CA WATER COMMISSION: Update on State Water Project operations

An aerial overview of Lake Oroville and the reconstructed Lake Oroville main spillway and emergency spillway at the Butte County, California site. Photo taken June 7, 2019.
Photo by Florence Low / DWR
Coodinated Operations Agreement addendum, State Water Project incidental take permit, and the Yuba-Feather Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations program

At the December meeting of the California Water Commission, John Leahigh, DWR’s Water Operations Executive Manager, updated the Commission on the Coordinated Operations Agreement between the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project, the recently released draft EIR addressing the State Water Project operations under the California Endangered Species Act, and a research project underway with the Yuba Water Agency and others to use Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations to improve both water supply and flood management on the Yuba and Feather Rivers.


Mr. Leahigh began with background on the Coordinated Operations Agreement between the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project.

With the water rights permits that the State Water Project originally received, there weren’t really any sharing formulas associated with that, he said.  The system is jointly operated with the Central Valley Project, as it was recognized early on once the State Water Project was approved that there would be some need for some sort of operating agreement.  There were a series of informal agreements that governed those operations once the State Water Project came online up until 1986.

The Coordinated Operations Agreement is the first formal agreement for how the two water projects would coordinate operations.  It was completed in 1986, and it’s essentially a de facto water rights settlement between the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project.

What the agreement essentially does is it determine the sharing of water supply benefits between the two projects and also dictates the in basin obligations from the two projects,” said Mr. Leahigh.

The addendum completed in 2018 is the first formal adjustment to that original agreement from 1986. The original agreement had a provision that dictated periodic reviews of the performance of the two projects and how the projects were adapting to changes in the system, but there have been significant changes since then.  Some of the notable changes include the adoption of State Water Board’s D-1641 and the new Delta water quality control plan associated with that, the 2008 Fish and Wildlife Service and the 2009 National Marine Fisheries Service biological opinions, and the additional infrastructure that has been constructed, such as the four additional pumps at Banks Pumping Plant, the North Bay Aqueduct, the Freeport Diversion which does divert Central Valley Project water, and the California Aqueduct-Delta Mendota Canal intertie.  The state has also experienced climatological extremes such as the recent drought, particularly the 2014-15 years.  All of these were taken into consideration as part of the 2018 addendum.

There are numerous changes in the 2018 addendum.  Part of the obligation of the projects is to meet the in-basin needs in the system, which would be all the depletions in the system plus any salinity and flow requirements in the Delta.  Under the original agreement, the rules were split 25% SWP, 75% CVP in terms of storage from upstream reservoirs to meet the in-basin obligations.

There were some difficulties during the drought years of 2014-15, most specifically with the use of Shasta storage to meet their share of their obligation and Reclamation struggled with trying to maintain cold water pool that year.   One of the changes is that State Water Project is picking up a larger portion of the burden in the critically dry and dry years and sort of in exchange for that, the Central Valley Project is picking up a heavier burden for in-basin use in the above normal wet years.  So the in basin needs are now tailored towards more year type than they were in the original agreement, he noted.

The other notable adjustment in the addendum was establishing proportional shares when there are export constraints on the two projects in the South Delta.

A good example of those new regulations that are in the 2008-09 biops would be the Old and Middle River flow management objectives,” said Mr. Leahigh.  “This represented a new animal from any regulation that existed back in 1986.  It specifically limits the amount of excess flows that the projects can pick up at the south Delta.  The original formulas didn’t really cover that very well, because it isn’t really an in-basin use, so we codified a new sharing formula which is 60% CVP, 40% SWP when there’s excess flows available.  The rule is slightly adjusted under balanced conditions to move stored water under that condition.”

A provision in the addendum calls for more frequent review of that agreement and a streamlined review process.  At any time there are significant regulatory changes in the system, there will be a review to look at whether further adjustments would be necessary, he said.


Mr. Leahigh then discussed the State Water Project‘s pursuit of an incidental take permit (ITP) under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).

There are four listed species in the Delta: the Delta smelt, the spring run salmon, the fall run salmon, and the longfin smelt.

The Delta smelt, spring-run salmon and fall-run salmon are both state and federally listed, and in the past, those three species were covered under a federal biological opinion with the federal fish agencies.  The State Water Project has received incidental take coverage under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) by requesting and receiving a consistency determination from the Department of Fish and Wildlife; if the federal documents are found to be consistent with CESA, a consistency determination is issued and no further authorization or approval is necessary under CESA. This is how it has worked in the past and how it is still currently working.  Longfin smelt is state listed but not federally listed, so the state receives a separate state 2081 permit from the Department of Fish and Wildlife for the incidental take of longfin.

The state is now pursuing individual permits from the Department of Fish and Wildlife under CESA for all four of the state listed species.  One of the advantages of doing this is that CESA coverage would now be independent of any changes in the federal law; DWR wouldn’t need to recheck the consistency determination as they would have separate coverage for CESA listed species.

