about how to make it better for all the different purposes that we have in mind for it and to do that explicitly,” he said.
“Droughts test water districts,” Dr. Lund said. “We’ve had a pretty good test here. One of the aspects of these tests that we get with droughts is that every drought is different. This drought was different hydrologically. The society, the economy that is experiencing drought is different than what it was in the previous drought. We had a lot more permanent crops this drought than we had in previous droughts and it really affected a lot about how we manage things. Droughts are very good at bringing attention to our need for change, and this drought has certainly served that purpose well; let us make some improvements.”
“Going forward, one of our biggest things is going to be sort of a failing ecosystem management and the water accounting system; we need to have a consistent, well-agreed-upon, statewide, authoritative water accounting system,” he said.
Dr. Lund said he was giving a Dutch engineer a tour of the Delta a year or so ago, and the engineer told him that every generation needs a threatening flood. “Not a catastrophic flood, that would be terrible, and not a tiny flood that makes you think like you had it all covered, and gives you a false sense of security, but a threatening flood just to make sure that the institutions and the professions are really paying attention to things and they get tested in terms of innovation,” he said. “In California, we need to be prepared for both droughts and floods. I’d encourage you all to learn from the test.”
“We’re going to see changes no matter what we do,” said Dr. Lund. “This is true always in the history of California water. Resisting change is futile. Trying to figure out how we want to guide that change and make it better is what we need to do.”
Ron Milligan heads the US Bureau of Reclamation’s Mid Pacific Region Central Valley Operations Office and directs the real-time system operations of the Central Valley Project. The functions of the Central Valley Operations Office include coordinating system operations with the State Water Project, operations forecasting, water supply allocations, flood management operations, control and scheduling of power generation, and review of maintenance of power and pumping facilities. Ron Milligan has worked with the Mid Pacific Region since 1999 and has served as the operations manager since 2004. He began his career with the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1984, working as a civil engineer in the Sacramento District. He worked on high flood modeling, floodplain management, planning investigations, and reservoir operations with the Army Corps. Also during his time with the Army Corps, he was closely involved with flood operations and post-flood recovery for the 1986 and 1997 floods.
Ron Milligan began by going back to Dr. Lund’s previous slide and noting that last year, they were not pumping at the rates that some folks thought we should when there was the excess in January and February.
“It’s been the trend now for a good four or five years that our hydrology has been wetter in the Sac Valley than it has been in the San Joaquin, and that has really kind of made things difficult for Delta operations in the late to wintertime and early spring as it relates to the newer biological opinions,” he said. “They’re very sensitive to lower San Joaquin River flow, so we talked about Old and Middle river flows collectively, or OMRs, trying to get San Joaquin River salmonids out of the system and curtailing flows or pumping during that time. That’s going to be highly correlated to what’s happening in the San Joaquin, so in a year like we had this year, when we had some periods of time with over 100,000 CFS flows on the Sacramento, and questions about why pumping was constrained with all the outflow, but there was at the most, 3,000 or 4,000 CFS max on the San Joaquin River, and that’s really important.”
“As we look at 2016 in its totality, I think it’s going to be this particular slide that we can look at, particularly when you get into the summertime,” he said. “Is there water in the system that’s recovered that allows us outside the window when the biological opinions are so critical to allow us – is there water there to move? … Those really low two years, 2014-15, have set us up into this year being very difficult in trying to run from very low condition, trying to get back up to speed. So I would imagine the coming year probably could be looking a lot like somewhere between the 2013 and 2012 type of scenario there in terms of as we get into the summer, going into the fall.”
The drought barrier that DWR put in during 2015 was helpful. “It was our experience back in 2014, we had some periods of time where tides were very high in a couple of months of the summer, and what was happening was that those high tides would bring some salts into the Delta, and we had to have a little higher outflows to deal with that. The thinking was with just a rock barrier across the channel at the False River, that would maybe not necessarily keep salts, you know, pushed well out to the bay but would at least keep these intermittent times where salts would come riding in quite a ways into the delta with the higher tide cycles with the higher energies. The good news is that it really did help us kind of even out the outflow requirements for the summer and allowed the projects to operate with a little less outflow and overall be able to move at least some water with our limited water we had upstream.”
The drought barrier was removed in the fall. “At the point in time where you take the barrier out, if you don’t have a lot of outflow, there’s a lot of salt on the ocean or bay side of barrier, so you pull this out, and all of a sudden, you’ve got some back payment, so to speak, on salt management coming in.”
