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Delta Flows: July 5, 2015

Overly Optimistic

By Tim Stroshane
“Relax”—Things Will be OK | It Gets Worse | But Wait, There’s More | Gentlemen’s Agreement

Mismanagement of the state and federal water projects in California’s Central Valley during the state’s four-year drought was on full display at a June 24th workshop convened by the State Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento. Extinction of winter- and spring-run Chinook salmon and Delta smelt and the threat of dead pool supplies at Folsom Lake for urban and suburban water users are likely legacies of state and federal drought actions in 2015.

But by gum, the State Water Board will have also ensured exports from the Delta through it all.

Much the way Congress and federal regulators gave Wall Street a huge legal pass and billions in bailout money for crashing the US and global economies last decade, so too does the State Water Resources Control Board coddle state and federal water projects and their thirsty contractors for managing their water supplies to the point that the systems on which they depend are themselves circling the drain. They face no consequences for failing to protect endangered salmon and control Delta salinity with resort to “emergency” measures. If this fall and winter prove to be as dry as the last two winters, a parade of horribles awaits if no precipitation is California’s fate in 2016. The June 24th State Water Board workshop hinted at its scale.

“Relax”—Things Will be OK

In 2012, the state and federal reservoirs upstream of the Delta peaked at about 13.4 million acre-feet in their major reservoirs (Shasta, Oroville, Folsom, New Melones, and Millerton). (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or the amount of water it takes to cover a football field to a depth of 12 inches.) That was about 93 percent of state and federal upstream storage capacity. Southern California’s reservoirs peaked at about 1.53 million acre-feet, or about 91 percent of the region’s storage capacity. And the shared state-federal San Luis reservoir near Los Banos held 1.94 million acre-feet, about 96 percent of capacity.

By March 2015 these reservoirs had storage of just 7.0, 0.77, and 1.35 million acre-feet of stored water. Water officials – both project operators and regulators at the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) let California spend down 7.75 million acre-feet of its storage. This number is falling because the state is in the final quarter of 2015’s water year (July through September), and summer is the irrigation season. All told, these reservoirs were at about 43 percent of capacity going into this spring and summer.

State and federal reservoirs now have large “bathtub rings,” and dread reigns among state and federal water officials. At the end of June, Trinity Lake (whose waters are exported to the Sacramento River) is at 45 percent of average, 38 percent of capacity. Shasta Lake on the Sacramento is at 60 percent of average, 48 percent of capacity. Lake Oroville on the Feather is at 49 percent of average, 40 percent of capacity. Folsom on the American is at 55 percent of average, 45 percent of capacity. New Melones on the Stanislaus is at 26 percent of average and 17 percent of capacity. Millerton Lake on the upper San Joaquin near Fresno is at 43 percent of average and 34 percent of capacity.

San Luis, the shared reservoir, is at 63 percent of capacity and 41 percent of average at present.

Meanwhile, Pyramid Lake in southern California is at 104 percent of average, 93 percent of capacity. That is the only artificial south state lake flush with water. Castaic Lake and Lake Perris are below 40 percent of average right now.

After reading these dials, what if the winter of 2015 and 2016 to come is again dry? What if El Niño peters out again?

Most water managers prefer to let next year take care of itself. The problem the SWRCB addressed out of necessity this year, as it did in 2014, was how to preserve depleted reservoir storage while continuing to provide Delta exports to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness and the urban water contractors of Silicon Valley and southern California?

Oh, and as an afterthought: how should they use what cold water still in Shasta Lake to protect the 2015 brood years of both winter-run Chinook salmon?

Oh, and another afterthought: what about protecting steelhead as they spawn on the American and Stanislaus rivers below the nearly dry buckets owned by the Bureau, Folsom Lake and New Melones Reservoir?

Relax. It’ll be OK.

