News from Restore the Delta: 2/19/2014

“Go not for every grief to the physician, nor for every quarrel to the lawyer, nor for every thirst to the pot.”
– George Herbert

So much has happened in the first six weeks of 2014 that anyone may be forgiven for feeling dazed and confused. To help you sort out one thread of events, we’re providing a chronology of drought-related developments, with some details about what is in the various declarations and bills. We’ll leave it to you to see some of the interesting connections.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan has been pushing forward with tightly-structured open houses around the state. Smiling acolytes display glossy foam boards and shiny brochures full of errors, and if you want to make oral comments, you’re limited to three minutes videotaped in a separate room. This chronology doesn’t include BDCP, but we will point out that there wouldn’t have been enough water to run through Peripheral Tunnels this drought year to be worth the massive disruption to the Bay-Delta and the immense cost to the whole state.


July 1, 2013 – Lake Shasta is at 80% of its historical average, Lake Oroville at 88%, Folsom Lake at 82%, San Luis Reservoir at 33%, Millerton Lake at 98%. In the south Castaic Lake is at 91% of its historical average and Pyramid Lake is at 104%. Except for San Luis, things don’t look too bad.

Summer-Fall 2013 – With reduced snowpack at the beginning of 2013, and anticipating a possible dry year, the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation notify contractors that water deliveries will be reduced. However, they actually export 835,000 acre feet more water than they said the would be able to deliver. The results: Water quality, temperature compliance, and flow standards are violated, with disastrous effects on Delta smelt and on salmon spawning; and reservoir storage is reduced below margins of safety.

Welcome to 2014

California begins the year behind a “Ridiculously resistant ridge” of high-pressure off the Pacific Coast that deflects winter storms that would normally deliver the state’s quota of winter precipitation. (“Normally” is relative, though. California’s “normal” is “dry” over one-third of the time.)

January 1 – Most Northern California reservoirs are at half their capacity or less and below their historical averages: for example, Lake Shasta is at 59% of its historical average, Lake Oroville at 59%, Folsom Lake at 39%, San Luis Reservoir at 44% (but that is UP from the previous July). Millerton Lake, although at 43% of capacity, is at 82% of its historical average. In Southern California, things are fine: Castaic Lake is at 112% of its historical average and Pyramid Lake is at 104%.

January 3 – Snow surveyors find the Sierra snowpack just one-fifth of normal for the date.

January 7 – The Bureau of Reclamation cuts flows in the American River from 1,100 cfs to 800 cfs, then to 500 cfs, to save water for endangered steelhead salmon that are expected to lay eggs in the river later in January. However, already-laid eggs of fall-run Chinook salmon are likely to be exposed and die.

January 7 – The Fall Midwater Trawl Survey finds the Delta smelt suffering its second-worst year since 1967 and striped bass tied for its third worst year.

January 10 – Governor Brown says he’s monitoring the drought but can’t make it rain. He forms a drought task force.

January 12 – For the first time, it looks like water from Millerton Lake that serves cities and growers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley could be sent to the west side, to the Exchange Contractors in the Dos Palos/Firebaugh area who traded their rights to San Joaquin River Water now stored at Millerton for assurances that they would get replacement water from the north through the Central Valley Project.

January 12 – Folsom Lake is so low that a submerged mining town is exposed. The Sierra snowpack is now 17% of normal.

January 12 – Metropolitan Water District’s Jeff Kightlinger tells the Sacramento Bee that MWD member agencies will have plenty of water in 2015, and in 2016 even with a drought.

Mid-January – The California Department of Food and Agriculture predicts that the Central Valley as a whole may be forced to fallow 300,000 to 500,000 acres in the spring due to cutbacks in water allocations. That includes acres in the Sacramento Valley as well as acres in the San Joaquin Valley.

January 13 – Governor Brown visits Fresno and hears from Westlands Water District and the Latino Water Coalition about the dire situation there resulting from a likely 0 percent allocation of water allocations.

January 14 – The City of Sacramento votes to enact severe water rationing.

January 15 – The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reports that California’s already tightly-allocated water resources may be overtaxed by efforts to use fracking to extract oil from the Monterey oil basin that underlies the same arid portions of California that contain drought-prone agriculture.

