State and federal water regulators said Wednesday they’re struggling to hold California’s fragile water system together amid dwindling supplies and increasing anger from farmers, lawmakers, environmentalists and others.
At an informal hearing of the State Water Resources Control Board, a host of state legislators implored regulators to make more water available for agriculture and rural Californians. Environmentalists, however, said several fish species could go extinct if more water isn’t made available to them.
Meanwhile, officials warned about significant operational problems at Folsom Lake and Lake Oroville, which are being drawn down to historically low levels in an effort to cure a water-temperature problem that has left populations of endangered salmon in peril.
The conflicting demands made clear the difficulties regulators are facing in the fourth year of drought. Different elements of California’s water infrastructure are inextricably linked with each other, so addressing one problem often leads to new problems elsewhere in the system.
The entire system “is stretched to its limit, obviously,” said Ron Milligan, operations manager at the federal government’s Central Valley Project, which delivers millions of gallons of Northern California water to cities and farms throughout the state. “We’re hitting some difficult decision points.”
At issue is a recent tentative decision by the water board to reduce flows out of Lake Shasta in an effort to tamp down the temperature of water on the Sacramento River. The idea is to avoid a repeat of last year, when warm water killed most of the young winter-run Chinook salmon. The Chinook is listed as an endangered species.
The decision, which the water board is expected to finalize soon, is having major implications throughout California. Some 250,000 acre feet of water is being held back at Shasta through the end of August, raising havoc with farmers and others who were counting on the supplies.
“They were told they were going to get a certain amount of water,” said state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, one of several legislators pleading with the water board to release more water to their constituents. “There’s got to be a way to balance the uses.”
Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Nicolaus, said agriculture is more important than “a few degrees in Fahrenheit” to save some fish. He and others noted that an estimated 500,000 acres of land have been fallowed already this year, a figure that could grow because of the water being held behind Shasta Dam.
Yet environmentalist Gary Bobker of the nonprofit Bay Institute said hurting farmers is preferable to making a species of fish go extinct. Agriculture “will still be here in five to 10 years,” he said.
The water temperature problem is putting stress on other crucial facets of the water system. Restricting flows from Shasta means there’s less fresh water available to flow through the Delta and keep salinity at bay. The Delta must be kept salt free because it’s the hub from which Northern California surface water is pumped to San Joaquin Valley farmers and millions of Southern Californians.
To compensate for the shortage of water coming from Shasta, federal and state officials have ramped up releases from the massive reservoirs at Folsom and Oroville. That’s causing fresh complications.
Federal officials said they expect Folsom to be drawn down to 120,000 acre feet by the end of September, a record low. That will cut into the margin for error to operate the lake properly. Intake valves that pull water out of the lake might not function properly if the lake falls below 90,000 acre feet.
Folsom is the primary water source for several Sacramento suburbs, including Roseville, Folsom and Granite Bay. “Running the lake down to 120,000 acre feet would have devastating effects,” said Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, R-Roseville.
Milligan said federal officials are sensitive to the problem of eating into Folsom Lake’s operating cushion. One remedy under discussion is placing a temporary pumping station on a barge and floating it onto the lake to make sure water will continue to flow to the Sacramento suburbs, he said. “If the lake level gets low enough, that would be the concept,” he said.
Anxiety is also growing further up the Sacramento Valley. Lake Oroville, the main reservoir of the State Water Project, is on track to be reduced to 900,000 acre feet this summer. “That meets historical low points for Oroville,” said John Leahigh of the state Department of Water Resources, which operates the reservoir.
Much below 900,000 acre feet, it becomes difficult to operate the lake, he said. A state-run hydro plant at Oroville will lose some of its generating capacity, he said. In addition, state officials are worried about having less water available to “carry over” to next year.
“If we get another dry year, it would be very difficult,” he said.
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