Where did all that water go? Some dry numbers on today’s drought

Folsom Lake reservoir, 1976 drought

Folsom Lake reservoir, 1976 drought. Source: California Department of Water Resources

By Greg Gartrell

Various water interests lately have been blaming operators of California’s state and federal water projects for worsening this year’s drought. The claims appearing in news stories run along these lines:

  • They exported far more water than they said they would.
  • They drained Northern California reservoirs to fill Southern California reservoirs.
  • They should have held water in storage last year so they would have enough this year to a) meet water quality requirements, b) protect the environment, c) meet senior water rights, d) any combination of the above.

Comments such as these are fueling public mistrust of water project operators – the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) – and that mistrust is thwarting the collaboration we need to get through the epic drought today.

As a longtime water manager recently retired, I had the interest, the knowledge and the time to investigate these claims. Data on project storage levels, water allocations and exports are publicly available on Reclamation’s Website and DWR’s online California Data Exchange Center. I crosschecked the 2013 numbers with experts who independently track this data.

1. Did project operators export more water than they said they would?

No. A check of the numbers at the export pumps shows the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project actually exported less water than had been allocated.

Project water allocations were about 3.2 million acre-feet [1] and a combined 2.9 million acre-feet [2] were exported at the pumps in the 2013 contract year. Exports and allocations are closely matched if you include as “exports” water that was delivered from San Luis Reservoir, some of which was carryover from 2012. [3]

Folsom Reservoir, January 2014. Source: California Department of Water Resources

Folsom Reservoir, January 2014. Source: California Department of Water Resources

I had seen a claim in the press that the projects pumped hundreds of thousands more acre-feet of water than had been allocated to contractors. Further investigation led to the reason: flawed apples-to-oranges type comparisons.

In the mistaken calculations, contract-year allocations were compared with water-year exports, yet the water year (Oct. 1 – Sept. 30) does not align with either the state or the federal contract year. In the latter case, the water year differs by five months! In essence, a portion of 2012 contract year pumping was being compared to 2013 allocations.

2. Did project operators “drain the reservoirs” to export water?

They withdrew from storage for a variety of purposes, not just exports. Of the total 4.7 million acre-feet [4] drawn from Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs in 2013, about 2 MAF [5] was exported and 2.7 MAF went to other in-basin uses, including outflows needed to prevent sea water intrusion in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (outflow was 6.5 MAF [6] in 2013). Note that some of the exported water would have been released from storage in any event for required instream flows and could not be held in storage.

3. What if they had not exported any water from storage last year?

Consider the severity of this year’s drought: The required minimum Delta outflow this year (without relaxation of salinity standards) would be more than 3 MAF. Many upstream water users who normally use millions of acre-feet are already being warned to expect shortages, even with relaxed water-quality standards in the Delta and no exports. The Sierra snowpack is miserably low. (Nice weather we’ve had, huh?) Water quality is expected to reach levels that could severely disrupt normal water use in the Delta; harm to aquatic life is certain.

Shasta Reservoir and dam, Winter 2013-2014. Source: California Department of Water Resources

Shasta Reservoir and dam, Winter 2013-2014. Source: California Department of Water Resources

An extra million acre-feet or even two in storage would not solve any of these problems, although holding it back would have resulted in massive shortages last year – at huge economic costs – for project water contractors, including Friant water users, and would have been disastrous for wildlife refuges.

For those who say project operators should have cut exports in 2013 and kept what they could in storage for this year: what would you do with that extra water this year? Hold it in storage for next year (like you are saying they should have done last year)? Whatever your personal view, you can see that it simply pushes shortages from one year to the next; it does not solve the shortage problem.

Managing today

So here is a real problem to work on today:

There is about 4 million acre-feet in storage, and no more than about 3 million acre-feet can be released without resorting to pumps or emergency outlet valves that might not close. Export allocations are zero. Delta water quality is going to get very bad for fish and possibly unusable for some communities. Meanwhile, what’s left of the snowpack is rapidly diminishing.

What would you do with the 3 million acre-feet of usable storage? Hold some or all in storage in case next year is dry — creating huge shortages, fishery and water quality problems this year? Release it for water quality, the environment or senior water-right holders this year (where it will not satisfy all demands) — risking a real disaster next year if it is dry? (Those counting on El Niño to save us next year should note that a large fraction of El Niño years are dry.) I am not sure there is a good answer to this question, but I am certain there are a lot of bad answers.