The draft environmental impact report in support of the permit application was released in November.

The fundamental principles are a little bit different in the CEQA process versus CESA,” said Mr. Leahigh.  “Whereas under CEQA, looking at significant impacts to a project, for our CESA permit we need to minimize or fully mitigate our take, so the standards are a little bit different in terms of the two processes.  The proposed project in the draft EIR includes alternatives that potentially could be used as part of the development of the application to DFW.  Our proposed project looks at SWP facilities only; this is not the CVP, and its Delta focused.”

The proposed project in the EIR continues the state water quality control plan objectives under D-1641 and it continues to include some real-time Old and Middle River management operations which are similar to the biops with some adjustments, taking into account the recent science since the OMR objectives were established.  It continues fall habitat actions and actually expands that into the summer.   It also takes a different approach in managing salinities in habitat areas such as Suisun Marsh, and it has an adaptive management approach that allows for the evaluation of the efficacy of the actions in the proposed project and the alternatives.

The alternatives in the EIR include the no-project alternative; alternative 2a and 2b included a spring outflow aspect to the State Water Project operations with alternative 2b also included additional block of water to be managed in above normal and wet years in the summer or fall; alternative 3 includes operations of the Head of Old River barrier and Georgiana Slough nonphysical barriers; and alternative 4 has some additional potential actions for the summer and fall habitat.

The Department of Water Resources transmitted the application to the Department of Fish and Wildlife in mid-December.  “Under CESA, we were looking to have to fully mitigate so we have adopted some of the actions that were contained in Alternative 2 and some Alternative 4 type approaches to part of the project that was submitted as part of our application to DFW,” he said.

The comment period on the environmental impact report closes on January 6, with a final EIR and Notice of Determination anticipated in late February, 2020.


The Department of Water Resources is working on a project to implement Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations on the Yuba and Feather Rivers.  They are working with many partners, including the Yuba Water Agency, Scripps Institute and UCSD, the Army Corps of Engineers, National Weather Service, and National Marine Fisheries Services.  The Sonoma Water Agency is also a partner, primarily due to their experience working with the Mendocino FIRO project.

The Bullards Bar on the Yuba River and Oroville Dam on the Feather River are operated in coordination to minimize downstream flood impacts as there are common downstream control points at the confluence at Marysville and Yuba City and also at the confluence at the Feather with the Sacramento near Nicholas.  The interaction is somewhat more complicated than originally intended back in the 1970s; there was an additional reservoir, Marysville Dam, that was contemplated that would have regulated flows for the entire upper Yuba system that was never constructed, so the dam at New Bullards Bar only regulates the northern branch of the Yuba system.  There is a significant amount of unregulated flows that occur in the middle and south fork of the Yuba and that presents some challenges, Mr. Leahigh said.

The Yuba-Feather FIRO project was kicked off earlier in 2019.  It represents the third official FIRO program in the state, the other two being Lake Mendocino and Prado Dam in Orange County.  The Yuba-Feather FIRO builds off of the forecast coordinated operations program that already has existed for the last ten to fifteen years.

Coming out of the 1997 flood, there was felt to be a need for closer coordination between Yuba County Water Agency at the time and DWR, and so we enacted this forecast coordinated operations which built a common set of decision support tools between the two agencies and the Corps,” he said.  “We do annual flood exercises in concert with the California Nevada River Forecast Center which is building those relationships between the two agencies so we can better communicate at a time of high water.

The FIRO program is making additional investments in atmospheric rivers research as atmospheric rivers are the biggest driver for both water supply and flood risk for Northern California.  The program will develop and conduct viability assessments for formal operational changes, looking at how performance can be improved to optimize the use of the existing infrastructure, both in terms of flood risk reduction and water supply savings. The program will inform the development of an update to the water control manuals as the manuals for both reservoirs are now almost 50 years old.

To learn more about atmospheric rivers, for ocean-based reconnaissance, the program will utilize the Air Force Hurricane Hunters planes and new buoys in the Northeast Pacific Ocean.  For land-based monitoring, they will deploy weather balloons when there are atmospheric rivers in the forecast to better understand the dynamics.  They will use snow level vertical pointing radar installations in the watershed plus information from the coast to better understand the dynamics and additional surface and soil moisture instrumentation to get a better handle on the runoff that would result from these precipitation events.

We see this as one of the building blocks to help inform an update of the water control manual which will be a Corps-led effort,” said Mr. Leahigh. “We see that also being a piece with comprehensive needs assessment for dam safety program that’s looking at potential additional infrastructural improvements at Oroville Dam.  Yuba Water Agency is already moving forward with a lower spillway at New Bullards and so that would certainly also be a need for an updated water control manual for that agency.”

We’re pretty excited about the potential with this particular program moving forward.”



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