East Bay to tap Sacramento River water

The East Bay Municipal Utility District this month will begin diverting water from the Sacramento River for the first time ever, a clear sign that the drought is literally causing ripples across the state.

The district’s board of directors voted unanimously Tuesday to begin tapping its water supplies from the Freeport Regional Water Project on the Sacramento River, which it helped build in partnership with Sacramento County at a cost of nearly $1 billion. The district has not used the diversion since it was completed in 2010.

“It’s really what has been planned for over many, many years: the idea of having this diversity of supply,” said district spokeswoman Andrea Pook. “It’s really the first time we’ve seen it come to fruition in this way.”

The district, which serves 1.3 million people in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, normally gets most of its water from its own reservoir and pipeline system on the Mokelumne River. To stretch this supply, it has called on customers this winter to voluntarily reduce their water consumption by 10 percent.

The Freeport diversion is a large complex of fish screens, pumps and pipelines in Sacramento, north of the town of Freeport along the Sacramento River. Completion in 2010 marked the end of a decades-long water war in the Sacramento region.

In 1970, EBMUD obtained a contract from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to purchase 150,000 acre-feet of water from the American River. Sacramentans feared this would deplete the capital region’s primary recreational asset. Opposition, led by the Save the American River Association, resulted in a lawsuit and ultimate compromise: EBMUD agreed to shift its water diversion downstream to the Sacramento River, and use it only in drought years.

Sacramento County became a partner in the Freeport diversion because it needed a new water source to meet urban growth demands, and it already is using some of its diversion capacity at Freeport. EBMUD is allowed to use its separate diversion pumps at Freeport only when snowmelt in the Mokelumne River watershed is predicted to fall below 500,000 acre-feet. That is the current prediction, a result of the exceptionally dry winter.

The Freeport intake is connected to EBMUD's Mokelumne River pipeline through a series of intermediate pipelines. The agency is allowed to divert no more than 133,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Freeport intake, and no more than 165,000 acre-feet in any three consecutive years. However, because of the severe drought this year, Reclamation has cut EBMUD’s water allocation to just 66,500 acre-feet.

The district plans to take 16,000 acre-feet of that supply in May and June. This amount of water will cost the district about $8 million, including pumping costs. It has enough cash reserves to cover that, avoiding the need for rate increases.

The diversion likely will begin within the next few days, and will take about a week to move through the pipeline system to the East Bay. It will be stored in San Pablo and Upper San Leandro reservoirs. The first trickle of Sacramento River water is expected to arrive about May 1, Pook said. It likely will be pumped from Freeport at a rate of about 90 million gallons per day.

The district is not calling for additional water conservation by its customers. Pook said that is because customers already nearly have met the 20 percent conservation goal that the state required all municipal water agencies to meet by 2020. And they are achieving an additional 10 percent conservation prompted by the drought.

Further conservation measures could be ordered this summer or fall, if necessary, Pook said. And the district will purchase an additional 43,600 acre-feet of Sacramento River water later this year, if necessary.

“The conservation message is going to be very strong,” she said. “Certainly in the next few months, we’re going to be focusing a lot more on outdoor conservation.”

Sacramento-area river advocates will be watching the diversion closely.

Felix Smith, a longtime board member of Save the American River Association, said the present system is probably preferable to the plan in the 1970s. Back then, EBMUD wanted to divert water from Lake Natoma using the Folsom South Canal. This would have deprived at least 16 miles of the lower American River of critical water flows.

An important factor, Smith said, will be the timing of EBMUD’s diversions, and Reclamation’s water releases at upstream dams that make it possible.

“The very fact that it goes down the river will benefit the river system,” Smith said. “If it’s done in a way that benefits fish, fine. It could be a disaster if it’s done wrong.”

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