Future water price, availability in question

by Michael Gardner, San Diego Union Tribune

In the coming months California will confront an unusual confluence of challenges that could determine the price and availability of water for decades to come.

Moreover, the looming decisions will test the state’s commitment to revitalizing one of the nation’s most economically and environmentally important estuaries: the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

How these developments play out will have considerable consequences for the San Diego region. The San Diego County Water Authority taps the Sacramento delta and Colorado River for most of its supplies delivered by the giant Metropolitan Water District.

‘There has been a conflict between species and water supply for decades. It’s been an inherent challenge when you use an estuary as part of your water delivery system,’ said Dennis Cushman, the water authority’s assistant general manager.

California is off to a rough start this year, with a dramatic falloff in Sierra snow, cuts in deliveries to some farms, and early pumping restrictions to protect fish have cost it the ability to capture enough water for 1.4 million homes for a year.

The state reported Thursday that the snowpack is at just 66 percent of normal and that January and February were the driest since record keeping began in 1920.

Nevertheless, Southern California is in good shape for now. Metropolitan has stockpiled enough water to make it through the year without reducing deliveries for the foreseeable future.

Here’s what lies ahead:

‘ Gov. Jerry Brown’s $14.5 billion ‘twin tunnels’ concept to deliver supplies through the delta and to Southern California. The cost would be passed on through higher rates to those who use the water, including homes and businesses in the San Diego region.

‘ A related formal analysis of a far-reaching $10 billion funding commitment by the state to revitalize the delta, where its dual role of environmental sanctuary and economic powerhouse is frequently in conflict. Federal and state fishery agencies will have to sign off.

‘The risk of even more restrictions on pumping out of the delta to protect smelt and salmon runs. The federal Bureau of Reclamation just told some farmers that they may receive as little as 25 percent of their contracted amounts, blaming the bad news on the smelt.

‘ The percolating debate over a proposed $11 billion water bond scheduled for the November 2014 ballot. Key players are calling for a rewrite because of its cost, the state’s shifting needs and lingering controversy over its spending allocation for new dams. Tucked inside is $100 million for the San Diego County Water Authority to help offset the costs of enlarging San Vicente Reservoir, as well as the possibility of millions more for various projects.

‘ A lower-court ruling that could toss out the historic accord along the Colorado River ‘ and accompanying transfer of water to the San Diego region from the Imperial Valley ‘ is expected by mid-March.

Restoring the delta and fishery

The state will release in stages its long awaited Bay Delta Conservation Plan that outlines a 50-year, $24.5 billion fix to what has become one of the state’s biggest environmental headaches.

The first parts of the comprehensive plan are expected to roll out in mid-March. The rest will trickle out this spring. Also, federal and state environmental assessments are being prepared concurrently and should be released in draft form by summer.

The cornerstone of this plan is a new water delivery system designed to minimize the need for the mammoth state and federal pumps near Tracy that are blamed for killing delta smelt and salmon. No decision has been made, but the leading contender is Brown’s controversial 37-mile-long twin tunnels project.

The San Diego County Water Authority, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and others are urging a smaller, single tunnel accompanied by new regional storage facilities. That approach, and others, are being analyzed as part of the plan and environmental reviews.

The state’s plan also envisions creating about 100,000 acres of new habitat in the delta, a 1,100 mile maze of waterways that is growing more polluted, more susceptible to levee failure and more important to a growing state’s thirst for water. Two-thirds of the state counts on the delta for some of its drinking water, plus irrigation supplies for agriculture.

The importance of a broad resolution was just illustrated in February, state water officials say,

That’s when the state lost an opportunity to store about 700,000 acre-feet ‘ enough for 1.4 million homes for a year ‘ because it could not pump the rush of river releases into its San Luis Reservoir west of Los Banos because of fish protection restrictions.

Too many smelt had already been killed, so fish agencies ordered the pumps slowed. It seems the turbidity caused by the early snow storms flushing down the rivers into the Delta attracted the smelt into a danger zone where they were lost.

But since Feb. 6, the fish kills have been minimal ‘ only two official reported deaths. The pumps can take as many as 362 until March 31. The loss is currently at about 230.

Storing water

Metropolitan ‘ Southern California’s giant Los Angeles-based wholesaler ‘ has been quietly stashing enormous amounts of water in a network of above-ground reservoirs and underground aquifers.

Metropolitan had slightly more than 2.7 million acre feet of water in storage on New Year’s Day. That’s enough to meet the needs of about 5.4 million homes for a year. In contrast, Metropolitan had just 1 million acre feet in reserve while coping with pumping restrictions in 2009.

Moreover, Metropolitan has a second reserve of 626,000 acre feet for catastrophic emergencies that is not factored into its storage figures.

The strategy to concentrate on building a statewide network of reservoirs was developed nearly a quarter-century ago at the height of one of California’s most punishing droughts.

No bowl seemed out of the question. The district has deals in the Central Valley to keep more than 700,000 acre feet under farmland.

Dams are a priority. Metropolitan spent nearly $2 billion to build its own reservoir, Diamond Valley Lake, near Temecula. Filled in 2000, the lake now holds 686,000 acre feet.

Metropolitan also has rights to about 500,000 acre feet in three state dams. It even negotiated with the federal government and other states to end a controversial ‘use it or lose it’ policy at Lake Mead so that 480,000 acre feet that has been conserved can be kept in the giant reservoir for future use.

So where did all of this water come from? Much was accumulated two years ago during a wetter-than-normal year, and through tight conservation.

Metropolitan has standard purchase deals for State Water Project supplies out of Lake Oroville as well as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation via Lake Mead and the Colorado.

But it also obtains supplemental supplies far and wide. Metropolitan arranged a deal with the city of Needles, pays willing farmers to fallow some land so their water can be used in urban areas, and invested in a Yuma, Ariz. project to desalt tainted agricultural water, among other projects.

And if snows are ever sustained over a few seasons, Metropolitan’s vast network has room for even more water. It has a capacity of 6 million acre feet ‘ more than double what’s in storage currently.

Court ruling approaches

Not all of the conflict is in the delta: feuding persists over the 2003 historic deal to share Colorado River supplies.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly is expected within the new few weeks to issue a decision on whether the compromise ‘ and the transfer of water to the San Diego region from the Imperial Valley ‘ failed to adequately protect public health in Imperial County and prevent the total collapse of the nearby Salton Sea.

The Imperial County Board of Supervisors and the local Air Pollution Control District filed the legal challenge.