Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

RECENT POSTS

Time Running Out for Delta Fix

Time is running out to fix Northern California’s beleaguered Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. That seems to be the consensus from the latest major meeting of officials and stakeholders.

Part of the labyrinth of waterways in the Sacramento Delta. (Image: CA Dept. of Water Resources)

Today’s meeting in Sacramento was a rarity; both state and federal officials sat down to explain the complicated Delta planning process in a public setting.

David Hayes, Deputy Secretary of the federal Department of the Interior, underscored the urgency, telling the gathering that “We are one seismic event away” from a potential three-year interruption in water supplies to Southern California.

“Even if you don’t have a seismic event, the effects of climate change, a major flooding event, threaten the Delta because it’s built on quicksand  — basically levees that will not hold against a major event,” said Hayes.

 The Delta provides water for 25 million Californians. Hayes said his agency and the White House are “in full lockstep” with Governor Jerry Brown’s process for dialing in a Delta strategy. The state is pursuing “co-equal goals” of satisfying California’s water demands while protecting Delta eco-systems, which several speakers said are “crashing.” Continue reading

What Will Your Water Cost?

Report: Big changes needed to avert “widespread environmental and economic losses” in California

Grand illusion? Water rushes over the spillway at Nicasio Reservoir in Marin County. (Photo: Craig Miller)

A high-profile team of experts is calling for a major overhaul of the way California manages its water. In a 500-page report from the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California, the authors say decades of well-intended water policies simply haven’t worked, leaving the state vulnerable to major crises, including water shortages, catastrophic floods, decline & extinction of native species, deteriorating water quality, and further decline of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“Our system has been dying a death by a thousand cuts,” says co-author Ellen Hanak, an economist and policy analyst at the PPIC. Hanak says that the state’s water management efforts have been “incremental” and “piecemeal,” with little success to show for it. Continue reading

Californians Who Rely on Delta at “Severe Risk”

Here’s a shocker: Yes, action is necessary on the San Francisco Bay Delta

(Photo: US Fish & Wildlife)

State and federal authorities provided an update Wednesday on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), which is tasked with restoring the damaged ecosystems of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and safeguarding California’s water supply.

“The 25 million Californians who rely on the Delta for clean drinking water are at severe risk,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, on a call with reporters. Continue reading

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

Delta Dawn

Scientists and policy wonks seem to be in general agreement on this: that it’s time to close out the current management epoch on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and begin anew. There’s less accord on how to proceed.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Policy makers have assembled “blue ribbon” panels to study the options and make recommendations. Volumes of studies and proposals line the shelves in Sacramento and elsewhere.

Last week a new idea surfaced for moving water through the Delta: Instead of channeling around it, tunnel under it.

This week the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California released its recommendations for a mechanism to fund the enormous fixes that will be required: Those who benefit pay (ecologists use the term “ecosystem services” for all those bennies we get from natural resources and tend to take for granted).

Whatever the outcome, one thing seems inevitable, with or without human intervention. Driven by warming ocean temperatures, rising sea levels will continue to push saltwater farther upstream, changing the Delta’s character and the “services” it provides.

Recently a team of students at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism produced a Flash presentation on some of the issues raised by advancing salt in the Delta. The multimedia report: Delicate Balance was produced for Climate Watch by Amanda Dyer, Martin Ricard and Jeremy Whitaker. We’re grateful to them for their time and creativity.

delicatebalance

“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.”

Congressman: Delta Fish a “Worthless Little Worm”

Peter Johnsen, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Photo: Peter Johnsen, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

In hearings by the House Energy & Commerce Subcommitee today, Rep. George Radanovich (R-Fresno) called the Delta smelt “a worthless little worm that needs to go the way of the dinosaur.” He made the remark as part of a five-minute attack on “environmental alarmism,” in response to testimony from former vice-president Al Gore, founder of the Alliance for Climate Protection.

The tiny fish, recently listed by the state Fish & Game Commission as “endangered,” came up in remarks by Radanovich about the current drought conditions in the Central Valley. He blamed the lack of water on lawsuits that have restricted water supplies to farms, “for a Delta smelt–a worthless little worm that needs to go the way of the dinosaur. They’ve shut pumps down and restricted water deliveries to California over that thing, when what’s eating it is a striped bass, a non-native species in the Delta.”

Radanovich rejected the possibility that climate change might be a player in the current drought. Instead he took aim at what he described as “collaboration between environmentalists and sport fishermen,” blaming that for slashed water allocations to farms, as many as 60,000 job losses and “a $6 billion-dollar hit to our economy.”

“That is not global warming,” he said. ” “It’s the result of bad policy caused by environmental alarmism.”

Joining Gore among the 21 witnesses before the subcommittee on Day 4 of the climate bill hearings was UC Davis professor Dan Sperling (.pdf link), who had just come from a marathon hearing before the California Air Resources Board. Last evening the Air Board approved the first-ever Low-Carbon Fuel Standard, as part of it’s plan to reduce greenhouse gases.

Delta Smelt Listed as Endangered

The California Fish and Game Commission today officially qualified two species of freshwater fish for special protection under the California Endangered Species Act.

Longfin smelt. Photo: NOAA

Photo: NOAA

The Commission listed the delta smelt as “endangered” and the longfin smelt as “threatened,” a lesser classification. Both are denizens of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and have long been at the center of controversy over water diversions from the Delta. According to the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity:

“The San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary is home to the largest and southernmost self-sustaining population of longfin smelt. Longfin smelt populations that inhabit the estuaries and lower reaches of Humboldt Bay and the Klamath River have also declined and may now be extinct. Since 2000, the Bay-Delta longfin smelt population has fallen to unprecedented low numbers. Since 2002, the delta smelt has plummeted to its lowest population levels ever recorded.”

CBD was among the environmental groups that petitioned the state for listing of the longfin in 2007. Delta smelt have been protected as a “threatened” species since last year but today that designation was escalated to “endangered.” The Center has also petitioned for–but has yet to attain–federal listing for both species by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The listing could have major implications for water supplies this year. Court decisions in favor of the fishes have already forced reductions in water pumped out of the Delta for diversion to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The rulings have prompted some to characterize subsequent reduced water deliveries as a “regulatory drought.”