Department of Water Resources


State Water Deliveries May Set New Low

State water officials have announced they are likely to release a record-low allocation of water to cities and farms next year– just five percent of what water contractors have requested. Though still preliminary, it’s the lowest allocation since the State Water Project began delivering water back in 1967.

The announcement may have caught some by surprise, since Department of Water Resources (DWR) data would seem to show reservoirs at higher levels than last year at this time, with major reservoirs at 69% of storage capacity, compared to 57% last year.

When I asked DWR Deputy Director Susan Simms about it, even she was stumped at first. But then she called me back to say that the data includes both federal and state reservoirs, and the state’s storage levels at both Lake Oroville and San Luis Reservoir (shared with the feds) is actually lower than last year (52% and 48% of “normal,” respectively). And, she says, the state has to contend with pumping restrictions to protect both salmon and delta smelt this time around.

DWR Director Lester Snow told reporters this morning that there’s nothing in the recently passed bundle of state water bills that can provide any immediate relief. And if you thought the prospect of increased precipitation from El Nino could save the day, don’t get out the umbrella just yet. David Rizzardo, Chief of the state’s Snow Survey section, estimates there’s only a 50-60% chance of a stronger El Nino kicking in this year. December and January will be the most telling months–but precipitation from El Nino would likely be concentrated in the southern half of the state. Officials say that would provide more “flexibility” in meeting water needs systemwide, but all of California’s biggest reservoirs are located in the northern part of the state.

December water delivery estimates almost always get a boost once it starts snowing. Last year’s initial projection was 15%, and that was later revised upward, eventually to 40 percent. Snow called today’s estimate “very conservative.”

If you think the five percent figure is supposed to scare us, it is. Water officials want to send a message that Californians need to be prepared to conserve. The state’s drought coordinator, Wendy Martin, just returned from a water tour in Australia, where she says she saw water-saving measures in place that California has yet to fully develop: storm water recapture, water recycling, and more. Martin also observed that the Australians now wish that they’d taken the epic drought of the last several years more seriously, sooner.

Navigating the Urban Water Jungle

Follow Gretchen’s radio journey to cut her own water use by 20%. Her story aired May 29 on The California Report weekly magazine.


Gretchen Weber

Photo: Gretchen Weber

Saving water when you live in an apartment isn’t as hard as it might seem.

I know the motivation might not be there to take shorter showers when you see your neighbors watering their lawns in the middle of the day or local restaurants hosing down the sidewalks, but cutting back on your water use (or at least feeling less guilty about those long showers) can be as simple as swapping out your old shower head for a lower-flow model, screwing some aerators onto your faucets, and, for the sufficiently motivated, talking to your landlord about installing higher-efficiency toilets.

For me, the first and last stop was calling my utility company, San Francisco Public Utilities.  They sent out a water expert armed with free devices for my flat, and in less than an hour we’d outfitted the kitchen and bathroom to be much more water efficient.   Save our H2O, a website sponsored by the California Department of Water Resources, has tons of conservation resources including a rebate finder and a list of the state’s local water agencies.

But since I know not every utility offers free devices to customers, last night I dropped by The Home Depot in Daly City, to see what’s available.  I have been inside one of these orange megabox retailers exactly three times in my life and it’s always a bit of sensory overload.  There must have been close to 100 shower heads to choose from, but it wasn’t easy finding one with a low-flow (1.5 gallons per minute) rating.  No matter the price or the size, every model I picked up was either 2.5 gpm, or I couldn’t find the flow rate on the packaging.

Gretchen Weber

Faucet aerators at The Home Depot

I finally asked a salesman who at first couldn’t find one either.  But eventually, he found one tucked in among the others: the Delta Water Amplifying Shower Head, for $12.75.  It’s actually 1.6 gpm, and it looked kind of  small and cheap,  although it may work fine.  I felt a little disappointed that this was my only option.

Hoping for better luck, I wandered over to the aerator section one aisle over.  There I found aerator aficionado heaven.  Once again, the selection was a little overwhelming.  There were probably 40 aerators to choose from–aerators, no less.  Low-flow, 1.5-gpm models like the kind the SFPU gave me ranged in price from $2.99 to $17.39 for the upscale brushed-nickel variety.