Lower American River, 1977 drought

Lower American River, 1977 drought. Source: California Department of Water Resources

You can see the difficult decisions project operators must make in dry years. As one of them once told me, it’s like “choosing among your children” who gets water and who does not.

You may still think California’s water system is mismanaged or over-allocated, or believe settlement contracts were too generous, exports are too high, fish are getting way too much water, or too much water is going to control Delta salinity.

Whatever your view, we are in a severe drought and arguing about why or how we got here does not solve any of our current problems. Hold those arguments for a wet year, please, and spend your time working on the problem.

Greg Gartrell retired last year after 25 years as a water manager at the Contra Costa Water District. He optimistically thinks we can solve water problems through collaboration.

[1] The 2013 State Water Project (SWP) allocation was 35 percent or 1.4 million acre-feet (MAF). Central Valley Project (CVP) operators allocated 20 percent (390,000 acre-feet) to agricultural contractors south of the Delta; 50 percent (90,000 acre-feet) to municipal and industrial contractors south of the Delta; and a combined 1.3 MAF to wildlife refuges (which have a priority for water) and San Joaquin Exchange Contractors (who have senior water rights and settlement contracts).

[2] Export pumping in the 2013 contract year totaled 1.3 MAF for the CVP and 1.8 MAF for the SWP, but the latter figure includes about 200,000 acre-feet of “transfer water” unrelated to the allocations. So the total CVP-SWP export was 2.9 MAF — 300,000 acre-feet less than the 3.2 MAF allocated.

[3]  Deliveries and allocations each amount to about 3.6 MAF by  including: (1) the net drawdown of San Luis Reservoir (about 500,000 acre-feet), (2) the carryover reservoir water unrelated to 2013 allocations and losses, (3) the 200,000 acre-feet of transfer water and (4) the 2.9 MAF of allocated water.

[4] Derived by subtracting the reservoirs’ combined peak storage in 2013 – about 7.8 MAF – from the year’s minimum storage, which was 3.1 MAF.

[5] The CVP imported about 800,000 acre-feet from the Trinity River to offset the project’s 1.3 MAF of export pumping. In addition, at least 100,000 acre-feet in unstored flows were exported.  That leaves about 2 MAF from in-basin storage.

[6] Delta outflow totaled 6.5 MAF in 2013, according to the California Data Exchange Center.

Further reading

California water data:
• California Data Exchange Center (CDEC), California Department of Water Resources (DWR)
• U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Central Valley Operations Office
• Water Data Library, California Department of Water Resources

Current California water situation:
• Reservoir Conditions, DWR
• California Northern Sierra Precipitation, CDEC
• California Snow Water Content, CDEC

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12 Responses to Where did all that water go? Some dry numbers on today’s drought

  1. Pingback: Daily Digest: Central Valley farmland on last legs, Congress focusing on dams, plus Greg Gartrell on where the water went and groundwater on webcast today » MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK | MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK

  2. Tom Cannon says:

    Much of outflow comes from Sac Valley uncontrolled rivers in storms, as occurred this Feb-Mar. Reservoirs stored over 1 maf of Feb-Mar storms – none of the extra water was released. Look back to 87-92 to see that more water could have been saved. Demands are simply higher now with same infrastructure and drier weather.

  3. nonewwater says:

    If the operators should be trusted then the decisions they make on water deliveries should be public information before the decisions on distributions are made. Changes to those decisions should be public also. I’m not talking about their forecast press release. I am talking about the day to day operations that very few people ever see or even understand. How many people in the State actually understand how water operations work? Very, very few. In river production of winter-run Chinook salmon is going to be severely impacted this year because the Bureau absolutely exported too much water out of Shasta and now the cold water pool will most likely not sustain in river production. How many tons of almonds and rice where harvested last year at the expense of an endangered fish this year? No one “thinks” the water system is over allocated, it is simple arithmetic, it absolutely is! Year to year water reliability is not achieved by trying to maximize exports every year. If I acted the way water operators do with my checking account I would be bankrupt. When operators talk about water reliability as increasing a total amount each year they sound like drug addicts, if I only had more everything would be better. That is not reliability. Reliability is a constant amount that is always much less then the maximum. This is the reason we have nothing this year. Water operators strive to export the maximum every year instead of trying to think about stretching water budgets in order to have a reliable amount. If what I have said is not true then why do the water operators game the system with regards to environmental flows? Managing a control point in order to avoid an environmental trigger. Getting concessions based on drought then pumping like hell if conditions change. Why do water operators try and change the water year classifications so they are required to deliver less to the environment and can then export more? Most people reading this will have no idea what I am talking about but Greg Gartell does.

