Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | May 5, 2016

MWD’s Delta Islands Water Transfers

Bouldin Island

Bouldin Island, shown on the right, has been fallowed for dry year water transfers  (UC Davis)

Since Metropolitan Water District announced the purchase of five Delta islands, there has been a lot of speculation about the reasons for the purchase.     Jeff Kightlinger, the CEO of Metropolitan, published an op ed in the San Jose Mercury News, in which he stated that the purpose of the purchase is to preserve Delta farmland and restore wetlands.   Kightlinger also stated that the Delta Wetlands water storage project was not one of the reasons for the purchase, and that the water rights applications for the storage project are being cancelled as part of the purchase.

Kightlinger should clarify exactly which water right applications are being cancelled as part of MWD’s purchase.  The applications to divert water for the storage project were originally filed 1987 and 1993, and the State Water Board issued permits to divert water to storage on Webb tract and Bacon Island as part of Water Rights Decision 1643 in 2001.    As part of that decision, Delta Wetlands withdrew applications to divert water to Bouldin Island and Holland Tract and agreed to cancel them.   But the existing permits do give large diversion rights on Webb Tract and Bacon Island.   In 2010, the State Water Resources Control Board staff estimated the Delta Wetlands Project had the right to divert 312,000 acre feet of water to storage from December to May, and then release it during the summer.    San Joaquin County and Central Delta Water Agency both protested the project, because of issues with seepage and levee stability on neighboring islands.   San Joaquin County entered into a settlement agreement in July 2013, and Central Delta Water Agency also settled in August 2013.    An application for a dredging permit to construct the reservoirs on Webb Tract and Bacon Island is currently pending with the Army Corps of Engineers.   There is currently no indication that this application is being cancelled.

MWD also acquires other water rights with the purchase of the five Delta islands.  In addition to the Delta Wetlands water rights, the islands have more senior water rights, including riparian, pre-1914 and appropriative.  Two  of the islands have previously had acreage fallowed for drought year water transfers.   In 2009, MWD  arranged with Delta Wetlands to fallow up to 5,426 acres on Bouldin Island and 4,189 acres on Webb tract. The fallowing allowed the transfer of up to 17,941 acre feet of water to MWD under water rights licenses 1405 and 1572.    This was about 1.9 acre feet per acre. The State Water Resources Control Board determined that no CEQA analysis of the transfer was required.

In 2014, land on Bouldin Island and Webb tract was fallowed for another drought year transfer.   This time water was transferred to four Northern California water agencies that had water stored in Semitropic water bank in Kern County.    The banked water was inaccessible without the transfers, and the water agencies stated in the application that the transfer was necessary for “health and safety” supplies.    The Northern California water agencies included Santa Clara Valley Water District, Alameda Zone 7, Alameda County Water District, and the City of Tracy.    For the 2014 transfer, Delta Wetlands estimated that up to 20,734 acre feet of water would be made available by the fallowing of up to 9,550 acres of land, about 2.2 acre feet per acre.  However, an independent report by UC Davis of the 2009 MWD transfer determined that fallowing only yielded about 0.5 acre feet per acre.

The Bureau of Reclamation objected to the 2014 transfer, stating that the calculation of over 2 acre feet per acre obtained from fallowing was not supported by the history or the available science.    The State Water Board approved the transfer, based on salinity modelling by the California Department of Water Resources, and a proposed monitoring program.


Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | April 22, 2016

Controversy erupts over Santa Clara Water District’s groundwater charges


A controversy erupted this week over Santa Clara Valley Water District’s Fiscal Year 2017 forecast of residential and municipal (M&I) groundwater charges. On April 19, Restore the Delta strongly criticized the District for including the WaterFix / Delta tunnels costs in the projected charges, and questioned the District’s forecasts of impacts on cities and residential well users. The District issued its own strong rebuttal on April 20. But the District’s rebuttal raises more questions than it answers.

