The Nett Report SPECIAL EDITION – 2015 Water Update
As California moves into the 16th year of a drought pattern, it is more important than ever to stay up-to-date on the status of water and what is being done to address the impacts of low water supplies to the economy, the environment, and ability of various sectors from all regions to work together toward both short and long-term solutions. This special edition of “The Nett Report” is designed to give clients and friends an overview of the subject. Nettleton Strategies specializes in water and other issues relating to sustainability and resource use. If you need media relations, government relations, communications, or facilitation services regarding water or other issues, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The State of the State’s Water
On April 1, 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown announced a mandatory 25 percent reduction in water use throughout the state, excluding agriculture. Depending on past levels of conservation, communities will be required to achieve water savings of between 10 and 35 percent. The specifics of the proposed cutbacks can be visualized on this New York Times Interactive map. Some communities are likely to protest the levels of cutback. The details of the restrictions to help achieve these reductions can be found in this story from VOX. NBC San Diego created a short quiz to help its viewers become aware of the restrictions. The photo at left is at the site of the press conference where Governor Brown made the announcement regarding the restrictions. The location where he is standing is adjacent to where the state’s snow pack is measured every year. April 1 is considered the date when the snow pack in the northern Sierras is at its peak. In a normal year, there would be five to six feet of snow on the ground where he is standing (see graph below).
How Low is California’s Snow Pack?
As shown in the photo with Governor Brown above, the snow pack is essentially non-existent. There is some snow in the Sierras, approximately 5 percent of average, but the graph below shows how this year compares to an average year, last year, the year before, the previous worst year (1976-1977), and the wettest year (1982-1983). A foot of snow fell in the Sierras early on the week of April 6 which will provide a small amount of additional supply (image courtesy of Department of Water Resources, California Data Exchange Center).
Understanding Reservoir Capacities
Media reports often use local reservoirs as a backdrop for drought stories, giving the impression that the levels of these reservoirs are indicative of the status of available water supply. While local reservoirs play an important role in capturing San Diego’s limited rainwater, their primary role is as storage for the imported water that supplies more than 85 percent of the region’s supplies. To gain a sense of the relative size of reservoirs that are important to San Diego, please see the chart below displaying the capacities of four representative reservoirs and how imported water flows to and through them.
Both Lake Mead on the Colorado River and Lake Oroville in the northern Sierras provide water to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. One of the reservoirs receiving that water is Diamond Valley Lake, built in 1999 to help bolster Southern California reserve capacities. Diamond Valley is connected by aqueduct to San Diego, and the San Vicente Reservoir has recently been expanded to provide the largest local storage capacity. From this chart, you can see that the reservoirs with the greatest water storage capacity are Lake Mead and Lake Oroville, however, each reservoir throughout the state’s water system plays an important role in capturing, storing and transferring water.
Where Are Reservoir Storage Levels Now?
Storage in Lake Mead on the Colorado River is hovering above the shortage level. Because that level has not yet been reached, California is receiving its full allocation of Colorado River water. Snow pack in the Rockies was below average this year, but not at record lows. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projects there is a 21 percent chance the water level in Lake Mead will drop below the shortage level in 2016 and a 54 percent chance in 2017. Even if shortage rules go into effect, Arizona and Nevada are required to take the first cuts in supply. However, it is likely that California will help its neighboring states should that occur. Lake Oroville, the primary storage reservoir for the State Water Project, is at 66 percent of average and 51 percent of capacity. These numbers are not shocking in themselves except that with snow pack at an historic low, containing only five percent of average water content, there will be little snowmelt to replenish Oroville as the reservoir is drawn down during the summer. The graphic below illustrates the issue (image courtesy of Department of Water Resources, California Data Exchange Center).
Colorado River Concern About Future Water Levels Results in New Hoover Dam Turbines
Although Colorado River supplies are not yet at shortage levels, last year the New York Times reported that the Colorado River and reservoirs from the Rockies to southern Arizona “are being sapped by 14 years of drought nearly unrivaled in 1,250 years.” Last year, for the first time, water released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead was decreased by ten percent, but those cutbacks did not affect Lake Mead allocations. The Times said that “studies now show that the 20th century was one of the three wettest of the last 13 centuries in the Colorado basin. On average, the Colorado’s flow over that period was actually 15 percent lower than in the 1900s. And most experts agree that the basin will get even drier.” Five new turbines have been installed in the Hoover Dam to keep the power plant working with less water in the reservoir.
Is It a Four-Year Drought or a 16-Year Drought?
Most news outlets have reported California is entering its fourth year of drought since 2011, a year with well above average precipitation. However, many climate scientists agree that California has been in a drought pattern since 1999. Since that year there have been only two water years that have been significantly above average: 2011, as mentioned above, and 2006. To illustrate the situation, the image below shows Sacramento River runoff between 2002 and 2015. The 2000 and 2001 water years were also below average (image courtesy Metropolitan Water District of Southern California).
Is the Drought Due to Climate Change?
