Delta Flows: June 9, 2015

“When we lack the ability to talk back to entities that are culturally and politically powerful, the very foundations of free speech and democratic society are called into question.” – Naomi Klein

• He Did It For Love
• Drought and the False River Blues
—- The TUCP Orders and System Mismanagement
—- Barriers to Salt

He Did It For Love

By Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

It is with great sadness that Restore the Delta shares with our followers the recent passing of our friend and fellow advocate Jerry Cadagan. In addition to providing a number of us with daily media clips that included brilliant commentary and great wit, Jerry was our friend. He always had an encouraging word when we were over tired or over worked. He always was on the lookout for new information or new connections that would help us advance our cause. And he always made us laugh.

One of my fondest memories of Jerry, was spending time with him at a news conference in Fresno before we began our wild ride to find President Obama when the President came to California to visit growers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Jerry, a real professional, came in hand with maps, talking points, and smart commentary about where water was really going that was pumped from the Delta. Yet, to the side, he made nothing but jokes to loosen me up as we realized what type of chasing we would have to do shortly to find the President. Jerry helped always as a volunteer, not asking for anything, but acting purely from a place of love – a love of rivers, a love of the natural world, a love of his colleagues, a love of family, a love of justice and fairness, and a love of California.

We presented Jerry with a Delta Advocate award at our Fall 2013 event at the River Mill to thank him for his devotion and years of service to our efforts to save the Delta from over pumping, and Governor Brown’s twin tunnels plan. Jerry became friends with many in the crowd who he took into his fold of wonderful daily communications. That small token did not capture how much everyone who came into contact with Jerry loved him.

We miss Jerry daily. We send our best thoughts and love to his children and grandchildren. Click here to read a wonderful tribute about Jerry written by Tom Stokely at CWIN.

A Memorial for Jerry is scheduled for June 24, 2015 at the Lake Merced Boathouse in San Francisco. Click here for more details.

Drought and the False River Blues

By Tim Stroshane

When it comes to water, the Delta is California’s sacrifice area. Here is how mismanagement leads to galling abominations like the False River barrier.

As I wrote this article, I made a list of what’s intended, mostly by the state and federal governments, to “fix” the Delta so California can keep using lavish amounts of surface water for agribusiness economies and cities.

In January 2015, a “drought contingency plan” from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the Bureau of Reclamation (the Bureau) told the State Water Resources Control Board all the deregulation they would need to have a chance of protecting the winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon spawning habitats (and which are happening about now) while still providing salinity control in the Delta and exporting Delta water to their customers in the south Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and southern California.

DWR and the Bureau told the Board they would need reduced requirements for Delta inflow and outflow, more flexible export rates, and lower salinity standards for water quality. They also told the Board that, if dry conditions persisted, DWR would probably install three rock barriers: two along Sutter and Steamboat sloughs in the north Delta, and one at the west end of False River between Jersey and Bradford islands in the western Delta.

The Board dutifully issued orders this winter and spring largely complying with the TUCPs. (Most observers regard the Board as captive of DWR, the Bureau, and the water contractors.) DWR backed away from the north Delta barriers opting instead for just the False River Barrier, a job completed last week.

Meanwhile, Governor Jerry Brown, the state’s Natural Resources Agency, and DWR repackaged the unwieldy, failed Bay Delta Conservation Plan habitat scheme as “California Water Fix” (the tunnels project slightly tweaked) and “California EcoRestore” (the ecosystem restoration plan scaled back by four-fifths). Despite its shiny new hipster nomenclature, the project is the major water grab it was always meant to be.

The Delta Stewardship Council pushed forward with a “Delta Levee Investment Strategy in January. Its January issue paper lists the Council’s nine “interim priorities” as protecting urban and rural areas from flooding; water quality (mostly from tidal salts); water supply conveyance for exports; “critical infrastructure of statewide importance”, floodways and floodplain habitat, agriculture, Delta legacy resources of historical cultural, aesthetic, and recreational importance. Oh, and various forms of wetland habitat. The Council says it intends to balance all nine priorities, but much of their recent discussions center on how to fix levee financing programs that local Delta reclamation officials argue don’t need fixing.

