Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Why study expansion of a nearly empty reservoir?

A federal leader last week mentioned a study to raise San Luis Dam and expand the nearly empty San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County, raising eyebrows all around. Why study expansion of a reservoir holding 16% of its capacity? And why now?

First, a little context. San Luis Reservoir is an important hub in California’s waterworks — supplying both west San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California cities. The reservoir has no natural stream to fill it, so water is pumped there from the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

San Luis Reservoir at 16% this month.

When pumping was restricted this year to protect dying fish species and water quality, California lost the opportunity to send a lot of water into the reservoir. The lost pumping and the drought have turned the reservoir into an August mud puddle.

So why look at expanding San Luis Reservoir now?

Half of the answer: It’s part of the ongoing efforts under the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, a 1992 environmental reform law that includes a section to improve water supply.

The other half: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is going through a dam safety study. The planning division is appraising a project to both reduce earthquake risks and improve deliveries to the federal Central Valley Project.

At the same time apparently, water customers began asking about expanding the capacity of the reservoir.

By sometime next year, the appraisal study will let federal leaders know if they should do a full-blown feasibility study.

This is all part of a bigger fight, pitting Northern California against Southern California over water. It’s a story that has played out over decades. Another chapter is about to be finished as the state prepares the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, touted as a way to fix this marathon problem. It’s a nerve-racking process.

The short-term solution makes everyone even more nervous: Hoping for a wet winter. This problem could get much worse if California gets a third year of drought.

Delta Plan is a set of rules for long-term restoration

Readers emailed to clarify a point in my Delta Water Summit story, which referred to seven lawsuits over the Delta Plan that was approved by the Delta Stewardship Council on May 16.

The Delta Plan is not a draft of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The Delta Plan, required in 2009 by the state Legislature, contains rules for the longer-term approach or framework for managing the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Like the BDCP, it aims to restore the delta and make more reliable water deliveries to farms and cities. Both have been working toward proposed solutions for years in response to continuing ecological delta damage and unreliable water deliveries.

Seven lawsuits were filed against the Delta Plan from many sides on the delta’s issues. The plaintiffs include environmental groups, commercial fishermen, water diverters and local governments.

The BDCP draft should be available for public comment in October, state leaders say.

Delta Water Summit scheduled Aug. 3 at Fresno State

Water experts, lawmakers and government officials will field questions from the public in a Delta Water Summit, scheduled 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Aug. 3 at Fresno State’s Satellite Student Union.

I will write a story about it in the next week or so, but it’s time to get the word out about the summit on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Public leaders, scientists, biologists and engineers have been working years on a plan to revive the declining delta ecosystem while providing a more certain water supply. The plan is slowly reaching critical mass, with state leaders focused on two large water supply tunnels.

Though the process has been contentious, the public has not followed it closely. This is an attempt to explain the issues and answer questions, according to the Latino Water Coalition, a Valley group that organized the summit.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been invited to make an appearance and speak at the beginning of the summit. No word yet on whether he will be there.

Bay Delta Conservation Plan more than tunnels, state leader says

I listened to the state’s top water leader talk for an hour Thursday about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Then I tried to check some of his data online.

The download of so many documents crashed my computer. Let’s just go straight to the talk at The Fresno Bee editorial board meeting, which did not break any news.

Mark Cowin, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources, said the controversial plan is more than tunnels and arguments. Nonetheless, he had to spend time explaining the two huge water tunnels being proposed at the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The tunnel idea is to move Sacramento River water south in tunnels so the water doesn’t pass through the delta. The idea is the epic issue for California natural resources these days, easily on a par with the Peripheral Canal fight I covered 30 years ago.

Some Northern Californians have told me it’s simply a water grab for Central Valley farmers and Southern California. The delta’s ecosystem and Northern California will suffer, they say.

Some farmers and Southern Californians argue it would give the state a more certain water supply. Plus, the delta would get the chance to heal, they say.

Cowin said he supports the $25 billion tunnels, but the plan is equally about restoring the faltering delta.

He and Karla Nemeth, outreach and communications manager, said saving the delta’s dying fish species and declining habitat is a linchpin of the plan. They mentioned such projects as rebuilding flood plains and fattening up migrating salmon.

