Taking the Delta Watershed’s Pulse Webinar Sneak Peak

by Tim Stroshane, policy analyst

The world of water management and politics, for all its political tempests and atmospheric rivers, is also driven by science and data. This is important because there is something binary about water—you either have it and life is good, or you don’t and life gets harder the less you have. That makes facts about water—and the data on which they’re based—really important.

If you are curious to learn where and how you can see data on the Delta Watershed, sign up for Restore the Delta’s webinar, Taking the Delta Watershed’s Pulse on May 22nd at 11:00 AM. I’ll be going over basic types of data used by the water industry and government regulators when they make decisions about the health of the Delta Watershed. I will introduce you to such frameworks as the Bay-Delta Plan and the Coordinated Operating Agreement (and it’s sure okay if you haven’t ever heard of any of these things). Also, I’ll talk about how priorities embedded in Delta water policies shape monitoring and data analysis.

For water management purposes, the Delta is treated as though it is a reservoir built on a river—it has inflow from rivers, and outflow at its west side. Within its legal boundaries, there are pumping plants that export water from the Delta-as-reservoir to customers who value the Delta primarily for its reservoir-like characteristics.

For some water management purposes, this is a metaphor that works as narrative story—by measuring how much water enters the Delta, state and federal water project pumping plant operators can determine how much water to export to their customers. They can do that because they measured how much water they released from the upstream reservoirs they control. At the Delta, they are only supposed to take out about as much as they released from their reservoirs. The story gets more complicated, which I will touch on during the webinar.

Much of these data are collected daily and hourly—automatically in most cases—by both the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR). And some data are collected every fifteen minutes because sometimes conditions in the Delta watershed can change in a very short time.

Periodically, I check a “dashboard” put together by DWR to get a picture of what the State Water Project is doing. USBR has gobs of operational and fish and delivery and power production data at its Central Valley Operations web site, but no “dashboard” hitting key points. Both water project operators have oceans of data at their web sites. And that includes a lot on who their water contractors are and how much water they seek each year.

While DWR’s dashboard provides the better overview, the two operators don’t always report the same data the same way; so seeming discrepancies can appear. In my experience, there is usually a reasonable explanation, such as the difference between reporting data as a flow instead of a volume measure.

If you’ve heard the phrase “big data,” well, the world of California and Delta watershed data is a good example of “big data” constantly getting bigger. There are literally hundreds of rivers whose flow and water quality are measured and the data are studied and stored for later use.

Precipitation is measured at hundreds of sites throughout the state—both rain and snow, and those data are studied to project the coming year’s water supply—and then those data too are stored.

And the operational activities of reservoirs taking in, storing, and releasing water; of canals diverting and conveying water to customers; and of the water deliveries from these systems to those customers through their water service contracts—all of these data are collected, analyzed, and from which conclusions are drawn—and then they too are somewhere stored online where you can view and analyze it all yourself if you wish.

Anyone interested in seeing whether big water data matches up with what you see in a Delta channel—say, the bridge across the Sacramento River at Freeport, or along the San Joaquin at Vernlais—should try to attend RTD’s webinar. Comparing data to reality is something we at Restore the Delta would love to check, but we just don’t have the bandwidth.

Because I also care about the fate of migratory salmon and steelhead in the Delta, I check on whether the Delta Cross Channel—that two-gate structure between Walnut Grove and Locke along the Sacramento River—is open or closed. (It’s supposed to be closed during seasons when these fish migrate.) I also check on how negative the flow in Old and Middle River—negative flow means simply that those rivers flow backwards, upstream because of the pumping plants. And each day the USBR counts the number of fish that get trapped at the south Delta pumps here (scroll down to “Fish Reports”).

I also care about some other phenomena that are not routinely measured to the degree that they ought—especially compared to water supply. I will talk about two during the webinar—nonnative invasive clams and human subsistence fishing—which are measured at best only infrequently because of the high priority placed on water supplies. Yet these measures are critical to the estuary’s health and the health of human relationships to the estuary. While they could be just as critical for long-term estuary and human health, they are at present not allowed to help guide water policy for flows and salinity in the Delta’s Watershed.

I hope you’ll join us for the webinar on May 22nd!

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