Drinking Water Week (Part 1): The Return of the Same Old Drought

By Tim Stroshane

It is Drinking Water Week, according to the American Water Works Association and the Delta Stewardship Council. When not paying attention to the ever-present and necessary news about the novel coronavirus pandemic spreading COVID-19 disease, in the middle of March we began hearing about California re-entering drought. (Courthouse News Service and Los Angeles Times.)

So this week seems like a good time to talk about California droughts past and present, and how we can protect drinking water for all—especially customers drinking water from small water suppliers and in rural communities of our state.

Drought now joins pandemic and murder hornets in a rather apocalyptic 2020. The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) checked its Sierra snowfields on April 30th and found that snowpack was just 21 percent of average statewide for the start of summer irrigation season. A year ago, reported the San Francisco Chronicle, the snowpack was 188 percent of average. DWR determined this was enough water for a paltry 15 percent allocation of State Water Project capacity to its thirsty water contractors, also reported by Courthouse News Service.

The United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) in February this year allocated 100 percent of contractual supplies to its most senior Central Valley Project (CVP) water contractors—the Sacramento Valley Settlement Contractors, and the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors—as well as the wildlife refuges in the Central Valley. But what February offered, April took away when storms brought insufficient snowpack to offset the ongoing snowmelt of early spring. These water users are now cut back to 75 percent. Meanwhile, north of Delta agricultural contractors are currently allocated 50 percent of their contractual supplies, while south of Delta contractors—including Westlands Water District—are allocated just 15 percent this year, same as State Water Project (SWP) contractors.

Fifteen percent of SWP contractual amounts is just 635,400 acre-feet for the 29 SWP contractors this year. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or about the size of a football field flooded to a depth of one foot.)

This year’s drought water transfer market has already formed, and is shown in this State Water Board table. Five of eight transfer arrangements involve classic cross-Delta (north to south) transfers of water from Sacramento Valley senior water right holders Plumas Mutual Water Company, El Dorado Irrigation District, Garden Highway Mutual Water Company, Tule Basin Farms, and Gilsizer Ranch to SWP and CVP contractors south of Delta. In the dreams of these parties, such blocks of water will someday sluice through a massive tunnel beneath the Delta. So far, the requested amounts are relatively small, just 19,370 acre-feet in 2020, and they will traverse existing Delta channels in the meantime.

Another transfer is developing to cross the San Joaquin Valley between Merced Irrigation District (Merced ID) and the San Luis Delta Mendota Water Authority (SLDMWA). Merced ID is far and away the dominant consumptive water right holder on the Merced River, which flows from Yosemite National Park and through a wild and scenic river canyon just outside of the Park. Merced ID owns McClure Lake just downstream (named for an early 20th-century state engineer). This district will sell up to 45,000 acre-feet to six SWP contractors, including Valley Water, the water district of Silicon Valley, which is both an SWP contractor (for purposes of this transfer) and a federal CVP contractor. Valley Water is a member of the SLDMWA, which is seeking 2,000 acre-feet from Gilsizer Ranch as well, according to State Water Board information.

These various water agencies will likely be fine for supplies this year. But how long will dry times last? During the hardest years of 2013 through 2015, they aggressively consumed their stored supplies, yet nature declined to re-supply them until 2017. Yesterday, they lived for today. Will they do that again? What effects will this have on the Delta?

Meanwhile, the State Water Resources Control Board is preparing for drought. It updated its “Term 91 Curtailment Information” website and notified subscribers by email of changes this week. “Term 91” refers to a permit condition attached to all water rights permits and licenses that the Board has granted to water users in the Delta watershed (that is, from north at Redding to about Fresno) after 1965. “Term 91 requires,” says the Board in its “Frequently Asked Questions” flyer, “that those holding such permits and licenses cease diverting water” when the Board “gives notice that Term 91 is in effect.” Water right holders whose priority date comes before 1965 would not be affected. This is where water law becomes social policy during drought.

The Board announced that “Term 91 is not in effect”—yet—in 2020, but in the previous phase of this long-term drought Term 91 curtailment notices were issued as early as May. If a drought goes on long enough, the State Water Board has authority to push the Term 91 permit date further back into the past to assure water for those with senior rights to divert and use and to uphold California’s water right priority system. (CVP water rights date to 1927, while SWP water rights are more recent.)

