Water outlook, June 2021
Heading south from the tributary rivers feeding the cities and irrigation districts in the north San Joaquin Valley the situation gets progressively worse, culminating in the catastrophe on the Colorado River, gathering force for the past 25 years. -- blj
Drought is back. How cities and irrigation districts in Stanislaus are limiting water
BY JOHN HOLLAND
Drought rules vary for cities and farmers in Stanislaus | Modesto Bee (modbee.com)
The drought won’t force sudden cuts in water use by city residents in Stanislaus County, because they are in conservation mode all the time.
You know the drill: Water only on the assigned days of the week, and never in the afternoon. Irrigate the lawn, not the sidewalk. And wash the car with a hose valve that you can turn on and off readily.
Over the years, those rules have helped sustain groundwater, the main source for residential users in the county. And they have stretched the Tuolumne River water that makes up much of the city of Modesto’s supply.
The drought has varying effects for farmers, who use the vast majority of the county’s water. Most are getting at least 75% of their accustomed amount from local rivers this year, and many can use wells to supplement this. But parts of the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley are getting nothing this year from the federal system.
Rain and snow were just 47% of average this year in the central Sierra Nevada watersheds that feed the north valley, the California Department of Water Resources reported Wednesday. Last year was just 61%.CLAIM OFFER
But the past half-decade also has had wet years to help recharge aquifers and reservoirs. The wettest by far was the 181% of average in 2017. The storms were 74% of average in 2018 and 125% of average in 2019.
The upshot is that reservoirs in the region have less water than the historical average for this time of year. But most water agencies are putting only modest limits on users, with the hope that 2022 will be wetter. If it’s dry, they could be forced into cuts like those in the latter part of the 2012-2016 drought.
Don Pedro Reservoir on the Tuolumne holds 84% of its historical average for this time of year, DWR said. It is owned by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts.
New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River was at 87% of average. About a quarter of its inflow is claimed by the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts. The rest goes to the federal Central Valley Project and to enhancing flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
METERS HAVE SAVED WATER
Residential use has declined thanks in part to water meters replacing the flat rates used for decades. In Turlock and Ceres, rates went up to pay for a river treatment plant scheduled for completion in 2023.
Details on water use limits for cities and other local agencies around the county:
Modesto: Addresses ending in even numbers can water on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Odd addresses are Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Watering is not allowed from noon to 7 p.m.
Salida: Supplied by Modesto, with the same rules.
Empire: Supplied by Modesto, same rules.
Ceres: Even-number addresses water on Tuesday and Saturday, odd numbers Sunday and Wednesday. No watering from noon to 7 p.m.
Keyes: Even addresses water on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, odd on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. No watering from 1 to 7 p.m.
Turlock: Even addresses water on Tuesday and Saturday, odd on Wednesday and Sunday. No watering between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Hughson: Even addresses water on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, odd on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. No watering from noon to 7 p.m.
Denair: Residents can water any day of the week but never between 1 and 7 p.m.
Waterford: Even addresses water on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, odd on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. No watering between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Oakdale: Odd addresses water on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Even addresses can do it Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. No watering from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Riverbank: Even addresses water on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, odd on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. No watering between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Patterson: Even addresses water on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, odd on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. No watering between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Newman: Residents can water any day of the week, but must stop between 1 and 6 p.m.
IRRIGATION DISTRICTS TAKE VARYING HITS
MID capped its growers at 36 vertical inches of river water per acre over the irrigation season. TID is at 34 inches. Both are about 80% of the usual deliveries. They got down around 40% in 2015, after multiple dry years drew Don Pedro low.
OID and SSJID do not have caps on their growers, but they are urged to conserve in case 2022 is dry. They had planned to sell surplus water to the West Side, but it was canceled due to worsening conditions in the watershed.
Zero federal water will flow this year to many West Side irrigation districts from the Delta down to Kern County. They include the Del Puerto Water District, which now meets part of its demand with recycled wastewater from Modesto, Ceres and Turlock.
Four districts between Crows Landing and Mendota are getting 75% of their federal supply because of water rights predating the federal system. They are the Central California Irrigation District, the San Luis Canal Co., the Firebaugh Canal Water District and the Columbia Canal Co.