Across from the aerators were the toilets.  I scanned the high shelf and saw several low-flow models (1.6 and 1.28 gallons per flush) that were priced between $90 and $128.  Taped to the toilet shelf was a sign reading that San Francisco residents may be eligible for a $125 rebate on a low-flow model, which could basically mean a free toilet.  Other cities and counties in California have similar rebates.

As I turned to leave the toilet/aerator aisle, I bumped into a large box sitting on the floor.  There, far from all the others, was the shower head I’d been looking for:  a 1.5 gallon-per-minute WaterPik EcoFlow with five different pressures, including something called “Powerspray.”  Touting a 40% water savings, these puppies were on sale for $44.95.

Gretchen Weber

Water Pik Eco Flow Shower Head Photo: Gretchen Weber

Rick Soerhen, the Deputy Director of Water Use Efficiency for the California Department of Water Resources told me that people living in apartments most likely already get “gold stars” for water conservation because they probably aren’t watering lawns and gardens.

So, flat-dwellers, be proud. But if you really want to be as water efficient as possible, devices like these can make a big difference on your total usage — without requiring three-minute showers.

“The Australian Reality”

Australia's Simpson Desert. Photo: Mike Gillam

Australia's Simpson Desert. Photo: Mike Gillam

Referring to Australia’s seven-year drought, that’s how the state’s top water manager describes the new paradigm for water planning at the Dept. of Water Resources.

Speaking to a packed house at the annual forum of the Sacramento River Watershed Program yesterday, DWR Director Lester Snow said his staff is assuming that 2010 will be another dry year. Snow warned about “loss of resilience” in the state’s water system, calling it “completely unsustainable” in it’s present form, given predictions for population growth, coupled with anticipated effects of climate change.

All speakers at the forum seemed to agree that a paradigm shift is in order. Thomas Philps, a strategist at SoCal’s Metropolitan Water District, pointed out that in Victoria’s capital city of Melbourne (Australia), per capita water consumption runs about 40 gallons per day, while in California’s capital, it’s 280 gallons. As Sasha Khoka will report Monday morning on The California Report, Sacramento is just one of several cities in the Central Valley that still doesn’t meter its water use. Philps added that the Sacramento region is “on a trajectory” to use the same volume of water as Los Angeles, though he did not say by when.

UC Davis geologist Jeff Mount cautioned against relying on additional surface storage to secure California’s water future. Not only does storing water become “very expensive” year over year, but dams and reservoirs “don’t create any new water,” he said. (If some think Mount is taking a “jaundiced view” of the situation, it might be because he braved a bout of hepatitis to deliver his morning talk)

In a panel discussion on resource planning, moderator Greg Zlotnick of the Santa Clara Valley Water District asked panelists to respond with “true” or “false” to a quote from the Pacific Institute’s Peter Gleick in a story aired on NPR last week. The quote, as given by Zlotnick, was: “Government has built infrastructure and made promises that can’t be kept.” Here are the panelists’ responses:

Tina Swanson, The Bay Institute: “True.”

Philps: “True, but…” (Generally true but MWD doesn’t really expect to get its full contractual allocation of water anymore, anyway)

Don Glaser, US Bureau of Reclamation: “False, but…” (Water allotments from his agency’s Central Valley Project are intended to be “supplemental contracts,” to augment use of groundwater and other sources, but Glaser sees the statement becoming “more and more true in the future.”)

Snow: “Hell, no.”

Survey Says: Drought Still On

It’s still “cause for concern.” That’s how California’s water chief summed up the water outlook for this summer, based on the latest survey. The Sierra snowpack stands at 81% of normal for this date, according to today’s measurements by the state Department of Water Resources.

Chopping up the Sierra Nevada into segments, Northern California fared a little better at 87%. The situation deteriorates as you move southward, with Southern Sierra stations clocking in at 77% of normal.

In most years, the April survey marks the peak of the season’s snow water content.

Ultimately what matters is runoff, or the total amount of water that actually comes off the mountains with the spring melt. And snowpack isn’t necessarily a good predictor of that, as we heard in David Gorn’s story on The California Report and in his blog notes from today.

Just yesterday the Governor’s Climate Action Team released its 2009 assessment of likely climate change effects in California. One  predicted outcome is that ripple effects from water shortages could run up a tab of $3 billion per year. And that’s the rosy scenario, based on being able to quickly move 5 million acre-feet of water to where it’s needed. Eileen Tutt of Cal-EPA cautions that the actual capacity of the current system to quickly redistribute water is closer to 1 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is about the amount of water that a typical household uses in one year.