A study in Nature Climate Change foretells risks to agriculture worldwide—including the San Joaquin Valley—from snowpack shrinking over time, and that the relative balance of snowpack to rainfall tips toward rainfall as temperatures warm globally. “The San Joaquin, for example, is one basin where increases in rainfall runoff won’t be able to make up for snowmelt decline when irrigation is most needed,” according to a Colorado State University summary of the study. (You can contact me to obtain a copy of studies I mention here.)

About a week later came a separate study by climate researchers published in Science magazine. They found that the drought plaguing the American southwest over the last twenty years (and continuing this year) is not only the second longest and deepest such drought since the late 16th century (think when Spanish explorers still wandered the desert regions long inhabited by Indigenous communities), it is fueled by human-driven greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

What about those who are not among the high rollers of the California water industry? State and federal water contractors, major irrigation and water districts, and cities with storage and conveyance systems of their own, will be okay this year. What are the prospects for smaller water suppliers of domestic drinking water?

During the 2012-2017 drought, some rural places in California saw wells go dry, had to rely on bottled water, or had to pay truckers to deliver water to home storage tanks. Some folks in these rural communities are wealthy; many are not. Many of these small water suppliers and rural communities have just a tiny economic base from which to fund improvements to their public, community, or individual systems. Since the previous drought phase, some fortunate communities have since obtained connections to nearby municipal drinking water sources. We may need more of this in the not-too-distant future. California would do well to get ready.

Do you know anyone living in a small or rural community in the Delta or elsewhere in California? Are they concerned about the future of their water supplies during a drought? I urge you to share with them that DWR released a report in mid-April to “help small water suppliers and rural communities plan for the net drought, wildfire, or another natural disaster that may cause water shortages.” The agency’s water use efficiency unit developed the report and its “online tool” as a planning resource for small community and rural water suppliers. DWR also announced a new “online tool”—essentially a searchable map and database of information about risks facing rural communities and small water suppliers statewide.

The online tool also has a “small water supplier explorer” as well as a “rural community explorer.” I obtained data from the small water supplier explorer. There are about 74 such suppliers—which can include a variety of supply systems for mobile home parks, small resorts, and even individual schools (for example Delta High School in Clarksburg)—within the legal Delta region (mostly in Contra Costa, Sacramento, and San Joaquin counties). Drinking water risks from drought appear to be considered mild at worst for Delta communities by the rural explorer tool. But there are other connections that customers of small water suppliers and residents of rural communities can learn of by visiting these two sites through the main “online tool” link above. Someone there is taking comments via links at these explorer tools through which you can express your views.

You can also dive into drinking water sources statewide by visiting the Community Water Center’s “Drinking Water Tool” based in Visalia. With this online tool you can learn:

  • Where your water comes from based on your address wherever you are in California
  • Whether a future drought could impact your drinking water supply
  • About the groundwater quality and supply in your area
  • How to advocate for safe, clean and affordable drinking water
  • How to compare information about your water with your local Groundwater Sustainability Plan.

(The Community Water Center web site also identifies resources for bottled water distribution during the COVID-19 pandemic. Check it out, or share with someone who needs this information.)

Small water suppliers and rural communities face real challenges with drinking water quality, affordability, and supply reliability like their larger water-supplier cousins. But these communities are hampered in their responses to problems associated with emergencies like drought, wildfire threats, and probably viral pandemics. While residents may enjoy the rural peace and quiet, the solitude, and the freedom of rural living, economic limitations made worse by the pandemic will stretch to the breaking point their abilities to plan and pay for upgrades to their community-based water systems. If they are on individual groundwater systems, fixed income households may be further strained in their ability to prepare for drought, wildlife, and cope with pandemic conditions.

Long-term drought poses clear and present risks to drinking water. The tools DWR provides are a useful starting point for improving small and rural water systems. And even if DWR isn’t ready, by contacting them you help the department learn what will be needed.

You would miss your water if your well runs dry. Do what you can to prevent that, and don’t take no for an answer.

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