Local expert: Sacramento region must defend its water interests more aggressively

As California’s prolonged drought stretches into another autumn, debates have intensified over how to balance competing water needs: urban vs. rural; people vs. fish; north state vs. south. Against that backdrop, The Sacramento Bee spoke with a trio of local water experts about what the drought means for the Sacramento area and how the region should adapt and respond. This is the second installment in our series.

Ronald Stork is a senior policy advocate at Friends of the River, a Sacramento-based environmental group that works on behalf of wild rivers, water quality, fishery protection and water conservation. Stork is a nationally recognized expert on flood management and water resources development, and also represents environmental groups on the Sacramento Water Forum, a coalition of local agencies working to protect the American River.

Are water shortages going to become more common in the Sacramento region?

To some degree water shortages are becoming more common in the Sacramento region. In part this is because of the gradual buildup of demand by, and deliveries to, out-of-basin customers of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project (CVP) and the California State Water Project (SWP), and the heavy reliance on the American River to serve these demands. Demand within the American River watershed is also increasing.

CVP demand is up because of long-term acreage expansion and conversion to permanent crops, which have a less interruptible supply. Also, a lot of the long-term groundwater overdraft is in or adjacent to the CVP service area. So the CVP serves an area that has for many decades exceeded its available local and imported supplies. So, as long as CVP water is comparatively cheap, demand is relentless, something that often results in more deliveries.

As one can see from the recent efforts of many elected officials, maintaining the illusion that sinking more wells or bringing a little more surface water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and from north state reservoirs is going to fix the “problem” is more important than making the hard choices necessary to bring demand in balance with supply.

Increased demand is affecting all of the north state CVP and SWP reservoirs. Folsom gets tapped more for a host of reasons. Demand in the American River has been nearly flat for the last decade because of the Great Recession, water-meter installations and related water-conservation measures. But future growth is projected to meaningfully increase basin demand as time goes on.

Whether those projections prove out is still speculative, mostly depending on decisions by elected officials. Also unknown will be the success of water conservation efforts.

What needs to be done to make water supplies more reliable for the region?

The region has a lot of improvements that could be made to use water more carefully and prudently. Part of that program means that area political leaders don’t approve more developments than can be reliably served. There are quite a few physical and institutional arrangements that could be made – and were contemplated to be made in the Water Forum Agreement – that would improve supply reliability. There are also improvements to Folsom and Nimbus dams that will improve the survivability of lower American River fisheries.

All of these improvements will be useful, but they also will have to be paid for. That does mean that water in the region will cost more in the future. Many American River surface water diverters have no access to groundwater or interconnections with potentially more reliable Sacramento River supplies or other water suppliers with more diverse sources of supply. The city of Sacramento may face real engineering challenges in low-water pumping. Building more resilient supply sources does cost money, though.

What is the primary political issue that Sacramento-area leaders need to focus on in regard to water?

There is a real behind-the-scenes north-south struggle over water going on. We let Westlands Water District (in the San Joaquin Valley) and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California walk all over us. Some of our key elected officials have even tended to support Westlands and MWD export proposals. This region needs to find a way to defend its interests more effectively.

That said, our region has to make investments in demand management, supply reliability and environmental mitigation like other areas of the state have done. The lower American River is frequently too warm to sustain the iconic salmon and steelhead trout fishery here. There are operational improvements that can be made to provide cooler waters, such as a new flow standard agreement the water forum has been seeking for many years. There are physical rearrangements, such as lower power-release intakes, temperature control devices and more sophisticated power intake reservoir-level controls that can also provide cooler water.

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