Snowpack Buildup “Too little, too late”

Frank Gehrke at Tamarck Flat last winter.

Frank Gehrke at Tamarack Flat last winter.

That’s how Frank Gehrke described the somewhat improved numbers in the latest Sierra snowpack survey. Gehrke has been trekking up to the snow courses for decades to do the seasonal surveys. Today, the statewide average for water content in the snowpack came in at 80% of normal for this date.

Northern Sierra locations clocked in a bit better at 84%, southern locations at 77%. These are an improvement over last month’s tally, when the state averaged only 61% of normal–but reservoirs are not filling fast enough to make up for the long, dry winter that preceded this recent string of storms.

Not that the recent rains haven’t helped. Oakland, Long Beach, Riverside and San Diego are among several spots that have now had at least 90% of their normal precipitation–and some local reservoirs have been catching up. But up in the Sierra, where it really counts for the Big Picture, they’re not catching up fast enough. The main holding “tanks” for the state’s two major water supply systems, Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville, are still at 60% and 55% of normal, respectively.

The recent storms have been relatively warm, too, with precipitation falling as rain all the way up to 7,500 or 8,000 feet. This is precisely the condition that climatologists have been warning about. Snow sticks to the mountain and makes its own reservoir, slowly releasing water well into the spring, as it melts off. But rain at those high elevations is double trouble. It runs off immediately into the rivers and also accelerates the snow melt. That means less water for later in the season, when we really need it.

That may be why the Governor didn’t wait around for today’s numbers. He went ahead and declared a statewide drought emergency on Friday, urging urban water users to cut consumption by 20%.

Filling Out the Reservoir Picture

At the annual “Watershed Event” fundraiser for the Sacramento River Watershed Program, Elissa Lynn, Sr. Meteorologist for the state Dept. of Water Resources, offered a rundown of where we stand at the start of the official “water season.”

The short version: It’s bleak.

Lake Oroville in September

As I noted last week, Lake Oroville, a key reservoir on the Feather River, stood at 31% of capacity as of midnight on September 30. Readings from the same hour showed the state’s largest reservoir, Shasta Lake, at 30%; Folsom Lake (American River, east of Sacramento) at 28%; and San Luis Reservoir, east of Silicon Valley at 12–yes, twelve percent of capacity.

Capacity figures by themselves can be misleading. We expect reservoirs to be low this time of year, right at the end of the dry season. But as DWR was taking these readings, Oroville, to use one example, was at 49%–less than half–of “normal” for this time of year.

So, much depends on the coming winter. Even with all the advanced tools that forecasters have at their disposal in this first decade of the 21st Century, it’s hard to say how much water we’ll wring out of the skies this winter. Lynn says we’re in a “La Nada” pattern, meaning the Pacific Ocean isn’t giving a strong signal for either El Nino or its opposite, La Nina. The two conditions describe the degree–or lack–of cold water upwelling from the ocean depths, which has a strong influence on California’s precipitation patterns.

But Lynn says the consensus among forecasters is “leaning toward a dry-to-average” winter and average won’t get us there. We’ll need several soggy months to make up for lost water and avoid more severe water restrictions throughout the state next summer.

Key Reservoir Flirts with Historic Low

Oroville Reservoir from Hwy 70

Water officials confirmed today that the water level at Oroville Reservoir in Butte County is near the lowest point ever recorded for this date. Today officially begins the water “season” in California, meaning the point at which rainfall could reasonably be expected.

At midnight last, the surface level behind Oroville Dam had dropped to 678 feet, measured from the lowest point in the lake.

That puts the lake at just 31% of capacity. According to state drought coordinator Wendy Martin at the Dept. of Water Resources, the lowest measurement ever recorded on October 1st was 650 feet, in 1977.

Oroville is a major supplier of water for the State Water Project, which provides water for drinking and irrigation as far south as the Los Angeles Basin.

Water customers on the project have already seen their allocations cut back severely. But Martin says that without an extremely wet winter, those allocations could be reduced to a scant 10 or 15% of normal by next year.

Martin says the main message is that even if the season’s first rain arrives this weekend, as forecast, it’s not a signal to start hosing down the driveway again between storms; that conservation will continue to be crucial throughout the winter months.