CA WATER COMMISSION: Overview of Central Valley Project Operations

Friant Dam

The Bureau of Reclamation is a federal agency within the Department of the Interior who operates water supply projects throughout the western 17 states, the largest of which is the Central Valley Project.  Jeff Rieker is the Operations Manager for the Central Valley Project.  At the September meeting of the California Water Commission, he gave this presentation providing an overview of the project and its operations and how it integrates with other components of California’s water supply system.

Mr. Rieker began by presenting a map showing the average annual precipitation for the state of California, noting that most of the water originates in the northern part of the state in the form of rain and snow during the winter and spring, while most of the demand is further south, both within the Central Valley as well as municipal and industrial purposes in Southern California, the majority of which is during the summer.  The basic concept of the Central Valley Project is that there are reservoirs to store water in the north, and that water is then conveyed it down to the Central Valley.

When it came time to construct the state’s first large water supply project, it was during the Great Depression.  At the time, Reclamation was in its heyday of building large supply projects throughout the West, so the federal government was brought in to construct the Central Valley Project.  In later years, the state authorized the construction of the State Water Project.  He noted that the Central Valley Project originally was focused mostly on agricultural water supply, while the State Water Project was focused a little more towards the municipal and industrial supplies.

Several of the last phases of the Central Valley Project were actually constructed with DWR as facilities that would be jointly owned and operated between the two projects.  The result is that today, there is a system throughout California that includes the Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, and a number of local water projects.

The main authorized purposes of the Central Valley Project are flood control, river regulation for navigation, municipal and agricultural water supplies, fish and wildlife purposes, power generation, and recreation.  The Central Valley Project operates 20 dams and reservoirs, 500 miles of canals, 11 power plants, and 10 pumping plants.   The project delivers 5 MAF on average to agricultural water users throughout the Central Valley, about 3 million acres of farmland, and provides about 600,000 acre-feet for municipal and industrial supplies, serving about 2 million people.

The Central Valley Project has 11 hydroplants that have 38 generators, producing  4.5 kilowatt hours per year.  Mr. Rieker said that Central Valley Project is a net generator of power, using about a quarter of the generated power to run various pumping plants; the remainder is then marketed out through the Western Area Power Administration.

The northernmost facilities are Trinity Dam and Reservoir which has 2.4 MAF of storage capacity.  The dam is on the Trinity River which is a tributary to the Klamath River; water from that reservoir is then diverted through tunnels over to the Sacramento Basin and becomes part of the Central Valley Project supply.

Then there is Shasta Reservoir on the Upper Sacramento River, which holds up to 4.5 MAF.   Folsom Reservoir on the American River has about 1 MAF of capacity.  Further south, New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River has about 2.4 MAF of capacity.  Down near Fresno, the Friant Dam impounds up to 520,000 AF of water.  On the west side of the San Joaquin Valley is the San Luis Reservoir, a joint facility with the State Water Project; the reservoir has a capacity of about 2 MAF; of that, 977,000 AF is the federal share.

The red lines on the map indicate the major conveyance facilities (or canal systems).  The Corning Canal and the Tehama-Colusa Canal up to the north serve the Sacramento Valley.  The Folsom South Canal is in Sacramento area, and further down south is the Madera Canal and Friant-Kern Canal which convey water from Friant.  The Delta Mendota Canal exports water from the south Delta and there is the San Luis Canal south from San Luis Reservoir.

Mr. Rieker then gave an overview of how the system is operated.  Shasta Reservoir is the backbone of the Central Valley Project’s storage system; water is released out of Shasta into the Sacramento River.  As it flows down the Sacramento River, they provide irrigation to a number of water rights holders that have rights that existed prior to the project through a series of contracts called the settlement contracts, as well as other agricultural users.  That water ends up down in the Sacramento San Joaquin Bay Delta.

On the American River, water is released out of Folsom to a variety of contractors, mostly municipal and industrial contractors in the Sacramento area.  That water also ends up down in the Delta.  That plus a combination of other inflows to the Delta provide the water for the Central Valley Project to pump at the Jones Pumping Facility in the south Delta.  That water is conveyed south into the Delta Mendota Canal and serves a number of water users, eventually ending up back in the San Joaquin River down at an area known as the Mendota Pool.

Folsom Dam

From there, they use Delta water to provide water to some of the previous senior water right holders along the San Joaquin River through a series of contracts known as the exchange contracts, because it was essentially an exchange of water from their original supply from the San Joaquin River over to a supply that is now delivered from the Delta.  The exchange contracts made it possible for Reclamation to construct Friant Dam and utilize the San Joaquin River water to irrigate a large portion of the east side of the San Joaquin Valley known as the Friant Division.

Later in construction of the Central Valley Project, Trinity Dam and Reservoir were built on the Trinity River.  About half of that water is conveyed to the Sacramento River through a series of tunnels and re-regulating reservoirs and added to the project system; that added supply goes down to the Delta where it is added to the amount pumped, Mr. Rieker said.  Later in the construction of the project, the San Luis Reservoir joint facilities was constructed with the Department of Water Resources; it’s essentially a pump up facility off the side of the Delta Mendota Canal and California Aqueduct.  The facilities provide an opportunity to store water coming out of the Delta, and to provide water for the west side of the San Joaquin Valley where they provide for water supply contracts there.

Finally, there is the New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River which focuses on irrigation and other uses along the Stanislaus River for a number of districts there, as well as some of the instream requirements on the Stanislaus River.  Some of the water does end up in the Delta as well and forms part of that Delta supply, he noted.