We asked tunnel questions, such as: How much difference would the tunnels have made for west Valley farmers who lost water this year in environmental cutbacks for the threatened delta smelt?

Cowin and Nemeth said the tunnels probably would have resulted in about 700,000 acre-feet of additional water.

The draft of this plan should be available in the next few months, they said. I’m not sure that will give you enough time to read the 27,000 pages of documents related to it.

Federal water cutback called ‘crippling blow’

The federal government reduced irrigation water projections for west San Joaquin Valley farmers last week — only the third time I remember it ever happening.

The 5% cutback — from a 25% water allocation to 20% — has been called a crippling blow to agriculture

The cutback has resulted from a below-average winter, the second in a row. Plus, the state and federal water projects were forced to curb water pumping at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to protect dwindling delta smelt.

Some 800,000 acre-feet of water were lost in the process.

You can imagine the strong feelings when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation dropped its forecast last week.

“The water supply reductions facing farmers will devastate the local communities,” said Thomas Birmingham, general manager of 600,000-acre Westlands Water District, the largest customer on the Central Valley Project.

After I passed along his sentiment on Twitter, a water analyst, known as @flowinguphill, tweeted: “Westlands no longer mentions Mendota — the center of the 110,000 plus acres of retired land in the district.”

The implication is that communities are harmed by farming on some marginal land that must eventually be taken out of service because of salt contamination. There is a long-running argument about the wisdom of farming the west side.

Setting aside the back-and-forth, it is likely to be a very tough summer for agriculture, rural communities and the Valley as a whole. A water crisis here usually results in thousands of acres being idled, people losing jobs, the economy suffering.

The Sierra snowpack, a frozen reservoir providing more than 60% of the state’s water, is at 55% of average. You can understand the caution from the federal government.

But the large Northern California reservoirs are still slightly above average.  It galls farmers to see the 5% cutback when those reservoirs appear full enough to tap for shortfalls in the Central Valley.

Farmers I know on the west side have been looking to buy from other water suppliers and get their groundwater wells ready for a summer of pumping.

On the Valley’s east side, the Friant section of the Central Valley Project has not yet been cut back from its 65% of the highest-priority water from Millerton Lake. But that could change, too.

Dry months hurt, but a few storms could make us forget

Remember those stories last week about a record-setting, scary-sounding dry spell for the combined months of  January and February? You’ll forget all about them if we see a series of storms this month and next.

The record dry time is actually in the Northern Sierra, the most important watershed in the state, as my Sacramento Bee colleague Matt Weiser wrote. That snowpack melts into the state’s biggest reservoirs.

At the federal pumps near Tracy in the south delta.

But the Northern Sierra is actually in better shape than it was at this time last year. So is the Southern Sierra. The snow from the big storms in November and December is mostly still up there. It hasn’t melted.

The huge reservoirs in Northern California — Shasta, Oroville, Trinity — are all holding an above-average amount of water right now. We’re not hearing anything yet about water restrictions in the Bay Area.

The real concern is San Luis in western Merced County, where west San Joaquin Valley farmers get water.

It is not a mountain reservoir. It does not have a big, natural stream, unlike the reservoirs I’ve mentioned. It is one of the larger off-stream reservoirs you will find anywhere in the United States.

So, water must be pumped into San Luis from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, 120 miles away. The delta pumping has been limited to protect the dwindling delta smelt. So it San Luis only at 69% of average right now.

The reservoir is 2 million acre-feet — about four times bigger than Millerton Lake, though it’s not all devoted to the Central Valley Project. The state stores water there, too.

Many experts tell me they don’t think it will fill.

There are bigger questions now, because pumping for San Luis usually continues well into the warm season to provide water. To provide enough water, the reservoir needs to get continuous pumping from the delta in spring.

What if the weather stays dry? What if the pumping restrictions continue at the delta? How much water will be available  in May and June when the thermometer starts to climb?

Should farmers fallow a lot of acreage? Should they drill new wells and keep pulling water from the ground?

Smelt numbers change slightly

After I wrote the Sunday story about the water pumps at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, federal leaders tweaked their analysis of the delta smelt problem this winter.

The picture is still not good for this protected species, but it’s not quite as bad as it looked in early February. It might help keep the pumps running to provide water for farm and city customers later this year.

