Author Archives: Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything.

19%: The Great Water-Power Wake-Up Call

Ever wonder how much juice it takes to move water?

Explore the Water and Power series and hear Dan’s story on KQED’s The California Report.

When you open that faucet, it’s more than water that’s flowing.

A few years back, number crunchers at the California Energy Commission tried to add up how much electrical power (and other forms of energy) goes into using water in California. The bottom line number they came up with: 19%. That is, nearly a fifth of all the power generated in California — as well as huge quantities of natural gas and diesel fuel consumed in the state — goes into water-related uses. You might call that report, entitled California’s Water-Energy Relationship, as The Great Wake-Up Call. The idea that so much power could go into this one vital activity—moving and treating and using water—is both stunning and captivating. And it has spurred both state agencies and water and power utilities into action.

A look at how water and power flow together.

Graphic by Andy Warner

The California Public Utilities Commission, responsible for overseeing the activities of the state’s big investor-owned electric utilities on one hand and numerous small water providers on the other, responded to the 19% number by authorizing a series of pilot projects to assess how to cut the amount of power used in connection with water. Since the CPUC is supposed to make sure that utility investments are cost-effective and don’t burden ratepayers with excessive charges, the focus of most of the pilots was on areas where utilities could get the most bang for the buck. Mostly, that turns out to be water conservation. Continue reading

Tioga Pass Unwrapped: A Rare Midwinter Glimpse of “The Roof of California”

Authorities finally closed California’s highest mountain pass this week. Right before they did, Climate Watch contributor Dan Brekke got to see what few of us glimpse this time of year.

Dan Brekke

Highway 120 in Yosemite National Park winds toward Tioga Pass. The road closed Tuesday night after its longest winter opening since at least 1933.

It first captivated me back when I was an adolescent map reader back in the Midwest. I was poring over maps of California for a trip that didn’t happen—then—and took note of the roads across the Sierra Nevada. And the highest of all the mountain routes I could see crossed Tioga Pass, at an altitude that rounds to 10,000 feet. Nearly two miles above sea level.

Eventually I took that trip to California, but it was still a long time before I actually saw the place the map depicted. A good 15 years or so after I moved out here, I managed to scramble up there on a long weekend and spent a single afternoon driving Highway 120, the Tioga Road. Continue reading

Playing the State Water Lottery

Craig Miller

Photo: Craig Miller

I don’t know Mark Cowin, the director of the state’s Department of Water Resources. I haven’t even met the man, in person. But after listening to and reading his pronouncements about the state’s water supply, I’d guess he’s a guy who would barely crack a smile if he found himself holding a winning lottery ticket. I hazard that opinion because even after today’s great news about the Sierra snowpack–which is a little like finding out the state has won its annual water lottery–what Cowin emphasizes is that California isn’t out of the woods after the dry spell of 2007-2009. But more about that to follow. First, the details on the DWR’s final Sierra snow survey.

DWR announced on Friday that statewide, the water content stored in the Sierra snow is at 143% of normal for the date; 188% in the northern Sierra, 121% in the central mountains, and 139% in the southern reaches of the range. Up and down the Sierra, those figures are more than double the levels of the past two years, and are up to seven times as much as surveyors found in the bone-dry spring of 2007.

Last week, the Department announced it would increase allocations from the State Water Project to 30% of the amount requested from 29 urban and agricultural customers. Today’s snowpack news prompted the department to say that it’s likely to increase deliveries. How much? “Only marginally,” Cowin said in a phone interview this afternoon. “We’ll have to run the numbers, and we’ll probably make that determination in the next week or two.”

How much water will State Water Project customers get, eventually? Let’s run some numbers of our own.

The main reason the department cites for the very tight supply in the midst of a year of “normal” precipitation is the continuing below-average levels at California’s biggest state-owned reservoir, Lake Oroville. As of Friday afternoon, the lake is at 72% of normal for the date and about 60% full. But the stats that Cowin’s water geeks are crunching aren’t about the level today, but where they guess it will be as runoff begins to pour from the snow-blanketed mountains through the Feather River watershed into Lake Oroville. DWR officials have insisted that it believes runoff will be held down because of dry conditions caused by the last three drought years. You wonder if they’ll still believe that after assessing the impact of an unusually wet April and its impact on the snowpack.

