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Lake Oroville, Pre-Drought and Now

Kate and I went up to Lake Oroville for a couple days last spring. We found a great campground on the south side of the lake, which is the main water storage facility for the State Water Project and at 3.5 million acre feet, California’s second biggest reservoir (Lake Shasta, at 4.5 million, is No. 1). Our real purpose was to go further up into the foothills for a hike out to a falls we had read about. But before we headed back home, I took a few pictures down around the boat ramp nearest our campground, in an area called Loafer Creek.

Before I drove back up there today, I checked the Department of Water Resources data for the reservoir level both on March 27 last year, when the top picture was taken, and today. The numbers show that despite the dry second half of last winter, the lake was about 85 percent full on the day I was taking pictures. The elevation of the lake surface above sea level was reported at 860.37 feet, and, with the help of a couple of small storms that blew through in April, the lake level kept rising for the next several weeks, with the surface topping out at 871.75 feet above sea level.

In the current water year, which for the Department of Water Resources runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, Lake Oroville has seen 2.44 inches of rain. Just a guess: that’s about 10 percent of average for this date. Of that 2.44 inches, 1.96 fell on Nov 19th and 20th. The last rain was recorded Dec. 7, six weeks ago today. Not a drop has come down during the weeks that are typically the wettest of the year in this part of the world.

Which is why I went to take another look. The lake’s surface elevation today — drawn down by 10 months of water releases to generate power and send supplies down to the southern end of the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, and those big cities far to the south — now stands at 701feet, 159 feet below where I saw it last time. That’s roughly 35 percent full. I wondered how dramatically different it would look.

The truth is that if I didn’t have the earlier set of pictures and some fixed landmarks, I would have hardly recognized it as the same place. Here’s one example (and here’s the full Flickr slideshow: Lake Oroville, January 2014):

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Lake Oroville at Loafer Creek: March 27, 2013

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Lake Oroville at Loafer Creek: January 18, 2014

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California Drought News: Bishops Call on Faithful to Pray for Rain

With all sorts of bad news about California’s long, long dry spell — flows on the American River will be squeezed down to a relative trickle this week, suburban Sacramento is facing draconian water restrictions — here’s my favorite drought story. The Roman Catholic bishop of Sacramento, who leads the state’s conference of bishops, has issued a call for “people of faith” to ask God to make it rain. (Here’s the post I did on it for the KQED blog earlier today: “As Drought Deepens, Catholic Bishops Say ‘Pray for Rain’ “).

There are no atheists in foxholes, the saying goes, a simple way of communicating the notion that everyone gets religion when their mortal ass is on the line (or they think they’re about to meet their maker). But there are plenty of atheists in droughts, like the person who said to me this evening they can’t believe there’s a god who messes around with the weather. Myself, I don’t scoff at the notion of praying for rain and actually found something moving in some of the language in the bishops’ suggested entreaties to “the Almighty.”

Here’s my favorite, not least because it’s said to have originated in a 1950s volume called “The Rural Life Prayer Book” from the National Catholic Rural Life Conference:

Almighty God, we are in need of rain. We realize now, looking up into the clear, blue sky, what a marvel even the least drop of rain really is. To think that so much water can really fall out of the sky, which now is empty and clear! We place our trust in You. We are sure that You know our needs. But You want us to ask you anyway, to show You that we know we are dependent on you. Look to our dry hills and fields, dear God, and bless them with the living blessing of soft rain. Then the land will rejoice and rivers will sing Your praises, and the hearts of all will be made glad. Amen.

I admit I’m not crazy about the “you want us to ask anyway, to show You that we know we are dependent on you” part of that plea. Assuming we’re not dealing with Zeus and his ilk, what kind of a scheming, manipulative jerk of a god is going to hold back the rain just to maneuver us into begging? (Yeah, I know, scripture is probably chock full of examples of god in his/her various guises acting the jerk.) But what I do like about that prayer is the sense of wonder at nature: “To think that so much water can really fall out of the sky, which is now empty and clear.”