Merced Irrigation District
At its March 16, 2021 meeting, the Board of Directors for the Merced Irrigation District made available its surface water allocation for in-District deliveries this year. Class I growers will receive a surface water allocation of 2.5 acre-feet per acre, and Class II growers will receive a surface water allocation of 1.25 acre-feet per acre. Surface water is priced at $50.00 per acre foot. The Board also authorized the Supplemental Water Supply Pool Program this year, making available an additional 30,000 acre-feet, priced at $110 per acre-foot. Of course, this supplemental supply is made available on a voluntary, subscription basis.
The San Joaquin Sun
Agriculture · Highlight
Feds suspend, Calif. cuts water allocation for Valley farmers
Feds suspend, Calif. cuts water allocation for Valley farmers (sjvsun.com)
The Bureau announced that delivery of its initial allocation to westside farmers, made in late February, would be suspended until further notice.
The reason? Poor rainfall and struggling flow of water from snowpack in the Sierras.
Federal officials announced that Northern California rainfall for 2021 is about 51 percent of its historic average, while snowpack is at 63 percent of average.
The announcement does not affect municipal and industrial users south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, nor allocations made to Friant Division water users.
The single largest class of water users affected by Reclamation’s Tuesday announcement is Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest agricultural water district.
In a statement, the water agency’s general manager found a silver lining in Tuesday’s announcement.
“Given extraordinary dry conditions this water year, Reclamation’s announcement represents a balanced, prudent approach that ensures it can fulfill both its regulatory and contractual obligations for water from the Central Valley Project,” Westlands general manager Tom Birmingham said.
“We recognize the challenge presented by the ongoing drought conditions, and we remain committed to working with partners at the federal, state, and local levels to find sensible approaches that reduce harm to people in rural areas and California’s important ecosystems by maximizing the beneficial use every drop of water available.”
There was reason to be more jovial amid the set of bad news: things were arguably more grim for State Water Project users.
Ahead of Reclamation’s announcement, California’s Department of Water Resources announced it was cutting its allocation of water to contractors – initially announced in December – from 10 percent to five.
“We are now facing the reality that it will be a second dry year for California and that is having a significant impact on our water supply,” said Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth.
“The Department of Water Resources is working with our federal and state partners to plan for the impacts of limited water supplies this summer for agriculture as well as urban and rural water users. We encourage everyone to look for ways to use water efficiently in their everyday lives.”
William Bourdeau, chairman of the California Water Alliance, couldn’t hide his displeasure.
“It’s heartbreaking to think that the Governor and regulators in charge of our water have chosen to reduce the flow of water for our domestic food supply in the middle of a pandemic, but not for fish,” Bourdeau told The Sun.
“Talk about a nice thank you note for farmers on National Ag Day.”
Months of loggerheads between state and Federal water officials over the management and flow of water resources from the Delta south into the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California are likely to be exacerbated, in some way, amid a drought.
The two sides have been at odds over the environmental rules governing the Delta – known as biological opinions – since the Trump administration concluded its update in 2019 enabling a boost in water supplies for regions south of the Delta.
LOIS HENRY: No cut to Friant water users – so far
• By LOIS HENRY SJV Water
Though questions remain about whether San Joaquin Valley towns and farms that rely on water from Millerton Lake could be cut to zero, as they were in the last drought, water managers are moving ahead as if that won’t happen.
In 2014 and 2015, the federal Bureau of Reclamation wasn’t able to get enough water out of Shasta Lake through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to satisfy obligations it has to agricultural water districts known as the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors. Instead, the Bureau pulled water from Millerton Lake for the Exchange Contractors and cut other users from Fresno all the way to Arvin to zero in those years.
History appeared on the verge of repeating in the 2021 drought when the State Water Resources Control Board alerted the Bureau that it needed to keep more water in Shasta for winter-run Chinook salmon. The fish need cool temperatures to survive the summer and be able to spawn. The Water Board demanded the Bureau cut back its delta exports in order to keep 1.25 million acre feet in Shasta through summer.
That raised the specter that Exchange Contractors could call on Millerton water again.
The Bureau responded to the state Water Board on May 27 that its temperature management plan would shoot for 1.25 million acre feet in Shasta but that it couldn’t guarantee a specific temperature level. It’s May 27 letter also notes that the Bureau doesn’t need state Water Board approval for its plan and that if the Board objects it must provide an alternative water management scenario, otherwise, it was moving forward with its plan.
