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Commentary: Flood releases and shortages—in the same year?

Issue Date: April 6, 2011
By Tim Quinn
Water releases from Shasta Dam, above left, increased last week as the federal Central Valley Project maintained flood control space within the Sacramento River reservoir. At Oroville Dam on the Feather River, right, water also spilled from the largest State Water Project reservoir.
Photos/Kathy Coatney and Bob Johnson
Tim Quinn

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced last week that Central Valley Project contractors south of the Sacramento San-Joaquin Delta can expect a bump in their 2011 allocation. The increase is certainly welcome, but a projected 65 percent supply in a year when the snowpack is 165 percent of average shows there is something greatly amiss in our statewide water delivery system.

It makes little sense that under such conditions of abundance, the bureau is unable to deliver more water for the agricultural economy south of the delta, let alone make water available to replenish critical storage south of the delta.

As Reclamation Commissioner Mike Connor issued the announcement, state and federal water managers were coordinating massive releases from reservoirs to ensure adequate space for flood control. Delta outflow was estimated at more than 162,000 cubic-feet per second, or more than 326,000 acre-feet in a single day.

At that rate, more than 3.2 million acre-feet would be expected to flow out through the Golden Gate in a 10-day period. That's more than the CVP has exported annually in the best of recent years. It's also water that could have been moved into storage for the hot, dry months ahead, or used to recharge groundwater basins, if we had the storage and conveyance capacity to do so.

Millions of Californians face reduced water deliveries this year, despite excellent precipitation and healthy storage in major reservoirs. State Water Project contractors were told last month to expect a 70 percent supply, up from the 10 percent estimated in January. Though the number may be adjusted slightly in coming weeks, it is not likely to go much higher.

There are a number of factors behind this dichotomy. Regulatory restrictions to protect species are part of the story. So are operational issues that plague the aging State Water Project.

It all points to the need for a more flexible system of regulation that places greater emphasis on the water needed for a healthy California economy, and not just on the water requirements of our ecosystem. It also underscores the need for comprehensive, long-term investments in our system—including conveyance improvements in the delta and additional surface storage and groundwater storage to provide operational flexibility. Massive investments in local water resources development, including conservation and recycling, also are needed.

Association of California Water Agencies members are working with other stakeholders to implement solutions through the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan and other forums, but it will be many years before those solutions come on line. In the meantime, it looks like we can expect reduced deliveries even in wet years.

(Tim Quinn is executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies in Sacramento.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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