The SWRCB’s answer to these questions has been to “relax” all winter and spring this year, like last year. Relax the water quality objectives for net Delta outflow 43 percent, the Sacramento River measured at Rio Vista by 25 percent, the San Joaquin River flow measured at Vernalis by 72 percent. Relax the salinity objective of the San Joaquin River at Vernalis by 43 percent. Move salinity compliance points upstream just beyond the reach of encroaching tidal flows on the lower Sacramento River. Move the temperature compliance point Shasta Lake releases upstream since there isn’t enough water to meet the existing compliance point further downstream. (Moving compliance points upstream means DWR and USBR can release less stored water to comply with SWRCB salinity objectives.) Install the False River barrier between Jersey and Bradford Islands. Let the Bureau open the Delta Cross Channel whenever fish are not present in the Sacramento River so that good quality Sacramento River can be exported at the Jones and Banks pumping plants in the south Delta.

The SWRCB hates to see the California Department of Water Resources (DWR, owner/operator of the State Water Project) and the federal Bureau of Reclamation (USBR, owner/operator of the Central Valley Project) become water quality scofflaws, so they change the objectives so they can retain the appearance of being in compliance with water quality standards for which no one ever planned.

Trouble is, the federal Clean Water Act does not allow states to relax standards once established. DWR and USBR are water quality scofflaws, and not just under the Clean Water Act. They failed to plan their supplies to protect salmon, steelhead, and Delta smelt, and to protect other human Delta water users. They assumed they could keep exporting water to their south-of-Delta customers. SWRCB failed to ensure that the water systems took precautions in earlier water years to harbor supplies for these solemn water quality obligations. They and the Delta Stewardship Council failed to force water contractors, DWR and USBR to reduce their reliance on Delta imports as required by the Delta Reform Act of 2009.

So, “relax.” That’s the state’s response to its worst water emergency in two generations: relax regulations to preserve storage. This lax response we’ve seen before from the State of California: during the electric power crisis of 2000-2001 when then-Governor Gray Davis barely lifted a finger to address the mugging of Californians through their utility bills by several energy speculators (Enron, Mirant, Dynegy, and others) gaming the state’s newly minted electricity market. No one went to jail for fleecing California back then. And no one went to jail for the financial collapse of 2007 through 2009.

Don’t expect anyone to be criminalized for how California’s water system has been mismanaged.

It Gets Worse

In 2014, the state and federal water agencies’s (including the SWRCB’s) great ecological failure was destruction of 95 percent of both the winter- and spring-run Chinook salmon brood years: young fry for both runs were largely cooked by water released from Shasta through Keswick reservoir northeast of Redding. The water was too warm to sustain a sensitive life stage of these great fish.

This was an event for which SWRCB executive director Tom Howard movingly apologized to the assembled public (both in person and via webcast) at a February 18th Board meeting. His initial action this year denied intermediate export levels by DWR and USBR so that these fish would have a better chance at surviving in 2015. It seemed to him a reasonable thing to do a the time. But at the same meeting, appointed Board members and Howard heard plaintive cries from San Joaquin Valley growers for as much exports as could be spared to preserve their multi-generation businesses.

On March 5th, Howard caved to pressure, increasing intermediate export levels to mollify the Valley’s agribusiness constituency.

Faced with worsening storage conditions at Shasta, Oroville, Folsom and New Melones from 2015’s absent snowpack, the coming irrigation season would not be supplemented with peak snowmelt flows to the reservoirs; what was in the reservoirs would have to last until the next rains and snows fell—and no one knows for certain when that will be.
Howard continued to try to help fish. His April order on the “temporary urgency change petition” filed by DWR and USBR in March required a new Sacramento River temperature management plan to stretch cold water pool supplies late into the summer and early fall for winter- and spring-run Chinook salmon.

On May 14th, Howard approved the Bureau’s plan and turned his attention to the worsening conditions on the Stanislaus River, where low flows and senior water rights posed grave issues for protecting cold water supplies there for use with spawning steelhead trout.