Mr. Rieker then presented a map of the Delta, noting that water that flows in from the north from the Sacramento River and from the San Joaquin River to the south; originally, the water would naturally flow out to the San Francisco Bay.

Our pumping facility is down in the southern part of the Delta along with DWR’s, so that creates an opportunity to bring some of that water down from the Sacramento River across the Delta, but does create a bit of an unnatural flow system through the Delta, and that gives rise to a number of the regulations that govern the operation of the projects in order to protect the beneficial uses and ecosystem in the Delta there,” he said.

In terms of regulations, one of the key operating elements is the Coordinated Operations Agreement, which is the agreement between Reclamation and DWR as to how the systems will be integrated, and provides for the accounting of the water supplies coming up out of the Delta.  They also operate under the State Board decision known as D-1641, which protects the beneficial uses of the Delta.  They have two biological opinions that they operate to, one issued by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and one issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service; those are geared towards protection of the Delta smelt as well as a number of salmonid and other species.

Shasta Dam

There are also several pieces of federal legislation, such as the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, the enabling legislation of the San Joaquin River Settlement, and the Water Infrastructure for the Nation Act, which was recently passed, among other various pieces of regulation.  “All that is to say that we have a number of different elements that are guiding the operation of the project in addition to our water supply contracts and other requirement,” Mr. Rieker said.

Operations are coordinated among a wide variety of players.  The key coordination occurs between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Water Resources on the integration between the two projects.  Mr. Rieker said they work closely with the National Weather Service to ensure the best information about the hydrology as they manage their operations.  Due to the regulations, they work with the State Water Resources Control Board as well as the two federal and the one state fishery agencies.  During flood control and at other times, they operate in coordination with the US Army Corps of Engineers.  Their power operations are closely coordinated with the Western Area Power Administration.  And because all of these systems really tie together, they stay in close contact with both the local system operators as well as other stakeholders throughout the valleys.

Lastly, he noted that the integrated operation of the projects with other agencies is greatly enhanced by the agencies being housed in the same building.  “We are jointly housed with DWR’s Operations Control Center.  They actually are just separated by a single wall and that provides us the ability to integrate the operations of those projects extremely closely,” Mr. Rieker said.  “On another floor of our building, we actually have the National Weather Service so in times of flood and drought, we have that real time information flowing right to our operators which gives us the ability to control the system in an optimal way.  The Division of Flood Management is also in the building.  That is what we call the Joint Operations Center and really forms the basis for all of these integrated operations.”


Commissioner Orth asked how the Water Infrastructure for the Nation Act affects the regulation and operation of the Central Valley Project.

That legislation was passed at the end of last year,” answered Mr. Rieker.  “There are a number of different provisions within that that directly speak towards our operations primarily in the wintertime.  There are a number of provisions there that essentially provide for the potential for increased exports at the Delta pumping facilities during certain wintertime storm events and that type of thing.  So our agency is working together with the fisheries agencies on how we might implement that this coming year.

This last year, it was passed right as we were heading into winter, and practically before there was many events that would have fit into that particular piece of legislation, we were in the midst of this flood control operation and so we were beyond the point of where any of those would have really kicked in,” continued Mr. Rieker.  “But we see that as being a critical piece of our wintertime operations going forward, so that’s just one example.  There are a few others that describe what the different fishery agencies should consider as they look at transfer mechanisms during the spring, things of that nature, so as I mentioned, this is a new piece of legislation so we’re still ironing out the details of how we’ll actually be operating two different components of that.”

Commissioner Orth then asked, “Clearly the operations and regulations impacts that you highlighted for us have had a cumulative impact on contract reliability for the contractors and even to some extent, the senior water rights folks at the exchange contract level.  What is Reclamation doing in terms of looking forward in planning to deal with that erosion in water supply reliability to the water rights holders and the contractors?

As you know, we have seen changes over the last 20 to 30 years in the ability to supply those contracts, so in a very general sense, each year we’re looking for every opportunity that we can get to try to mitigate for that, operate through it, and maximize our supplies,” answered Mr. Rieker.  “It’s hard to call on a specific example because each year brings new challenges and opportunities to look at ways to maximize the supply, so we’re just constantly looking for that.  At the same time, our agency has been involved in some of the storage studies that are certainly before this group, so we’re looking at those bigger picture type things.  We’ve been very closely involved with the development as the Cal Water Fix has been coming forward, so trying to keep a focus on the long-term as well as any opportunities that arise during the course of the year.”

During the drought, clearly one of the conversations that you were having with your colleagues at these agencies had to do with the rule curves around how much water was behind the dams and how much water had to be released, even though we knew we were in dry years,” said Chair Armando Quintero.  “Could you talk a little bit about that and perhaps what you learned during this extended drought and how we might go forward?

This was certainly an event that was really hard to fathom as far as the depth of the drought,” said Mr. Rieker.  “What it brought us to was a situation where we had to be very careful about the balance between retaining upstream storage and at the same time providing enough flow to the Delta in order to keep the salinity pushed out of the Delta, so that not only the beneficial uses of the Delta could be maintained but also even our own exports out of the Delta.  All of that Delta system ties together and one of the main issues that we see there is that salinity intrusion in from the ocean and so that was really kind of a balancing act.  We learned a lot from that.”

It’s difficult, too, because we saw how all of these different pieces impacted the ecosystem as well, and so that will have an impact on how the fisheries agencies manage going forward as well,” he continued.  “So we’re trying to work to make sure that we connect with them on how their thinking has evolved as well, because that will change how we look at operations into the future.  I think more than anything, it just highlighted the need for all of us to stay closely coordinated on what’s going on to make sure that we can maximize what little there was during that event.”



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