I’m of the mind that help is welcome from whatever quarter it arrives. We have fish runs struggling, pastures withering, farms going fallow, streams dwindling, and forests drying out. Native shamans, do your stuff. Bishops, priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, clerics and monks and religious practitioners of all sorts and stripes — likewise. Let’s clap in the presence of our local kami, Shinto style. Pray, if you’re moved to. Ponder this dry place of ours and all that’s beautiful in it. Then look west, or north, or east, or south — that’s where the rain will be coming from.

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Portrait of a Drought: Folsom Lake

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If you live in California, you’ve been hearing about how dry it is here. Our previous rainy season stopped abruptly just before New Year’s Day 2013. The rains didn’t return this fall, meaning many sites in the state had their lowest recorded precipitation ever. San Francisco, with records dating back to 1849, was one of those places; just 5.59 inches of rain fell during 2013. (The next-lowest total was 8.73 inches, recorded during the severe drought of 1976-77.) San Francisco’s average seasonal rainfall — dated from July 1 through June 30 to take account of the wet season — is about 21 inches. The highest rain total ever: the epic winter of 1861-62, which almost drowned Sacramento: 49.27 inches.

About the wet and dry seasons: Supposing we ever have a “typical” year, storms start arriving from the Pacific in October and keep rolling in through April. Normally, we’ll get breaks between waves of storms that bring lowland rains and huge amounts of snowfall to the Sierra Nevada. Since the state needs water year-round, since so much of it arrives in the form of snow that runs off from the mountains when the weather warms up, since there’s no way of knowing from one year to the next how much rain and snow we’ll get, we live on stored water. We have lots and lots of reservoirs.

And one reservoir that’s getting lots of attention during the current drought is Folsom Lake, on the American River northeast of Sacramento. As California reservoirs go, it’s not one of the biggest — in fact I think it ranks as the tenth largest in storage capacity, with 977,000 acre feet (if you buy the definition that an acre foot can supply about two U.S. households for a year, that’s enough water for roughly 5 million people for a year). The water in the lake is used to generate electricity, for drinking water, and for downstream farms. It’s also supposed to provide flood protection and “recreational opportunities” — swimming, boating, fishing, all those things you can do in a lake that’s in the middle of the hot, dry Sierra foothills.

Right now, Folsom lake is down to about 180,000 acre feet, about 18 percent of capacity. That’s just the sixth time since the reservoir was filled in 1955-56 that the level has fallen below 200,000 acre feet, and it appears to be the lowest the lake has ever been in January, right in the middle of what’s supposed to be the rainy season. And when I say low, I mean low. At capacity, the lake’s surface is 466 feet above sea level; yesterday, the lake level fell below 362 feet.

I drove up yesterday to take a look at the lake, the sand, the rocks, the mud, and the little bit of water that’s still spread out in the lake’s deeper channels. The weather was beautiful. People were out sight-seeing, riding bikes, meditating, even fishing, though one guy told me that when he cast his lures out into the water, they were hitting the bottom. It was pretty hard to imagine that all this was going on 104 feet below the surface of the full reservoir would be. We’ll see how low it goes. Right now, there aren’t any real storms on the horizon.

Here’s the slideshow from yesterday’s trip:

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California Water: Salmon Summit Menu

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Someone at the Environmental Defense Fund sent this to me at KQED after chatting me up about the Salmon Summit in San Francisco tomorrow (what’s the Salmon Summit? See below). I don’t know whether it’s on the level–is all that fish really going to be served? If so–cool! But obviously the real point is about water and fisheries in California.  

And as far as the summit goes: It’s a meeting organized by fishing and environmental groups to highlight the impact of both the drought and California’s water policy on salmon and other fish, and to counter the message from agriculture and water interests that 1) California is in the midst of a “regulatory” drought and 2) that California agriculture is being sacrificed to the interests of a minnow (the delta smelt).

The fishing/environmental folks (some style themselves “the salmon community”) really began this campaign last month. That’s when one of our senators, Dianne Feinstein, began pushing for a bill to guarantee water deliveries to the drought-stricken western side of the San Joaquin Valley. Her legislation would have set aside restrictions on water shipments from Northern to Southern California imposed to protect salmon and smelt.

