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Summary of State and Federal Water Project Actions In Response to the Drought

May 1, 2014

Current Conditions
Extreme drought conditions persist in California due to a lack of rain and snowfall over three straight years. This year’s drought is on track to be one of the worst in the state’s recorded history. It is causing economic harm to farmers, ranchers and farmworkers; threatening the water supplies of cities and towns; and hurting fish and other animals that rely on water flowing through the state’s rivers and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

To limit harm from the drought, state and federal agencies have worked closely to protect water supplies vital to health and human safety, allow adequate flow through the Delta to prevent saltwater contamination of large fresh water supplies, ensure adequate water to maintain habitat for threatened and endangered fish species and capture storm runoff to provide precious water supplies for agricultural production.

State and Federal Management of Water Operations
The Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) have joined with the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) to form a Real-Time Drought Operations Management Team. This multi-agency team has exercised flexibility to conserve and store water since late January and continues exercising flexibility in a manner consistent with State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project operations protocols and provisions for water contract shortages. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have coordinated closely with the Team and they have collectively worked to ensure that water management decisions do not unreasonably affect threatened and endangered species.

One primary concern of the Real-Time Drought Operations Management Team has been to ensure that enough water can be directed to communities served by the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project for essential public health and safety purposes. While some communities have adequate water supplies saved locally for such purposes, other communities need continued exports from the Delta for these essential purposes.  The use of water for essential public health and safety needs includes drinking water, sanitation and firefighting and does not include other non-essential water use such as outdoor landscape irrigation.

Another primary concern is preventing saltwater intrusion into the interior Delta where a large portion of the state’s freshwater supplies are conveyed for human and agricultural use. A certain amount of flow must continue throughout dry months to repel saltwater from the interior Delta. If there is not enough water to maintain adequate flow throughout the year, the State Water Project and Central Valley Project lose control over salinity in the Delta and fresh water sources travelling through the interior Delta are contaminated. This would severely compromise the State Water Project’s and Central Valley Project’s ability to deliver water for both essential public health and safety and agricultural irrigation. Failing to control salinity in the Delta, a source of water for more than two-thirds of the state’s population, would be a major catastrophe for all Californians.

January Drought State of Emergency
On January 17, with California facing water shortfalls in the driest calendar year in recorded state history, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. declared a State of Emergency and directed state officials to take all necessary actions to prepare for these drought conditions. The proclamation gave state water officials more flexibility to manage water supply throughout California under severe drought conditions.

The Governor’s Drought State of Emergency followed a series of actions the administration has taken to ensure that California is prepared for record dry conditions. In May 2013, Governor Brown issued an Executive Order to direct state water officials to expedite the review and processing of voluntary transfers of water and water rights. In December 2013, the Governor formed a Drought Task Force to review expected water allocations, California’s preparedness for water scarcity and whether conditions merited a drought declaration.

January Order to Conserve Water
On January 29, facing the driest year on record, DWR and Reclamation petitioned the State Water Board for permission to take action to conserve water upstream for use later in the year and operate their systems as flexibly as possible to get water where it was needed most. Specifically, DWR and Reclamation asked for permission to take the following action:

  • Allow a reduced Delta outflow so that the State Water Project and Central Valley Project could conserve their dwindling supplies in reservoirs for later in the year;
  • Operate the Delta Cross Channel gates differently so less flow would be needed to repel salinity;
  • Allow for pumping minimum, essential public health and safety exports of up to 1,500 cubic feet per second (cfs), even when Delta flows were so low that such pumping would not typically be allowed.

Under the authority delegated to its Executive Director by the State Water Board, the Executive Director granted a “temporary, urgency change” order, approving DWR and Reclamation’s petition. The order was responsive to an unprecedented and dynamic situation, and can be amended at any time, based on changing conditions or further requests.

In a separate action on January 31, the State Water Board’s Executive Director also announced that certain water users in certain watersheds were put on notice that water curtailments would likely be issued due to lack of water in the state’s rivers. These curtailments will be issued consistent with California law and respectful of water rights with senior water right holders being the last to have water restricted.

February Modification to Water Conservation Order
On February 7, the State Water Board’s Executive Director amended the January order to allow additional Delta exports following storms when natural water flows into the Delta are high enough to satisfy water quality conditions. Starting around February 9, the outflow of water from the Delta toward the ocean began spiking after the first significant large storm this winter. From February 10 to 11, the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project increased their pumping from the Delta to about 6,000 cfs, maintaining that level until February 18.