It helps to step back and take stock of the “temporary urgency change petition” (TUCP) orders and the False River barrier, two sides of the same coin when it comes to fresh water and Californa’s Delta water colony.

The TUCP Orders and System Mismanagement

Drought is treated by the state of California like an unforeseen “act of God,” a natural disaster befalling the golden state. In reality, over the last century or so, dry or critically dry years occur about 40 percent of the time—that’s about forty years of the last one hundred that have been droughty. The last 50 years has been drier than the previous fifty, and it was during the previous fifty (about 1910 to about 1960) during which a six-year drought occurred in the midst of an extended 17 year dry period. So drought is part of California life. But the rest of that first half of the 20th century was relatively wet, and Californians thought that by building reservoirs and aqueducts they were investing in an abundant water future of gravity-fed surface supplies.

Now, study after study makes clear that California’s water future will likely be drier and warmer. We’ll have more extreme weather events, floods and droughts, they routinely say. But in a state with some 80,000 farms, 38 million people, 1,400 dams, thousands of miles of canals, and vast potential stores of groundwater, this has become a fool’s errand. We know much more today about California’s climate and how it’s changing than those who planned the state and federal water systems.

The State Water Resources Board blames Nature for the predicament California is now in, and exempts the California Department of Water Resources and the US Bureau of Reclamation from responsibility as the Board approved their TUCPs.

In its TUCP orders, the Board points to eight of the last nine water years being below normal or drier. But this means that after the three-year drought from 2007 to 2009, the state and federal projects should have been ready with different ways of harboring and using their supplies. They were not. Climate change, with its grave implications for water management had not yet arrived in the minds of state and federal water managers.

During our current drought, the agencies operated the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project want to operate the projects like it was 1960: because we have the supplies now, everyone agrees that we worry about next year, next year.

Back in 1976, DWR wrote of that unfolding drought:

The usual strategy described in discussions with Central Valley surface water project operators who are experiencing a below-normal supply is to serve all the water possible on demand of the users, carrying little or no water over to guard against a dry 1977 except in the Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, New Don Pedro Reservoir, and Lake McClure. This strategy is based on the belief that a good crop this year is desirable, since next year will probably be a near-normal or better water supply. (1)

Figure 1 shows the water year designations the state has applied to the last four major droughts dating back to the mid-1970s. Each drought followed immediately a previous wet year that led to full or nearly full state and federal reservoirs upstream of the Delta.

While this early drought report exempted the CVP and SWP initially from “use water now” behavior, historical data beginning with the 1976-1977 drought tell a different tale.

Rather than preserve reservoir storage over time during droughts, the state and federal reservoirs are managed in such a way that storage, Delta exports, and allocations to junior water contractors decreases over time during droughts. Figure 2 shows that the upstream-of-Delta reservoirs of the state and federal projects tend to be managed to lower storage conditions during drought periods, while southern California storage is only the whole preserved over the course of the drought periods for the 1970s and 1990s.

Figure 3 reveals that over time in recent drought (2007-2009 and the current drought) has led to decreased storage in both the upstream-of-Delta reservoirs of the state and federal projects as well as the southern California reservoirs included in our analysis. In the 2007-2009 period, upstream Central Valley reservoir depletions over approximately three years come to nearly 7 million acre-feet (MAF) after peaking at 12 MAF around April 2007. In the same period, southern California storage peaked in August 2007 peaked at over 1.4 MAF.

In our current drought period (2012-2015), upstream Central Valley storage peaked at over 13 MAF in April 2012, but has seen cumulative depletions of about 9.5 MAF by November 2014, before December 2014 storms raised storage levels to back about 7 MAF upstream of the Delta. Southern California storage in the current drought peaked also in the spring of 2012 at about 1.4 MAF but has seen depletions since then of nearly 0.6 MAF by March 2015. With few rains since that time, storage levels continue declining as we enter the dry summer season in California.