    • sacvalleyguy says:

      Interesting comment but not exactly correct. First, the Bureau doesn’t export water from Shasta, it releases it based on FIRST the temperature requirements of salmon, in particular winter run, in order to maintain a viable cold water environment below Keswick. That block of water is then used a second time by water users in the Sac Valley and then if there is still the ability to export water south of the delta, the Bureau will do so. The fact that south of delta allocations were only 10% last year is indicative of the fact that the Bureau didnt release too much water. What did cost extra water last fall was additional fall temperature releases demanded by the National Marine Fishery Service to keep winter run redds under water which IS one of the main reasons Shasta reservoir was drawn down. The fishery agencies bet that Shasta would refill this year and it did not. I will forego discussing how this operation has been a major detriment to the fall run salmon.

      Unfortunately, we are in the same place again this year. Again, water will FIRST be released from Shasta to maintain downstream temperature for the benefit of salmon, primarily winter run, and then that water may be available to downstream users.

      Its too bad you are bashing the operators, they try to balance all the competing needs of the projects and maximize the efficient use of water for the environment and other users. Also its important to also recognize that the operators consult with the fishery agencies before water is ever allocated to water users.

      • nonewwater says:

        Clearly you do not understand how the system as a whole is managed. The amount of cold water pool is controlled by the overall amount of water in the reservoir. Winter run require a certain temperature of water to survive since the dam prevents them from reaching their spawning grounds. The Bureau absolutely controls the amount of water released out of the dam and therefor the amount of cold water pool available. Just because a certain group of people got a small amount of water does not mean they did not export too much. Clearly they did. You cannot save the cold water pool year to year, it only occurs at certain depths and has to be used for winter run in river. The water above it is what maintains the temperature. This is the water that is over exported. In-river users below the dam may have gotten low deliveries and south of Delta users may have gotten low deliveries this does not mean that these low deliveries were reasonable. The Bureau also over exported water out of Nimbus last year to the extreme detriment of fall run in the American River. You are not in the room where decisions are made so you do not understand they way these things work or the way the Bureau manipulates the system to the benefit of water users to the detriment of the environment. Fisheries agencies are not in a position to bet on dam releases ever. They use information provided to them by the Bureau itself who is in the room when these recommendations are made. If the cold water pool was as protected as you suggest then the exports out of Shasta would be capped at a specific amount the way the flood control numbers are. You are right fisheries agencies are consulted, then they are ignored outright. It happens ALL THE TIME. Cold water pool simply is not protected the way you claim it to be. If it were in-river winter run production wouldn’t be projected to be zero this year do to temperature.

  4. Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla says:

    Delta fishery experts and Delta water agencies calculated the over released water from the dams based on water years, whereas Dr. Gartrell used contract years. Restore the Delta stands by the calculations we used in our releases. Regardless of which definition of a year one uses, reservoirs were at dangerously low levels in early 2013, and an official from the Resources Agency admitted at the Congressional Hearing in Fresno last week that they did not plan for another dry year and did not hold back water in case of need. We have reached the precipice sever times over the last 30 years in which the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau have gambled with the water supply at hand. To say that we shouldn’t question these agencies is faulty logic. The over pumping of the Delta has decimated fisheries and has degraded water quality, and these government agencies need to be held accountable.

  5. babsbp says:

    Delta fishery experts and Delta water agency leaders calculated the over release from upstream dams based on water years, whereas Dr. Gartrell used contract years. Hence the disagreement. But Restore the Delta stands by the initial calculations that we publicized because 1) there was a 1.3 million acre foot draw down of reservoirs over the last two years, leaving these dams at dangerously low levels at the beginning of 2014; 2) a Resources official stated at the Congressional hearing in Fresno last week that they did not plan for another dry year in 2014 and did not hold back water in preparation for a dry year. Delta fisheries are in crisis due to 30 years of over pumping, and water quality standards are violated on a regular basis. Insisting that we should not question and critique the management of the water system by DWR and the Bureau is faulty logic. It is the duty of citizen groups to question such regular mismanagement and poor planning.

