Dealing with the ‘D’ Word: The Response to Drought
Just before summer officially began in June, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger publicly proclaimed what many people already knew: California is in a drought. Consecutive years of sub par rainfall coupled with a 2008 snowpack that literally dried up and blew away before it could turn into runoff forced the issuance of the state’s first drought declaration since 1991.
“California is facing the most significant water crisis in its history,” the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) states on its drought website, www.ca.gov/drought. “After experiencing two years of drought and the driest spring in recorded history, water reserves are extremely low. If the drought continues into next year, the results could be catastrophic to our economy.”
As of Nov. 6, thanks in large part to an early November storm, the Northern Sierra had received 8 inches of much-needed precipitation while the Southern Sierra had received 4.8 inches, putting both mountainous areas above average – for now. But the overall forecast for the 2009 water year, which began Oct. 1, is uncertain.
Elissa Lynn, senior meteorologist with DWR said “we are now somewhere in between” the 1976-1977 and 1982-1997 droughts in terms of severity and that the upcoming year, if dry, “could pose greater supply problems than we saw at any time during the 1987-1992 drought” because of the state’s population increase and Delta pumping restrictions.
Lynn said the initial glimpse of the long range meteorology indicate neither extremely wet (El Niño) nor extremely dry (La Niña) conditions, a situation she calls “La Nada.” During a balanced Pacific Ocean pattern, warm, wet storms are still a possibility. This water year, she said, could include a wet fall for the north, or occasionally strong storms somewhere along the West Coast. Whether these patterns lead to a drier- or wetter-than-normal year for Northern or Southern California remains to be seen.
Even if precipitation and runoff result in a “normal” water year, DWR reports that storage in the state’s reservoirs is at a 14-year low. The low reservoir levels, ongoing drought and pumping restrictions in the Delta to protect the Delta smelt are expected to result in voluntary, if not mandatory, conservation measures in many regions.
The low carryover storage and the uncertainty of the pending weather prompted DWR on Oct. 30 to announce an initial allocation of only 15 percent to the State Water Project (SWP) contractors. The allocation is the second lowest in history for the SWP. Last year the initial allocation was 25 percent, which was later increased to 35 percent based on early precipitation. But after a promising beginning to the 2008 water year, the storm window slammed shut, leaving March to May the driest three-month stretch in California history. Statewide precipitation from February through July was 45 percent of average – the fourth driest of 114 years on record.
Under ordinary circumstances, the Sierra snowpack, which serves as the state’s water bank, slowly melts and flows downstream to fill storage reservoirs. That runoff was short-circuited in 2008, leaving places such as Lake Oroville and Folsom Lake to dwindle to record-low levels. As of Oct. 1, Lake Oroville reached its lowest carryover storage since the drought of 1977, falling to about one-third its capacity, according to DWR. By the end of September, Lake Shasta had plummeted 150 feet below its high-water mark. The lake’s record low was in 1977, when it dropped to 230 feet below the high-water mark.
“We are going into this year with 3.9 million total acre-feet of storage,” said John Davis, deputy regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) in Sacramento. “Last year, we had 5.3 million acre-feet, so you can see, down to 3.9, it’s pretty low.”
The drought reflects the rapid swings that can occur in California’s climate. The winter of 2005-2006 was one of the five wettest in state history, building a Northern California snowpack that was as high as 150 percent of normal. Three years later, circumstances have changed dramatically. The abrupt shutdown of rain and snow in March was “very unusual,” Lynn said, adding that the state normally receives at least 10 to 20 percent of its additional precipitation in March and April. This year’s lack of spring rain and snow “really reduced runoff,” she said.
The drought and the Sacramento- San Joaquin Delta crisis have convinced many in the water community to declare the present situation as far from ordinary. “We can only understand this in the context that our environmental goals and economic goals are clashing,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA). “If this was just a drought it would not be worth writing about.”
Even before declaring an official drought, Gov. Schwarzenegger had announced in February an aggressive plan to achieve a 20 percent reduction in per capita water statewide by 2020 as part of the “actions we are considering as part of a comprehensive solution in the Delta.”
Observers say the response to the current dilemma should be anything but business as usual. “It appears to me it is time for California to address its water management needs comprehensively, including policies, governance and fiscally sustainable funding,” said Jonas Minton, water policy advisor to the Planning and Conservation League. “Just occasionally throwing large amounts of taxpayer money at the problem is not giving us water reliability or healthy ecosystems.”
The dearth of water has hit agriculture hard, causing at least $260 million in losses from unplanted fields and fields abandoned for lack of water, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Westlands Water District officials estimate that at least 200,000 acres of land have been fallowed due to the lack of water. (Westlands encompasses more than 600,000 acres of farmland.) “The real impact of the drought was the unprecedented situation that for the first time we had to ration during peak irrigation season and a number of growers had to abandon growing crops,” said Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham.
Then there is the question of climate change. Droughts may be a way of life in the West, but scientific evidence suggests an overall trend toward warmer temperatures and less snow. “In the arid and semi-arid West, global warming already is having serious consequences for the region’s scarce water supplies, particularly the snow that makes up most of the region’s precipitation and, when melted, provides 70 percent of its water,” states a March 2008 report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, Hotter and Drier: The West’s Changed Climate.
The dry conditions have launched a wave of response efforts throughout the state, with some areas adopting mandatory conservation measures. The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) was one of the first water agencies to take action; imposing mandatory rationing in May. It called upon single-family residents to reduce use 19 percent with lesser restrictions on commercial and industrial users, enforcing the cutbacks with drought water rates and a surcharge for excessive use. “This is a serious challenge for all of us,” said General Manager Dennis Diemer, “but the district is prepared to meet it.”