But in late May, Howard abruptly issued a letter from the SWRCB announcing suspension of his approval of the May 14th plan for the Sacramento River. Howard wrote that temperatures in Shasta Reservoir are significantly warmer than expected and that these warmer temperatures will likely make it impossible to meet 56 degrees at Clear Creek” where most of this brood year’s spawning winter-run Chinook salmon were expected to reproduce. “In addition,” added Howard, the US Fish and Wildlife Service provided him with data showing that “water temperatures from Whiskeytown Dam [arriving from Trinity Lake] into Clear Creek are about 2 degrees warmer than last year and 3 degrees warmer than the average.”

As a consequence, Howard announced, “I am temporarily suspending my May 14 conditional approve of the temperature plan until further notice.”

At the June 24th workshop, Ron Milligan, operations manager for the Central Valley Project, admitted that Shasta Lake’s temperature profile data was wrong because Bureau technicians discovered a faulty thermometer was used to measure the lake’s temperature profile (in which readings are taken a different locations and depths in the lake). Not only was the data wrong, the thermometer read colder than the lake’s water actually was. USBR had less cold water to protect fish in the Sacramento River than they earlier thought. This was the main reason Tom Howard of SWRCB suspended the May 14th temperature management plan.

“There is more water in Shasta,” reported SWRCB deputy director Les Grober at the workshop, “but more of it is warm.” Salmon need temperatures at or below 55 degrees Fahrenheit for their eggs and young to survive to their rearing life stage. Average temperatures in the upper Sacramento River above Redding are already above 59 degrees. Moreover, salmon are sensitive at the maximum temperature, not the average. And the summer is young. There is no refrigeration system, no houseboat ice chest large enough to cool Shasta Lake’s supplies sufficiently to save winter-run Chinook salmon from losing another overwhelming majority of its second consecutive brood year. These salmon have only one brood year left to protect, let alone rebuild a population from.

What happens to the third brood year if 2016 is another bad year for Shasta water supplies?

USBR expects to move to “real-time” temperature monitoring at Shasta Lake—four years into California’s most egregiously mismanaged drought in state history—so that they can respond more effectively to changing temperature conditions in both the river and the lake.

State and federal fishery agencies say they will work with USBR to stretch cold Shasta supplies to save as many young salmon as possible this summer. Managing a lake like Shasta for temperature purposes is challenging because there is a trade-off in releasing water versus keeping it in storage: if you release the cold water too soon, you risk running out, since with less water is in the lake during summer the temperature of the remaining stored water may rise faster. On the other hand, if you don’t release colder water into the river you may not have fish eggs and fry left to save when you go to release cold water later. Heat waves—both their timing and duration—can affect when and how fish biologists and water managers spend their precious cold water resources. You might be damned when you do, and damned when you don’t.

This is why, for fish now, the choices are all bad now that DWR and USBR reservoir supplies are so depleted in 2015.

But Wait, There’s More

The bad choices reach beyond fish fortunes in the upper Sacramento River to envelop the Feather and American River systems.

“The Temperature Management Plan (on the Sacramento River) will force more Oroville releases” to manage salinity in the Delta, said John Leahigh, State Water Project operations manager on June 24th. Shasta usually provides much of the salinity control flows to the Delta to repel tidal salt. But with the Bureau hoarding more of its Shasta supplies for temperature protection of winter-run Chinook salmon, Lake Oroville and Folsom Lake will shoulder more of that burden.

State and federal operational models show that by September 30th, Lake Oroville will be depleted from its current 1.4 million acre-feet to 907,000 acre-feet, about 26 percent of capacity going into next year. Rice is the principal crop of water customers adjacent to Lake Oroville. Leahigh acknowledged that there may not be enough water to “squeeze out the rice decomposition” flooding that benefits migrating waterfowl this fall and winter.

The same models show that by the end of September (which is the end of the irrigation season) Folsom Lake’s storage level will be driven down to 120,000 acre-feet. This is about one-eighth of the lake’s total capacity going into next year.

Folsom Lake is surrounded by Sacramento suburbs whose Gold Rush-era water rights are coalesced in the San Juan Water District, and the cities of Folsom and Sacramento who also possess pre-1914 water rights. Regional water officials there arranged with USBR to store their supplies at the lake, supplies that may now be used to meet the state and federal projects’ obligations to control salinity in the Delta to protect exports.