While climate change is projected to significantly change future weather and precipitation patterns, the current drought does not appear to be climate related. Most climate scientists attribute the drought to variability in annual precipitation patterns. In addition, there appears to be no linkage between either oceanic or climatic conditions that could account for the last two years of very limited precipitation. The culprit is a persistent high-pressure system (see image on the left) that has blocked storms from reaching Northern California and most of the West Coast. Known as the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge, this high-pressure system has forced storms north into the Arctic, and they have found their way back into the continental U.S.. creating the severe cold weather that has brought record-breaking snow to the eastern U.S. However, scientists admit that two consecutive record-breaking dry years is unusual. It is clear that climate change has exacerbated the drought. Record warm temperatures have caused what precipitation has reached the state to fall as rain rather than snow, contributing to the minimal snow pack. In addition, the heat dries the soil and vegetation, creating a greater chance of fire danger and increasing water use for irrigation in both urban and rural areas (image courtesy NOAA).
To further inform the conclusion that the last two years of historically low precipitation and the current drought are not part of a climate pattern, scientists also analyzed tree ring research which shows there have been a number of drought periods in history not unlike the current dry period. Here are some highlights of that research:
- 1580 – the driest single year in history when the estimated flow of the San Joaquin River was half of the 1976-77 water year. 1976-77 is considered the lowest flow year in the modern era.
- Mid-1100s – marked by a rarity of wet years.
- Mid-1400s – a persistent drought when precipitation was less than the median for 13 consecutive years.
- 20th century – droughts longer than four years were not unusual.
This historical data was gathered from tree ring studies going back to 900 A.D., researched and published by the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree Ring Research.
Finding Your Water Use Restrictions and Tips for Conserving Water
To find water use restrictions your water agency has implemented, the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) has created an agency locator. A link to each agency will take you to the page with the water restriction rules currently in place. You can also find information about ways to conserve water at the SDCWA web site and at each agency’s site. One quality product is the Water Authority’s “Guide to a WaterSmart Lifestyle.” This 140-page digital book is an interactive resource to water conservation and can be accessed on computer, tablet, or smartphone. The guide is in a flipbook format that allows you to move through the pages as if it were a real book. Interactive features allow users to share ideas on Facebook, electronically “pin” plant and garden photos for their followers, watch videos, and scroll through a library of images. The eGuide includes plant finders, interactive maps, animated graphics, landscape design tools, and details about rebates and incentives. The San Diego Union-Tribune has published a story, “33 Ways You Can Save Water Now,” that can also be helpful.
Nettleton Strategies Out and About on the Water Issue
With more than 30 years of experience with water issues, Nettleton Strategies continues to participate in water-related activities. Here are some of the more recent highlights.
- Currently participating on the working group developing a curriculum for the CCO Training Bootcamp on “The Fundamentals of the Energy, Water & Food Nexus,” a component of the Climate Change Officer Certification for the Association of Climate Changer Officers.
- Interviewed regarding water conservation on NBC San Diego’s Politically Speaking with Equinox Center Executive Director Stephen Heverly. Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, San Diego County Water Authority General Manager Dennis Cushman, were on the previous segment. March 29, 2015.
- Represented Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) in a roundtable discussion on the Water Energy Nexus convened by the California Senate Select Committee on Climate Change and AB32 Implementation chaired by Senator Fran Pavley. March 20, 2015.
- Presented “California Drought – a Big Picture Perspective with NIDIS Insights” at the University of San Diego’s University of the Third Age. January 15, 2015.
- Guest host and moderator for the Global Classroom “Resilient Cities – Designing Resilient Waste Systems” for the World Resources Simulation Center Summer Series 2014. July 31, 2014.
- Presented “California Drought – a Big Picture Perspective with NIDIS Insights” at the Water Conservation Action Committee, July 20, 2014, and at multiple other public venues.
- Facilitated “Making Stormwater Alternative Compliance Programs Work: Opportunities in Development, Funding and Partnering,” sponsored by Procopio, July 17, 2014. The event was a live interactive session with nearly 150 stormwater professionals including San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board Executive Officer David Gibson.
- Moderated the Public Policy Panel at San Diego World Affairs Council’s Climate Energy and Climate Change Symposium, May 14, 2015. Panel included Representative Scott Peters; Ambassador Reno Harnish, Director of the Center for Environment and National Security at Scripps Institution of Oceanography; and Gary Gero, President of the Climate Action Reserve.
- Interviewed by KPBS Evening Edition regarding the San Diego World Affairs Council Climate and Energy Symposium, May 12, 2014.
- Moderated the Water/Energy Nexus panel at the February 2014 Climate Leadership Conference hosted by theAssociation of Climate Change Officers.
Nettleton Strategies serves on the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Energy and Water Committee and on the leadership group for the Water Conservation Action Committee. Other current activities include working with clients or partners on municipal water conservation projects,financing concepts for water recycling, and developing a data analysis tool related to water, emissions and energy. If you need assistance with water regulations, moving your water-saving technology into the mainstream, or just connecting with the right people in the right places, please contact Nettleton Strategies (see below).