    • jaylund says:

      It is ironic that Delta interests favored the beginnings of the big dam and Delta export projects in the 1930s when upstream diversions and dry conditions were leading to salinity intrusion far into the Delta. Amid the conflicts, there is deep interdependency in California’s water system.

      One benefit of California’s decentralized water system is the large amount of scrutiny of agency and stakeholder claims. Dr. Gartrell continues to do a great service in this regard, with a long career of substantive scrutinizing and questioning of both technical findings and management decisions.

      The native fish also are affected by draining about 400,000 acres of habitat by landowners, and a few other stressors as well.

  6. Greg Gartrell says:

    A few comments on the comments (and thanks to Jay for the kind remarks):
    NoNewWater expresses frustration, that many share, as to not understanding how and why decisions are made, and that is totally legitimate. The commenter uses an expression I have never heard (and it threw me for a while) about “exports” from Shasta (as if the water belongs there ??)—I and most associate exports with pumping from one hydrological basin to another, not a release from a reservoir. No matter, I understood the comment in the end. Lest anyone else made my mistake, here are some interesting numbers that affected CVP storage releases: 2013 outflow was 6.5 MAF (of which about 2 MAF was unstored flows); allocations to settlement and exchange contractors were 100% by contract and totaled 3.1 MAF, other Sacramento Valley ag contractors got about 330 TAF (75%), refuges got about 300 TAF, export ag got 20% (not 10% as SacValleyGuy commented) or 390 TAF. In addition there are a large number of diversions above or in the Delta in the millions of acre-feet by users who are not contractors but whose straws affect the outflow. I think it is pretty clear that Shasta was not drawn down significantly for “exports” (as commonly used, which is what I initially thought NoNewWater was referring to).

    NoNewWater correctly points out the severe drop in Folsom Reservoir, which went dangerously low, but in part that was driven by attempts to maintain outflow, and time and again last year, reservoir releases just did not show up in the Delta (all those straws were thirsty).

    NoNewWater’s discussion of cold water dynamics in Shasta is too simplistic to be taken seriously: if you can’t carryover cold water, it would not matter how much you pulled out in any year, all cold water in any year would come only from inflow that year. The hydrodynamics of stratified reservoirs is far more complicated than incorrectly presented here and the cold water pool depends on many factors; however the cold water pool does indeed depend in part on spring snowmelt and until the latest storms that was zero; now it is just miserably low, a part of the cold water problem this year.

    My friend Barbara correctly points out that it is the duty to question and demand accountability, and I absolutely agree there has not been sufficient accountability and there will have to be. While her math is correct on the numbers, it is the logic that is bad. It makes no sense to compare water year pumping (which includes pumping for 2012 allocations) with 2013 contract year allocations and then claim they pumped more than they said they allocated in 2013 (with that logic exporters could compare 2013 pumping with 2012 allocations and draw the opposite and equally wrong conclusion).

    However the letter to the SWRCB which first presented those numbers was directed at what many regard as the inappropriately excused exceedance of Delta standards; that letter submitted other information including project operator forecast graphs showing increased exports (on a monthly basis) compared to the forecast. Although it appears clear that water which could have been used to meet Delta standards was exported (of course at a cost-there is no free lunch), the comparison of total water year exports when made to the issued forecasts for differing contract years was apples to oranges. The forecast graphs compared to actual pumping by month are another matter. That letter requested investigation and verification and asked a series of questions. There was no direct response to the important questions presented: That LACK OF RESPONSE IS INEXCUSABLE and must be corrected; there is no excuse for that lack of transparency (and it only contributes to the mistrust we don’t need).