February was much wetter than anticipated, with 130 percent of normal precipitation for the month in the Sacramento River Basin. As a result, while the original temporary urgency change order was issued on January 31, the order’s limits on water exports to only essential public health and safety limits were in effect for only 11 days during the first six weeks after the order was issued. During the rest of this period, the order’s limit on exports was not in effect.

During the month of February, upon the recommendation of the Real-Time Drought Operations Management Team established by the January order, the State Water Project and Central Valley Project also received additional flexibility in the amount of water they could pump from the Delta, which included real-time, dynamic operation of the Cross Channel gates. Federal and state fish and wildlife agencies have made similar adjustments to export limitations under their jurisdiction based on their own authorities and permits.

While ensuring that the State Water Project and Central Valley Project judiciously manage water conserved in their reservoirs, every effort has been made to maximize the amount of water that the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project could export from the Delta during the storms in February and March, realizing that those storms may be the last opportunity to capture and store unregulated water flow during the rainy season. As a result of these actions, most of the water that the state and federal water projects have exported this year from the Delta is not subject to any use limitation and is available for any lawful project use.

March Modification to Water Conservation Order
On March 18, after the storm-related flows subsided, DWR and Reclamation requested another modification to the State Water Board order that enables the State Water Project and Central Valley Project to continue increased pumping from the Delta and store water south of the Delta to meet essential public health and safety needs as well as for other uses. This modification, which was granted by the State Water Board’s Executive Director, was another example of the flexibility being exercised by the regulatory agencies. State and federal fisheries agencies concurred with the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project’s requested modification.

The Water Projects must meet varying water quality conditions based on the amount of rainfall. Even in very dry years, the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Water Project are required to keep the flow of water out of the Delta and into San Francisco Bay—called Delta outflow—at 11,000 cfs during March, primarily to protect habitat for fish and wildlife. However, amid exceptional drought conditions and the need to conserve precious water, flexibility to this requirement was explored and the state and federal fisheries agencies worked together to confirm that, given the circumstances and limited time, reducing the flow below 11,000 cfs would not unreasonably affect fish and wildlife.

Under this recent modification, the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project are allowed to let Delta outflow drop below the threshold of 11,000 cfs. The State Water Project and Central Valley Project will be able to continue to export water from their south Delta facilities, as long as the Delta outflow remains above 7,100 cfs and the Delta Cross Channel gates are closed.

The upper limits of water export from the Delta are constrained by regulations to protect Delta fisheries and federal rules to protect Delta smelt and Chinook salmon, which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act as well as the California Endangered Species Act. State Water Project and Central Valley Project operators are working collaboratively with the state and federal fish agencies and the State Water Board to assess whether further protections are warranted, while finding flexibility in the implementation of these regulations and taking other steps to protect fish species beyond maintaining flows.

The March modification also expands the State Water Project and Central Valley Project’s latitude in the use of exported water beyond the January order, which specifically limited water exports for essential public health and safety purposes. Under the modified order the State Water Project and Central Valley Project are still expected to first use exported water to meet essential public health and safety needs – human consumption, sanitation and fire suppression. But once those needs are met, the modified order makes clear the State Water Project and Central Valley Project may use the remaining water for other critical purposes, as determined by the State Water Project and Central Valley Project operators. However the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project are not delivering exports for all normal uses (such as exterior landscape irrigation).

April Flexibility in Biological Opinion
On March 31, in order to take advantage of the water runoff from storms that began March 25, the DWR and Reclamation sought flexibility from the action in the NMFS Biological Opinion set to go into effect April 1, which is designed to protect listed fish species.

DWR and Reclamation asked the NMFS to temporarily adjust limits on the amount of water that could be diverted from the Delta by the state and federal water projects. This measure, known as an “inflow/export ratio,” normally limits state and federal water project diversions from the Delta to the equivalent amount of water flowing into the Delta from the San Joaquin River and would hinder capture of significant storm runoff flowing into the Delta if not adjusted. On March 31, NMFS officials concurred that this temporary adjustment to the inflow/export ratio won’t jeopardize salmon and steelhead and that it is consistent with the federal Endangered Species Act. Another flow requirement, which restricts the level of reverse water flows on the Old and Middle river channels in the Delta, will govern pumping levels in the coming days to provide minimum protections for all fish species currently making their way through the Delta.

