California is not out of the woods just yet with respect to the drought as state water officials estimate most water recipients could receive up to 30 percent of their allocation this year.
A remarkably dry February limited the latest water allocation increase – a stark reminder of how quickly California can turn from wet to dry.
Though higher than the 10-percent estimate given in December, the latest guess by the California Department of Water Resources could be reduced if no more rain and snow comes this season, DWR officials warned.
“Today’s increase, although good news, does not mean the drought is ending,” said DWR Director Mark Cowin. “After more than four dry years, we still have a critical water shortage. We need a lot more wet weather this winter to take the edge off drought. Using water carefully and sparingly is still the quickest, most effective way to stretch supplies.”
The latest announcement is the second incremental increase in the State Water Project (SWP) allocation since an initial allocation of 10 percent was announced in December. An increase to 15 percent was announced on January 26, after storms began to build the Sierra Nevada snowpack and bring significant rainfall to the drought-parched state.
The 29 public agencies that receive SWP water (State Water Project Contractors) requested 4,172,786 acre-feet of water for 2016. Under the current allotment they will receive 1,268,724 acre-feet.
DWR officials readily admit that an outdated water delivery infrastructure in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta also affected the allocation increase.
At issue with water users – growers in particular – has been the limited pumping from the Delta into San Luis Reservoir, even when higher storm flows in the Delta could have been captured and transferred to the reservoir.
According to the California Farm Water Coalition (CFWC), more than 184 billion gallons – over 571,000 acre feet of water – has been lost to sea since Dec. 1 because of regulatory pumping restrictions. That could meet the water needs of 3.3 million people for an entire year.
Every day another 6,300 acre feet of excess water is allowed to flow into the ocean, according to the CFWC.
Missed storage opportunities
San Luis Reservoir is a critical south-of-Delta pool for both the SWP and Central Valley Project (CVP). Storage there is just over 850,000 acre feet, or 42 percent of its 2 million acre-foot capacity and 50 percent of normal for the date.
The continued excuse used by state officials to not store as much water as possible at San Luis is the need to protect fish in the Delta. Additionally, DWR is claiming that 458,000 acre-feet of water – enough to supply 3.4 million people for a year – could have been captured if the new intakes, tunnels, and operating criteria proposed by California WaterFix had been in place. That project proposal is now undergoing environmental review, a process in California that could take decades.
DWR did say that rain and snow amounts of at least 150 percent of normal would “significantly ease statewide conditions, with the major exception of groundwater depletion.”
Key reservoirs are rising from early winter storms, but most remain low.
Lake Oroville in Butte County, the State Water Project’s principal reservoir, is near 1.8 million acre-feet of storage, or 51 percent of its 3.5 million acre-foot capacity and 74 percent of its historical average for the date.
Shasta Lake near Redding has nearly 2.7 million acre feet of storage – 59 percent of its 4.5 million acre-foot capacity and 82 percent of its historical average.
Folsom Lake, a CVP reservoir near Sacramento, has risen to 64 percent of its 977,000 acre-foot capacity, 117 percent of its historic average for the date. Folsom fills more rapidly than many other reservoirs due to its relatively small size and large watershed.
Groundwater aquifers recharge much more slowly than surface reservoirs, with many in the Central Valley sinking toward record levels.
Last year’s (2015) 20 percent allocation was the second lowest since 1991, when agricultural customers of the SWP got a zero allocation and municipal customers received 30 percent of requests. In 2014, SWP deliveries were five percent of requested amounts for all customers.
The last 100 percent allocation – difficult to achieve even in wet years largely because of Delta pumping restrictions to protect threatened and endangered fish species – was in 2006. SWP allocations in recent years:
- 2015 – 20 percent
- 2014 – 5 percent
- 2013 – 35 percent
- 2012 – 65 percent
- 2011 – 80 percent
- 2010 – 50 percent
- 2009 – 40 percent
- 2008 – 35 percent
- 2007 – 60 percent
- 2006 – 100 percent
Efforts to streamline California’s water delivery system have been talked up by political leaders, but nothing has been done to achieve equilibrium between fish and humans, even as voters last year approved a $7.2 billion water bond aimed at improving the state’s water infrastructure.
It is now estimated that it could take even longer for officials to approve projects to improve water storage and infrastructure than first reported under the water bond.
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