    Barbara’s claim that DWR “admitted” there was no planning for drought is a bit of a stretch: First, the administration official was responding to a question in the Fresno Congressional Hearing as to why they didn’t pump more, not why they didn’t hold back more, and the response referred to planning for the severity of THIS drought. Allocations are based on assumed dry conditions at the 90% level, so in essence they always assume drought-like conditions for the rest of the year; correct though, that they did not assume it would turn out to be the driest 13 months in the past 500 years (who did?). All that and more are legitimate topics for debate, which brings me back to my main point:

    I have seen preliminary operations for the coming 9 months and they are really bad for everyone and everything. Personally, I could very quickly come up with even worse operations for many or all interests: that is easy. What is very hard is finding less bad operations (I am convinced there are no good ones). None of those commenting took up my challenge of offering what they would do this year and that is disappointing, we need a quick, constructive discussion and then get to it (much better than continuing to shout over what was done wrong last year).

    It is very easy to fall back into the blame game and normally that is relatively harmless, but right now it is not harmless. I have seen in the past week press accounts and blogs where people were making conspiracy claims about proposed actions that were fantastical and frankly against their own interests. I think they might realize they are against their own interests if they weren’t so spun up by “facts” that are not factual (these “facts” were repeated by the individuals as reasons for their mistrust). I have experienced in the past situations where organized opposition based largely on pretended motives or consequences have stopped what would have been useful and beneficial projects. We can’t afford that nonsense in our current situation.
    So I repeat my plea: spend your energy helping solve the immediate problem this year with constructive suggestions and concerns, and hold on to your issues on past actions so that they can be reviewed, discussed and debated at the end of the drought when it will absolutely be necessary to review, to learn and to implement better procedures for the future.

    • nonewwater says:

      The real problem as I see it is the ridiculous way water is allocated in this State. One farmer gets 100% of allocation, another farmer gets 5% of allocation, riparian users get as much as they can pump, fish get what’s left over. None of these problems will be solved until this first problem is addressed. My simplistic description of cold water dynamics was also part of the problem. Your description of system operations was also too simplistic as to be taken seriously. You cannot explain limnology in a blog comment. You cannot explain overall system operations in a blog comment. It is extremely easy to spread disinformation in a blog comment. These forms of communication are extremely inefficient for these kinds of problems and I wonder at their usefulness. Until water is accurately distributed and accounted for nothing discussed in this blog or any where else is going to make any difference. How many decades has this system been used in the exact same way? We assume that something is going to change by turning more knobs?As you point out, the water out of Nimbus never made it out. This is not a situation unique to the American. Since exporters south of Delta exert massive influence on the operators (they pay for most of the operations) they will scream for more water from the dams until it gets there, with in basin riparian users taking from that flow and the fish being left with nothing along the way. Before anyone jumps on me about fish not getting water and how much is wasted to the sea, consider that what the environment actually needs is, quite literally, all of the out flow. I’m not saying that is what should happen but that is the reality. So we divvy it up, but the problem is the fish do not have the same voice in the room where the knobs are turned. The fish agencies make comments and suggestions and even regulations that are supposed to be followed. If these things happened, I believe, fish would be doing considerably better. That isn’t what happens though, operators manipulate and change and outright ignore the fish agency requests and advice until a species is back at the brink of extinction. Only when things are at their worst do fish get any actual consideration. This is when it is too late to exact change. Fish are not a field of corn. You cannot just add water and the field grows. It takes years of good conditions for populations to rebound and even when that happens the water system crushes them again. So I say again, until there is an accurate and fair accounting and distribution of water, which is owned by all the people of California already (public trust resource remember?), none of these problems will be fixed. How is a person with a water right south of the Delta allowed to sell water to a municipality farther south? Why does one citizen profit at the expense of other citizens for a resource that is owed by all of them, for which he has never taken possession or effort in it’s transfer? The Director of DWR is the political equal of the Resource Secretary; consider that the Resource Secretary is his boss. When Stewart Resnick is unhappy, Diane Feinstein jumps. I will be waiting for Godot along with an answer to these questions.

  7. I couldn’t agree more with you that arguing about which water projects, if any, mismanaged their resources is a colossal waste of time. The bottom line is that California needs to step up and make the tough choices that will help you get through this prolonged drought. Better recycling of waste water, charging farmers the same price for pumping groundwater as residential users and new desalinization projects should all be debated, funded and (probably) implemented. But arguing over ever-dwindling resources isn’t going to help the problem.

  8. Pingback: Feinstein attacks environmentalists on drought | CalWatchDog

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