Figure 4 compares fall quarter (October 1 through December 31) exports with annual water year exports (October 1 through September 30) for the state and water projects during drought periods. These charts reveal that the pattern of export behavior is to maximize Delta exports early in the dry period, apparently on the assumption that wet conditions will materialize in the next water year. Yet the longer the dry period goes, the lower fall and annual exports become. The pattern and practice is to divert and export water as much as possible, with little apparent heed for the possibility—even likelihood—that the following year could continue dry or drier.

This kind of thinking prevails among the major water contractors, whose regions’ agricultural and urban development are premised, on the state’s surface water supplies continued expansion. Last week one Westlands Water District farmer, Mr. Dan Errotaberre, told National Public Radio stated this view: “We’re getting into a circular firing squad over the remaining supply, and I think that’s the wrong question. The question is,” he says, “how do we fix the supply side? We have to make it run like it used to, and get the water delivered like it used to.”

Operation of state and federal water projects have been handled as though the probability of dry years are random events, equivalent to coin tosses. Increasingly scientists and other climate professionals warn society that climate change is instead upon us, and that dryer and warmer years are more likely over time than are wet years; this means that 50-50 odds, which hold with coin tosses, do not reasonably apply with California’s climate. Instead, we are in a “new normal,” to which state and federal water system operators have yet to adapt.

This new normal means it is unreasonable for the State Water Board to exempt the state and federal water projects from responsibility for the condition of the water system during this drought. The water shortage unfolding since 2013 is only partly due to Nature withholding beneficence. The water systems’ managers failed to apply warnings from climate scientists to how they manage the systems.

As dry conditions unfolded in the years subsequent to 1986, 2006, and 2011, Figure 5 reveals the downward trend in state and federal water project allocations that ensued. (No water allocation data for the Central Valley Project in 1976 and 1977 were available for this analysis.) Senior water right holders (i.e., the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors and the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors) received 100 percent or near 100 percent allocations in each drought period, in accord with governing water right priorities. Only in 1991, 1992, 1994, 2014, and 2015 did these senior water right holders receive less than 100 percent allocations from the Central Valley Project.

Junior water contractors of the CVP experienced these drought periods very differently, but it is important to note that in the first year of each drought period (and in the 1987-1989 period) these junior water contractors received full allocations. Only in subsequent years were they cut back. Only in 2007 and 2012 were south of Delta CVP contractors cut back to less than 100% allocations in first years of drought periods. The Bureau of Reclamation provided full allocations in the first year in hopes that next year would as likely as not be a normal to wet year that would provide full supplies. When those years (and other years following) were not, allocations were cut back, and most recently in 2014 and again this year, allocations by the Bureau for the CVP junior water contractors north and south of the Delta are zero.

For the State Water Project, less historical allocation data are available, but what is available shows a similar pattern (Figure 6). Wet years in 2006 and 2011 are followed by only moderate cutbacks in the next year to 60 to 65 percent of total Table A amounts. Successive dry years are followed by deeper cuts in allocation amounts, to the point where in 2014 State Water Project contractors received just 5 percent of their Table A amounts. This year, SWP contractors are scheduled to receive 20 percent after only modest rainfall and despite the worst Sierra snowpack on record.

Barriers to Salt

Having squandered reservoir supplies from “use water now because next year is likely to be wet,” state and federal water officials (including the State Water Board) scramble to prevent loss of salinity control in the Delta, where the projects have long known they were responsible for using continuous upstream flows to the Delta to prevent sea water intrusion.