Groundwater charges are rapidly increasing

The District’s 10 year forecasts of groundwater charges have increased dramatically in recent years. This forecast is from January 13, 2015:

And this forecast is from April 12, 2016:

As the table below shows, between January 2015 and April 2016, there was an increase of 34% in projected out year charges for North County, and 11% in South County.

SCVWD forecast groundwater charges – 2025


 Jan 2015   

April 2016

% increase 

North County    




South County    




The main cause of the increase appears to be low “placeholder” cost estimates for the water recycling program in the FY 2016 budget. The estimates for this program went from a $123.9 million placeholder in January 2015, to $924.1 million in April 2016.

Are estimates of the WaterFix impacts on groundwater charges too low?

Restore the Delta expressed strong concerns that the costs used for the California WaterFix in the FY 2017 budget are also too low — “ridiculously rosy.” The District has strongly disputed this. The table below shows the difference between the WaterFix groundwater charges used in the FY 2017 forecast (April 13, 2016 Agenda, p. 52) and the groundwater charges in the WaterFix High Cost Scenario from presented to the County Water Commission as part of the “Business Case.” (April 13, 2016 Agenda, p. 85.)

WaterFix – SCVWD forecast groundwater charges


FY 2017 

High Cost Scenario 

North County 



South County 



Using the numbers from the Business case for the WaterFix, one can estimate the following maximum total groundwater charges by 2026. The current and previous fiscal years are included for comparison.

SCVWD M&I Groundwater charges


FY 2015

FY 2016

2026 (FY 2017 forecast)

2026 (w/ High WaterFix costs)

North County

$747 / af 

$894 / af 

$2332 / af 

$2648 / af 

South County 

$319 / af 

$356 / af 

$604 / af 

$795 / af 

These estimates show that under the High Cost Scenario, the total groundwater charges for the South County could rise to 2.5 times the FY 2015 costs. The North County charges could rise to 3.5 times the FY 2015 costs. Between 2016 and 2026, the South County Costs could double, and the North County costs could almost triple.

District’s internal forecasts for the High Cost scenario

After Restore the Delta released estimates of the potential increases in groundwater charges under the WaterFix High Cost Scenario, the District staff pointed out that the estimates are somewhat high, because the WaterFix Business Case uses cost projections for 2029 rather than 2026. The staff released an internal forecast for the 2026 groundwater charges under the WaterFix High Cost Scenario.

SCVWD forecast M&I Groundwater charges — 2026


FY 2017 forecast

w/ High WaterFix



North County 

$2,332 / af

$2,510 / af


South County 

$604 / af 

$754 / af 

25 % 

Under the District’s projections for the High Cost Scenario, the 2026 South County M&I groundwater charges would increase by 2.4 times over FY 2015, while the North County charges would increase by 3.4 times. Between the current fiscal year (2016) and 2026, the South County charges would double, and the North Country charges would almost triple. The District has yet to release the full internal groundwater charge forecasts for the High Cost Scenario.

The District’s FY 2017 budget also discloses $124.9 million in unfunded capital projects, including seismic retrofits at two dams. The April 2016 presentation notes that water rates will need to increase to pay for them.


Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | April 9, 2015

Climate Change Adaptation: Match Crops to Climate

There has been a huge public debate recently about the use of water for agriculture in California, and whether farmers should be growing almonds, alfalfa, and other water-intensive crops in the state.

But California is not all arid desert, as the rainfall map below shows. So the problem is not growing water-intensive crops in California, but growing them in the driest areas in the state. The arid scrubland on the southern floor of the San Joaquin Valley gets about 7-8 inches of rain a year. The farmland in this region was traditionally used for grazing and low-water use crops such as winter wheat. But a huge boom followed the completion of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, which brought abundant and cheap Delta water via the Delta-Mendota Canal and the California Aqueduct. The arid land in the southern San Joaquin Valley was relatively inexpensive, and huge tracts became available when the oil companies divested in the 1990s. In the 2000s, a period of relatively wet years and an increase in State Water Project pumping brought even more water to the region. That decade saw an even greater boom in agricultural productivity, farmland value, and farm income. But the 2000s boom was completely unsustainable. The crops that were planted to increase farm income used more water than was available in all but the wettest years. As a result, groundwater levels, which had recovered after the Central Valley Project and State Water Project were completed, began dropping precipitously.