Mr. Milligan presented a graph of the Northern Sierra 8-station precipitation index, noting that it has an interesting story that goes with it. One might look at it and say 120% of average, why did you have such struggles? “As you can see here, a dry October, a dry November, and the first half of December was not much better. We had taken this barrier out of the Delta, salts had come up, and there was no real natural outflow. The basin was also really dry and it was going to take a lot of priming to get the basin wet so we could start responding to runoff and to deal with the salt buildup that we had. It wasn’t until late December that we finally had some inflows in here and we were getting into a place where the next storm or next set of storms will actually start producing something that we can work with. And we were certainly capturing as much as we could at this time upstream.”
Folsom Lake dropped to its lowest level since the construction of the dam, and up until December, we were really struggling and very concerned that this thing could really be catastrophic. Then we started getting some rain; January looked good, and then February was dry, so we were starting to dust off the contingency plan, and then a lot of precipitation in March, he said. “A lot of those full reservoirs are primarily the product of the first half of March, which is really significant,” he said. “Unfortunately, our basin down in the San Joaquin was still kind of lagging behind. So right now, we’re kind of struggling with where are we headed this year and then how that fits into the bigger picture leading into this.”
He displayed a graph of inflows into Shasta, noting that the pink area shows what inflows would have been if there had been four average inflow years in a row. “Interesting, though, this line was kind of like the previous four consecutive inflow years into Shasta from back in the 30s, so we think about our very tried-and-true yield analysis 1930 drought, there was a time here before March where we thought we might come under it. We popped up above it, but we’re obviously closer to that historic low than an average over a 4-year span, so one year doesn’t take you out of this.”
He then presented another chart of Sacramento Valley runoff, noting that the bars on top show the 4-year running average of the deficit. “The bigger those red bars get means the more cumulative deficient that you had over a 4-year period from what a norm would have been for that period,” Mr. Milligan explained.”Although it happened really quick, we’re at a point where, deficit wise, we’re kind of equivalent for that after 2015. We maybe held our own this year, but we haven’t necessarily kind of cleaned the slate on that.”
He presented a similar slide for the San Joaquin precipitation index, noting it is more concerning for the San Joaquin River basin, which is in even a more severe state than the late 90s and even the 30s drought. “We’re seeing some numbers that given with the cumulative years 07 to 15, quite a bit of a deficit there. And we’re still seeing that. And when we take that and pair it up with the biological opinions and our Delta operations in the winter and into the early spring, that’s going to bode for some more difficult times, when we get into that period next year, I think. Unless we get a good reset.”
“Any one particular year, you can kind of navigate that because you’ve got storage and priming, and I think when you put the pieces together: dryness in the basin, particularly the San Joaquin, how full the reservoirs are, the groundwater basins, and to some degree the soil profile, we’re talking about 5% allocation to West Side CVP, there’s still a long way to go to be able to get that back up and running. Some parts of the state certainly are looking better; some other parts are really severe.”
This is going to be a difficult year for the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, who historically has used water transfers when their water allocations were low. “Unfortunately, this year was wet enough that there’s really very little transfer capacity across the Delta in a year like this, so that particular mechanism that’s been used in the past to plug a hole in project supplies couldn’t provide a lot of water, it’s now kind of been angled off as well, so it’s going to be a tough year on the west side and how they cobble things together there.”
Taryn Ravazzini is the Department of Water Resources Deputy Director for Special Initiatives. In that position, she’s responsible for complex projects related to implementation of the California Water Action Plan with an emphasis on the Bay Delta. Before joining DWR, Ms. Ravazzini held an appointment as the coordinator for the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan Inter-Agency Implementation Committee. Before that, she worked as a strategic public and governmental relations consultant specializing in natural resource and local government issues. She held multiple positions with the Association of California Water Agencies, both in Sacramento and in Washington, DC, and her other professional experiences include working for US Senator Barbara Boxer and the Judicial Council of California’s Office of Governmental Affairs. Taryn is a graduate of the Golden Gate University School of Law and a member of the State Bar.
Taryn Ravazzini said she would be discussing the state of the state’s water system from the Department’s and resident’s point of view. She presented a slide with a list of drought facts, noting that there’s no universal definition for a drought. “One of the things I find fascinating about California is that our state of 39 million people with its $2 trillion economy subsists largely on the bounty of five or six winter storms a year,” she said. “The years 2012 to 2014 were the driest three years on record; 2014 was the warmest year on record, so with that, we have a couple of issues of record low snowpack. Statewide storage is well below average, groundwater basins have been or are being depleted, and of course, local conditions are degrading.”
