The California Department of Water Resources on Wednesday announced that it will not be allocating any water from the State Water Project to any of the 29 water agencies that contract to receive that water at least through the first several months of 2022.
“Given the unprecedented drought conditions, the State Water Project’s initial allocation will focus on the health and safety needs for 2022 of the 29 water agencies that contract to receive State Water Project supplies,” a statement by the agency on December 1 reads. “The Department of Water Resources has advised these water agencies to expect an initial allocation that prioritizes health and safety water needs and that the State Water Project will not be planning water deliveries through its typical allocation process until the state has a clearer picture of the hydrologic and reservoir conditions going into the spring.”
The California State Water Project is a multi-purpose water storage and delivery system that extends more than 705 miles, running two-thirds the length of California. It consists of a collection of canals, pipelines, reservoirs, and hydroelectric power facilities which capture snowmelt in Northern California and delivers that clean water to 27 million Californians, 750,000 acres of farmland, and businesses throughout the state.
Wednesday’s announcement came as California faces a continuing and severe drought. The Department of Water Resources has engaged in periodic shuttering of the water system in the past, but this is the earliest date at which a zero percent water allocation announcement has ever been made.
Each year, the Department of Water Resources provides the initial State Water Project allocation by December 1 based on available water storage and projected water supply demands. Allocations are updated monthly as snowpack and runoff information is assessed, with a final allocation typically determined in May or June.
The lowest initial allocations to occur on December 1 in past years were 5 percent in 2010 and 2014. Last year, the initial State Water Project allocation was 10 percent, though because of increasing dry conditions, the final allocation was lowered to 5 percent.
“Despite a wet start to the water year, conditions have dried out since that first storm and we are still planning for a below-average water year. That means we need to prepare now for a dry winter and severe drought conditions to continue through 2022,” said Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth. “We will be working with our federal partners and State Water Project contractors to take a conservative planning approach to balance limited water supplies with the needs of residents, businesses, and the environment.”
According to the Department of Water Resources, it is now focusing on prioritizing the available water supply in four categories: water for health and safety needs and California Delta salinity control; water for endangered species; water to reserve in storage; and water for additional supply allocations if the hydrology allows.
While the Department of Water Resources is tasked with ensuring the delivery of adequate water throughout the state, there has been significant prioritization with regard to the ecology of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, also known as the California Delta, in recent years, as diversions of water from it and the drought have begun to threaten dozens of species within its footprint. The California Delta is an expansive inland river delta and estuary in Northern California, formed at the western edge of the Central Valley by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and lies just east of where the rivers enter Suisun Bay, which flows into San Francisco Bay and then the Pacific Ocean via San Pablo Bay.
In addition to limiting the initial allocation to health and safety needs, the Department of Water Resources is making plans to adjust State Water Project operations this winter and spring. The Department of Water Resources is capturing and storing water when possible in Lake Oroville and south of the California Delta in San Luis Reservoir to increase available supplies for 2022 and will continue to do so throughout the winter. Health and safety demands for the Bay Area and Central and Southern California will be met with water available from the California Delta as well as water stored in San Luis Reservoir. Water in Lake Oroville will be reserved to maintain California Delta water quality, protect endangered species, and meet senior water right needs. Beyond minimal exports to meet South Bay health and safety needs, water stored in Lake Oroville will be used for south of California Delta deliveries only if hydrology conditions improve. The Department of Water Resources plans to conserve as much storage as possible in Oroville in anticipation of a third dry year, and potentially a dry 2023.
Also on December 1, the Department of Water Resources along with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, submitted a temporary urgency change petition to the State Water Resources Control Board. If approved, the petition would allow for the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project to operate under modifications to the water quality and water right permit requirements in the California Delta from February through April 2022, should conditions warrant. These modifications may be needed to conserve water in Lake Oroville to ensure minimum health and safety water supplies are available later in the year if dry conditions persist. If significant precipitation materializes in the next few months, standards may be met through natural means and modifications to the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project operations may not be necessary.
The Department of Water Resources is also delaying the removal of an emergency drought salinity barrier in the California Delta. The rock barrier across West False River was scheduled to be removed by November 30. Drought conditions have persisted, however, and leaving the barrier in place will enable a more efficient drought response in spring 2022 if needed. The Department of Water Resources plans to create a notch in the barrier in January 2022 to allow for fish passage and boat traffic until April 2022.
“It is going to take a multi-pronged approach to successfully respond to these unprecedented drought conditions,” said Nemeth.
In thirsty Southern California, there is concern that dealing with the drought without the safety net of water importation from the north may prove overwhelming.
In one portion of San Bernardino County that concern is less acute.
According to Heather Dyer, the chief executive officer and general manager of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, through conservation and water management efforts, San Bernardino County should be able to come through the current water availability crisis. The San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District service area stretches from parts of Fontana in the west to Yucaipa in the east.
Despite the dismal projection of zero water availability through the State Water Project over the next four to six months, San Bernardino Valley Municipal officials said they are not panicking, and neither should the public.
“Our region has been actively preparing for droughts like this,” stated Bob Tincher, chief water resources officer for the district. “Our primary strategy is to store water during wet years, when it is plentiful, and then rely on that stored water during times of drought, like the one we find ourselves in this year.”
The region has several large underground aquifers where it stores water during wet years. Those aquifers are now 80 percent or more full. The amount of water in storage means that the region can make it through 2022 and even make it through additional years of drought, if needed, San Bernardino Valley Municipal officials said.
Storage is not the only tool available to reduce the local impacts of the current drought. The region has also been stretching its supplies in recent years by using water more efficiently. Although the region’s population has increased over the past decade, water use has nevertheless decreased.
“We would like to thank residents and businesses for their efficient water use and challenge everyone to take the next step toward even great conservation of our valuable water resources,” said Dyer. “Whatever opportunities you might have, no action is too small – fixing leaks, using a shut-off nozzle on your garden hose, turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth, shortening your irrigation schedule, reducing the number of irrigation days, shorter showers; it all helps.”
Although the region is well-positioned to overcome the current drought, the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District is continuing to develop additional supplies for the future such as recycled water and stormwater capture as well as enhancements to the State Water Project known as the Delta Conveyance and Sites Reservoir. If the Sites Reservoir was in place today, the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District would have received six times more water this year, district officials said.
“Previous generations invested in the State Water Project on behalf of the region. Now it is our generation’s turn to invest in improvements to the State Water Project that will help ensure a reliable water supply into the future,” said Paul Kielhold, president of the San Bernardino Valley Water District Board of Directors.
Although the initial allocation is zero, there is some prospect that the final allocation will be higher than zero. The allocation is continuously adjusted, throughout the rainy season, based upon actual rainfall.
“We plan for the worst, but hope for the best,” Tincher said.