Wednesday, December 2, 2015
State sets initial 10 percent water project allocation for 2016
By John Cox
Depending on how much rain falls in California this winter, customers of the State Water Project can expect to receive 10 percent of their normal allocation, or half what they got this year, the state Department of Water Resources said Tuesday.
The announcement reflects historically low reservoir levels amid a drought that has so far lasted four years.
The department said in a news release that even if El Niño weather conditions bring an extremely wet winter, as many hope, conditions including groundwater levels would not return to normal.
“No matter how hard it’s raining, we need to remember to use water wisely and sparingly,” department Director Mark Cowin said in the release. “Our historic drought has lasted for years and isn’t going to quickly be washed away.”
State Water Project customers received a 5 percent allocation last year, 35 percent in 2013 and 65 percent in 2012. The last time customers received a full allotment was in 2006.
The department said Lake Oroville, the state project’s principal reservoir, is nearing its record low of 882,000 acre-feet, set in 1977. It currently holds 929,151 acre-feet, or 43 percent of its historical average for the date.
Shasta Lake, the Central Valley Project’s largest reservoir, is at 49 percent of its historical average for this time of year. Meanwhile, San Luis Reservoir, another critical storage facility for the Central Valley, is at 32 percent of its average for the date.
Los Angeles Times
California’s snowpack is deeper than last year, but more is needed, officials say
By Veronica Rocha
First, the good news: Thanks to a series of frosty winter storms, California’s snowpack is now double what it was last year at this time, according to officials.
Now the bad news: The amount of water actually contained in the fluffy white stuff is still well below average.
Snow levels measured statewide on Tuesday showed that water content was 56% of the historical average for Dec. 1. One year earlier, the water content measured just 24% of average.
“It’s certainly a better sign than there was last year,” said David Rizzardo, chief of snow surveys for California’s Department of Water Resources. “Anything is better than zero.”
Although the string of recent snowstorms is welcome, they have done little to ease four years of drought, experts say.
“We are still not getting the rain and snow frequency amounts we would like to see,” Rizzardo said.
Northern California, specifically the Sierra Nevada, needs more than one storm a week to help build snowpack to healthy levels, Rizzardo said.
In April, snowpack levels fell to just 5% of the seasonal average, which prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to order mandatory reductions in urban water use.
To restore the state’s reservoirs to pre-drought levels, California would need the snowpack to reach 150% of average, Rizzardo said. The snowpack provides about a third of California’s water supply.
It remains unclear whether continuing El Niño conditions will translate into heavy snowfall this January and February. Traditionally, the warm wet weather conditions that characterize El Niño in California do little to increase Northern California snowpack, Rizzardo said.
In fact, the spate of recent snowstorms had nothing to do with subtropical El Niño storms, according to Michelle Mead, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento. The snowpack was the result of a northern polar jet stream.
A cold storm arriving Thursday could bring up to six inches of snow to several Northern California communities, including Donner Pass, but little is expected beyond that.
“Over the next 10 days, there will be a couple of weak storms that will bring light snow to the Sierra, but significant snowfall isn’t likely,” the National Weather Service said.
For breaking news in California, follow VeronicaRochaLA on Twitter.
Releases from Lake Oroville increased to keep salt water out of the delta
By Heather Hacking
Oroville >> Even as Lake Oroville nears its record low, water releases have been increased to keep salt water from intruding into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Up until this week, the flow of water from Lake Oroville had been 1,200 cubic feet per second. That increased to 1,400 cfs Monday and 1,700 cfs Tuesday. More increases are scheduled until the water flow reaches 2,000 cfs, where it will remain for the foreseeable future, said Tracy Pettit, chief of the water management branch for the Department of Water Resources, operations control office.
The issue is not one of water supply, but water quality.
Without flows from the Feather River, salt water from the ocean makes it farther up into the delta. Right now, with tides and wind conditions, the salty water has made it all the way up to Franks Tract, in the center of the delta.
Cities from Livermore to Silicon Valley take water from the delta, and without the increased fresh water releases, the water would be very salty. That would require a lot more treatment, she said.
It’s a balancing act, Pettit said, to manage all of the uses for water.
As of Monday night, storage in Lake Oroville was at 929,089 acre-feet, Pettit said. The height of the water was 652.7 feet. Pettit said there is still another 10 feet of water elevation remaining for the releases to operate normally, she said.
It’s close, Pettit said, but she is comfortable water will continue to be accessible in the lake.
The record low elevation of the lake, from Sept. 7, 1977, was 645 feet.
The maximum capacity of Lake Oroville storage is 3.5 million acre-feet.
One acre-foot of water is 325,851 gallons, or enough water to cover one acre of land one foot deep.
As we move into December, the likelihood of rain increases. However, the last several years are proof that rain may or may not arrive.
Pettit said her branch of DWR is constantly evaluating water conditions, checking lake levels and salinity downstream.
Weather forecasts are also part of the mix, but are only useful for a few days into the future.