While pondering that, here are some other numbers to consider if you want to play what I’ll call the State Water Project Allocation Game:

  • After running far below its 2008-2009 levels all season, the water storage in Lake Oroville caught up and passed year-ago levels this week. The lake’s storage has increased six percent—more than 150,000 acre-feet—since last Friday.
  • As noted above, this year’s snowpack is better than double last year’s.
  • Last year, the state delivered 40 percent of requested water shipments to its SWP customers. The average allocation for the past 10 years is 68 percent.

Considering all of the above—last year’s deliveries, the snowpack, the sudden late-season surge in Lake Oroville’s levels—it’s a no-brainer that water deliveries will at least match last year’s 40 percent. The question is whether the allocation will go higher. All Cowin would say on that subject today is that he thinks that 45%, the amount DWR described two months ago as the upper limit for shipments this season, is still accurate.

But Cowin did say, as he has more and more frequently of late, that a preoccupation with the this year’s water level misses the point about California’s water reality.

“That’s why we’re so concerned when we get the black and white question, ‘Is the drought over,’” he said. “We are in a period of long scarcity in California. We have no idea what next year’s water supply picture will look like. It’s possible we could have two or three more dry years in a row. So we’re trying to get a message out that we need to have a new attitude about how we use water in California, and it shouldn’t depend on this week’s outlook. We need to conserve water just as a way of life.”

If you want to explore the state’s water supply picture for yourself, check out our California Reservoir Watch map, below:

View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map
View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

California Water Update: A Mostly Adequate Year

87760251Almost everywhere you look this week, California is dry. By which we mean the state is experiencing the first truly warm, rainless week since a series of Pacific storms blew through the state in mid-January.

Hydrologists for the state Department of Water Resources and the federal California-Nevada River Forecast Center expect the warm temperatures to trigger the first significant surge of snowmelt for the season. With slightly above-average snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada, that should help continue to raise reservoir levels. Our 2009-2010 rainy season is likely to go down in water history as adequate–short of hopes for a wet year but an improvement on the past three winters, which were much drier than average.

Admittedly, that’s the view from the city, where we get our water out of taps and garden hoses. The picture for agricultural users is not nearly as bright, as we were reminded earlier this week.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued an updated allocation for its customers in the Central Valley. The bureau offered a good news-bad news scenario. For CVP customers north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the news was mostly good. Agricultural contractors there will get at least 50% of promised deliveries this year; municipal and industrial customers will get 75%. South of the Delta, the news is not so good. Municipal and industrial users will get 75%, but farm customers are guaranteed just a quarter of the water they want.

That 25% zone south of the Delta includes the Westlands Water District and other areas on the west side of the San Joaquin Delta that have suffered severe water shortages, due mostly to the state’s prolonged dry spell and, less directly, to restrictions imposed on Delta pumping to protect Delta smelt and Chinook salmon.

That’s the same area for which Sen. Dianne Feinstein tried to secure extra water this year–even if it meant overriding provisions of the Endangered Species Act. Feinstein’s effort to attach a water amendment to a federal jobs bill failed, but the move apparently prodded the Department of the Interior–the parent agency of the Bureau of Reclamation–to try to find more water for Westlands and its neighbors. This week’s allocation announcement included assurances that the department is still working to secure additional water for west side farmers.

The state Department of Water Resources, which also ships water from the Delta to customers in the San Joaquin Valley and beyond via the California Aqueduct, also issued an updated allocation announcement this week. The department said that for now it’s sticking with its guarantee of 15 percent of requested deliveries this year.

Why such a low figure? The department says it’s because of continuing “poor hydrological conditions” in the Feather River drainage that feeds the State Water Project’s principal reservoir, Lake Oroville. The main symptom of those conditions is the lake’s storage level, now just 57% of average for mid-March. For contrast, look at California’s main federal reservoir, Lake Shasta, less than 100 miles away from Oroville as the crow flies. It’s got 104% of average storage for the date (not to be confused with percent of capacity).