“April’s snowpack is much better than it has been in the last few years, but it’s still below normal and may not be enough to meet the demands if it is dry in 2017,” she said. “Our current reservoir conditions are looking pretty good. One of my colleagues recently stated that this prediction of a Godzilla El Nino turned out to be a little lizard, and although it didn’t turn out to be the El Nino that we all wanted it to be, the little lizard still works and we appreciate the water that it has provided, but the storms that have nearly filled the key northern reservoirs, including Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom, largely skipped the San Joaquin Valley and southern California. Some communities have seen their wells run dry, so we do have to keep all of that in mind as we’re moving forward and trying to manage the system.”
“One good outcome of the past years of drought has been the increased public consciousness about water which provides those of us in water management an opportunity to use the public’s interest to make durable advances in sustainable California water policy,” said Ms. Ravazzini. “The State Water Project allocation has been increased to 60% … this boost is mostly due to the March storms that soaked northern California after the mostly dry February, so in terms of the state’s historic drought, we do recognize that it is far from over.”
“Water operations are particularly challenging under these drought conditions,” she said. “Due to the scarce supply of our water resources, there has been an absolute need for the state, federal, and local entities and stakeholders to work together. Each of those entities are all tasked with the goal of balancing many, many objectives, and they are doing their best to meet those objectives in a cooperative and coordinated manner.”
“The drought has had a bigger impact than the regulatory restrictions on allocations,” Ms. Ravazzini said. “It is too big of a challenge for any one entity to manage. The regulatory overhead for all this, however, can only be overcome through the commitment to work together day after day, so as we work with the varying different entities, we recognize that there are constant challenges.”
We need to be thinking about regional solutions, Ms. Ravazzini said. “We can’t just look to the feds or the state to regulate our water systems. We should be proactive as we move forward, and looking at voluntary solutions is one way to help preempt some of the regulatory constraints that we know are really looming for us with these challenges that we’re facing.”
Ms. Ravazzini then posited the question, what opportunity does the drought really present? “This is where I want to highlight the governor’s California Water Action Plan,” she said. “In 2014, the water challenges facing our communities and our watersheds and our economies compelled Governor Brown’s administration to lay out the California Water Action Plan. It is a comprehensive policy for improving our management of California water resources that presents a practical approach to water resources management over a 5-year period.”
“One of the great things about the water action plan is it really was a trail-blazing document in that it’s a plan that adopts an all-of-the-above approach,” she said. “It identifies specific actions in 10 areas including improving the efficiency of water use, generating new supplies through water recycling and desalination, smarter water storage operations, and ecosystem improvements that will improve the resiliency of the natural systems with which we humans share water. This plan encourages implementation of multi-benefit integrated programs through cooperation among all the entities that have a stake in dealing with our water resources.”
The Water Action Plan has been moving forward aggressively and cohesively in a number of areas with the passage of Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion bond act that’s currently being implemented and providing state funding for water infrastructure, projects, and programs throughout the state, she said. Most of those funds will be awarded to local agencies through competitive grants that will leverage local cost shares and increase the total investment substantially, she noted.
“In the last 2 years, we’ve had pretty much a nonstop push from the department to get money out the door to help local agencies combat the drought in particular and achieve long-term regional self reliance,” she said. “This year, we awarded $232 million in integrated regional watershed management implementation grants. In total, the department has awarded $808.5 million in implementation grant funding that’s supporting over 600 individual projects.”
The Water Action Plan emphasizes habitat improvements which are important if we’re really to reach our sustainability goals; it emphasizes inter-regional projects, such as $2.7 billion in Proposition 1 for storage projects that will help facilitate broader improvements, said Ms. Ravazzini.
“Improving the state’s water supply reliability is a clear focus for the Brown administration,” she said. “The Department is working to ensure continued water project deliveries to the 25 million Californians that do rely on it and the 3 million acres of agricultural lands, in addition to the protected and endangered species. All of this is to be done by conveying some water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and do this in conjunction with vital Delta ecosystem restoration.”
Between January 1 and May of this year, if there had alternative conveyance in the Delta more than half a million acre-feet of runoff could have been captured and stored without any violating the biological opinions in place to protect salmon and Delta smelt, enough water to supply 3.5 million people for a year, Ms. Ravazzini said. “However, that water was not put in storage, so this would simply just be one of the tools in the toolbox of diversifying our water management portfolio, offering the opportunity for more and much needed flexibility in the system.”
