If current hydrology persists, new biological opinions unlikely to result in more water deliveries this year (as compared to the old biological opinions)

Earlier today, the Bureau of Reclamation announced the initial water allocation for Central Valley Project contractors.  Afterwards, Reclamation officials held a media call to explain the allocations and answer questions.

Here’s what they had to say.

Each year around mid-February, Reclamation releases its initial water supply allocation for contractors of the Central Valley Project for the current water year and provides regular updates as conditions and data warrant, which is typically done monthly,” said Ernest Conant, Regional Director for the California Great Basin region of the Bureau of Reclamation (formerly known as the Mid-Pacific region).

After a promising start to the water year in late 2019, as you know recent conditions in California have been very dry.  In the Northern Sierra system, we’re at 51% of normal for this time of year, and in the San Joaquin River system, only 44% of normal.  We’ve received almost no precipitation in February and as of February 20th, the statewide snowpack is just 41% of the April 1 average. However, most of our reservoirs are still above average for this time of year, mostly thanks to a wet winter in 2019. We’ve known for some time that our current storage capacity isn’t enough. With more storage, we would be able to store more carry-over water from good years to bad, and these annual allocations might be less variable.”

While the Record of Decision signed last week for the reconsultation on the Coordinated Long-Term Operations of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project allows us to improve our operations to maximize water supplies to meet the needs of the environment, families, farms and cities, we are still constrained by the amount of water that nature provides us and despite hurdles brought on by litigation by the state and others, we remain committed to provide reliable water for families, farms, cities, and the environment. Reclamation will continue to monitor and evaluate hydrologic conditions as they develop.”

CENTRAL VALLEY PROJECT ALLOCATION NUMBERS

Kristin White, Central Valley Project Operations Office Manager, then discussed the allocation numbers.

Reclamation determines the allocation of CVP water for agricultural, environmental, and municipal and industrial purposes based upon many factors including the hydrologic conditions, reservoir storage levels, water quality requirements, water rights requirements, contractual obligations, and endangered species protection measures among others,” she said.  “Because of the wet year we had in 2019, we began this year with above average reservoir storage. However, things have changed dramatically since mid January and we have been very dry.”

The current precipitation for the water year which began on October 1st of 2019 is at about 51% of the historic average to date in the Northern Sierra,” Ms. White continued.  “This is due primarily to storms in December and early to mid January. We have had zero precipitation in the Valley for February and little to no precipitation in the mountains up in the Sierras. The allocations announced today take into account the 2019 biological opinions. However given the dry conditions we are now seeing, water quality requirements and water rights requirements are now controlling our operation, leaving little to no room to realize the operational improvements under the biological opinions.

For the time being, several South of Delta and Friant Division contractors are rescheduling unused water from their 2019 supplies into 2020 that is currently being stored in San Louis reservoir and Millerton Lake. The option to reschedule or carry over water in San Louis and Millerton Reservoir from one contract year to the next has been available to the water service contractors since the early 1990s. The program was instituted after a series of dry years in order to encourage conservation and best management practices of water. This rescheduled water is separate from and not part of the 2020 initial allocation.

Taking all of those factors into consideration and given storage of CVP water as well as moderate assumptions regarding Delta operations over the next few months, today, Reclamation is able to provide an initial allocation to contractors of the CVP.”

Ms. White then ran down the numbers:

North of Delta contractors including American River and in-Delta contractors, and for the Sacramento river settlement contractors who received their CVP water supply based on pre-CVP held water rights and are tied to a pre-established Shasta inflow criteria, are allocated 100% of their contract supply.

Agricultural water service contractors North of Delta are allocated 50% of their contract supply. Municipal and industrial water service contractors North-of-Delta are allocated the greater of 75% of their historic use or public health and safety needs.

Moving to the South of Delta agricultural water service contractors, South of Delta are allocated 15% of their contract total. Municipal and Industrial water service contractors South of Delta are allocated the greater of 65% of their historic use or public health and safety needs.

Similar to the Sacramento river settlement contractors, the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors and the San Joaquin Settlement Contractors are tied to pre-established Shasta inflow criteria and are also allocated 100% of their contract supply.

East side water contractors, those are along the Stanislaus River including Central San Joaquin Water Conservation Districts and Stockton East Water District, will receive 100% of their contract supply.

Wildlife refuges level two, North and South of Delta, which also have allocations subject to the pre-established Shasta inflow criteria are allocated 100% of their contract supply.

FRIANT ALLOCATIONS

Michael Jackson, manager of Reclamation’s South-Central California Area Office, then gave the Friant allocations.

We have similar hydrologic issues occurring in the central and Southern Sierra Nevada watersheds here,” said Mr. Jackson.  “The Friant Division contractor’s water supply is delivered from Millerton Lake through Friant dam on the Upper San Joaquin River. The first 800,000 acre feet of supply is considered Class One. Any remaining supply up to 1.4 million acre-feet is considered Class Two based upon DWR’s February runoff forecast.”

What we’re seeing with the first part of March being dry, the Friant Division water supply allocation is 20% of Class One and 0% for Class Two. For the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, Reclamation is currently forecasting a critical high water year type, which provides for about 71,000 acre-feet to use for the San Joaquin River Restoration Program purposes.”

CLOSING REMARKS/QUESTIONS

Reclamation will continue to monitor and evaluate hydrological conditions as they develop, and Reclamation will take every action we can to reliably provide water to our water customers while meeting our environmental obligations and regulations,” concluded Mr. Conant.

The line was then opened for questions.  There were only two.

Question: Has the new operating rules influenced the initial allocation or not? And by how much? Kristen said that it does take the 2019 opinions into account, but also you said there’s little to no room to the benefits of them for the time being. So which one is it? Is there a way to quantify how much more water they provide?

I can understand how that’s confusing,” said Ms. White.  “There are a number of different requirements in our new biological opinions that differ from the previous biological opinion. Some of those are procedural. The ones that are related to water supply and operations are unlikely to be controlling this year given our current hydrology. The procedural pieces would continue to be in place, so that’s the distinguishing thing between those two statements.”

Questioner followup: Basically you’re saying it hasn’t resulted or at this point won’t result in any additional deliveries.

Given our current water supply outlook, that’s what it’s looking like. If the hydrologic situation changes, we’d be reevaluating that,” replied Ms. White.

Question: So under the, under the old biological opinions, would the initial allocation have been have still been 15% or would it have been lower?

Under the previous biological opinion, there was a procedural process for approval of a temperature management plan prior to issuing allocation, so I can’t comment on whether the number would have been the same,” said Ms. White.  “But I think it’s unlikely that we wouldn’t have issued them on this date under the old opinion … We would have had to do a temperature management plan and gain approval from National Marine Fisheries Service first.”

 

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