As Californians braced for record-breaking rain and snowstorms on Feb. 22, the Department of Water Resources announced what it called a modest increase in forecast State Water Project deliveries this year.
The SWP now expects to deliver 35 percent of requested water supplies, up from 30 percent forecast in January, to the 29 public water agencies that serve 27 million Californians including residents of Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District.
The district’s general manager, Tom Neisler, stopped short of calling the increase stingy, but noted that many water-watchers believe the allocation could be much higher — particularly since Gov. Gavin Newsom just a week earlier issued an executive order to suspend environmental laws to allow state officials to hold more water in reservoirs.
Neisler said the district is happy to have the increase, although the 35 percent allocation is not enough to allow it to meet this year’s requests from all of its customers. It would take at least a 41 percent allocation of imported water to meet those requests.
Neisler also noted that environmental laws impact the amount of water that can be brought through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Referencing a graphic that was prepared in early January, he said that nearly 70 percent of total water that flowed into the Delta was wasted — that is, allowed to run to the ocean — rather than being pumped south to storage at San Luis Reservoir west of Los Banos.
The San Luis Joint-Use Complex serves the SWP and the federal Central Valley Project. According to the DWR, it is the largest off-stream reservoir in the United States. But Neisler said that because of environmental regulations, much of the water carried into the Delta as part of significant “atmospheric river” storm events of December and January did not make its way into storage.
The governor’s executive order was in response to criticism about that, but Newsom was then criticized by environmental activists who claim that the executive order will harm Chinook salmon and Delta smelt.
Neisler said he believes the hydrology supports an even higher allocation than the 35 percent, but also that “the optics” might not be right for the DWR to provide a higher allocation at a time that the governor is facing criticism from environmentalists.
He said he believes it's likely the allocation will be further increased, but perhaps not until May.
DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in a news release that the allocation could be further increased — or reduced.
“Careful planning and the use of advanced forecasting tools will enable the department to balance the needs of our communities, agriculture and the environment should dry conditions continue this spring and into next year,” Nemeth said.
More than a month still remains in the state’s wet season, the DWR noted, but there’s uncertainty about a return to warm and dry conditions prior to April 1, typically when the state’s snowpack peaks and begins to melt. The department is scheduled to conduct the next two snow surveys at Phillips Station near South Lake Tahoe on March 1 and April 3.
Neisler noted that what he calls a “weather whiplash” makes it difficult for everyone in California to plan.
In December and January, conditions were wetter in northern California where water for the SWP is collected in Lake Oroville. But more recently, precipitation — snow and rain — has been concentrated in the central part of the state.
Such variation is not uncommon in California, and the water district must be prepared for all possible scenarios, Neisler said.
If the SWP cannot supply enough water to meet customer demands, the district uses the water priority ordinance it prepares annually as a guide to divvy up what water is available. It may also sell some of the water it has banked underground in the district.
And if a greater SWP allocation is made available, the district will spend what it takes to import as much water as possible and to store water elsewhere if necessary.
In 2017, a very wet year, the district stored part of its allocation in the San Joaquin Valley. And in 2022, it brought the last of that stored water up the hill to help meet customer demands.
When the water year began last October, there was uncertainty about whether the drought would continue. Recent storms have brought unprecedented amounts of precipitation to the state, but reservoirs are still not all full and groundwater supplies are compromised in many areas of the state.
Locally, though, the groundwater supply in the Tehachapi Basin that provides water for the city, Golden Hills and most other residential users, is managed by the district in accordance with a court order that limits pumping to what is considered the native safe yield of the basin. A similar order is in place for the Cummings Basin.
The city and community services districts — including Bear Valley, Golden Hills and Stallion Springs — do buy imported water from the water district for various purposes, when the water is available. Some farmers are highly reliant on imported water and the largest local farmer, Grimmway, cut its production last year by about 50 percent because water was not available.
Claudia Elliott is a freelance journalist and former editor of the Tehachapi News. She lives in Tehachapi and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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