Perhaps the most important outcome of the drought was the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, she said. “If it’s successful, it’ll be the biggest change in California water management in 100 years. It drives not just sustainable uses of groundwater but California water resources in total, so now, for the first time in history, the state must manage groundwater use in a sustainable manner, for which the state will provide financial incentives.”
“One of the key things and perhaps the most fundamentally important of this whole drought lesson is that we’ve seen an ethic of water conservation emerge as an accepted part of the California lifestyle,” she said. “We have locked some of those behaviors in with new building codes and landscape ordinances that will make human use of water much more efficient in the future, whether or not we’re dealing with the throes of a drought.”
Ms. Ravazzini noted that Californians conserved water at a rate of 23.9% from June 2015 through March 2016, a savings of 1.3 million acre-feet – enough water to supply 5.9 million Californians for a year. “Statewide conservation rates may drop with the wet season drawing to a close, so we have to be conscious of that,” she said. “Fortunately, a recent poll showed that 75% of Californians still view the drought as very serious and the need to conserve as something they will continue to do, but permanent changes to keep saving water must happen. We need to continue fixing leaks, taking shorter showers, decreasing our landscape irrigation, switching to low-flow plumbing, and appreciate the native drought-resistant plants that we have here in California.”
Ms. Ravazzini ended by presenting a picture of Lake McClure. “This was December 17, 2015, so this is a natural fill, multipurpose reservoir. It’s used for domestic purposes, agriculture, recreation, hydroelectric needs. It’s fed by the Merced River, and this is one of the few storage facilities in the state with a million acre-foot capacity. It was about 64,000 acre-feet when this picture was taken, and that equates to about 6% of its total capacity. Agricultural users of water of this facility had no irrigation season last year, and the Lake Don Pedro Community Services District, which serves 3200 people in the area, had to utilize floating pumps to continue providing water to its residents. Today, there is about 483,000 acre feet in this facility.”
“This is not a DWR facility,” she said. “For me, this image is what we should be keeping in our minds because it’s an example of the dire situation that many of the communities around the state have been dealing with in drought. The amount that was conserved by Californians in just the last 10 months was enough to fill this reservoir to capacity, so just think what we can do next.”
Joe Byrne is chair of the California Water Commission. The Commission’s responsibilities are to advise the director of the Department of Water Resources, prepare an annual report for the legislature on the state of the State Water Project, and approve all regulations developed by the Department of Water Resources, including DWR’s SGMA Basin Boundary and Groundwater Sustainability Plan regulations. The Commission was also tasked with adopting regulations for the distribution of Proposition 1’s $2.7 billion for the public benefits of water storage projects and making the ultimate funding decisions. Mr. Byrne is a partner in the law office of Best, Best, & Krieger and is a member of the firm’s environmental and natural resources law practice group. He worked in the California State Assembly from 1998 to 2002, where he served as counsel in chief of water and public safety policy consultant to the Speaker of the Assembly.
Joe Byrne then gave an update on the activities of the California Water Commission.
“There are nine members of the Commission, and we’re all appointed by the Governor,” began Joe Byrne. “We’re responsible for approving all regulations that the department adopts – the basic boundary adjustment regulations, as well as the groundwater sustainability plan regulations. We also have responsibility for making the decisions, drafting regulations, adopting regulations, and making decisions on funding under Prop 1 for the water storage money, which is $2.7 billion.”
With respect to the Water Commission’s role in implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the basin boundary adjustment regulations were adopted at the end of last year. The initial period for submitting a basin boundary adjustment request ended on March 31. There are two basis for making a basin boundary adjustment request: scientific and jurisdictional. “To date, there have been 54 requests that have been received by the Department of Water Resources; 19 were scientific, 24 jurisdictional, and 11 combinations of the two,” he said. “Most of those requests have been in the Central Valley, as well as in Southern California.”
The Department of Water Resources will be submitting to the Water Commission a proposed final list and designations likely in June, with a final formalization of those new boundaries in the later fall of 2016, he said. People are working hard at forming Groundwater Sustainability Agencies; it’s incredibly complicated and in certain basins, there are a number of parties involved and interests involved, so the expectation is that in 2018 or 2019, there will be another opportunity to request a basin boundary adjustment.