Right now, the soil in some areas may be so dry that much of the rain that falls is quickly absorbed and never make it to streams and to the lake. It has been dropping steadily despite the recent string of storms.
Reach reporter Heather Hacking at 896-7758.
Klamath dam removal efforts to continue if historic agreements fail
By Will Houston
Historic Klamath River Basin deals reached after several contentious decades could expire by 2016 — barring congressional action.
But some North Coast tribes and other organizations aren’t ready to give up their fight to remove four dams from the Klamath, and are poised to challenge the dams’ renewal process in January.
“We think the settlement agreement is the best method to achieve restoration in the Klamath,” Karuk Tribe Natural Policy Advocate Craig Tucker said. “If we have to do it another way, we’ll have to buckle down and do it another way.”
‘ONCE IN A GENERATION OPPORTUNITY’
One of the three Klamath Basin agreements, known as the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA), proposes to remove four hydroelectric dams — Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2, and J.C. Boyle — from the Klamath River by 2020 to protect salmon.
If implemented, the project would be the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. The four dams — as part of PacifiCorp’s larger Klamath Hydroelectric Project — have been undergoing their first long-term relicensing process through federal and state agencies since 1956, but owner PacifiCorp and the state agreed to delay this process due to the signing of the KHSA in 2010.
But if Congress does not pass the agreements by the start of next year, PacifiCorp spokesman Bob Gravely said they will resume the relicensing process, which he said is already near completion. To obtain its license renewal from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, PacifiCorp must still obtain state Clean Water Act permits from California and Oregon.
“Right now we’re still committed to the enactment of the settlement agreement that is pending that is a good outcome for our customers and resolves a range of water related conflicts in the basin,” Gravely said. “I think it’s been known for some time that if that legislation isn’t enacted this year, that relicensing of the dams will resume.”
The State Water Board is set to hold a series of scoping meetings in California and Oregon in January — including one in Arcata on Jan. 25 — to seek comments as it prepares its Environmental Impact Report on the dam relicensing. It is during these meetings that the Karuk Tribe, Klamath Tribes of Oregon and environmental organizations will attempt to convince the board that the dams have led to impacts such as toxic blue-green algae blooms and warm water temperatures that have negatively impacted salmon.
“We think we can convince the water board to deny PacifiCorp’s license application,” Karuk Natural Resources Director Leaf Hillman said in a statement. “The dams harm water quality in ways that can’t be mitigated.”
Due to the long time periods between dam renewals, Tucker said the upcoming meetings are a “once in a generation opportunity.”
Gravely did not comment on tribes’ claims, stating that these issues will “play out as (Clean Water Act) process goes forward” and that they are still focused on getting the bills through Congress.
Under the agreement, PacifiCorp’s financial liability for dam removal would be limited to $200 million, which Tucker said would cost less than having to reopen the dams with new mandatory requirements, such as fish ladders.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s environmental review of the dam relicensing shows that the company would lose over $20 million per year if they reopened the dams with these mandatory conditions.
According to Gravely, the federal environmental review recommended against dam removal.
Should the Klamath Basin agreements expire, Gravely said that it would be in PacifiCorp customers’ best interests to keep the dams rather than removing them outside the protections of the agreements.
“We believe it would be better for our customers to operate with a low-cost, carbon-free source of power,” he said.
The KHSA was introduced to Congress at the start of the year as part of the Klamath Basin Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act of 2015, also known as Senate Bill 133.
The act contains two other compromises made as recently as April 2014. The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) seeks to promote water quality restoration and to provide farmers more concrete assurances on irrigation expectations from the river.
A third agreement known as the Upper Klamath Basin Agreement was made last year between Klamath Basin irrigators and the tribes. Under that agreement, ranchers and farmers on the upper basin would reduce water withdrawals to increase flows into Upper Klamath Lake by 30,000 acre feet, benefiting both endangered sucker fish, salmon and downstream tribes.
The agreement was signed after 30 years of a process known as adjudication, to settle water rights in the Sycan, Wood and Williamson rivers, which flow through the former reservation lands of the Klamath Tribes into Upper Klamath Lake. The tribes eventually gained senior water rights.
But the longer the bill sits in the House Natural Resources Committee, the less of chance it has of passing.
The Yurok Tribe has already withdrawn from the agreement, with the Karuk Tribe and Klamath Tribes of Oregon set to follow if no action is taken by next year.
In a statement, Klamath Tribes of Oregon Chairman Don Gentry said they are at a “crossroads.”
“We can descend back into chaos and conflict, or move towards a more collaborative future,” he said. “Congress will decide which path we take.”
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504. The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Drought isn’t an excuse to threaten wildlife
By Rachel Zwillinger
After four years of drought, California is thirsty, and concerned lawmakers want to help.
Last month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced plans to include a California water bill in the spending package expected to pass Congress before the year’s end. The bill is an opportunity to support smart water solutions such as wastewater recycling, stormwater capture and water-use efficiency that can help our farms, cities and ecosystems.
