Water officials outline outlook for 2016, beyond


Issue Date: May 4, 2016
By Cecilia Parsons

What if 2017 is a dry year?

"There are no predictions yet, but we have to be prepared," said Jeanine Jones, resources manager for the state Department of Water Resources.

Jones and other state and federal water officials outlined the challenges faced in meeting water demands and the limiting factors to delivery, during a Water Education Foundation seminar held in Fresno. The event addressed concerns about the possibility of a return to more severe drought conditions after an "average-ish" year, current surface and groundwater conditions, and related topics.

Matching water supply with demand in California is a challenge defied by weather, regulations, biological opinions and logistical challenges, Jones said. Hopes were high for a wetter year, but as chances for additional precipitation diminish this spring, there is concern a dry pattern may return.

Forecasters predicted a "Godzilla" of an El Niño for winter and spring, Jones said, but California ended up with more of a "little lizard." The state actually received the opposite of a typical El Niño pattern, she said, with wetter conditions in the Pacific Northwest and a drier Southern California. Snowpack and rainfall totals so far easily surpass the record-low 5 percent of average snowpack received in 2015, but may not be enough to meet demands if 2017 is dry.

Long-term rainfall forecasts have not been reliable, Jones said, but temperature predictions have been more accurate. Those call for warmer temperatures, which can mean a drier winter. Presently, there is a 70 percent chance of a La Niña year—with potential for a much drier forecast in the coming year.

"We can't say for sure, but it is something we need to prepare for," Jones said.

David Rizzardo, chief of DWR snow surveys and water supply forecasting, spoke about factors that limit the state's ability to be accurate about water supply from snowmelt.

The current forecasting and data network forms the backbone of the state's early warning system for flooding and drought, Rizzardo said. Climate change may affect some of the factors used in forecasting, he said, resulting in forecast error, and the inability to collect sufficient data for advanced weather modeling due to wilderness restrictions represents another challenge.

Constraints on the operations of state and federal water storage and delivery projects affect the amount of surface water available for agricultural and urban use, said Paul Marshall, head of the DWR Bay Delta Office. Protecting the integrity of Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta levees is a priority, he added.

The most complex part of the state's water delivery system, the delta, has issues with land subsidence, erosion, tides and rodents, which undermine the integrity of the levees that protect 700,000 acres of delta farmland, cities and homes.

This mixing zone of fresh and saltwater also faces risk from seismic activity. Maintaining the levees, salinity standards and protecting the delta environment must be considered in the management of water flow, he said.

Releases from dams have been used to control salinity levels, Marshall said, but with significantly less stored water last season that was a challenge.

DWR has been using emergency salinity barriers—basically, piles of rocks—to protect against intrusion and allow for water exports. The two barriers erected did help control salinity levels and allow water exports, he said.

Meeting environmental challenges with fish species is the biggest challenge faced by water agencies, Marshall said.

Unpredictable hydrology and variations in runoff also affect State Water Project deliveries, said John Leahigh, chief of the DWR Water Operations Office. Storms this winter did help with surface storage and pumps should run at full capacity through the summer, he noted.

"Half of the snowpack is left, so we will be close to filling it all in mid-May," was Leahigh's optimistic view.

Salinity requirements and biological opinions for smelt and salmon constrain water delivery south of the delta. The sensitive period for the two fish species lasts through June and will impact exports until then, Leahigh said.

San Luis Reservoir, the joint storage facility for state and federal water, will begin draw-down before it is barely half full, he said. New science for fish protection cuts off more supply in winter and spring—the reason San Luis is not full, he said.

The federal portion of the water system faces equal challenges in meeting demand. Michael Jackson of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation focused on the Friant Division of the federal Central Valley Project, which is experiencing full reservoirs upstream on the San Joaquin River. Those filled reservoirs represent a huge difference between this year and 2015, Jackson said, and may be held in case of a dry year in 2017.

The current allocation of Class 1 water for the Friant Division stands at 50 percent, up recently from 30 percent, Jackson said.

Asked what needs to change for the San Joaquin Valley to receive more surface water, Jackson said a change in the weather would be the easiest answer. Different priorities, improved science and conservation filled out his list.

Changes on the horizon in groundwater regulation sparked the majority of audience questions as Dane Mathis, chief of DWR groundwater and regional planning, explained the process and goals of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act—legislation aimed at balancing the amount of groundwater pumped with the amount replenished.

In California, 127 underground basins have been identified as high or medium priority for management, Mathis said. The SGMA directs local agencies to impose fees or take other actions to develop and enforce a groundwater sustainability plan.

There may be one or more agencies within each basin or sub-basin, but they must coordinate their actions. It is also up to those agencies to define the term "sustainability" as it applies to their groundwater management.

DWR can direct a groundwater management agency to impose tighter restrictions on groundwater use if its management plan is deemed ineffective.

Agencies' authority also extends to enforcement, which could mean requiring meters on wells, or halting well operations. The local agencies are charged with developing groundwater use plans that will meet the act's goals on sustainable use. The agencies cannot simply rely on imported water to correct an imbalance, he added.

"The level of involvement of DWR is up to the local agencies," Mathis said.

(Cecilia Parsons is a reporter in Ducor. She may be contacted at cecilia parsons8@gmail.com.)

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