The Commission has also been working on the regulations for groundwater sustainability plan and alternatives, which define in essence what goes into your plan to show that you’re going to be achieving sustainability by the year 2040 or 2042, depending upon whether the basin that is in overdraft or not. “There was a lot of feedback on both sides, some of the criticism being that it should be more locally driven and less information should be provided, as well as there should be more information provided and the state should have a heavier hand, so I think we’re trying to find a balance of listening to people,” he said.
The groundwater sustainability plan regulations will have a ‘substantial compliance’ standard, Mr. Byrne said. “The thought with that ultimately there’s not going to be some strict liability standard for people on the implementation of their plans. There’ll be enough information to show that you’re making as much effort as possible, you’re doing all the things that you say you’re going to do.”
There’s a lot of sensitivity to the fact that the GSAs and the plans are going to be locally driven, but if there are multiple groundwater sustainability agencies in a basin, it’s going to require a coordination agreement. “Many people are choosing just to form groundwater sustainability agencies within their jurisdictional boundaries, so there will be multiple groundwater sustainability agencies in one basin having coordinated agreements,” he said. “When DWR gets information, they want to make sure that there are plans that make sense for the entire basin. That, in and of itself, is going to be a very significant challenge for many of the people who are establishing agencies and putting the plans together.”
“SGMA is requiring us to think about how we are interacting with our neighbors a lot more than we have in the past,” observed Mr. Byrne. “I think that is one of the big scary things moving forward, because there’s a lot of history of people not necessarily getting along, but one of the more exciting things to come out of the drought and SGMA and the other regulations going on that are taking place is that people are going to have to work together. They’re really allowing the local governments and local entities to come together to figure it out. If there’s equity within those local situations is another story. It depends on the politics of the area, but really it’s going to be a different way of looking at things, which I find very interesting.”
Mr. Bryne then turned to the California Water Commission’s responsibility of developing regulations and selecting the projects to receive a portion of the $2.7 billion in water storage funds from Proposition 1’s Chapter 8. Eligible water storage projects are the CalFed projects, groundwater projects, reservoir re-operation and conjunctive use projects, and local and regional surface storage projects. The projects also must provide measurable improvements to the Delta ecosystem or its tributaries, it must improve the state water system, and it must be cost-effective, he said.
Mr. Byrne acknowledged that the legislation is complicated, something they have struggled with. The legislation specifies that the monies can only be used to fund the public benefits associated with the water storage projects, which are ecosystem improvements, water quality improvements, flood control benefits, emergency response, and recreational benefits.
He explained how the process will work: “Folks will apply with a project, whether it’s groundwater or surface storage, and in their project they’re going to describe the benefits that the project is going to have; then, through formulas with which our regulations are giving some guidance, they are going to be able to quantify and put a value on those benefits,” he said. “As you can imagine, it gets kind of complicated when you’re trying to value a fish or certain ecosystem benefits, but there’s some precedent for doing that, and that’s essentially what we’re required to do.”
“50% of what we fund needs to be ecosystem benefits, and also we could only fund up to 50% of the total project cost,” he continued. “We have to formulate regulations that essentially outline how we’re going to make our decision and provide enough information for applicants to know what the boundaries of the application and requirements are, so we’ve been doing that for a good period of time. … We have until December 15 of this year to adopt them. Right now, we’re really doing a deep analysis of the regulations, taking into account all the comments that we received. We’re getting a lot of input as well from Resources Agency, the Department of Fish and Wildlife Services and the State Board. We’ve gotten some complaints that they’re too complicated. We’re trying to simplify a little and try to ultimately come up with regulations that are going to allow us to spend money that is here in a timely fashion and for projects that best serve the overall state, so it is quite a challenge.”
It’s an ongoing process which is in the formal rule-making stage right now; Mr. Byrne invited those who interested to participate. “We’re very motivated to do this in a timely fashion, understanding that, while these projects may not be built in time to assist with the current somewhat ongoing drought, they are important pieces of the puzzle going forward,” he said.
The Commission recently put out a request for concept papers to see what projects might potentially be applying. “We knew some of the larger projects that were probably going to apply – which are Sites, Temperance, and Los Vaqueros,” he said. “We did receive 41 requests; the total cost of those projects was $43 billion. If you take out some of the projects that clearly didn’t meet some of the eligibility requirements, it gets about $20 billion; we can fund half the total project costs so that’s about $10 billion. We only have $2.7 billion.”