The salmon community and allies pointed out that salmon fishing has been shut down for two years in a row because of a crash in chinook populations. They produced an economic analysis (from a Florida outfit called Southwick Associates) that calculated the cost of the salmon fishing shutdown: 23,000 jobs and perhaps billions of dollars in “lost economic opportunity” (I haven’t seen the analysis myself). Eleven members of Congress wrote Feinstein that her effort was ignoring the impact of our water problems on the salmon community and asked her to back off. (Ultimately, the Department of the Interior, parent of the Bureau of Reclamation, which delivers water to the west side through the facilities of the Central Valley Project, stepped in and is trying to broker increased water deliveries.)

So far, then, the summit sounds like a recap of what we’ve heard already. The question is what new actions the salmon community might want their legislators to take to help bring their fish back. I’m hoping to hear an answer to that tomorrow.

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California Water: ‘The Way of Seizure and Exploitation’

A snippet from “American Places,” a 1981 book of essays by Wallace Stegner, novelist and chronicler of the West, and his like-styled son, Page. This is from a chapter Page Stegner wrote called “Here It Is: Take It.” It describes how Los Angeles siphoned off a rich, remote supply of water from the Owens Valley and details the valley’s ongoing disputes with the city. (The chapter title is taken from the words spoken in 1913 by William Mulholland, the principal architect of the Los Angeles water system, when he opened the valve that brought the first Owens Valley water to the L.A.) I can’t help but think of the current court and legislative disputes over California water when I read this. s

“…The American Way of seizure and exploitation has a long history but a dubious future. It has produced ghost towns before this when the resource ran out and the frenzy cooled and the fortune-hunters drifted away. Without suggesting that Los Angeles will become a ghost town, one knows that in the arid West there are many communities whose growth is strictly limited by the available water. To promote the growth of any community beyond its legitimate and predictable water resources is to risk one of two things: eventual slowdown or collapse and retrenchment to more realistic levels, or a continuing and often piratical engrossment of the water of other communities, at the expense of their prosperity and perhaps life.

Man, the great creator and destroyer of environments, is also part of what he creates or destroys, and rises and falls with it. In the West, water is life. From the very beginning, when people killed each other with shovels over the flow of a primitive ditch, down to the present, when cities kill each other for precisely the same reasons and with the same self-justification, water is the basis for western growth, western industry, western communities, Eventually, some larger authority, state or federal will have to play Solomon in these disputes. …”

We’ve got a Solomon of sorts–at least one of them–working on the problem now: U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger of Fresno. But more on that later.

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California Water: The Judge’s Questions

The judge’s questions: Last Friday, federal Judge Oliver W. Wanger issued questions to a panel of experts he appointed to consider the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological opinion on endangered smelt in the Delta. To really make sense of the list, which focuses on a narrow range of issues concerning the service’s scientific conclusions about smelt migrations and the effect of Delta pumping on the fish, you’ll need to go and wade through the evidence presented in the trial so far (when you get done with all the motions, declarations, statements, and supporting research, you might be looking at tens of thousands of pages). But the list is interesting even without that file trek, because it sheds some light on what subjects Wanger sees as central to the case. (Here’s the order, in PDF form: Judge Wanger’s Questions).

Who are the “706 Experts” he refers to therein? They’re a group of scientists Wanger chose last November after nominations from the water contractor plaintiffs who are challenging the smelt biological opinion and from the federal agencies who are defending it. “706” is a reference to Federal Rule of Evidence 706, which provides for court appointment of expert witnesses. The panel is: Paul Fujitani, an employee of the Bureau of Reclamation, as an expert on Central Valley Project operations (the bureau is a defendant in the case); Thomas P. Quinn, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington; Andre Punt, another UW professor, an expert in fish population dynamics and statistics; and, “if necessary,” John Lehigh, an employee of the state Department of Water Resources, as an expert on State Water Project operations.

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California Water: ‘The Master Condition’

“The master condition not only of any future developments in the West but of the maintenance and safeguarding of what exists there now, is the development and conservation of water production. Water, which is rigidly limited by the geography and climate, is incomparably more important than all other natural resources in the West put together.”

–Bernard de Voto, quoted in “American Places,” by Wallace Stegner

As elegant a statement as you can find to explain what all the ruckus is about.