Please take a moment and consider what would happen in the event that a regional population of a million and a half faces badly depleted surface water supplies in 2016 less than 50 miles from the state capitol after a fifth consecutive dry winter. Will they get upset? Will their leaders demand respect for their water rights from USBR?

Late in the workshop, deputy director Les Grober acknowledged to the Board, “we continue to be overly optimistic” in Board and staff assessments of the Central Valley water situation. “We need to do a better job of managing expectations with limited water supplies,” he said.

Overly optimistic, indeed.

Gentlemen’s Agreement

In May, Delta farmers with senior water rights struck a deal with the SWRCB to reduce their water consumption by 25 percent to show their good faith, sharing in the sacrifices needed to preserve water supplies throughout California. In exchange, the Delta farmers likely avoided a curtailment notice from the Board.

To operate the CVP and SWP together, water officials must model the whole system of reservoirs, rivers, pumps, and, of course, Delta water use. No one knows for sure exactly how much water Delta farmers consume, but their conservation plan this year is monitored by the Michael George, Delta Watermaster. George told the SWRCB on June 2nd that about 200 applications from Delta farmers have committed to realize such water savings so far. “There has been lots of neighborly cooperation” so far, said George.

But without a thank you to Delta farmers, Ron Milligan, the CVP operations manager, suggested the day before the June 24th workshop that the Delta daily consumptive use value be reduced by 5 percent (or about 205 cubic feet per second, or cfs) this summer. This would, Milligan suggested, allow the Projects to maintain the current Delta outflow and meet SWRCB’s 4,000 cfs Delta outflow objective for June “while staying with the current river releases of 2,750 cfs at Oroville and Nimbus [near Folsom Lake].”

Fishery agency representatives blessed the proposal and SWRCB’s Tom Howard approved it “for the remainder” of June. He wants to see “additional technical data before considering whether to approve this adjustment for the remainder of the summer.”

SWP and CVP water managers rely on a 50 year-old schedule of daily Delta water use based on a 1955 land use survey. Fifteen years ago, the SWRCB noted in its water right decision D-1641 that DWR was “developing new channel depletion estimates,” which Howard acknowledged June 24th. In 1986, DWR promised to update Delta water use estimates, just as it does today on its current web site, since better data “would result in significant changes in estimates of net Delta outflow. This refinement is in progress.” Can’t blame the slow pace of “progress” on this drought.

It gives one the strong feeling, as RTD Board member Bill Jennings has often told me, that the state and federal water projects are held together with duct tape and bailing wire.

But since net Delta consumptive use is itself assumed and not verified, its adjustment provides a chimerical rationale for the “overly optimistic” world of Central Valley water management to reduce Folsom and Oroville releases to preserve some storage and perhaps reduce the scale of a 2016 urban water calamity. It remains to be seen whether this gentlemen’s agreement apportions anything meaningful or wet—real water savings or real water to use.

The American River is supposed to see releases from Folsom averaging 3600 cfs in July and about 2000 cfs in August. It is these flows that Howard wants to receive more technical data on before approving adjustments to net Delta use this summer. Stay tuned.

What if a 5 percent is “overly optimistic”? Is it enough? Enough for what, exactly?

Meanwhile, none of this was announced at the June 24th workshop. In fact, Howard issued his blessing of it a full two hours before the workshop ended. I suppose it’s possible that the Board was too far into the workshop with everyone’s prepared remarks and panel discussions that such news would have caused collective mental whiplash.

Had I been aware of this decision when it was my turn to speak at 5:30 that day, I would have begun, “On behalf of Delta residents and farmers everywhere, you’re welcome.”

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Lowell Ashbaugh
    July 6, 2015, 8:29 pm

    Tim thanks for the clear description of water mismanagement over the past several years and for the workshop summary. This is a frightening scenario for fisheries and the environment. Pray for rain and snow this winter!

  • Marge perez
    July 7, 2015, 1:57 am

    This is helpful info. The public really only knows cutting household water use and dry yards. Somehow they need to learn about the fish crisis and how to change agricultural use of limited water supply.