Reservoirs Show Depths of California's Drought Disaster

In a good year, the reservoirs can store enough water to supply California's human consumption needs — with billions of gallons extra. This year the major reservoirs are holding, on average, just half what they should.

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(TNS) - Instead of being flush with newly melted snow, Folsom Lake is the driest it's been in springtime since the epic drought of 1977. Water levels are so low that temporary pumps probably will be installed to help move water out of the stricken reservoir.

Water levels at Lake Oroville have plunged to the point that its giant hydropower plant could be idled for the first time ever this summer, putting additional strain on California's troubled electric grid. At massive Shasta Lake, which feeds the Sacramento River watershed and much of the Central Valley, conditions are so bad that major cities are drawing up conservation plans, farmers have scaled back plantings and environmentalists are angrily warning of massive fish kills.

California's reservoirs, normally the bulwark of the state's elaborate water system, have been left defenseless by a drought that seems to worsen by the day.

In a good year, the reservoirs can store enough water to supply California's human consumption needs — with billions of gallons extra, to cushion the state against drought. This year the major reservoirs are holding, on average, just half what they should for this time of year, and the drought cushion is eroding.

"We're starting to chew through the drought storage in our reservoirs," said Jay Lund, a watershed expert at UC Davis.

Put another way: Lund said that in just two years of drought, California already has drawn down its reservoirs to levels that weren't seen until the third year of the last drought.

It adds up to a terrible summer — for the environment, for agriculture. Urban areas that rely on the federal government's Central Valley Project, which delivers water from Shasta, Folsom and other reservoirs, have been told they're getting just 25% of their contracted allocations this year.

No one is predicting that urban taps will run dry, but anxiety levels are growing. Smaller water districts along the Russian River, where conditions are among the worst in the state, are ordering residents to restrict usage. Valley Water, which serves 2 million Silicon Valley residents, has asked for 25% voluntary cutbacks, and some of its leaders believe mandatory cutbacks should be on the table.

"We're in an extraordinary world of hurt," said Gary Kremen, vice chairman of the Silicon Valley agency. "This is gonna be super grim unless something happens."

Valley Water's board will vote Wednesday on a resolution declaring a "water shortage emergency" and asking its member agencies to institute mandatory cutbacks. But Kremen said Valley Water can't impose cutbacks on its own, and what's really needed is a direct order from Gov. Gavin Newsom to force conservation.

Another potential problem for Silicon Valley is that San Luis Reservoir, where much of the Valley's water resides, is likely to dip to levels last seen during the 2015 drought. Back then, hundreds of thousands of Silicon Valley residents had foul-tasting water due to algae blooms.

This year, algae blooms could be the least of the region's worries.

"We can talk about maybe the water will be a little stinky. So what? We're more worried about (having) no water," Kremen said.

The Contra Costa Water District, also alarmed by the dramatic reduction in deliveries from the federal government, is likely to institute a voluntary conservation program in July, said spokeswoman Jennifer Allen. "It's that change in allocation," she said.

How Folsom Lake's drought affects Sacramento

Newsom so far has refused to order mandatory cutbacks — unlike his predecessor, Jerry Brown, who in 2015 told cities and towns to reduce consumption by 25%. Newsom's top water advisors have said such orders could happen if the state undergoes a third straight dry winter.

But it isn't taking that long for Sacramento area residents to cast a nervous glance at the rapidly diminishing water levels at Folsom Lake.

"It's more of a critical question when you get into the months of June, July, August," said Sean Bigley, assistant environmental utilities director at the city of Roseville, one of the multiple agencies that rely in part on Folsom.

The 63-year-old reservoir hasn't been this dry — at this point in the year — since 1977. Normally it should be about 85% full, state records show. This year, though, it's barely more than one-third full.

Bigley and others say the greater Sacramento region should have enough water this summer and fall to meet human consumption demands. But they acknowledge residents' nervousness, and the dismal conditions at Folsom Lake — which normally serves about 55% of the region's needs — are forcing officials to scramble.

The Water Authority, which oversees a water-sharing agreement among two-dozen urban and suburban agencies, is calling on residents to curb usage by 10% to alleviate pressure on the lake. In addition, the region is shifting its water-supply portfolio to lean more heavily on the area's relatively abundant groundwater stores.

Other steps are coming. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Folsom, is preparing to install a temporary pumping system later this summer in case lake levels fall below the point where water can reach the reservoir's valves. Spokeswoman Mary Lee Knecht said the pump system would be used to export water "in case there's no rain by October."

Officials say water releases from Folsom Lake could be critical to maintaining enough water flow in the Lower American River to prop up struggling fish species.

Something else about Folsom: Nine of its 13 boat launches are shuttered.

The same sad story exists at Oroville: Eight of its 10 boat launches have closed.

In other words, the drought is putting a dent in California's summertime recreation, too.

At New Bullards Bar Reservoir, in Yuba County, one of the area's most popular spots for boaters, one of the two boat ramps is likely to close down at some point this summer, said DeDe Cordell, spokeswoman for the Yuba Water Agency.

Cordell said the reservoir is at 1,854 feet of elevation, or about 32 feet above the point where the Cottage Creek boat ramp would be considered unusable.

