Severe water shortages draw renewed focus

Issue Date: August 19, 2009
Kate Campbell

With reservoirs at alarmingly low levels, a key official said the federal government will make it a top priority to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and ensure reliable water supplies in California. Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes told people who packed a Sacramento water forum last week that the Obama administration considers the delta ecosystem to be of national significance.

"It's the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas, north and south," Hayes said. "It provides important ecological benefits and more than 20 million Californians rely on the delta for part of their water supply."

He likened the delta's importance to that of the Everglades, the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay.

Hayes said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will hold a public forum in Washington, D.C., next month to discuss delta restoration plans and improve supply reliability.

He said solutions must involve both ecosystem restoration and structural improvements to the state's water system.

"This ecosystem is one of the jewels of the West Coast," Hayes said. "Some new engineering may be what saves California."

Water storage behind Oroville Dam stands at less than 60 percent of average for this time of year.

Presentations during the forum included a summary of the findings of the Governor's Blue Ribbon Task Force on the delta and highlighted ongoing efforts to shape the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, in which the California Farm Bureau Federation has been heavily involved.

Chris Scheuring, CFBF managing counsel for the Natural Resources and Environmental Division, who attended last week's forum, said the event may help build momentum for solutions to the state's ongoing water crisis.

"Farm Bureau continues to work toward water supply solutions. Regulatory relief remains a concern, but the real solution is probably a physically improved infrastructure, including more surface water storage, if we are to get California out of crisis mode," Scheuring said.

"That also means conveyance improvements that restore delivery to points south of the delta, while taking care to protect our delta farmers and stabilize the delta ecosystem along the way," he said. "Like many other organizations and government agencies, Farm Bureau is devoting a great deal of its resources toward that end."

State officials also said a series of public information workshops on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan will update the public on progress toward action steps. The workshops are slated for later this month in Brentwood, Stockton and Walnut Grove.

In addition, the state Department of Water Resources has been holding a series of "get ready" workshops that stress drought emergency planning and stepped-up water conservation aimed at water agencies.

Ron Milligan, operations manager of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Central Valley Project, said that as the 2009 water year ends there is "serious concern about water supply levels" and the limited resources being carried into the 2010 water year.

Because of multiple dry years and declining reservoir levels, he said the CVP has carryover this year of about 1 million acre-feet less than the historic average for this time of year.

"The past year has been challenging," Milligan said, because new regulations based on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion limit water transfers from the delta to protect delta smelt.

"Clearly, some areas of the state have had record low water allocations, but in other areas contractors were getting their full allocations," he said. "But right now, our most significant reservoirs only have about 22 percent of normal water storage for this time of year."

The DWR Drought Operations Center reported statewide reservoir storage as of Friday stood at about 75 percent of the historic average for the date, but with individual key reservoirs much lower.

Milligan said the Bureau of Reclamation is doing everything it can to remove institutional and regulatory barriers to help move water from districts that may have supplies to those that are short. The drought water bank and private water users north of the delta have been able to make about 600,000 acre-feet available for transfer in 2009 to districts in need.

Wendy Martin, DWR statewide drought water coordinator, outlined preparation efforts for the 2010 water year.

"The reality is we just don't know what next year will bring, but whatever is done to prepare must be done now," Martin said. "I hope it rains like crazy, but I'm afraid it might continue dry."

She said water conservation continues to be a "critical part of the equation" for drought response. Programs to improve conservation by districts, industries and local communities are being rolled out now. A statewide public awareness campaign is being launched on radio and television. The federal government has just made $140 million available for the state's drought response.

"We have tremendous opportunity to save water, by individual water delivery systems, businesses, agriculture," Martin said.

Officials stressed at last week's forum that the state's water supply is static and, given continued population growth and the unknown impacts of climate change, future water shortages are likely if something isn't done.

In a separate action last week, more than 50 mayors from the San Joaquin Valley called on President Obama to visit the area himself, saying three years of drought coupled with court-ordered protections for threatened fish species have sapped critical irrigation supplies.

With idled land have come thousands of lost jobs on farms and in related businesses. Unemployment rates have reached 40 percent in some western San Joaquin Valley communities, and local officials issued the invitation to the president as part of continuing efforts to call attention to the economic impact of water policy.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

More Information

Storage in Key Reservoirs (PDF, 2.4 MB)
Storage in San Luis Reservoir has been hurt by restrictions on water pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Other key reservoirs also hold less water than average for mid-August.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.