As a result of these temporary adjustments, the combined pumping levels of the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project rose from 1,500 cfs to no more than 6,500 cfs over several days following March 31. This adjustment remained in effect as long as major rivers are carrying storm runoff into the Delta, projected to last at least a week. In the absence of storm runoff, the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project will be able to pump an amount equal to the full flow of the San Joaquin River for 31 days starting on April 15 through the first week of May. On April 11, 2014, the State Water Board’s Executive Director amended the State Water Board Order to allow a pulse flow with a volume of water equal to 3,300 cfs for 16 days and 1,500 cfs for 15 days on the San Joaquin River.

Early April: Drought Operations Plan Announced
As California’s rainy season was ending, state and federal agencies developed a multi-stage Drought Operations Plan to address key water needs in the coming months and into 2015. This drought operations plan provides a framework for water management decisions through mid-November.  Reclamation and DWR will implement the plan in collaboration with other agencies and in consideration of updated conditions and forecasts for the Sierra snowpack, reservoir storage and river flow. With active, aggressive management of the precious little rain and snowfall over January, February, and March, water managers are now balancing slightly increased water supplies among a range of users.

DWR and Reclamation are implementing the Drought Operations Plan in close coordination with the USFWS, NMFS, CDFW and the State Water Board.

Objectives of the Drought Operations Plan include:

  • Closely managing our scarce water resources in the coming dry months and into next year;
  • Augmenting water exports from the Delta for storage and use when possible;
  • Ensuring adequate water supplies for drinking water, sanitation and firefighting;
  • Preventing saltwater from intruding into California’s water delivery system;
  • Providing sufficient water for fish migration and spawning; and
  • Meeting water quality needs for water users located in the Delta by repelling saltwater.

Mid-April Actions

Updated Allocations

Updated storm runoff, snowpack and reservoir level data indicate that state and federal agencies’ efforts to capture and store precipitation from February and March storms generated increased water supplies for beneficial use, allowing DWR and Reclamation to make adjustments in allocations to their more senior water contractors.

DWR announced an increase in water allocations from zero to five percent to its service contractors located south of the Delta. These contractors include 29 public agencies that collectively serve more than 25 million Californians and irrigate nearly a million acres of farmland. Although nearly all areas served by the State Water Project also access other water sources such as groundwater and water stored locally, a zero allocation would devastate agricultural operations in certain areas of the San Joaquin Valley.  The increase to a 5 percent allocation will make approximately 200,000 acre-feet available to these water contractors.

At the same time, Reclamation announced an increase in water allocations to its Upper Sacramento River Settlement Contractors and wildlife refuges north of the Delta from a 40 percent allocation to a 75 percent allocation. The Settlement Contractors, who hold senior water rights, are also located north of the Delta, and many of them agreed to take these increased allocations later in the season than normal to help protect migrating fish. It is possible that a significant portion of this increased water allocation will be used south of the Delta, thanks to water transfers between willing water buyers and sellers.

Salinity Barriers

While late-season storm runoff was not nearly enough to take California out of the current extreme drought, this modest increase in water supply will allow state and federal agencies to prevent saltwater intrusion into the inner Delta without installing rock barriers in Delta channels, which have adverse impacts on fish and wildlife and worsen water quality for some agricultural users in the Delta.

Instead of installing salinity barriers, DWR requested that the State Water Board relocate a salinity control point from the Emmaton location slightly up the Delta to Three Mile Slough. This change, if granted by the State Water Board, would enable more flexible use of reservoir supplies for purposes other than outflow to the Pacific Ocean while continuing to ensure adequate salinity controls within the Delta.

In the coming months, DWR will closely monitor data on water quality and storage capacity to determine whether barriers are needed later in the year to protect the quality of vital water supplies for Contra Costa, Alameda, and Santa Clara counties, as well as other water users who rely on drinking water supplies from the Delta.

Increased Monitoring of Drought’s Impact on Fish and Wildlife

The CDFW, in partnership with its federal agency counterparts, immediately began to increase monitoring of fish in the Sacramento River to better understand the drought’s impact on threatened species. This monitoring assesses spawning, rearing and stranding conditions, and it will closely track temperature conditions in the Sacramento River and its tributaries and the health of the winter run Chinook salmon species. DFW will also implement monitoring actions detailed in the Drought Operations Plan for Delta and long-fin smelt, green sturgeon and salmon and steelhead. Later this year, the Department plans to work with the NMFS and USFWS to complete restoration and fish passage projects for the benefit of several runs of salmon in the Upper Sacramento River and its tributaries.

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