Drought shows California’s water rights system is broken


California’s ongoing drought — or, more accurately, our new normal given the realities of climate change — shows that California’s water system is effectively bankrupt and collapsing, which is the amount of water promised (through claimed water rights and water contracts) ) far more results than are actually available on average each year, let alone delivered sustainably in dry years.

The drought we are facing this year is not just a hydrological problem, it is also a hydrological problem. This is a result of the state’s failure to plan for the drought, particularly last year’s failure to maintain adequate carryover storage at Shasta and other reservoirs. While the weather for the past two plus months has been very dry, the drought has become a reality and we have no control over the hydrology. But we do have control over what happens to water in the Bay Delta watershed, and last year’s failure to plan for drought — especially the failure to maintain adequate carryover storage in upstream reservoirs in 2021 by reducing water distribution and diversion, as we warned last year. Fall – leaves California with no good options in 2022.

The only way to break out of this cycle of destruction — other than praying for rain, which is not a strategy — is to reduce water delivery and diversions to maintain adequate carryover storage in Shasta and upstream reservoirs this year.

2022 will be worse than 2021 – as the state fails to limit unsustainable water transfers:

Last year was devastating for the delta’s native salmon and endangered species, as well as the thousands of fishing jobs, tribes and communities that depend on a healthy environment. For example, 75% of endangered winter-run salmon eggs were killed by hot water temperatures below Shasta Dam last year, as the state and the Fed failed to mandate adequate storage and temperature controls, and a large number of harmful incidents occurred in the delta Algal blooms and deteriorating water quality due to state water board permitting CVP and SWP violations of water quality standards.

Unless the state changes course, the impact of this year’s drought is likely to be much worse than in 2021 due to last year’s failure to plan for drought and/or a reduction in excessive water transfer this year.

If the state and federal government continue these planned actions, this graph shows that the state’s two largest reservoirs are expected to hold less than catastrophic 2021 levels and at or near record low levels (at least since 1977). It is based on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s modeling of the potential operation of state and federal water projects this year, based on a 99% hydrological overshoot forecast as of February 1, 2022 (this model is available here). Not only would these water storage have a devastating effect on salmon, but it would also reduce or eliminate hydropower generation in these reservoirs (Oroville stopped producing hydropower last year due to low water storage).

These results arise because Reclamation’s model assumes unsustainable water diversion in the Sacramento Valley, primarily by CVP’s ​​Sacramento River settlement contractor and DWR’s Feather River settlement contractor. If these contractors diverted as much water this summer as they did last year, they would divert nearly all — or even more than 100% — of the water flowing into Shasta and Oroville this summer:

The only way to avoid this outcome is to reduce the diversions of these contractors, something the State Water Control Board is empowered to do.

In addition, DWR and Reclamation announced that they will file a temporary emergency change petition on Friday to allow SWP and CVP to violate the Delta’s minimum water quality goals between April and June, and may file a subsequent TUCP violation of water quality fall standards. This TUCP will cause significant harm to salmon migrating through the delta and native species of the delta, such as albacore and delta salmon, and may lead to harmful algal blooms that threaten communities in Stockton and elsewhere in the delta.

But Reclamation’s modelling shows that violating delta water quality targets through TUCP will not improve Shasta storage (and actually make it worse), but it does improve Oroville storage, suggesting that TUCP’s Designed not to help fish and wildlife, but to protect the production of Hydro Oroville:

If the state reduces water transfers, it is not inevitable that this year’s reservoir storage will hit a record low:

Record-low water levels this fall are not inevitable; whether or not to continue to allow over-diversion and delivery of water to these contractors is fundamentally a policy choice.

Reclamation’s model assumes that reservoir releases are higher than required for temperature control, and simplified calculations suggest that reducing reservoir releases to supply water to water contractors could significantly increase reservoir storage this fall:

According to the Anderson Cottonwood Irrigation District (Sacramento River Settlement Contractors), these contractors may be limited to 20% or 25% of their allotment, which capped 5,000 cfs or 4,000 cfs for Sacramento River discharge this summer (see here Linked slide 12). Doing so could increase Shasta storage by more than indicated in the table above, to 1.2 to 1.5 million acre-feet. While that’s still below the 1.9 million acre-feet of water storage scientists found at the end of September to help ensure adequate water temperatures in 2023, it’s far better than the projected low water storage if the allocation of that water isn’t reduced .

By reducing water flow, increasing Shasta storage from the record-low levels predicted by Reclamation in February is critical not only to preventing the near-complete die-off of salmon under these forecast operations this year, but also preventing this from happening again in 2023 year of disaster.

Governor Newsom’s Water Resilience Portfolio calls for the state to be able to protect fish and wildlife during a six-year drought (Recommendation 26.3), but the state can’t even cope for two years without abandoning the delta’s water quality goals and causing a massive drought mortality of drought salmon. This year will continue the pattern and practice of abandoning water quality targets in the delta in every severe drought year since 2012.

The state’s failure to plan for the drought will not only wipe out salmon and other native species, but it will threaten farms and communities in the delta as well as hydropower production again this summer. Reducing water diversions and water supplies, especially to settlement and exchange contractors, is critical to preventing 2022 from becoming a worse disaster than 2021.

If we do not rebuild reservoir storage by the end of 2022 – or if we allow transfers to deplete Shasta storage after September – we will not be able to learn from the droughts of the past few years and will only repeat disaster until the flood year.

Asking for rain is not a strategy.

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