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California Water News Flash: The Pumps Are On

Allowing that one person’s misconception is another’s gospel truth, I still have the impulse to correct others when I hear them say something that I know or believe to be, well, wrong. So here’s something from the current battle over California water that always makes me want to say, “Hey, wait a minute.”

San Joaquin Valley water interests and their allies, including members of Congress, want more water than they’ve gotten the last few years. Their biggest problem is that nature has not cooperated. The previous three winters were drier than normal, and the amount of rain and snow that fell on the state’s watersheds were far below normal. That circumstance happened to coincide with Endangered Species Act litigation that has led, for the time being at least, to limits on the amount of water the state and federal water projects are allowed to pump from the Delta to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Those limits, set by federal wildlife agencies and designed to protect the Delta smelt and runs of chinook salmon, have led the aforementioned water interests to scream that the Delta pumps have been shut down, that farmers are being wiped out and valley communities sacrificed for a few lousy fish.

Now, whatever you happen to think of the last part of that formulation–that those who are trying to figure out how to save the fish want to see the San Joaquin Valley “dry up and blow away” (as Rep. Jim Costa, a valley Democrat, put it)–you shouldn’t have to think much about the first part, that the pumps have been shut down. That’s because it’s not true. The pumps are running, day in and day out. The major destination for a lot of that water is the San Luis Reservoir, a key storehouse for valley water, and it’s filling up.

But despite all the readily available data on Delta water shipments, the untruth that the pumps have been switched off is too good a propaganda point for some people to pass up. Rep. Devin Nunes, who represents much of Fresno and Tulare counties in Congress, says about water resources policy: “Its [sic] Simple: Turn on the Pumps.” Since last session, he’s been pushing a bill called the “Turn on the Pumps Act.” (The bill is, in fact, very simple: “In connection with the operations of the Central Valley Project, neither the Bureau of Reclamation nor any agency of the State of California operating a water project in coordination of the Central Valley Project shall restrict operation of their projects pursuant to any biological opinion issued under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, if such restrictions would result in levels of export less than the historical maximum levels of export” (italics mine).

Got that? No limits on pumping to protect endangered species, period, unless the limit results in as much or more water being pumped out of the Delta than the projects have ever pumped.

Rep. Tom McClintock, a Southern California Republican who relocated to and won the northeastern California congressional seat in 2008, is also a source of unrelenting “turn on the pumps” rhetoric. Earlier this month, he issued a broadside against Democrats in the House Water and Power Subcommittee for blocking consideration of Rep. Nunes’s excellent bill. “For the sake of humanity, Madam Chairwoman and my Democratic colleagues, turn on these pumps.” You have to admire the way these folks keep their rhetoric on a short leash.

If I were in Congress myself, I’d rise to tell my good friends and respected colleagues, “I have good news. The pumps are on! Even as I speak, rain is sweeping over your districts and on your thirsty constituents, helping fill the reservoirs not just with water, but with hope. And in that spirit of optimism, here’s a nonpartisan, nonsectarian suggestion: Pray for more rain. I am. That way, the reservoirs will keep rising, agriculture will get its water, and maybe there will be some left over for smelt and salmon and the thousands of people who depend on them. And maybe we won’t have to hear you shriek ‘Turn on the pumps!’ again.”

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California Water: A Word (or Two) About Smelt

I spent Wednesday in Sacramento, listening to federal and state fish biologists and water managers talk about the Delta smelt–an endangered fish sometimes described as a “minnow”–what they’re learning about species, and how to keep it from being pulled into the pumping facilities that send water to the great farms and cities to the south. I am a sucker for terminology and argot, and the session was full of it. A few key terms and some that just sort of tickled me:

Entrainment. That’s the process whereby currents created by the state and federal pumps capture smelt (and juvenile salmon and other species) and slowly draw the fish toward them.

Turbidity. Simply put, cloudiness of water. It’s a hot topic in smelt circles. A consultant for one of the big San Joaquin Valley water contractors repeatedly expressed the thought that since smelt are believed to prefer turbid (cloudy) water, reduced turbidity in the area near the pumps–meaning clearer water–is probably responsible for the decline or absence of the fish there.

YOY. Year of young; fish born during the current year.