For nearly a century now, engineers and others have frequently referred to the Delta as posing a “salt menace,” a “salinity problem” with just two solutions: either maintain a predetermined stream flow from the Delta to Suisun Bay to hydraulically wall out the tide, or use physical barriers to separate saline from fresh water flowing through the Delta. While readily admitting that the root cause of the “salt menace” is reduced inflows from the Delta’s major tributary rivers, the state of California uses salt water barriers as a technological fix to address the symptoms of the salinity problem, rather than the root causes.

Yet the Delta is the living definition of an estuary: it is where fresh water from the Central Valley’s rivers meets salt water from tidal flow to the Delta from San Francisco Bay. Productive ecosystems have thrived in the Delta for millenia prior to California statehood. Interfering with this interaction threatens the Delta’s ecology.

The state of California decided by the early 1930s that it made more economic and environmental sense to use continuous stream flow as a hydraulic barrier (rather than build a physical barrier and convert the Delta and Suisun Bay into stagnant reservoirs). This is the principle of “through-Delta conveyance” that DWR and the Bureau use today to move their upstream reservoir supplies across the Delta for export to the San Joaquin Valley and southern California.

Between 2001 and 2010, DWR and the Bureau, and many consultants, studied alternatives for ecosystem restoration, water quality, and recreation at Franks Tract, and other Delta open water bodies—including use of barriers and operable gates. They conceived the “Franks Tract Project” about 2006, since if the state and federal water systems lose control of Delta salinity, Franks Tract is the open water submerged island where that battle would be lost. From their studies, they concluded that an operable gate located somewhere on Three Mile Slough between the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, or closure of west False River would be the best physical barrier options for reducing Delta export salinity levels, never mind what other parts of the Delta had to deal with. In fact, DWR staff concluded in 2007 that the False River structure performed the best for exports during critically dry years. Like now.

Barriers played roles in Alternative 9 of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan Environmental Impact Report/Statement (Figure 3-16). This 2013 “Through Delta/Separate Corridors” alternative would isolate a “Water Supply Corridor” along Middle River from a “River-Estuary Habitat Corridor” through which fish migration could proceed untroubled by reverse flows in Old River. “Operable barriers” would be used to separate the two corridors.

With state and federal reservoir storage low and cold water needed for temperature management for spawning salmon runs in the upper Sacramento and Stanislaus river areas, barriers in Delta channels have been a staple response of the state of California to its water management problems, with insufficient regard for the Delta’s integrity as an estuary. This was true in the mid-1970s, and it is true today.

In the absence of reorienting water project management to incorporate climate change and protect Delta ecosystems and communities, approval by the Corps and the State Water Board of barriers to manage salinity sends the wrong message to DWR and the Bureau about their overall water management during an extended drought period.

Restore the Delta is concerned that a ten-year program permit DWR may seek in 2016 from the Corps would become a permanent water management crutch on which DWR and the Bureau would lean to continue their practice of managing upstream storage. The crutch would rely on the assumption that the cost of losing their yearly coin tosses would continue to be borne by Delta residents, boaters, local utility and reclamation districts, and ecosystems—while exempting Delta exports.

In the last 28 water years (since the beginning of the 1987-92 drought) wet and above normal years have occurred just 11 times in both the San Joaquin and Sacramento River basins, a rate of 39 percent. This tells us, first, that the projects must operate more conservatively with regard to all competing beneficial uses in the Delta watershed; second, that the premise of “emergency” drought barriers must be rejected. “Emergency” connotes an event that is perhaps short-lived and infrequent, if it occurs at all. But if below normal to critical water years occur more than half the time, then the “emergency” modifier becomes meaningless. Drought period water management in the Delta watershed will become more frequent in the future. The future is probably already here.

The False River barrier, just completed between Jersey and Bradford islands in the western Delta, galls me.

It appears its nearly $40 million cost will be borne by us taxpayers, $40 million we pay to help bail out the mismanagement of the state and federal water projects during the last four years of drought. And Delta residents, boaters, landowners, reclamation and utility districts, and ecosystems are left to deal with the impacts.

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