January 16 – Former deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior David Hayes tells the Sacramento Bee that Mother Nature, not Congress, is responsible for the drought.

January 17 – Governor Brown declares a drought emergency. His drought declaration

• puts in place a statewide water conservation campaign and extends it to state facilities;
• calls for local suppliers to implement local water storage contingency plans;
• calls for DWR and the Water Board to expedite processing of water transfers from willing water rights holders;
• calls for the Water Board to streamline water transfers between the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project;
• expedites funding for water supply enhancement or conservation projects that are ready to go;
• tells the Water Board to inform water right holders that they may have to cease or reduce water diversions;
• directs the Water Board to consider modifying reservoir releases or diversions established to implement a water quality control plan, in order to conserve water upstream later in the year to protect cold water pools for salmon and steelhead, maintain water supply, and improve water quality;
• suspends portions of the Water Code and the Public Resources Code related to water quality control plans and environmental protections that interfere with mitigating the effects of drought;
• provides assistance to communities that may run out of drinking water;
• calls for DWR to provide an update by April 30 identifying groundwater basins with water shortages and detailing gaps in groundwater monitoring, and instructs DWR to be sure that well drillers submit well logs for newly constructed and deepened wells;
• instructs the Department of Food and Agriculture to provide timely updates to farmers on drought conditions and federal assistance programs;
• calls for state fisheries agencies to consider fishing restrictions in certain areas as drought persists;
• tells DWR to refine its seasonal climate forecasting and drought prediction;
• instructs the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to hire additional seasonal firefighters;
• instructs the state’s Drought Task Force to develop a plan to provide food, financial assistance, and unemployment services to communities with a high level of unemployment due to the drought.

January 21 – B. Lynne Ingram, a UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist says that 2014 could potentially be the driest water year in 500 years.

January 22 – U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner comes to Bakersfield to join three San Joaquin Valley Republican congressmen — David Valadao, Kevin McCarthy, and Devin Nunes — to announce an updated version of Nunes’ unsuccessful 2012 H.R. 1837. This new legislation would

• Turn on Delta pumps in 2014 and 2015 to capture future rain events;
• End restoration flows in the San Joaquin River in 2014 and 2015 “in order to stop wasting water”;
• Establish a bipartisan, emergency joint committee from the House and the Senate to devise a long-term legislative solution.

January 22 – Senator Dianne Feinstein responds immediately by saying that suspending the Endangered Species Act is not the answer to California’s water problems.

January 24 – The Bureau of Reclamation releases Water Year 2014 Central Valley Project water conditions (key reservoirs at 58% of average, Sierra watersheds with less than 15% of expected rain and snow) to prepare farmers for bad news in February about water allocations.

January 25 – Congressmen McCarthy, Nunes, Valadao, and Costa react to reports that the Bureau of Reclamation may refused to provide “rescheduled” water (water set aside primarily in San Luis Reservoir) to San Joaquin Valley farmers. Farmers, they say, conserved water with the understanding that they could carry over unused water to future years. Later in the month, the Legislature reacts, also.

January 26 – The San Francisco Bay Area gets measurable rain for the first time in 53 days. The weakened high pressure ridge over the Pacific begins to allow storms through.

January 29 – Congressmen Valadao, Nunes, and McCarthy introduce H.R. 3964, The Sacramento-San Joaquin Emergency Water Delivery Act. In addition to the provisions mentioned above (January 22), the bill removes American shad and striped bass, both non-native species, from the definition of “anadromous fish”; and it increases water storage in Lake McClure by adjusting the Wild and Scenic River boundary on the Merced River. Senator Feinstein, who worked hard to put in place the San Joaquin River Settlement Agreement that this legislation would suspend, calls the bill “disingenuous, irresponsible, and dangerous.”

January 31 – Snow surveyors check freshly-fallen snow and report that the snowpack’s statewide water content is only 12 percent of average for this time of year. That is 7 percent of the average April 1 measurements when the snowpack normally is at its peak before melting into streams and reservoirs.

January 31 – the Bureau of Reclamation announces that it will honor rescheduled water (see January 25 above).