Source: Western Regional Climate Center


Source: USGS California Water Science Center


A major cause of groundwater depletion was the expansion of permanent crops, including almonds and pistachios. Almonds in the southern San Joaquin Valley need about 46 inches of water a year, and with cover crops, they need about 53 inches. In this very dry region, all but 7 to 8 inches of this water must come from irrigation – from 3 to almost 4 feet of water per acre. The problem is that even in normal years, very few growers get that much surface water. Many get less than two acre feet per acre. So the growers put in wells and pump 1-2 acre feet of water a year, and twice that amount in droughts. Alfalfa, which is grown to feed dairy cows, cattle and sheep in the Tulare Lake region, is also very water intensive. Alfalfa needs about 53 inches of water a year. About 45 inches must come from irrigation – almost four feet of water. Almonds and alfalfa are two of the major crops in the Tulare Lake Region, and have greatly expanded. The result has been an enormous drawdown in groundwater in the area, even before the drought.

In a dry year, these crops need even more water, and almost all of it must come from groundwater. These cropping patterns are completely unsustainable. In the critical drought of 2014-2015, they have resulted in drying up of 1,000 wells in Tulare County alone.

Better crops for this arid region include vegetables, which take 22-30 inches of water, and grain and grain hay, which take 23 inches of water. The net irrigation requirement for these crops is about 14-23 inches in a normal year. This would require no extra groundwater in most years, and allow groundwater levels to recover. Switching to row crops, which are more labor intensive, would also increase farmworker employment in the area.



Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | April 6, 2015

Analysis: in drought, more Delta exports go to urban use


Governor Jerry Brown announced an executive order on April 1 mandating 25% statewide urban water conservation. This action is essential to conserve water in reservoirs to get through an extended drought. It might even help maintain minimum instream flows in rivers and estuaries so that endangered fish populations have a chance of surviving the drought.

Many people have cited statewide averages of 80% of California’s developed water supply going to agriculture, and 20% to urban use, derived from DWR’s estimates for 2001-2010 in the California Water Plan. Some conclude that urban conservation won’t make a significant difference in 2015 demand on rivers and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. But these numbers are different in critical droughts such as 1977 and 2014-2015, when summer agricultural diversions are curtailed. And even in normal years, the Ag/urban percentages of diversions from individual river basins are different from statewide averages. For Delta exports, urban use has been greater than 20% for decades.

Since the State Water Project came online in the 1970s, urban water agencies have used ever an ever-increasing amount of Delta exports. The urban share of Delta exports has increased even more in the critical drought of 2014-15. While deliveries from the South Delta pumps to many agricultural contractors in the San Joaquin Valley were cut off in 2014, urban deliveries are continuing. Allocations of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project show that in 2015, about 48% of Delta exports are going to urban water agencies, 46% to agricultural water agencies, and 6% to wildlife refuges. Use of Delta exports by urban water agencies could actually be greater than use by agricultural water agencies this year.




Reducing urban demand on the Delta will significantly reduce total demand for Delta exports. The governor’s mandated urban conservation measures are essential. Mandatory statewide conservation will help avoid catastrophic conflicts between urban needs and the environment, should the drought continue into 2016 and beyond. Rapid implementation of these conservation measures could also help prevent major extinctions of endangered fish populations, including critically endangered pelagic fish in the Delta, including Delta smelt, Longfin smelt, and Winter run Chinook salmon.

Here’s some more information about the 2015 allocations by the State Water Project and Central Valley Project, planned Delta export operations, and how these estimates were derived.



Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | April 6, 2015

2015 SWP and CVP Delta exports and allocations

2015 Allocations by the State Water Project

On March 2, 2015, the Department of Water Resources announced allocations of 20% for State Water Project contractors, for a total of about 811,000 acre feet of Delta exports.