The city of Los Angeles in August doubled fines for repeated violations of its “drought buster” rules, which ban outdoor irrigation between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. “We are stating unequivocally to all residents that anyone wasting our most precious resource will pay the price,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a press release.
Because Southern California, the Bay Area and coastal California rely on water from the north for a portion of their overall supply, water agencies for years have invested in a variety of measures designed to boost flexibility while widening the diversity of the supply portfolio. The result is a built-in buffer designed to get them through extremely water-short periods.
Urban areas large and small are doing what they can to conserve water, diversify their supplies and continue to inform their customers of the severity of the crisis. Chris Brown, executive director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council (CUWCC), said “it’s clear that from the Bay Area to San Diego, we have seen the ability of people to step up to the plate,” and intensify their water conservation efforts. Even with that, however, there is “no doubt” that tougher water conservation measures are needed, including mandatory rationing in some areas.
The drawdown of reserve supplies underscores the overall shortage of water and potential severe impacts of an extended drought. “It’s been a very challenging year,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), which wholesales water to more than two dozen member agencies.
“We are going into 2009 with as low reserves as I have ever seen.” This issue of Western Water examines California’s drought – its impact on water users in the urban and agricultural sector and the steps being taken to prepare for another dry year should it arrive.
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Aquafornia – the California Water News Blog
We are very excited to announce our partnership with Aquafornia.com – a onestop site for news about California water issues offering articles from newspapers, trade journals, current magazines, press releases and more. The site is updated by 8 am daily including on weekends!
Supporters of the Water Education Foundation know our work through the pages of this magazine, our public television specials, tours, briefings, workshops and school programs. We are proud of those programs because they are thorough and provide good background on issues. For some time, however, we have been looking for a method to deliver immediate water information to our supporters and the public.
This summer I found Aquafornia and began a dialog with the site owner about our mutual goals covering water issues. The Aqua Blog Maven and I found that we had much in common. Both Aquafornia and the Foundation strive for balanced, factual and comprehensive news and information about vital water issues. So this summer we began work to combine forces to extend both our reach. Together Aquafornia and the Water Education Foundation offer a combination of great comprehensive water news coverage from around the state along with the in-depth and impartial analysis available from the Foundation. Aquafornia also has lots of free background information on California water. And coming soon we will launch our Discussion Forum. We hope you will join the dialog and we look forward to hearing your thoughts.
A news blog is just as good as the news articles posted and the ongoing dialog of the site participants. For some time, we’ve been concerned that the state’s major newspapers are cutting back on their hard news coverage – and that includes coverage of water issues. So partnering with Aquafornia is our way of showcasing good reporting and promoting interest in California water issues. Someday we would like to expand this site to Colorado River issues. But that is for another day!
Bookmark http://aquafornia.com and we hope you will return to Aquafornia often to get the latest daily water news.
In the News
Task Force Unveils Plan for a Sustainable Delta
The Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force adopted its final Strategic Plan in October with a comprehensive set of recommendations designed to ensure longterm sustainable management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It aims to balance the need for a reliable water supply for California, and protection for the Delta’s environmental resources.
“If we don’t fix the Delta, we are headed for a water crisis,” said Task Force Chair Phil Isenberg. “The Delta as we know it today is not sustainable. Our plan is designed to meet the needs of California’s growing population, from north to south, east to west. But, in order for it to work, we have to think statewide, not regionally.”
The Delta Vision Task Force plan now goes to a cabinet-level committee chaired by state Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman. The committee will soon provide Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger with its recommendations with the expectation that enabling legislation will be adopted in 2009.
Task Force members urged stakeholders and legislators to consider the package as a single plan, not a collection of recommendations. “An integrated solution is vital,” said Task Force Member Rick Frank. “The Delta cannot be ‘fixed’ by any single action, and any attempt to ‘cherry pick’ ideas will upset the carefully crafted balance of the plan and could doom the enterprise to failure. That’s a failure that California simply can no longer afford.”
The Delta is the Pacific Coast’s largest estuary and a critical habitat for wildlife, as well as the state’s major source of water. Yet, it faces a crisis with deteriorating levees, threats from global warming and earthquakes and courtordered restrictions on pumping.
Schwarzenegger created Delta Vision two years ago, and in forming the Strategic Plan, the Task Force sought advice from a variety of water, environmental, business, and agriculture experts, and hosted community meetings across the state.
While the plan has been met with generally positive responses, the complexity and contentiousness of Delta issues are reflected by comments of diverse stakeholders who participated in the process.
The California Farm Bureau Federation is encouraged that the final plan noted California must expand options for storing and moving water, and that the state government should decide on the size and location of new storage and conveyance facilities by the end of 2010.
One concern is the plan’s over-emphasis of the water-law concept of the public trust doctrine, which can be applied to the use of water for fish and the environment. “The public trust doctrine is of limited reach, and regulatory agencies and courts should not look to it as a tool to accomplish a significant re-allocation of water rights,” said Chris Scheuring, managing counsel of the Farm Bureau’s Federation Natural Resources and Environmental Division and member of a stakeholder coordination group that advised the Task Force.
Another controversial component of the plan is proposals of how to move water through the Delta to Central Valley, Bay Area and Southern California water customers.
Gary Mulcahy, who is Governmental Liaison of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, criticized the inclusion of “dual conveyance” in the plan, which the Tribe opposes. “Whether you call the canal a peripheral canal or dual conveyance, any plan that removes water from the system before getting to the Delta is stupid and ridiculous because it will greatly impact the Delta ecosystem and food chain,” he said.
To learn more about the seven recommendations in the Delta Vision’s Strategic plan visit http://deltavision.ca.gov