By Greg Gartrell.

Various water interests lately have been blaming operators of California’s state and federal water projects for worsening this year’s drought. The claims appearing in news stories run along these lines:

  • They exported far more water than they said they would.
  • They drained Northern California reservoirs to fill Southern California reservoirs.
  • They should have held water in storage last year so they would have enough this year to a) meet water quality requirements, b) protect the environment, c) meet senior water rights, d) any combination of the above.

Comments such as these are fueling public mistrust of water project operators – the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) – and that mistrust is thwarting the collaboration we need to get through the epic drought today.

As a longtime water manager recently retired, I had the interest, the knowledge and the time to investigate these claims. Data on project storage levels, water allocations and exports are publicly available on Reclamation’s Website and DWR’s online California Data Exchange Center. I crosschecked the 2013 numbers with experts who independently track this data.

1. Did project operators export more water than they said they would?

No. A check of the numbers at the export pumps shows the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project actually exported less water than had been allocated.

Project water allocations were about 3.2 million acre-feet [1] and a combined 2.9 million acre-feet [2] were exported at the pumps in the 2013 contract year. Exports and allocations are closely matched if you include as “exports” water that was delivered from San Luis Reservoir, some of which was carryover from 2012. [3]

Folsom Reservoir, January 2014. Source: California Department of Water Resources

I had seen a claim in the press that the projects pumped hundreds of thousands more acre-feet of water than had been allocated to contractors. Further investigation led to the reason: flawed apples-to-oranges type comparisons.

In the mistaken calculations, contract-year allocations were compared with water-year exports, yet the water year (Oct. 1 – Sept. 30) does not align with either the state or the federal contract year. In the latter case, the water year differs by five months! In essence, a portion of 2012 contract year pumping was being compared to 2013 allocations.

2. Did project operators “drain the reservoirs” to export water?

They withdrew from storage for a variety of purposes, not just exports. Of the total 4.7 million acre-feet [4] drawn from Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs in 2013, about 2 MAF [5] was exported and 2.7 MAF went to other in-basin uses, including outflows needed to prevent sea water intrusion in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (outflow was 6.5 MAF[6] in 2013). Note that some of the exported water would have been released from storage in any event for required instream flows and could not be held in storage.

3. What if they had not exported any water from storage last year?

Consider the severity of this year’s drought: The required minimum Delta outflow this year (without relaxation of salinity standards) would be more than 3 MAF. Many upstream water users who normally use millions of acre-feet are already being warned to expect shortages, even with relaxed water-quality standards in the Delta and no exports. The Sierra snowpack is miserably low. (Nice weather we’ve had, huh?) Water quality is expected to reach levels that could severely disrupt normal water use in the Delta; harm to aquatic life is certain.

Shasta Reservoir and dam, Winter 2013-2014. Source: California Department of Water Resources

An extra million acre-feet or even two in storage would not solve any of these problems, although holding it back would have resulted in massive shortages last year – at huge economic costs – for project water contractors, including Friant water users, and would have been disastrous for wildlife refuges.

For those who say project operators should have cut exports in 2013 and kept what they could in storage for this year: what would you do with that extra water this year? Hold it in storage for next year (like you are saying they should have done last year)? Whatever your personal view, you can see that it simply pushes shortages from one year to the next; it does not solve the shortage problem.

Managing today

So here is a real problem to work on today:

There is about 4 million acre-feet in storage, and no more than about 3 million acre-feet can be released without resorting to pumps or emergency outlet valves that might not close. Export allocations are zero. Delta water quality is going to get very bad for fish and possibly unusable for some communities. Meanwhile, what’s left of the snowpack is rapidly diminishing.

What would you do with the 3 million acre-feet of usable storage? Hold some or all in storage in case next year is dry — creating huge shortages, fishery and water quality problems this year? Release it for water quality, the environment or senior water-right holders this year (where it will not satisfy all demands) — risking a real disaster next year if it is dry? (Those counting on El Niño to save us next year should note that a large fraction of El Niño years are dry.) I am not sure there is a good answer to this question, but I am certain there are a lot of bad answers.

Lower American River, 1977 drought

You can see the difficult decisions project operators must make in dry years. As one of them once told me, it’s like “choosing among your children” who gets water and who does not.

You may still think California’s water system is mismanaged or over-allocated, or believe settlement contracts were too generous, exports are too high, fish are getting way too much water, or too much water is going to control Delta salinity.

Whatever your view, we are in a severe drought and arguing about why or how we got here does not solve any of our current problems. Hold those arguments for a wet year, please, and spend your time working on the problem.

[divider] [/divider]

Originally posted at CA Water Blog.

Greg Gartrell retired last year after 25 years as a water manager at the Contra Costa Water District. He optimistically thinks we can solve water problems through collaboration.

[divider] [/divider]


[1] The 2013 State Water Project (SWP) allocation was 35 percent or 1.4 million acre-feet (MAF). Central Valley Project (CVP) operators allocated 20 percent (390,000 acre-feet) to agricultural contractors south of the Delta; 50 percent (90,000 acre-feet) to municipal and industrial contractors south of the Delta; and a combined 1.3 MAF to wildlife refuges (which have a priority for water) and San Joaquin Exchange Contractors (who have senior water rights and settlement contracts).

[2] Export pumping in the 2013 contract year totaled 1.3 MAF for the CVP and 1.8 MAF for the SWP, but the latter figure includes about 200,000 acre-feet of “transfer water” unrelated to the allocations. So the total CVP-SWP export was 2.9 MAF — 300,000 acre-feet less than the 3.2 MAF allocated.

[3]  Deliveries and allocations each amount to about 3.6 MAF by  including: (1) the net drawdown of San Luis Reservoir (about 500,000 acre-feet), (2) the carryover reservoir water unrelated to 2013 allocations and losses, (3) the 200,000 acre-feet of transfer water and (4) the 2.9 MAF of allocated water.

[4] Derived by subtracting the reservoirs’ combined peak storage in 2013 – about 7.8 MAF – from the year’s minimum storage, which was 3.1 MAF.

[5] The CVP imported about 800,000 acre-feet from the Trinity River to offset the project’s 1.3 MAF of export pumping. In addition, at least 100,000 acre-feet in unstored flows were exported.  That leaves about 2 MAF from in-basin storage.

[6] Delta outflow totaled 6.5 MAF in 2013, according to the California Data Exchange Center.

[divider] [/divider]