Other legislators, however, have tried to capitalize on the drought to grab more water for agribusinesses in the Central Valley, while undermining bedrock environmental laws. Rep. David Valadao’s Western Water and American Food Security Act is a prime example.
The bill from Valadao, R-Hanford, would override Endangered Species Act protections for imperiled native salmon runs, increasing the risk of extinctions among fish species that have suffered through four dry years. It could also cut back water to wildlife refuges so that some might receive barely a trickle and others nothing at all, even during times of critical need.
Feinstein has indicated that legislation should not harm wildlife refuges in California. In November, she signed a letter with 24 Senate colleagues urging President Barack Obama to oppose any provisions that would undermine Endangered Species Act protections.
However, if Congress passes something like the Valadao bill, the fishing industry and California’s salmon, migratory birds and other species that depend on scarce wetlands could be in further danger.
The Central Valley was once a beautiful, sprawling network of freshwater wetlands that supported tens of millions of migratory birds and a diversity of other wildlife. Over time, urban and agricultural development destroyed more than 90 percent of these wetlands.
Still, Central Valley wetlands support about 60 percent of the Pacific flyway’s waterfowl.
Of the few wetlands that remain, some of the most important and productive lands are safeguarded in wildlife refuges that rely on water deliveries from the federal government. These wildlife refuges are critical to the millions of birds that migrate along the Pacific flyway each year and to iconic species like the bald eagle.
Remember, water shortages are caused by droughts – not by the small amount of water used by refuges and wildlife.
As negotiations over California drought legislation continue in Congress, we are counting on Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer to stand up to those who want to threaten the health of our rivers and wildlife refuges, and the creatures that depend on them.
Sacrificing our environment won’t make it rain. It will, however, undermine the natural heritage that all Californians treasure.
Rachel Zwillinger is water policy adviser for Defenders of Wildlife’s California Program. She can be contacted at RZWILLINGER@defenders.org.
Palm Springs Desert Sun
Officials must protect farmworkers from heat
You might find it hard to believe, but farmworkers who toil in the California sun frequently are putting their health and lives at risk.
A review of data by The Desert Sun found that in the decade since California enacted in 2005 its groundbreaking Heat Illness Prevention Act, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) has confirmed only 13 farmworkers have died from heat-related deaths. A recently settled lawsuit brought by the United Farm Workers union, however, puts the number of deaths due to heat in just the six-year period from 2005 to 2011 at more than double the total Cal/OSHA tallies for the 2005-15 decade.
Desert Sun reporter Mauricio Peña’s recent three-day series on the toll taken by those working the fields in California put a spotlight on the problem and how the state is trying to manage it.
Peña and other Desert Sun journalists uncovered some startling facts during their three-month analysis of data secured under a Public Records Act request. Among these:
Most every year, farmworkers die in 90 or 100 degree heat but are never counted as heat-related fatalities by Cal/OSHA.
While the agency investigated 55 agriculture deaths between 2008 and 2014, it categorized six as heat related. Of the 209 farmworker illnesses investigated in the same period, Cal/OSHA confirmed 97 as heat related.
Farmworker fatalities peaked at 15 in 2014. However, Cal/OSHA found that none of those fatalities were heat related. In the same year, 31 of the 45 agricultural illnesses investigated were deemed not heat related.
Despite the decade of state intervention, there’s little evidence that rates of illness have changed significantly. Farmworkers have topped the list for heat illnesses among outdoor workers since 2007.
Even the 13 deaths Cal/OSHA counts as heat-related since 2005 surpasses the number of such fatalities in all other industries with outdoor workers.
Part of the problem appears to be how Cal/OSHA classifies illnesses and deaths. In instances looked at specifically by The Desert Sun team where witnesses described circumstances that appeared to be heat exhaustion, doctors and coroners who made the call for Cal/OSHA said they could not determine that heat caused or exacerbated the event.
Plainly put, deaths and illnesses have continued, but most just aren’t counted as heat related.
The state beefed up its regulations for outdoor worker conditions last May. Employers now must monitor employees during their first two weeks working in a high heat area; provide “fresh, pure, suitably cool” water free of charge; and provide shade for all workers on rest or meal break at 80 degrees, lowered from 85.
The new regulations require employers to give outdoor workers 10 minute breaks every two hours when temperatures rise above 95 degrees.
In response to The Desert Sun investigation, Cal/OSHA Chief Juliann Sum told Peña that her agency does all it can to keep exposed workers safe.
“We’re always looking for ways to improve,” she said.
Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, whose district is home to many who work the fields, has promised to look into how Cal/OSHA monitors the industry and classifies heat-related deaths and illnesses. He also has suggested doing more to ensure this population has adequate access to health care.
These are good steps that should help make the fields safer for agricultural crews. It’s up to officials like Sum and Garcia, and even Gov. Jerry Brown, to make sure these regulations are enforced to protect this vulnerable population.