SWP 2015 Allocations


South Bay


San Joaquin Valley


Central Coast


Southern California





The South Bay, Central Coast, and Southern California allocations are to urban water agencies. The State Water Project is also supplying 226,711 acre feet to agricultural water agencies in the San Joaquin Valley, about 27% of the total. The chart below shows the percentages of 2015 Delta exports going to SWP urban contractors for Health and Safety, to SWP urban contractors for other uses, and to SWP agricultural contractors.



For the 2015 Drought Contingency Plan, the SWP urban water agencies estimated Health and Safety needs of about 330,000 acre feet. The SWP allocations above Health and Safety are needed to meet other demands on Metropolitan Water District and Santa Clara Valley Water District, which have been rapidly depleting reserves. The biggest “other” demand for the urban retail water agencies that MWD and SCVWD serve is outdoor landscaping.


Water Year 2014-2015 Allocations by the Central Valley Project

The Central Valley Project provides water primarily to agricultural contractors. The Bureau of Reclamation does CVP allocations by water year, which goes from October 1 to September 30 of the following year. For the 2014-2015 water year, the Bureau announced updated allocations for Central Valley Project contractors on March 27, 2015. South of Delta agricultural contractors, including Westlands Water District, got a zero allocation. The nonzero allocations from Delta exports are below.

CVP WY 2014-2015 Allocations


Urban Health and Safety


Wildlife Refuges


San Joaquin River Water Rights





The Bureau is going to provide a 75% allocation to the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors, who have senior water rights, for a total of 656,711 acre feet. The Bureau also announced a 25% allocation for its urban contractors, for a total of 41,816 acre feet. The Bureau will also provide a 75% allocation for South of Delta wildlife refuges. The chart below shows the percentages going to each use. The largest urban users are the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the City of Fresno, and it is assumed that all of the 25% allocation is for Health and Safety.



Not all the CVP allocations will come from Delta exports. Some of the San Joaquin River Water Rights and Wildlife Refuge allocations will come from the San Joaquin River. Based on deliveries to wildlife refuges in 2013 and 2014, about 80,000 acre feet will likely come from Delta exports, and the rest from the San Joaquin River. Given the Bureau’s March 26 proposed operations, one can estimate the total 2014-2015 Delta exports, and the share to urban and agricultural contractors.



The Central Valley Project has only pumped about 55% of its forecast total exports, so this estimate could change, and the proposed operations plan is still under review by the State Water Resources Control Board, so this estimate could change.


Total SWP and CVP Delta Export Allocations

While the Bureau’s allocation goes by water year and the State Water Project’s Allocation goes by calendar year, one can get a reasonable estimate of the share of Delta exports going to urban and agricultural contractors by totaling the announced allocations for each project. This gives the following total:




The numbers above don’t include pumping of water transfers by the State Water Project, which will likely be mostly for urban use this year.

These estimates show that both the use Delta exports is significantly different than the statewide averages of 80% agriculture and 20% urban. For 2015, use of Delta exports by urban water agencies may actually be greater than that of agricultural water agencies.

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | April 9, 2013

Update: Bay Delta Conservation Plan & Climate Change

In August, 2012, California Water Research released a report, Incorporating Drought Risk Into California Water Resources Planning.  Since that time we have been waging a quiet campaign for the Department of Water Resources to recognize that their climate modelling for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan has significant limitations and inconsistencies.

The report says that, if the projections of the drier climate change models hold up, then we will see increasing long and increasingly severe droughts in the Sacramento River watershed, and that we are likely already seeing such changes in the San Joaquin River watershed.    Under the drier climate change scenarios, there is simply no way that two 40 foot tunnels can make future CVP or SWP deliveries more reliable.    Thus BDCP cannot meet the co-equal goal of “increasing water supply reliability.”

There is also a problem with sea level rise modelling.    There are major inconsistencies between agencies within Natural Resources — BDCP modellers have projected a likely value of 18 inches by 2060, while the Delta Stewardship Council and the Delta Risk Management Study have used the highest possible value of 55 inches by 2100.