WOMT. (Pronounced “whomped.”) Water Operators Management Team.

CHTR losses.Fish mortality caused by “capture, handling, transport, and release.” CHTR happens when fish are entrained, drawn toward the pumps, and “salvaged” at a “fish facility” adjacent to one of the pumping plants. Depending on the species, they’re then trucked someplace in the western reaches of the Delta to be released.

PEI. Potential Entrainment Index. A statistic method for forecasting times and circumstances when smelt may be sucked toward the pumps.

X2. From a paper on the delta smelt habitat: “the distance in kilometers from the Golden Gate to the position of the 2 percent salinity isohaline.” (From elsewhere: “Isohalines are lines (or contours) that join points of equal salinity in an aquatic system.”)

And I could go on. But as a non-scientist, non-engineer, layperson, here’s what struck me in the discussions: How much uncertainty exists about the smelt–where it is, how it gets from one place to another, its spawning behavior. Of course, this mattered less when the Delta was full of smelt, and it was probably studied much less intensively than it is now. Now that the fish may be going extinct, it’s harder to study and get answers that may help preserve it.

I checked my impression about the uncertainty with a biologist at the meeting. They said, “That’s the elephant in the room–the uncertainty. When scientists meet with each other, they’re more open about it. In a public setting, they tend not to want to get into that.”

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California Water: Hearts and Minds

I saw an interesting story last night from the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Weiser: “Underground Tunnel Gets Closer Look for Shipping Water Through Delta.” The piece deals with the latest twist on a long-talked-about fix for the plumbing in the state and federal systems that move water from Northern to Southern California. Back in 1982, Governor Jerry Brown promoted a ballot initiative for a massive new waterway–dubbed the Peripheral Canal–that would iron out some kinks in the current system of pumps and canals. Seen in the north as a Southern California water grab and almost everywhere as an overpriced boondoggle, the initiative went down with a 62.7 percent “no” vote.

But because the need and competition for water has only increased since then, the idea has never gone away. It’s back this year as part of the debate over the $11.1 billion bond measure on this November’s ballot. The initiative doesn’t specifically set aside money for a Peripheral Canal, but everyone assumes that at least some of billions in the initiatives uncommitted funds will go to what’s now called a “conveyance” project.

The canal is still the object of fear and loathing in the Delta and elsewhere in Northern California–just another act in the endless plot to take the region’s most precious resource. But one thing different from past years, though: Some major environmental groups have signed on to both the bond and plans for some sort of Peripheral Canal. Why the change of heart? I think it comes down to the widespread recognition that the tortuous method of channeling water from the Sacramento River into the Delta and then into the aqueducts is broken and is a prime suspect in the collapse of the Central Valley’s once-magnificent chinook salmon runs and other environmental problems. The thinking is that if you straighten out the plumbing, you take care of the major hazards to the fish and to the Delta ecosystem.

Once you have the new canal or tunnel, all you have to do is manage the water flowing through it to the benefit of everyone involved.

And that’s the problem. To believe a canal will fix an environmental disaster, one must believe that the demand for new water and the machinations to get it by any means possible will suddenly just evaporate. Letting high river flows sweep through the Delta and out to sea–part of what’s necessary to aid salmon migrate to the Pacific–is condemned as a waste by those who want to put that water to work in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. That belief just won’t disappear overnight.

Today’s outstanding exhibit of that mindset is a move from Senator Dianne Feinstein to essentially suspend the Endangered Species Act to guarantee increased federal water deliveries to the valley (apparently no one has told her that the main reason less water has been going down there is California’s three-year drought; maybe she could write a bill to outlaw below-average rainfall, too). Feinstein says she’s concerned about farm jobs–the areas worst-hit by the drought have been prone to cycles of high unemployment for decades. But the first thing that comes to mind when you hear about her plan is her eager readiness to go to bat for big campaign donors in the valley who are unhappy with federal plans to protect salmon and other endangered species (see “Corporate Farmer Calls Upon Feinstein to Influence Environmental Dispute” by Lance Williams of the Center for Investigative Reporting).

That’s the way the game is played. New ground rules about how water is handled might change that. A new tunnel or canal won’t

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