As fish die, some blame farmers for drought woes

It wasn't supposed to get this bad, at least not this quickly.

As recently as two months ago, the Sierra Nevada snowpack was about 70% of average, and state officials were hunkering down for a difficult but not disastrous summer.

But in a space of a few weeks, amid a spring warm spell, most of the Sierra runoff either evaporated or was soaked up by dry soils. As Newsom finally declared a drought emergency in 41 of the state's 58 counties, officials said about 500,000 acre-feet of melted snow that was supposed to replenish the reservoirs failed to materialize. Later they put the missing runoff figure at 685,000 acre-feet, enough water to fill about two-thirds of Folsom Lake.

Newsom and others blamed climate change for turning the situation so unexpectedly catastrophic. But many environmentalists and other policy experts aren't completely buying that explanation.

Jeffrey Mount, a water expert at the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California, said reservoirs have been drained in order to serve the agricultural contractors of the feds' Central Valley Project.

"I'm not overly sympathetic to the statements that (say), 'We were surprised.' " Mount said. "The fact of the matter is we released a lot of water out of our reservoirs, particularly on the federal side, through April and May when ... not a lot was flowing in. And none of it was to support the environment. This was just to meet basically farm demand."

It's clear, from federal data, that major reservoirs have been releasing more water than they've been taking in. Storage levels at Shasta Lake, the largest and most important reservoir in the state, fell by 400,000 acre-feet in April and May combined.

Yet government officials say they haven't been sacrificing the reservoirs simply to keep farms afloat. Knecht, the Reclamation spokeswoman, said the springtime water releases at Shasta not only nourished farms but were undertaken to meet water quality standards in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and to improve conditions along the Sacramento River for fish species.

Reclamation has cut most of its Central Valley Project farmers to nothing this year — zero water allocations. But certain groups of farmers have special historical water rights that guarantee them plenty of water. In particular, the Sacramento Valley's so-called settlement contractors, who grow rice and other crops on the west side of the valley, are due to get 75% of their normal Central Valley Project allocation.

Environmentalists say that's an outrage — and the farmers' legal rights shouldn't take precedence over long-held environmental rules and regulations.

Doug Obegi, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said so much water is going to agriculture that California will witness a "massive mortality of salmon and other species" this summer. The National Marine Fisheries Service has said most of the juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon could die this year — cooked in the overly warm waters of the Sacramento River, in a repeat of environmental debacles that took place in 2014 and 2015.

Farmers, though, say they're doing their share. The settlement contractors are foregoing a portion of their water entitlement this year, opting to sell some to fellow farmers south of the Delta as well as Valley Water — the agency in Silicon Valley — according to Don Bransford, a prominent rice farmer in the Williams area.

"It's a huge balance — nobody's happy about the situation," said Bransford, who's idling about 25% of his acreage this year. "We are an easy target because we happen to have rights to a lot of water."

Although the Valley farmers plan to sell some of their water to customers in the south, they're delaying the transfers until the fall in order to preserve a deeper pool of cold water in Shasta Lake — a move designed to help the salmon. "We're just trying to make a difficult situation a little bit better," Bransford said.

Valley growers are idling about 100,000 acres of land normally devoted to rice, a decision that will reduce this year's harvest by about 20%.

Will parched reservoirs lead to blackouts?

California was caught flat-footed last summer. As 110-degree heat smothered much of the West, electricity supplies ran low and the state endured two straight nights of rolling blackouts. They represented the first power shortages in California since the 2001 energy crisis when supplies were being manipulated by traders from Enron and other companies.

What about 2021? Managers of the state's power grid, the California Independent System Operator, have said they're reasonably certain blackouts can be avoided this summer. "We have some guarded optimism that we're going to get through it," said Elliot Mainzer, president of the ISO, in a conference call with reporters a month ago.

Among other things, the state will have about 3,500 additional megawatts of power on hand this summer, enough to power more than 2.6 million homes.

But plenty of risk lies ahead. And the drought certainly won't help.

Normally, the grid relies on hydropower for about 14% of its overall supply. But this year the state is facing "significantly lower-than-normal hydro conditions," the ISO said in its official summer assessment, released about a month ago. The reduction in hydro could put more stress on the grid if another multi-state heat wave comes around.

A glance at shriveled Lake Oroville helps explain why.

The largest reservoir in the State Water Project system, Oroville feeds electricity into the grid from the Edward Hyatt Power Plant. While the plant normally generates about 400 megawatts of electricity, it has a total capacity of 750 megawatts — about the size of a major natural gas-fired plant.

The plant has produced power ever since it opened in the late 1960s. Even in the 1977 drought, widely considered among the worst ever, the plant was able to muster "minimal generation," said Behzad Soltanzadeh, chief of utility operations at the State Water Project.

But in 2021, the lake is sitting at just 707 feet of elevation. If it dips to as low as 630 or 640 feet, the Hyatt plant could be rendered inoperable, Soltanzadeh said.

"There is a possibility we could lose generation," he said.

SMUD believes its hydropower will hold up relatively well, in part because the Sacramento Municipal Utility District minimized releases from its reservoirs over the winter in order to meet summer demand for power, said spokeswoman Lindsay VanLaningham.

"SMUD expects to continue to provide reliable power throughout the summer, despite the drought," she said.

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