At the meeting on April 4th, Restore the Delta also delivered a coffin to Jerry Meral.

It now appears that the Department of Water Resources has thrown in the towel on BDCP meeting the co-equal goal of “increasing water supply reliability” as well as meeting the mandates for “Delta as place.”  In a blog post on April 5, Nancy Vogel, the spokesperson for DWR, posted a message on the BDCP blog, which said in part,

… The regions that depend upon water exported from the Delta must reduce their future reliance on those supplies, and the state must continue to work with local reclamation districts to protect Delta islands.

Look to the Delta Plan, not BDCP, for the blueprint on how California will improve its statewide water supply reliability and safeguard people and property in the Delta.

They are now saying that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is primarily a plan to comply with state and federal endangered species laws.

It’s a significant shift, and appears to move the burden for meeting the mandates in the Delta Reform Act to the Delta Stewardship Council.

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | July 25, 2012

An analysis of the claimed benefits for fish in BDCP plus

This is an analysis of the claimed benefits for fish in the BDCP Plus fact sheet, Current Conditions for Fish Compared with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan

BDCP Plus has two claimed benefits for salmon:

1.   Juvenile salmon would have better access to food on the Yolo Bypass floodplain, grow larger, and survive better as they enter the ocean.

The decision to flood the Yolo Bypass is an operating decision by the Department of Water Resources, so it is not necessarily linked to construction of a new conveyance.    The proposed BDCP restoration of habitat in the Yolo Bypass and Cache Slough could help salmon, if there was a significant increase in inundation of the floodplain.   DWR has not proposed to increase bypass flows, but will wait for 12 inches of sea level rise to raise the level of the Sacramento River.    This is forecast for mid-century under climate change models.

2.  95% of juvenile San Joaquin Chinook salmon and 60% of Sacramento River Chinook salmon do not survive the trip through the Delta.

As the February BDCP effects analysis makes clear, major diversions on the Sacramento River would cause signficant entrainment of  migrating spring and fall run Chinook salmon.    DWR’s consultant recommended minimum Sacramento River flows of 7,000 cfs in the fall when the commercially important fall run Chinook are migrating.     This would result in significantly reduced exports, and has been opposed by the water agencies.    The minimum fall flows in the Feburary BDCP effects analysis are 4,000 cfs.

Overall, BDCP benefits for Sacramento River Chinook salmon are unclear, and there is a significant risk to populations from increased entrainment of migrating spring and fall runs.

BDCP plus has three claimed benefits for Delta smelt and Longfin smelt:

1.  Estuary habitat quality and quantity would increase due to improved outflow and habitat restoration

Suisun Bay is important feeding habitat for Delta smelt and Longfin smelt.  Increased diversions since 2000 have increased salinity in the bay to the point that it is not usable in the summer by the pelagic fish, as well as creating an explosion in the population of the invasive clam, Corbula amurensis.    Biologists have recommended reduced diversions and increased outflows in wet and above normal years.   However, this was blocked as a result of a lawsuit by water agencies.     New operating restrictions proposed as part of BDCP will also likely be subject to legal challenge.

Benefits of  proposed BDCP habitat restoration in Suisun Bay are linked to reducing salinity so that the Bay is usable by pelagic fish.

2.     Plankton accumulation would improve through increased residence time in the Central and South delta, potentially enhancing foodweb support for longfin smelt and Delta smelt.

Toxic algae blooms in the Delta first appeared in 2000.   Research links the blooms to increased residence time in the Central and South Delta — low flows and higher water temperatures.     Sampling has also shown that the phytoplankton in the South Delta is almost entirely toxic algae.    This is likely linked to the high level of nitrates in the San Joaquin River in the summer.     Increasing residence time without cleaning up the San Joaquin River will likely increase toxic algal blooms, and could result in eutrophication and fish kills.

Any benefits of BDCP habitat restoration in the South Delta would depend on sufficient flows, as well as reducing nitrates and selenium in the San Joaquin River.    Currently there is no proposal to provide these flows, and reduction of nitrates has been delayed for over a decade.

