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A Sauna…for Science

The sauna at Toolik Field Station

The sauna at Toolik Field Station (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Last night I celebrated my first summer solstice in the Arctic by participating in one of the most beloved activities here at Toolik Field Station.  I took a sauna. Then I jumped in the lake, which still had ice on it one week ago, according to the Toolik Naturalist’s Journal.  The sauna at Toolik is spoken about in almost reverential tones, and with good reason.  It’s a small wooden cabin a few dozen yards from the main camp, perched at the water’s edge, and there’s a window that lets you soak up the stunning expanse of lake, tundra, and mountains, while you warm your bones after a plunge in the frigid waters.  “Sauna Nirvana” was how one of the scientists described the experience.

But people don’t just love the sauna for the view and the warmth.  They also love it because here at Toolik, it’s the main way to get clean.  The process entails warming up in the sauna, running outside and dumping lake water over yourself, soaping up with some biodegradeable cleanser, dumping more lake water over yourself, and then running back into the sauna so you don’t freeze to death.  Or, if you are hard-core, you can skip the water-dumping part and just jump in the lake.

Pitchers for bathing, on hooks outside the sauna (photo: Gretchen Weber)

Pitchers for bathing, on hooks outside the sauna (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

The station didn’t have any showers at all until 2001 (researchers have been coming here since 1975), and even now, residents are limited to two two-minute showers per week.  Water conservation here is taken very seriously, not because there isn’t enough supply, but because all of the waste water from the showers, kitchen, and outhouses, has to be trucked 140 miles north to Prudhoe Bay for disposal at a cost of $1.24 per gallon.  Because this is such an active research site, scientists aren’t too keen on the idea of a leach field right next to the spots where they are sampling nitrogen and phosphorus.  So, in the name of science, we sauna.

Last summer, 85,680 gallons of waste water were trucked out of Toolik, which translates to 9.77 gallons of water per day, per person, according to Michael Abels, the Toolik Operations Supervisor.   Compare that with the 99 gallons per day that San Franciscans use, per capita, or the 287 gallons in Sacramento.  True, the conditions here are pretty extreme, but it’s an interesting experiment to see what it’s like to get along on 10 gallons of water each day. Of course, no one here is watering any lawns or trying to keep a swimming pool full.  And since we’re only allowed one load of laundry every two weeks, maybe everyone smells a little differently than they do in the rest of the US–but I think most people here would agree that living on 10 gallons of water a day isn’t half bad.

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

NASA Looking More Earthward

Rachel Cohen is a Bay Area freelance writer, presently serving an internship with Climate Watch.

NASA's GRACE satellite is equipped to gather ice and water data on the Earth's surface. Image: NASA

NASA's GRACE satellite is equipped to gather ice and water data on the Earth's surface. Image: NASA

To boldly go–where we already live

By Rachel Cohen

NASA will likely be focusing more attention on the “pale blue dot” in coming years, with a reinvigorated Earth Science Program. California’s freshwater supply and sea level change are among the features that will be studied by replacing an aging satellite.

The proposed White House budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration includes billions of dollars for satellites and other tech tools to help scientists investigate Earth-bound problems, especially climate change. Part of the program will be steered from Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which will manage two key missions connected with the program. JPL spokesman Alan Buis says the White House support may provide stability for gathering the kind of long-term data sets needed to study gradual changes in earth systems.

As Jon Hamilton reports in his  story for NPR’s Morning Edition, the centerpiece of the program will be the GRACE satellite which will collect data critical for a variety of models and applications, including:

· The changing mass of polar ice caps
· Changes in water resources on land
· Shallow and deep ocean current transport mechanisms
· Sea level change resulting from ocean temperature and water mass changes
· Exchanges between the oceans and atmosphere
· Forces that generate Earth’s geomagnetic field, and
· Internal Earth forces that move tectonic plates and result in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions

GRACE has been in orbit since 2002 and is due to be replaced. NASA suffered a severe setback when its Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite crashed after its launch early last year. The White House budget includes funding to rebuild the vehicle and relaunch in February of 2013. The OCO2 satellite is designed to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, specifically comparing sources of CO2 to “sinks,” where it is stored.

Average Sierra Snowpack, More Water Allocated

Gretchen Weber

Photo: Gretchen Weber

Despite what might feel like an incessant onslaught of storms these past few months, the word from the Department of Water Resources’s fourth snow survey of the season is… average. Manual and electronic survey readings indicate that statewide, the Sierra snowpack water content is 106% of normal for this date. In the northern Sierra it’s higher, at 126% of normal, while the central and southern Sierra are at 92% and 105%, respectively.

The news was good enough for the DWR to increase its State Water Project allocation from 15% to 20%, but agency director Mark Cowin told reporters on a call Thursday that three years of drought and regulatory restrictions on Delta pumping to protect fish species will keep the allocations far below normal.  He said the final allocation, which is announced in May, will likely be between 30% and 40%, depending on April’s precipitation.  (Last year’s final allotment was 40%.)