Then earlier this week, the state Water Board approved a temporary relaxation of required river outflows for water moving through the delta. The river flows are needed to push back salt coming in from the San Francisco Bay. A lower outflow requirement means the Bureau can keep more water in storage for other uses.
That, combined with the Bureau’s May 27 letter about its temperature plan, buoyed assumptions by the Friant Water Authority that its contractors would receive their promised 20 percent water allocations out of Millerton, according to an emailed statement from Authority General Manager Jason Phillips.
Last week’s actions by the state Water Board appeared they would “prevent the potentially disastrous action of releasing water from Friant Dam this summer to meet the Exchange Contract requirements,” Phillips wrote.
Friant could be whistling past the graveyard too soon as the state Water Board has until June 14 to object to the Bureau’s temperature plan.
The Exchange Contractors are still waiting to see what the state Water Board will do, according to Chris White, Executive Director of the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority.
“It’s uncanny this is all still coming together in June. It’s really late,” he said. “It’s such a complicated system in northern California and when you lock up your largest asset (Shasta Lake), it makes operations very difficult.”
Part of the problem is forecasting for reservoir inflows from snow runoff changed dramatically from March to May and again in June, dropping significantly.
White said landowners in Exchange Contractor districts are fallowing land and pumping more groundwater to reduce demand for delta water in order to avoid a repeat of 2014 and 2015. In those years, he said, Exchange Contractors ended up selling some water to Friant Contractors to help out, about 13,500 acre feet at a cost of $250 an acre foot.
The Exchange Contractors are a group of four agricultural water districts that cover lands from Mendota north to Newman along the west side of the valley. Back in the 1930s, they agreed to let the Bureau send their San Joaquin River Water to farms and towns along the valley’s eastern edge in “exchange” for water from the delta. In normal years, they receive more than 800,000 acre feet from the Bureau. In dry years, they get 650,000 acre feet, according to White.
Lois Henry is the CEO and editor of SJV Water, a nonprofit, independent online news publication dedicated to covering water issues in the San Joaquin Valley. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The website is sjvwater.org.
Westlands Water District Prohibits Landscape Watering in Response to Bureau of Reclamation’s Allocation Reduction for Agricultural, Municipal and Industrial Water Contractors
Posted on May 27, 2021 by Valley Voice Contributor
Press Release from Westland Water District
Fresno, California (May 26, 2021) – In response to today’s announcement by the Bureau of Reclamation regarding the reduction of allocation to municipal and industrial water contractors from 55% to 25% of historic use, and the reduction of allocation to agricultural repayment and water service contractors from 5% to 0%, Westlands Water District notified all water users that the use of District municipal and industrial water supplies for outdoor landscape watering will be prohibited until further notice. The notice to all District water users reflects the need to conserve available water for drinking, cooking, and hygiene.
Colorado River outlook darkens dramatically in new study
Seven states are about to start renegotiating guidelines under which the Colorado River has been managed since 2007. Changes to the guidelines won’t take effect until 2026.
Federal forecasters predict Lake Mead will drop low enough to require cutbacks in water deliveries to Central Arizona farmers in 2022.
Colorado River outlook darkens dramatically in new study | Local news | tucson.com
In the gloomiest long-term forecast yet for the drought-stricken Colorado River, a new study warns that lower river basin states including Arizona may have to slash their take from the river up to 40% by the 2050s to keep reservoirs from falling too low.
Such a cut would amount to about twice as much as the three Lower Basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — agreed to absorb under the drought contingency plan they approved in early 2019.
Overall, the study warned that managing the river sustainably will require substantially larger cuts in use by Lower Basin states than currently envisioned, along with curbs on future diversions by Upper Basin states.
A massive rockslide in Horseshoe Bend not far from the Grand Canyon was captured on video by a hiker Friday.
While climate change’s impacts on the river have been repeatedly studied, this is the first study that seeks to pinpoint how warming temperatures would translate into reductions in water that river basin states could take over the long term.
Carrying out the study’s recommendations, under the most likely conditions of climate change, almost certainly would mean more supply curbs for the $4 billion Central Arizona Project.
The CAP is already slated to lose nearly half its total allocation under the worst case, shorter-term scenarios envisioned under the 2019 drought plan.