January 31 – the Department of Water Resources announces that State Water Project contractors may get no deliveries in 2014, and agricultural deliveries in the Sacramento Valley may be cut by 50 percent.

January 31 – Natural Resources Secretary John Laird writes a letter on behalf of the Brown Administration officially opposing H.R. 3964.

January 31 – The State Water Resources Control Board approves a petition from the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project for a Temporary Urgency Change for Delta water quality and flow standards in order to conserve water supplies in upstream reservoirs.

January 31 – The Bureau of Reclamation announces that it will begin reducing the San Joaquin River Restoration Program’s Restoration flows on Saturday, February 1, one month earlier than called for in the Stipulation of Settlement, in an effort to trap and move emerging juvenile fall-run Chinook salmon from the upper river to locations downstream that connect to the ocean.

February 2 – The California Weather Blog reports that rain has now fallen in most of California, ending the warmest and driest January in the state’s history. Dry soils have absorbed much of the water. More rain and mountain snow follow, delivered by an “atmospheric river storm” or “Pineapple Express.” However, the state would need similar precipitation through April to end the drought. By February 8, snow surveyors are finding bare ground at 10,300 feet in Kings Canyon National Park.

February 5 – The U.S. House of Representatives passes H.R. 3964, with support and opposition split along party lines (222 Republican Ayes, 189 Democratic Noes, and only 9 votes breaking ranks). The expectation is that the Senate will reject the bill and that President Obama would veto it anyway.

February 7 – In connection with a letter from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the State Water Resources Control Board announces that it will work closely with state hydropower generators that seek flexibility in how much water they release downstream through their dams. This is a reminder that the drought will affect hydropower generation as well as irrigated agriculture, fisheries, municipal and industrial water uses, and residential users.

February 11 – Senators Feinstein and Boxer introduce the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2014. This legislation

• Authorizes keeping the Delta Cross Channel Gates open as long as possible without endangering salmon migration, to allow more Sacramento River water to be delivered for export without taking it from upstream reservoirs;
• Mandates that federal agencies operate the Delta pumps in ways that maximize water supplies while remaining consistent with the biological opinions for fish protections and the Endangered Species Act;
• Adjusts the inflow-to-export ratio for San Joaquin Rivers flows so that water districts willing to sell or trade surplus supplies to districts with less water can move 100% of that water through the Delta;
• Makes adjustments to several federal programs that channel funds for emergency drought relief, water supplies, and economic assistance;
• Expedites federal decisions about projects and operations that can provide additional water supply benefits;
• Authorizes funding for federal agencies to use groundwater wells and water purchases for Central Valley Project wildlife refuges, saving surface water for drinking and crops;
• Authorizes planning and management to reduce water use in the Klamath Basin;
• Extends the period when water contractors can take deliveries of 2013 water to allow them more flexibility in managing their 2014 supplies;
• Authorizes contractors facing economic hardship to delay federal payments related to water deliveries;
• Provides for $300 million in funding for drought assistance programs.

February 14 – President Obama makes a 3 ½ hour visit to California’s Central Valley, visiting Fresno, Los Banos, and Firebaugh to meet with San Joaquin Valley farmers. With the President are Governor Brown, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor, Senator’s Feinstein and Boxer, and Congressman Jim Costa. The President and Secretary Vilsack announce the following USDA assistance (in addition to declaring 54 California counties as primary natural disaster areas due to drought):

• $100 million in livestock disaster assistance for California producers;
• $15 million in targeted conservation assistance for the most extreme and exceptional drought areas;
• $5 million in targeted Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program assistance to the most drought impacted areas of California to protect vulnerable soils;
• $60 million to California food banks to help families that may be economically impacted by the drought;
• 600 summer meal sites to be established in California’s drought stricken areas;
• $3 million in Emergency Water Assistance Grants for rural communities experiencing water shortages.

USDA had already announced $20 million in Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Funds for agricultural conservation in California and $15 million in Conservation Innovation Grants.

The President is clearly not interested in becoming collateral damage in California’s current water war. His message seems to be, “You folks need to get together and figure this out.”

We are indebted to the Daily Digest on Maven’s Notebook for making available much of the information to reconstruct this series of events.

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