“We’ve had a hit and miss nature to storms this winter, and that has left the State Water Project in not as good a position as we would like to be and perhaps worse than you would expect based upon those fairly good numbers regarding snowpack and precipitation,” said Cowin. “Remember that we started this winter with very poor carry over storage in most of our key reservoirs.”

While many reservoirs across the state, such as Lake Shasta, are at above average capacity for this time of year, others still have a ways to go.  The State Water Project’s principal reservoir, Lake Oroville, is currently at 47 percent capacity, which is just 60 percent of normal.   Cowin said that the difference between the two lies with where the snow fell this year.

“Clearly we’re going to have water shortages this year,” said Cowin.  “We’re all going to have to conserve water.  Even if we get to 30 or 40% allocation, those are still low numbers. The ethic of using water efficiently in California has got to be the normal course of business and not dependent on the weather forecast.”

Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued an updated allocation for its Central Valley Project customers that ranged from 25% to 75%.

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

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

Latest Snow Survey Offers Hope

Frank Gehrke, left, weighs snow near Echo Summit, to measure water content. Photo: Molly Samuel

Frank Gehrke, left, weighs snow near Echo Summit, to measure water content. Photo: Molly Samuel

His clipboard doesn’t have quite same gravitas as a pair of stone tablets. Nonetheless, Frank Gehrke is sort of the Moses of California water. Once a month he comes down from the mountaintop with a pronouncement on the state of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. Today’s message: Whew.

The Department of Water Resources announced today that on average, the water content of California’s Sierra snowpack stands at 107% of “normal” for this date. The figure is derived from a combination of electronic sensors and manual surveys, including Gehrke’s, taken at various points along Highway 50. It’s the first time this season that the statewide average has clocked in above normal.

In the monthly DWR news release, Director Mark Cowin expressed some relief, while warning that the state is still struggling to overcome three abnormally dry winters prior to this one. DWR reports that Lake Oroville, the primary reservoir for the State Water Project, still stands at just 55% of it’s long-term average level for this date. Shasta Lake, however, the biggest reservoir on the federal Central Valley Project, is now above its normal level.

Cowin says the latest readings offer hope that water managers will be able to increase projected allocations to state water customers, currently set at 15% of requested amounts. DWR estimates that final allocations will be “in the range of 35-45%.” Over the past ten years, customers have averaged about two thirds of requested water. Farms often make up for shortfalls by pumping costlier groundwater.

Our interactive map shows the current status of California’s key reservoirs. We also have a short video that takes you into the field with Frank Gehrke, to see how he does his manual surveys.

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

Storms Offer Big Boost to Sierra Snowpack

For a more expansive analysis of California’s current water picture, and an interactive map of current reservoir conditions, see Dan Brekke’s drought update, posted earlier this week.

State water officials expressed “cautious optimism” after the season’s second survey of the Sierra snowpack.

After a series of Pacific storms dumped several feet of fresh snow on the mountains, today’s (officially the “February”) survey reveals that the snow’s average water content is 115 percent of “normal” for this date (compared to 61% of normal at this time last year).

Water managers say even so, there’s more catching up to do and they still can’t rule out a fourth consecutive year of relatively dry conditions. Nor have they re-evaluated earlier tight allocations planned for agricultural water this year. With a lot of the recent precipitation still locked up in the state’s “frozen reservoir,” Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville are both still hovering around half of their normal levels for this date.

According to today’s release from the Dept. of Water Resources:

“DWR’s early allocation estimate was that the agency would only be able to deliver 5 percent of requested SWP (State Water Project) water this year, reflecting low storage levels, ongoing drought conditions, and environmental restrictions on water deliveries to protect fish species.  The agency will recalculate the allocation after current snow survey results and other conditions are evaluated.”

By the way, if you’ve never had the chance to see how the “manual” component of the monthly snow surveys are done, take about four minutes and watch this video from 2008, when I joined surveyor Frank Gehrke at the Tamarack Flat survey site, off of Highway 50. This is not the site you usually see on the local news. That’s Phillips Station, chosen for media photo ops because it’s right off the highway. Getting to this site takes a little more doing, as you’ll see.

California Storms: A Dent in the Drought

Spillway at Alpine Lake on Mt. Tamalpais. File photo: Marin Municipal Water District

Spillway at Alpine Lake on Mt. Tamalpais. File photo: Marin Municipal Water District

A version of this post also appears on Dan Brekke’s personal blog, Infospigot. Also see our updated map of reservoir conditions at the end of this post.

By Dan Brekke

Is California’s drought over? OK, let’s take a step back. Yes, I realize one could debate whether the last three years in California actually constitute a drought. But that’s a discussion for another time. For now, I think everyone can agree that we’ve had lower-than-average precipitation for the past three years.