3.   New intakes in the North Delta would feature state-of-the-art fish screens.

BDCP’s  promise to provide state of the art fish screens is not new.    The 2000 CALFED Record of Decision committed to putting fish screens on the existing pumps in the South Delta.   The water agencies decided not to fund the project.     Provision of adequate funding for BDCP mitigation commitments will be important in ensuring that mitigation commitments are met.

Overall the benefits of BDCP for Delta smelt and Longfin smelt are unclear, and there are significant risks from potential degradation of water quality in the Delta.

The most significant potential benefit for the Peripheral tunnel proposed as part of BDCP is in reducing reverse flows in the Central and South Delta.   However, any reduction in reverse flows is strongly tied to the level of pumping.    Increased water exports could actually increase reverse flows over existing conditions in some months.

Posted by: Deirdre Des Jardins | June 19, 2012

Drought and Climate Change in California — Part I

The June 12, 2012 U.S. Drought Monitor shows continuing extreme drought in many areas of the Southwest, including southwestern Arizona, and eastern New Mexico and western Texas.  The drought monitor also shows severe drought in Nevada and the Central and Southern Sierras.

Map of drought severity in US

June 12, 2012 US Drought Monitor

The final survey of snow water content by the Department of Water Resources showed levels close to the 1976-77 drought in the Central and Southern Sierras.

Many climate change models predict increasing droughts in the Southwest and California.     The graph below is from a 2011 risk assessment by the Bureau of Reclamation, which used an ensemble of 75 global climate models.

USBR 2050s-1990s precipitation change graph

Percent change in annual runoff from 2050s-2090s, USBR 2011

There appears to be a fairly strong correlation between the areas of predicted decrease in precipitation, and current drought patterns.

The graph below shows precipitation decreases in Sacramento under two climate scenarios chosen by Daniel Cayan et. al. for modelling the state of California’s 2009 Climate Adaptation Strategy.

Graph of projected changes in precipitation in the Sacramento Region

Differences in 30-year mean annual total precipitation in Sacramento
of early(2005–2034), middle (2035–2064), and late (2070–2099) 21st century relative to 1961–1990 for each of six GCMs, for A2 and B1 scenarios

Source:   Daniel Cayan et. al.,  Climate Change Scenarios and Sea Level Rise Estimates for the California 2009 Climate Change Scenarios Assessment

The two IPCC climate change scenarios chosen for modelling by Cayan were the A2 scenario, a higher emissions scenario which assumes continuously increasing population, and the B1 scenario, a lower emissions scenario which assumes rapid changes towards resource efficient technologies, and a declining population after 2050.     The A2 scenario is the more likely if current economic and population trends continue.

Under the A2 scenario, all of the global climate models show moderate to significant decreases in precipitation by mid-century.   Under the B1 scenario, two thirds of the global climate models show significant decreases.

The six global climate models (GCMs) used for the modelling were from major research centers around the world:

  1. the French Centre National de Recherches Météorologiques (CNRM) model
  2. the (U.S.) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Geophysical Fluids Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) model
  3. the MIROC 3.2 medium-resolution model from the Center for Climate
    System Research of the University of Tokyo
  4. the Max Plank Institute ECHAM5/MPI-OM
  5. the (U.S.) National Center for Atmospheric Research,  Community Climate System Model (CCSM)
  6. the National Center for Atmospheric Research,  Parallel Climate Model (PCM)

The models were chosen based on reasonable reproduction of seasonal temperature and precipitation, variability, and the El Nino/Southern Oscillation  (ENSO).

To summarize, the 75 GCM-ensemble model used by the 2011 US Bureau of Reclamation Risk Assessment, and most of the twelve models used in the 2009 California Climate Change Scenarios Assessment point toward a drier California.    This is consistent with recent patterns of drought in the region.   However, only time will tell if these droughts are the beginning of a significant shift in the climate in California and the Southwest.

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