Tucson and Phoenix-area cities and tribes, along with Central Arizona farmers, all depend on the CAP for water for drinking or irrigation.
The study, written by 13 researchers, was posted online about a week ago, at a time the drying river is on the edge of its first major shortage.
Federal forecasters predict Lake Mead will drop low enough to require cutbacks in water deliveries to Central Arizona farmers in 2022 due to river flow declines.
But exactly how much will be cut in long-term, future water deliveries is far from settled. The seven states are about to start renegotiating guidelines under which the river has been managed since 2007. Changes to the guidelines won’t take effect until 2026.
In other forecasts, the study took a shot at longstanding plans by the four Upper Basin states — New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — to increase their take from the river under rights held from the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
The Upper Basin states’ forecasts of river diversions are unrealistic and would make it virtually impossible to maintain stable water supplies over an extended period, the study said.
“New demands in the era of climate change resulting in decreasing flows are the equivalent of self-inflicted wounds,” the study said.
Also, more, major Upper Basin diversions could drain both lakes Mead and Powell, dramatically reducing the amount of water available to serve people for drinking and irrigation and to generate electricity, the study said.
That would also result in the release of very warm water from Powell, compared to colder waters being released today. The Grand Canyon’s ecosystem downstream would be drastically changed, said Jack Schmidt, one of the study’s authors.
The study also warned that the current, downward trend in river flows will likely continue or worsen as temperatures keep rising.
That will lead to additional evapotranspiration — the absorption of atmospheric water supplies by plants — and aridification of the landscape, in which soils get drier and runoff keeps declining, the study said.
“Under this scenario, the basin will soon face a tipping point,” the study said.
“HUGE, HUGE LITIGATION” COULD BE ON THE HORIZON
That could lead to frequent and possibly large violations of the Colorado River Compact in which Upper Basin states can’t meet their legal obligation to deliver the amount of water they’re required to deliver to Lower Basin states, the study said.
Then, Lower Basin states would put out a legal “compact call” demanding more water, arguing that the Upper Basin is violating terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
“One of the lessons out of the paper is that we are in a very tentative, sensitive balance of supplies and demands right now,” said Brad Udall, a Colorado River State University water researcher who worked on the study.
“If demands increase or supplies decrease or some combination of the two happens, you could very likely see a compact call.”
Such a call would likely lead to “huge, huge litigation,” Udall said. “There’s a reasonable chance the Upper Basin would say ‘we don’t agree there is an obligation’ and they keep diverting.”
If such a call occurs, the worst case for the Upper Basin would be that all parties who started taking water from the river after the compact was signed would have to stop diverting, Udall said. That would include all major Upper Basin cities, including Denver.
“HUMANS WILL BE FORCED TO BEND TO WILL OF NATURE”
The study also called for major changes in operations of Lake Mead and other reservoirs, and urged the river basin states to consider altering what’s known as the “Law of the River.”
That term describes a series of federal and state laws, regulations, U.S. Supreme Court decrees, compacts, a binational treaty, administrative agreements and various federal decisions that are used to manage the river and have long been seen as politically untouchable.
One key fix the study suggested would be to treat lakes Powell and Mead as a single reservoir when considering how much water is available in the river. That would entail combining the reservoirs’ water storage into a single figure to determine how much water should be released downstream for drinking and farming.
But the researchers warned that such changes, or another suggestion to drain either lake Powell or Mead to reduce total evaporation, won’t save enough water to fix the river’s problems.
Based on what it called “reasonable and probable” weather conditions due to climate change, “aggressive commitments to water conservation by both the Upper and Lower Basins will become critical, in the next 25 years,” to prop up lakes Mead and Powell at functional levels, it said.
“Dire situations require solutions far from historic norms. An increasingly limited and uncertain water supply should force water managers to confront an uncomfortable reality: the Colorado River system is overallocated and even existing allocations can no longer be guaranteed,” the study said.
“American society is on the path of a collision between nature and the structures and institutions of humankind. In the 20th century on the Colorado River, nature was bent to human will. Because we are now fully consuming its waters, and inflows are expected to decline, in the 21st century humans will be forced to bend to the will of nature,” the study said.
In a tweet last week, the study’s lead author, Oxford University’s Kevin Wheeler, said: “Question: What will it take to sustain the Colorado River? Answers: 1) Extraordinary demand management. 2) Extraordinary new thinking.”