The only reason to ask the question is that, after the first half of the wet season delivered only spotty rain, we’ve had a pretty solid week of downpours. Water is sluicing into our reservoirs, and the hills are greening up. Some counties, like Marin, have water tumbling down the spillways. All of that is a sign of what we think winter should be here.

My favorite water statistic from last week: when the storms were at their heaviest around Lake Shasta, California’s biggest reservoir, water was flowing into the lake at about 500,000 gallons per second. That’s 1.5 acre feet, or about enough for two-to-three “average” households for a year, every second.*

Amazing numbers like that aside, the people who get paid to think about whether the drought is over say “not yet.” Last week, Quest managing editor Paul Rogers wrote a good summary of the situation, for The San Jose Mercury News.

Rogers’ story does contain one bit of quirky California thinking about rain and water, though. He quotes a well established local meteorologist, Jan Null, about where we stand in terms of normal rainfall, saying: “This is a great start, but we need to keep it going.”

Of course, Null recognizes better than most that the amount of rain we get and when we get it is out of anyone’s control. But once you understand the importance of water in California, once you get how crucial the winter rains are, there’s a score-keeping aspect to weather-watching here. It becomes second nature to study the rain gauge and the seasonal precipitation table as an index of performance, a reflection on whether a great collective goal is being attained. Lots of rain means we’re doing well (and that we can put the complexities of water supply out of our minds). A dry spell means we’re failing (and the prospect of hell to pay, or at least the strong possibility of stringent conservation measures).

But in reality, there’s no performance going on. The rain is the rain, and the climate is the climate. California’s rainfall is famously variable. Dry spells can be counted on and the current run of dry years is the third we’ve had since I arrived in Berkeley in the 1970s.

My first California winter, 1976-’77, was bone-dry and was in fact the second year of the driest two-year period ever recorded here. A decade later, from roughly 1986 through 1992, we had another run of dry years. And if our winter rains were to stop now, we’d be in the fourth year of drier-than-normal years. In between these periods we’ve had average years and very wet years and years that didn’t quite hit the average. That might not be too different from anywhere else. The reason it’s a bigger deal here than it might be in, say, Wisconsin, is that we have a six-month dry season. We need to store water to get through that. We have 37 million people and millions and millions acres of farmland that need water, whether it’s falling from the sky or not. Thus the need to believe we can wish the rain to keep going during the wet season and the tendency to feel disappointment when the winter turns into a string of dry, sunny days.

*500,000 gallons per second. Here’s the arithmetic: California Department of Water Resources figures show that in the hour between noon and 1 p.m. on Tuesday, January 19, net inflow into the lake was 66,288 cubic feet per second. That’s the highest inflow figure for any single hour that week. One cubic foot equals 7.48 gallons. 66,288*7.48 = 495,834.24 gallons. One acre-foot = 325,851 gallons. And 495,834.24/325,851 = 1.52 acre-feet. Per second. For the entire 24 hours of the 19th, Lake Shasta’s inflow averaged just over 1 acre-foot a second.


View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

No Surprises in Season’s First Snow Survey

California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) today released the first of the season’s surveys of snow conditions, an indicator of how much runoff we can expect to fill reservoirs in the spring.

Snow surveyor Frank Gehrke at the Phillips Station survey site. Photo: Gretchen Weber

Snow surveyor Frank Gehrke at the Phillips Station survey site. Photo: Gretchen Weber

At the Phillips Station survey site, just off U.S. Highway 50, lead surveyor Frank Gehrke found about the conditions he expected; water content of the accumulated snowfall there weighed in at 75% of normal. For the five survey sites in the region defined by DWR as the Central Sierra, and for all Sierra survey sites combined, water content was a slightly healthier 85%. While the average represents a slight improvement over last year at this time, when statewide water content clocked in at 76%, DWR officials emphasized that conditions are still below normal. And with the accumulating effects of three prior relatively dry years, some major reservoirs remain at low levels. A sobering example from today’s DWR release:

“Lake Oroville, the principal storage reservoir for the State Water Project (SWP), is at 29 percent of capacity, and 47 percent of average storage for this time of year.”

With several months remaining in the state’s traditional “wet” season, the January survey is perhaps the least reliable indicator of final runoff. According to Gehrke, the season can “go either way from here.”

In a 110-page California Drought Update just released, DWR wrote that:

“Impacts being experienced in the present three-year drought are relatively more severe than those experienced during prior dry conditions – such as the first three years of the 1987-92 drought.”

As such, the agency says it “will move aggressively forward to plan for a potentially dry 2010…”

In February Governor Schwarzenegger declared a drought state of emergency for nine counties that is technically still in effect, though appeals to the federal government for disaster relief have gone unanswered. The Governor has also called on all urban water consumers to cut back their use by 20%.