California to Ease Water Restrictions

Excerpted from Sharon Bernstein; Reuters

Drought-plagued California will ease some protection for fish in the fragile San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, officials said Tuesday, a move expected to make more water available for farming and ease political tensions in an election year.

“California’s agriculture is critical to the world’s food supply,” said assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, who represents part of the San Joaquin Valley, who had lobbied hard against the restrictions. “An inability to produce that food would clearly be devastating to health and human safety not only in California but around the globe.”

Citing recent rains, regulators said Tuesday, there was enough water in the state’s reservoirs now to partially ease restrictions.

“We were quite concerned at that time about the issue of public health and safety,” Tom Howard, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “This really had the markings of a historic drought.”

Recent storms dropped nearly a foot of rain in some areas, boosting reservoir levels and the snowpack that the state relies on for drinking water in the spring, but still leaving supplies way below normal for this time of year.

Earlier this month, concern that the state was about to restrict water supplies to farmers even further swept through the agricultural community, spurring intensive pushback and a series of tense meetings with water regulators in the administration of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.

“We are very concerned that if the current proposal as reported to us is enacted, it will have significant near- and long-term effects on the California economy and, more importantly, will not achieve the desired water supply security intended,” U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Congressmen Jim Costa and John Garamendi, all Democrats, wrote in a letter to the water board.

Under the new rules announced Tuesday, which Howard said may be modified again next month, the two massive public water projects responsible for pumping in the Delta will be able to deliver it to farmers and others, once the state determines that there is enough flowing to meet the health and sanitation needs of residents.

Scott Shapiro, an attorney specializing in water issues for the Sacramento firm Downey Brand, said expanding the allowable uses of tight water supplies was not just important for farmers.

“It’s not just for agriculture, because there are other needs that may be contracted for that go beyond health and safety,” Shapiro said. “It could include other municipal, industrial and agricultural needs.

In addition to allowing more of the water pumped from the Delta to be used for purposes other than meeting health and safety needs, the state planned to reduce by about a third the amount of water that the projects were required to leave in the Delta as a way of protecting fish, Howard said during the press briefing.

Mark Cowin, Director of California Department of Water Resources, commented that fish and wildlife experts consulted by his department said that endangered species in the Delta would not be harmed by the looser rules.


Federal and State Officials Highlight “All-In” Response to Calif. Drought 

Source: Pamela Martineau, Association of California Water Agencies


Federal and state officials held a joint press conference TODAY to highlight the multi-agency collaboration – calling it an “all-in” endeavor – that is taking place to leverage resources to respond to California’s drought.


Officials with Bureau of Reclamation and the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) also announced an additional $14 million in federal funding that will be made available to water districts and growers to conserve water and improve water management. This funding is in addition to the $20 million announced yesterday by the USDA to provide for water efficiency improvements for growers and ranchers.


U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael L. Connor stressed during the press conference that California is facing a potentially worse drought than the one in 1976-77 because reservoir levels are currently lower and the state’s population much greater.


“We have a more significant drought with a lot more people to serve,” said Connor.


Connor said the coordination of federal response to California’s drought would take place through the National Drought Resilience Partnership.


“This is ground central for this partnership,” said Connor.


On Jan. 31, officials with the California Department of Water Resources announced that there would be no allocations from the State Water Project. Commissioner Connor predicted the allocations from the federal Central Valley Project would be low when announced later this month.


Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin said that collaboration across agencies – on the federal, state and local levels – would be the only way the state can effectively deal with a drought of this magnitude. He also said it is important that officials act now to prepare for even drier conditions later.


“Delay can exacerbate the impact of the drought, so it is important to act quickly,” said Cowin.


Cowin said the state is taking a “measured approach” in terms of calling for a 20% voluntary water cutback by consumers and is “looking to local agencies to make (the) call” about mandatory restrictions.


He added, however, that if dry conditions persist “we might take action at the state level” in terms of mandatory restrictions.


Cowin was joined Reclamation Commissioner Connor and administrators from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), National Integrated Drought Information System and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in demonstrating the coordinated response to record-breaking drought conditions in California.


Federal officials also committed to accelerate water transfers and exchanges and provide operational flexibility as necessary to help stretch California’s water supplies. Reclamation also released its 2014 Central Valley Project Water Plan, which outlines specific actions to help water users better manage their supplies through drought.


On Jan. 31, Reclamation announced that, with the consent of all settlement parties, it will begin reducing San Joaquin River Restoration Program’s Restoration Flows one month earlier than called for in the settlement, thereby making available about 13,000 acre-feet to the Friant Division long-term contractors with first priority to meet human health and safety needs.


Connor noted that pumping operations at the federal Jones Pumping Plant, located in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta near Tracy, have been restricted by the lack of water due to drought conditions and State water quality permit requirements. Connor said pumping has not been curtailed by Endangered Species Act requirements for protection of imperiled fish species.


Also on Feb. 5, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it has begun, with assistance from the Bureau of Reclamation, focused drought-related surveys for delta smelt at Jersey Point on the San Joaquin River. The monitoring program will provide the Service, and state and federal water managers, with near real-time information about the location of delta smelt if they move closer to water diversions in the southern Delta.


Delta smelt are currently not near the water projects and entrainment risks are low. If there is substantial rain that increases Delta flows and the turbidity of Delta waterways, delta smelt could move closer to the water project diversions.