“NEW ABNORMAL” SEEN IN RIVER’S WEATHER CONDITIONS
The study was conducted by researchers operating under Utah State University’s Center for Colorado River Studies. Its mission is to conduct studies that show how the river and its tributaries can be effectively managed, and this is its sixth study.
The new study relied on several known quantities.
First, it employed the same computer modeling system the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has used to make forecasts for the river since the 1970s, said Wheeler. He’s an engineer and project manager who has worked in various roles on Colorado River issues for more than a decade.
Second, it considered the likelihood that the river’s weather conditions are entering a “new abnormal.” That means predictions of future climate conditions and runoff can’t be based on how those forces have behaved in the past.
Under a “new abnormal” scenario, the study said two outcomes could occur. Under one, runoff totals will match very dry conditions of 2000 to 2018, in which the river flows were 18% lower than those of the 20th century. Or, runoff could keep worsening, following the course predicted by Udall in a 2017 study he did with former University of Arizona climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck. They warned warming would lower river flows 20% to 30% by 2050 and 35% to 55% by 2100.
To determine how that scenario could affect the river, the new study used Udall and Overpeck’s prediction that continued warming could cause river flows to drop 6.5% for every 1-degree Celsius temperature increase. That’s the midpoint in a range of possible outcomes they forecast for lower river flows.
If either scenario happens and hydrologic conditions have truly shifted since 2000, “We need to plan as if this is all we’re going to get, this is what the implications are,” Wheeler said.
“Nobody could be absolutely certain. We could get a wet spell for sure,” Wheeler said. “But we believe that’s much less likely and that the recent conditions are much more representative of what’s likely to happen than flows of 100 years ago which were very wet.”
The study didn’t analyze a specific risk of any particular river flow shortfall or other problems, because it’s really hard to make such projections over an extended period.
But speaking specifically about a compact call, in which competing demands for the limited water would become dire, Udall said, “I can only say the risk is a lot higher than anyone should feel comfortable with.”
BUFFER NEEDED FOR ELECTRICITY GENERATION
When the study assumed conditions that have existed since 2000 would continue past the current time, its forecast was downbeat but not alarming.
If such conditions continue and the Upper Basin states take no more from the river than the 4 million acre-feet they’re now taking in an average year, the two reservoirs will hold 13 million acre-feet of water, the new study said. That compares to about 20 million acre-feet today.
If the Lower Basin states agree to the 40% cutback the study says may be needed, however, then the reservoirs would hold about 17 million acre-feet of water.
But if river flows keep decreasing as Overpeck and Udall have predicted, the reservoirs would keep losing about 250,000 acre-feet a year.
“Aggressive commitments to water conservation” would be needed in both basins just to keep 15 million acre-feet in the reservoirs, the study said.
The 15 million offers “a minimum level of water security,” Wheeler said. It would provide a buffer of 6.5 million acre-feet above what’s needed to keep producing power at Glen Canyon Dam and to let Las Vegas keep taking water out of Lake Mead, Wheeler said.
Said Udall: “Maybe the bottom line on this whole paper is that we need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
Current Colorado River outlook
While a new study warns of a bleak long-term future for Colorado River water users, the river basin's short-term outlook is already tenuous.
• Flows into Lake Powell have been about 45% of average since Oct. 1.
• Lake Mead and Lake Powell were both 40% full in January.
• Snowpack in the river's Upper Basin, which supplies Lower Basin states including Arizona, is 75% of the normal median.
• April-July runoff into Lake Powell is forecast at 46% of average.
• Lake Mead, which stores Central Arizona Project water, is forecast to be at almost 1,075 feet in elevation by Dec. 31. That's five feet below the level triggering big cuts in CAP deliveries to Pinal County farmers.
• By the end of 2022, Mead is forecast to be just above the level that would trigger additional CAP cuts affecting tribes and Phoenix-area cities, although not Tucson.
• There's a 13% chance Lake Powell will be too low to generate electricity by 2025, if the hot, dry weather experienced from 1988 to 2018 continues.
• Under similar weather conditions, there's a 20% chance the lake could drop by 2025 below 1,025 feet, which could trigger more severe cuts in CAP deliveries to cities, including to Tucson.
Sources: Arizona Department of Water Resources, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, and the private Lake Powell water database.