Our May 10, 2021 blog post, DWR Chief Engineer warned of climate change draining Northern California reservoirs explained how Francis Chung, the Department of Water Resources’ Bay-Delta modeling chief, sounded the alarm in 2010 that climate change could drain major Northern California reservoirs. Chung recommended that DWR develop a reoperation strategy for the State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP) to mitigate the effects of climate change. The Department of Water Resources ignored Chung’s recommendation.
The situation got worse in 2019 with the Bureau of Reclamation’s changes to the Long Term Operations of the Central Valley Project. The changes basically eliminated requirements for carryover storage in Shasta Dam to ensure adequate cold water for salmon.
In December 2018, the State of California made an agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation to increase the State Water Project’s obligations for releases of water from Oroville reservoir to meet the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan standards in dry and critically dry years. It was clear to anyone who had studied climate change that a drought catastrophe such as we are facing in 2021 was inevitable unless there were major changes in SWP reservoir operations.
The 2021 catastrophe is all the more tragic because it could have been avoided. In 2019, California Water Research advocated successfully for development of a drought operations strategy to be a priority for Governor Newsom’s Water Resilience Portfolio. Action 26.3 in the draft Water Resilience Portfolio was:
Support the development of a drought operations strategy for the State Water Project and Central Valley Project to meet Water Board-required flow and water quality criteria and respond to fish and wildlife needs during extended drought conditions lasting up to six years.
This important policy change would have pushed the Department of Water Resources to follow the recommendations of their own Bay-Delta Modeling Chief.
But the State Water Contractors objected to the strategy, claiming in February 2020 comments to the Resources Agency that a drought operations strategy was infeasible.
Their comments stated:
In Action 26.3 there is an element on drought SWP/CPV operations that suggests modified operations to meet D-1641, which appears to mean avoid Temporary Urgency Change Petitions, in droughts lasting up to 6 years. Such a goal is infeasible due to the unique nature of droughts in California. It is infeasible to hold sufficient water in storage to meet all required flow and water quality criteria in a six-year drought.
Unfortunately, the Natural Resources Agency believed the State Water Contractors and deleted Action 26.3 from the Final Water Resilience Portfolio. There was no review of the State Water Contractor’s claims by an independent scientist or water resources engineer who understood SWP and CVP operations.
In our April 26, 2021 blog post, The State Water Project was originally designed for a six year drought, we explained how there was a change to State Water Project operations in the mid 1980s to take greater risks of draining the reservoirs in a multi-year drought. There are many ways in which these risks could be reduced.
In January 2020, California Water Research joined the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance in comments on the Department of Water Resources’ draft environmental document for Long Term Operations for the State Water Project . We commented that:
Model output in the DEIR shows increased drawdown of Oroville Reservoir due to the 2018 Coordinated Operating Agreement Addendum, but fails to discuss potential mitigation for the impact, such as increased carryover storage targets.
The Department of Water Resources refused to do modeling of increased carryover storage targets, because of concerns by the State Water Contractors that more conservative reservoir operations would reduce water deliveries to Southern California. It was clear that this was going to be disastrous in the next drought.
Unfortunately, 2021 is record dry year, and SWP and CVP reservoir operations have been just as disastrous as predicted. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s expert, Doug Obegi, testified to the Assembly Water Parks and Wildlife Committee on May 5, 2021, stating:
The failure to be prepared for dry conditions this year – only 7 years after the disaster that was 2014, and the promises that we’d do better this time – is a fundamental failure of State leadership.
The tragedy is that the failure of State leadership was almost remedied by Newsom’s Water Resilience Portfolio. It seems clear that one of the root causes of the failure is a lack of independent scientific review of the basis for State decisions on water management.
Secretary Crowfoot and Governor Newsom must make independent scientific review a priority of the administration for all state decisions about climate adaptation.
There is a framework for doing so in the Delta. In 2009, the Delta Reform Act created the Delta Independent Science Board as a standing board “in state government.” By statute, the nationally and internationally prominent scientists on the board provide peer review and independent scientific advice on management of the Delta. Such advice is desperately needed during the current drought, and also in coming years as the Delta faces accelerating impacts of climate change.
The administration should prioritize restoring funding to the Delta Independent Science Board. The Delta Reform Act model should also be expanded to incorporate independent peer review and scientific advice into all state climate adaptation efforts.
 Doug Obegi, California Doesn’t Have a Plan for Drought, May 19, 2021. https://www.nrdc.org/experts/doug-obegi/california-doesnt-have-plan-drought