All types of projects submitted concept papers; there were the CalFed projects; 17% were local surface storage projects, 12% were regional; 13% reservoir re-operation, and 20% groundwater storage projects, he said. “There has been a lot of concern about whether groundwater projects were going to be able to demonstrate the benefits as well as the surface storage projects; I think there’s a lot of ways in which they can,” he said. “We also received a number of conjunctive use and reservoir re-operation projects, so it’s an encouraging sign for us.”
Mr. Byrne then gave his thoughts on the state of the state’s water system. “I would say that it’s performed quite well,” he said. “Here we are in the midst of a pretty dramatic drought. Very interesting time in many ways with SGMA, and we haven’t even touched upon what the State Water Resources Control Board has done. I think it’s really challenged all of us in ways that I think are really good. It’s really demonstrated that the system is very resilient; we have a very complex system, and we’re all kind of good at moving water around. It’s the talking to people, working with people, planning, regional, state, how does it all fit together where I think that gets a lot more complicated.”
“I hate to say it, but SGMA is really an employment act for hydrogeologists and attorneys,” he said. “But it’s very fascinating to see how some of these basins are going to interact. Our money for water storage projects is very interesting. As well as forcing people to think about not just themselves, it forces them to think about the other benefits that they’re going to provide. Hopefully, it ends up being a good model for going forward and not overly burdensome and cumbersome.”
“I think the State Water Resources Control Board is a good example of that, too,” he said. “A blunt instrument … some folks obviously are positioned where they hadn’t really prepared for the drought and didn’t have the resources, and then were those who were I think maybe unfairly penalized, but if we look at it from the State Water Resources Control Board standpoint, we’re enduring an emergency, it’s a super complicated system. How many water providers are there? How do we do this in a way that’s sensitive to everybody or not?”
“I think that is the challenge going forward,” Mr. Bryne said. “How are we all going to work together? How are we all going to figure out to think a little more regionally and collaboratively, and I think with SGMA and hopefully with our money for water storage projects, I think we’re moving that ball along, and I can say that I’m very hopeful.”
The floor was then opened up for questions.
Question: Ron, you had the slide up there that showed the deficit, and as I recall from seeing your presentations to the State Water Board, you projected that Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom will all fill this year in the next few weeks. My question is, other than maybe some additional flood control releases, what sort of benefit or consequence would there be to any less of a deficit, given that the reservoirs are expected to fill? If there’s no place else to put the water, what difference does the deficit make?
“Some of the metrics as to when’s the drought over – we get questions on that a lot,” answered Ron Milligan. “Reservoir storage is really easy to see, but that deficit relates back to some of these questions about groundwater and some of forest implications of some of this, so there’s these other things that come into play. I think it’s going to take us a while to actually see that deficit play off where we actually see runoff response into the coming year. If you get an average year with average snowpack, are you going to see the average runoff that goes along with that? The first, most direct thing is can you see these places where you can put water. Obviously, we’ve got a long ways to go on the San Joaquin as well, but I do think we’re going to see it in the groundwater basin and some of just the stream feeding springs that will help us.”
Question: You talked about some of the reservoirs that are doing pretty good. I was wondering if you could just quickly address the heavy reliance on New Melones for Delta flows. Are there any alternatives to maybe spread that burden across some other sources?
“This is a difficult one in the sense that San Joaquin River flow objectives, the State Board has been working quite a while on a basin plan amendment,” replied Mr. Milligan. “The difficulty has been who is responsible for providing some of these flows? And are they the right flow set? And, to a lesser degree, there are some linkages in D-1641 about what’s the right San Joaquin River flows at a particular time or a particular month and they relate back to some of the total Delta outflow criteria, which can be, as we’ve seen in the last couple of years, a lot more driven by Sacramento River hydrology than San Joaquin necessarily. I think this needs to be kind of ironed out as we move forward through this … ”
“The question is what’s the proper proportionality amongst the tributaries, but the picture of Lake McClure kind of indicated in the last few years, that’s not a great place to go look for water, either,” said Mr. Milligan. “So I don’t know what the right answer is. Reclamation’s operating one project here on one of the tributaries as it relates to the big three that are coming into Vernalis; it’d be really easy for us to say, “You know, I think we need to look at the Tuolumne and the Merced for a little more water.” I think we need to work as a basin group to figure out what’s the right mix and how do you leverage the synergies of the three, but relying just on one basin as there’s a shortfall, how do we make that work. I think it’s going to take us to a place where it’s pretty difficult. All of those reservoirs really need multi-year management to be able to recover out of the drought we’ve been in, in particular the San Joaquin, It’s very difficult.”