The federal analysis released last week says smelt deaths at the pumps  are actually only 64% of the total allowed for the year, not 76% as had been reported.

Two numbers had been adjusted since I first reported on the smelt. The number of fish allowed to die at the pumps was increased from 305 to 362. And the number of fish reported to have died at the pumps is now 230, not 232.

Delta smelt will be in Fresno court this week

A three-inch minnow again will be briefly in a spotlight this week in Fresno. A U.S. District judge is considering a three-year delay on rewriting the plan to protect the threatened delta smelt.

Here in federal court, the fish has been at the center of a years-long legal argument pitting the protection plan against water pumping for cities and farms.

Federal authorities are seeking the delay so they can focus on a broader effort that will protect the place where the smelt live.

I’ve been following the smelt issue since 1991 when federal wildlife authorities proposed it as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. I’ll give you a short explanation of why you should care about the smelt case.

The fish lives only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in Northern California. The delta is where water pumping supplies millions of Californians with drinking water and 3 million acres of farmland with irrigation water.

When the smelt strays near the big pumps, it’s time to shut down pumping, which slows down the effort to fill San Luis Reservoir. The reservoir holds irrigation water for west San Joaquin Valley farming.

The pumps were shut down for a few weeks in December to protect the smelt. Farm water leaders here fear it will result in reduced irrigation deliveries this summer. That’s why you should care.

It’s just one corner of a story that has traveled through courts, fiery debates, scientific studies and grand political ideas to solve this clash. The process continues, and it’s a subject for another day.

The bigger point remains over the decades. California’s big rivers and fresh water are in the north. People are in the south. And a huge swath of lucrative farming is right in the middle.

It’s a statewide issue, and it affects the Valley’s biggest industry.

 

West-side Valley farm water already lagging

Farm water analysts on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are less than optimistic about the water supply for next summer despite a good snowpack so far this year.

West  siders suspect a key Valley reservoir won’t fill up this year, due to water pumping restrictions that protect dying fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

It’s a familiar refrain. For years, west siders have been making the point about fish protections reducing irrigation deliveries. This year, the farm-water analysts are projecting 40% to 55% of contractual allotments even if the Sierra gets all the snow it usually gets.

The projection comes from the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, representing west Valley farmers on the federal Central Valley Project. Among those farmers are Westlands Water District growers.

Here’s how the water delivery works: Water flows from Northern California rivers through the delta to the huge pumps near Tracy in the south delta. The water is pumped south — which is uphill, by the way — to San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County.

To fill San Luis, a steady flow of pumped water continues through the winter. When the water is interrupted, it’s tough to catch up with the loss of pumping.

Salmon and delta smelts sometimes are nearby, so pumping must be slowed or stopped to prevent them from being dragged into the pumps and killed.

Analysts say the restricted pumping in December equates to about a 10% reduction in available farm water supply. The situation may not get any better this month or next month if the fish are still exposed to the danger.

And if the winter suddenly turns dry — as it sometimes does in California — the projection of available water would drop to somewhere between 35% and 40%, according to the authority.

Watching, waiting, hoping for pregnant storms

It’s nearly Thanksgiving. The weather has been delightful. And the California water world is watching, waiting and hoping for pregnant storms from the Pacific.

Rain and snow are expected this weekend, so farmers and water managers may breathe a little easier for the holiday.

They know it’s early in the season. But their anxiety level will climb in the next six weeks if they don’t see stormy weather.

Here’s what’s rolling through their minds:

– The snowpack is puny, even this early in the season.

– The snow and rain season last year was far below average in many places, especially in the southern Sierra. They don’t want to see back-to-back dry years.

– Reservoirs, which were at or above average earlier this year, are still looking pretty good, but they’re starting to slip.

– El Nino — warm water in the Pacific that sometimes is a sign of wet  times ahead in California – has fizzled. So the odds of  a wet season have become a coin flip again.

Long-time water experts say they’re not really sweating it yet. Water engineer Lance Johnson of Shaver Lake has spent decades watching the weather, working on east- and west-Valley farm water supply and analyzing trends.

His comment: “Precipitation in the San Joaquin River watershed is currently just 34% of normal and just barely greater than 1977, the direst year on record. But it is too early in the water year to get overly concerned as a few good storms can turn that around.”