California officials forecast ‘zero’ water deliveries

State officials announced Friday that 29 water agencies serving 25 million people across California can expect “zero” water deliveries from the State Water Project this summer because of the worsening drought.

Although that delivery projection could change, it is the first time a “zero allocation” forecast has been made in the 54-year history of the State Water Project, which is operated by the California Department of Water Resources and typically delivers Sierra snowmelt to cities and farms throughout the state.

The decision was among several emergency measures announced Friday to deal with a persistent statewide drought that has left the California mountain snowpack at just 12 percent of the January average.

The “zero” forecast affects urban and agricultural areas from San Jose to San Diego that depend in part on water diverted from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Most of these areas have other water sources to draw from, including local reservoirs and groundwater wells.

The State Water Project serves about 750,000 acres of farmland. Most farmers have access to surface water and groundwater, including private wells, and it’s common for them to be given short allotments in drought years. Before Friday’s announcement, the State Water Project delivery forecast was only 5 percent of the maximum amount allotted in its contracts with water agencies.

Even so, the announcement assures further conservation measures will be required, and may press some farmers to fallow land. Farms consume about three-fourths of California’s freshwater supply.

The federal government operates a separate Delta water diversion system, the Central Valley Project, which is not affected by the state forecast. Its delivery forecast is expected later this month.

“This is the most serious drought we’ve faced in modern times,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, which approved the emergency measures. “We will have to collaborate our way through this as never before.”

State and federal officials announced that starting today, water diversions from the Delta, a crucial wildlife habitat and California’s largest freshwater source, will be minimized to serve only urban areas and health and safety purposes. No water will be diverted for farms.

In addition, some 5,800 junior water rights holders across the state – mainly farms – will receive notices next week that they must reduce their water diversions from streams. And water quality rules in the Delta will be adjusted, which will increase salinity for some water users in the region and may affect wildlife.

“It’s a very serious situation,” Terry Erlewine, general manager of the State Water Contractors, said in a statement. “Across the board, water districts are ramping up conservation and efficiency efforts to go beyond the conservation achievements already made.”

The zero delivery forecast does not affect water users in the Sacramento region, who are not served by the State Water Project. But the capital area faces its own shortages and is enacting broad conservation measures.

On Thursday, for instance, the board of directors of the Placer County Water Agency will vote on an emergency declaration and call on customers to reduce water consumption by 35 percent. It will also consider an emergency public works project to install temporary pumps and piping to improve access to water from two existing wells.

The Delta water quality rules are being adjusted so that state and federal agencies can preserve water stored in reservoirs, primarily in the Sacramento River watershed. This will ensure that water is available, in the event the drought continues, to deliver to people in the hot months ahead and to ensure salmon and other fish can survive in the rivers.

“Today’s action means everyone will get less water as a result,” said DWR director Mark Cowin. “There’s simply not enough to go around.”

Another change allows water agencies to open the Delta Cross Channel Gates near Walnut Grove. Those gates divert a portion of Sacramento River flows into the interior Delta, where it is then diverted by state and federal pumps. Open gates mean less fresh water will flow out of the Delta to San Francisco Bay, and portions of the western Delta will become saltier. But officials said they expect those western Delta waters will still meet drinking water standards.

The gates are normally closed at this time of year to ensure that young salmon migrating downstream to the ocean are not sidetracked. Opening them now means those salmon are more likely to be eaten by predators in the interior Delta or killed in water diversion pumps.

Officials may adjust the gates daily to avoid harm to salmon. Juvenile salmon are prone to migrate during daylight hours, then seek protected areas and stay in place at night. So the gates may be opened only at night, when salmon are less active.

The water board, which oversees water quality and water rights statewide, plans to review all the changes on an ongoing basis and amend them as necessary. It also plans to beef up its enforcement reach. Tom Howard, water board executive director, said some employees would be retrained to do inspection work in the field to ensure junior water rights holders heed the curtailment order.

Local agencies that depend on the State Water Project greeted Friday’s news with alarm. Many expected a low allocation, but zero was a shock.

“I never though in my entire career I’d see a zero allocation,” said Jim Beck, general manager of the Kern County Water Agency.

Beck has worked for the agency for 30 years. It is the largest agricultural water contractor in the State Water Project system and also serves urban areas including Bakersfield, Taft and Tehachapi. He said farmers will be able to draw from a vast groundwater banking system operated by the agency and, in some cases, from private wells.

But that water won’t go far enough, he said, and many farmers will be in “survival mode” this year.

“Our growers are going to have to make really tough decisions on which crops they can fallow and which trees or vines they can take out of production,” Beck said.

Marty Lugo, spokeswoman for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, said her district was hurting even before the announcement. The district holds State Water Project contracts for as much 100,000 acre-feet of water each year. Until today, its allocation for this year was 5,000 acre-feet – about 1 percent of the water distributed by the district.

“We already expected we would get a small amount, if any at all,” Lugo said, adding that annual water demand for the district is 365,000 acre-feet.

The district has taken steps to cut water usage by 10 percent. Its groundwater supplies are expected to drop below 300,000 acre-feet by the end of the year.

At nearby Alameda County Water District, about 40 percent of water supplies typically come from state allocations, said assistant general manager Robert Shaver. “Obviously, it’s a pretty serious situation whether it’s at 5 percent or zero percent,” he said. “We had kind of been expecting that it would go to zero percent.”

To make up for the lack of water from the state, Shaver’s district will rely more heavily on groundwater. Those supplies will be tight, he said, as the year progresses. The district has asked customers to cut water use by 20 percent.

Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, worries that the emergency changes, along with the drought itself, could push some imperiled Delta fish species toward extinction.

“Yes, fish are going to suffer. Population crashes occur during these periods,” Jennings said. “We can cast blame, but we’re in this situation and they don’t have a lot of leeway. Everybody’s going to pay a price this year.”

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