Dry year, not politics, behind 15-percent water allocation

May 1, 2020
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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Water may be highly political but dry is dry.

And California is exceedingly dry this year, Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth told SJV Water in explaining the state’s low 15-percent allocation for farms and cities that rely on water from the State Water Project.

Given the results of Thursday’s final snow survey in northern California, the state will most likely stick with that 15 percent allocation, Nemeth said.

Thursday’s physical survey, combined with data from 130 snow sensors across the Sierra Nevada, found the statewide snowpack’s water content was just 37 percent of the historic average for May.

Water content is what’s used to project runoff.

And runoff is the key factor used to determine state water allocations.

“Runoff is looking like it did in 2014 and 2015,” Nemeth said, evoking the specter of the worst drought in California’s history.

Though several Central Valley water districts and cities sent a letter to Gov. Newsom in late March noting spring storms had boosted the snowpack and many of the state’s reservoirs were already holding more water than normal, Nemeth said those factors don’t outweigh the dismal runoff projections.

That letter sought to increase the SWP allocation to 35 percent of contracted amounts.

Water managers said in past years with similar snowbacks and even lower reservoir amounts, water allocations have come in at 30 percent or higher.

Justin Mendes, a regulatory specialist with Tulare Lake Basin Storage District, was disappointed but not surprised that the state will likely keep this year’s allocation at 15 percent.

“The government has the final say in all these numbers,” he said. “They can choose to be as conservative as they want to be. I look forward to their response to our letter.”

Nemeth said she read the letter to Newsom and while it’s helpful to know what contractors need to meet their local demands, climate change has simply created more extreme conditions.

“And it’s just harder to hit that number as frequently as they want,” she said of contractors.

The department did look at bumping its allocation to 20 percent.

But that would significantly lower Lake Oroville levels, creating challenges for power generation and for meeting requirements for water contractors on the Feather River, something that only happened in the 2014/2015 drought years, Nemeth said.

Frustrated Central Valley water managers have wondered if the tight state allocation has more to do with politics than hydrology.

The state and federal governments are feuding over how to operate the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation adopted new operational guidelines, called biological opinions, earlier this year.

The state felt those guidelines would further harm threatened and endangered native fish species so, for the first time in the history of California water, it issued its own guidelines, outlined in an “incidental take permit.”

Is the state’s 15-percent allocation part of that fued? A political poke in the eye to the feds?

“I’m sure you’ll be surprised when I say that, no, that is not the case,” Nemeth said. “Our allocation is the same as it is on the federal side.”

The Bureau of Reclamation operates the Central Valley Project, which has several parts. In the Friant division, which brings water south from Millerton Lake via the Friant-Kern Canal, the feds announced they would deliver 55 percent of contracted amounts.

But for federal contractors south of the delta on the west side of the valley, the allocation is 15 percent.

Nemeth said the state’s permit is similar to the federal biological opinions in several ways, including wet year operations.

In fact, she said had the state’s permit been in place last year, the state would have been in better water shape this year.

The new permit allows more flexibility in wet years on where to hold the salinity line between San Francisco Bay and delta waters. And it allows gates to be opened in the Suisuin Marsh in the west delta for habitat rather than requiring water from Lake Oroville.

“We are absolutely about trying to figure out ways to move more water when it’s wet so we can accommodate dry periods,” Nemeth said. “That’s just some evidence on the table to show that it isn’t the case that our low allocation is politically motivated.”

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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