Here’s my amateur, off-the-cuff runoff-watcher’s observation of what’s behind the difference: The Shasta drainage, which captures the upper reaches of the Sacramento, McCloud and Pit rivers as well as lesser streams, has benefited from several storms since mid-January that dumped heavy rains throughout the watershed. Those same storms have dropped lighter amounts of rain further south and east, including over the Feather watershed. The same effect can be seen in the American River basin, which flows into Folsom Lake. A month or so of intense precipitation last year eventually filled the lake; lighter rains this year have led to lower-than-average storage levels in Folsom (84 percent as of this week).

The final word on the water season, of course, will come from the Sierra snowpack and runoff. Stay tuned for the snow melt.

Check recent levels of California’s major reservoirs on the map, below:

View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

More Water Likely for Farms and Cities–With a Catch

Craig Miller

What is now looking like a "normal" wet winter may mean bigger water allocations for crops. Photo: Craig Miller

We’d like to think that weather and water supply is a straightforward proposition. If rain falls in the lowlands and snow blankets the Sierra Nevada the way we expect it to, then we ought to have enough water to get us through the dry months ahead. But of course, California water is never that simple. The latest example: today’s state and federal announcements of projected  deliveries from two massive Central Valley water systems.

From the state: The Department of Water Resources said it’s increasing promised State Water Project deliveries from five percent–the amount projected last December 1–to 15%.

In a conference call with reporters, newly-appointed DWR Director Mark Cowin called the 15% figure “very conservative.” He said that if the wet season continues on its current “average” path, the department could deliver between 35-and-45% of the contracted amount.  Cowin said where final allocations would land in that range depends on pumping restrictions currently in place to protect endangered salmon and smelt.  “That spread between 35 and 45 percent is based on how the fisheries agencies ultimately apply the existing rules to protect fish–and how much resulting flexibility we have to pump water from the Delta,” Cowin said.

The bottom line from the DWR announcement: Three years of drought have taken a toll on water supplies that will take more than one good year of rain and snow to reverse. Cowin says runoff from the healthy Sierra snowpack will be lower than normal, as more water is absorbed by relatively dry soil.

At the same time, the State Water Project’s biggest reservoir, Lake Oroville, stands at 54% of its normal level for this time of year. The other linchpin for SWP supply, San Luis Reservoir, is at 80 percent of normal overall. But most of that water is already spoken for and is unavailable for meeting this year’s state water contract commitments.

As the state was adjusting its projections, officials also weighed in on 2010 deliveries from the federal Central Valley Project.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the initial allocation from the CVP to San Joaquin Valley farmers and other users is 5%. That’s better than nothing–which was the early allocation last year. But it was only part of the news.

Salazar disclosed that negotiations involving Senator Dianne Feinstein, other members of the California congressional delegation, water contractors, and environmental groups have hammered out a plan that could deliver nearly 40% of contracted supplies to CVP customers. But there’s a big “if” in the picture: Those expanded deliveries only happen if the wet season continues to be wet.

Weeks of controversy preceded Salazar’s announcement. Areas of the San Joaquin Valley that have gone thirsty during the three-year drought–notably the Westlands Water District–have been agitating for more federal water even if it means overriding Endangered Species Act protections for fish.

Feinstein went to bat for Westlands and other federal water customers, proposing an amendment to a jobs bill that would set aside Delta pumping limits in order to guarantee deliveries to Valley water users. That sparked outrage from those working to save the Delta fisheries and a sharply critical letter from a dozen House members. But it also apparently prompted the talks that led to Salazar’s announcement. In a statement, Feinstein said she was pleased with the projected allocations announced today and praised the “creative thinking” that went into it. But she added that she’s watching how water shipments play out. Although she has shelved her water amendment for now, she said, “I reserve the right to bring it back should it become necessary.”

Here’s our updated KQED California Reservoir Watch, which gives a pretty good picture of the state’s water storage:

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View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map