Friday afternoon’s announcement that the California Department of Water Resources increased allocations from the State Water Project to 75 percent was not surprising.
With an epic snowpack, spilling reservoirs and devastating floods throughout the state, it was more remarkable that until March 24 the state had made only two increases in what it calls the “Table A” allocation to SWP contractors. From 5 percent in December, the allocation was increased to 30 percent in January and upped to 35 percent in February.
Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District is among water agencies that rely on imported water from the SWP.
Water district board President Rob Schultz said the increased allocation was an improvement and in line with reservoir levels and snowpack, but still conservative.
“I believe that we should have a 100 percent allocation or better,” Schultz said Friday afternoon, shortly after the increase was announced. “The state should be making every attempt to deliver this water and encourage the recharge of aquifers all over the state rather than letting the higher flows simply run off into the ocean.”
Water district General Manager Tom Neisler agreed.
“We are relieved that DWR has increased the 2023 Table “A” allocation to 75 percent of our contracted supplies,” he said Saturday morning. “This action was supported by the hydrology of the tributary areas months ago. Had the state made this additional supply available at that time, all state water contractors — including TCCWD — would have been able to take full advantage of the available supply in a rare, wet year.”
Although much more water than anticipated will be available to the district, it spent months of staff time — and legal fees — preparing a water priority ordinance. The district also put customers on notice that they were not likely to get as much water as requested. As a result, at least some of the district’s agricultural customers made plans to reduce planting due to water constraints.
Neisler said the district began importation operations in anticipation of this notification earlier this month.
“We will continue to import the maximum amount of water possible for the remainder of the year,” he said, adding that “even in this extremely wet year, we have not been provided our full, 100 percent allocation. This shortfall highlights the restrictions placed on deliveries by both state and federal regulations. It also emphasizes the need for long-term solutions including the Delta Conveyance Project and additional reservoir storage.”
He said voters approved Proposition 1 in 2014.
“This measure provided $2.6 billion for water infrastructure improvements,” Neisler said. “Most of these funds remain unspent today.”
Among projects targeted for those funds is the planned Sites Reservoir, an offstream reservoir proposed north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — through which water headed south to the district and other SWP customers just flow.
The reservoir is specifically designed to divert and store water generated by storm events, like the atmospheric rivers that drenched the state in recent weeks, to increase water flexibility, reliability and resiliency in drier years.
But officials report that the project won’t be complete for at least a decade. Water rights acquisition, permitting and environmental review are still underway and construction — which includes two large dams — is not likely to start before 2025 with completion five or six years later.
Consistent storms in late February and March have built up the Sierra snowpack to more than double the amount that California typically sees this time of year, the DWR said in announcing the allocation increase on Friday.
“Rainfall has also allowed for robust flows through the system, providing adequate water supply for the environment and endangered fish species while allowing the SWP to pump the maximum amount of water allowed under state and federal permits into reservoir storage south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta,” the agency noted in a news release.
In addition to the increase in the SWP allocation, Neisler said the district has two other sources of water it can import this year.
On March 15, he described potential water sources to the district’s board. One is what is called “Article 21” water, which is sometimes called “wet weather water” that is made available to contractors when there is a lot of water in the system. The other is Kern River water that can be made available to the district at a very low rate in very wet years.
On Saturday morning he said the district is currently importing Article 21 water and banking lower Kern River water in the San Joaquin Valley (under a transfer agreement).
“We will switch over to Table ‘A’ SWP water when A21 is unavailable,” he said, adding that A21 water is allocated on a weekly basis and he has already submitted the district’s request for full demand for the week beginning March 29.
The increased allocation means that the district will likely continue pumping water up from the California Aqueduct at the foot of the Grapevine into November.
The uncertainty of SWP supplies and limitations on its importation system require the district to continually assess conditions, Neisler said. With soaked fields, ag customers are not yet taking delivery of water, so it will be delivered to Brite Lake, also known as Jacobsen Reservoir. When the reservoir is full, water not being used by customers will be stored in Tehachapi and Cummings basin for use in future years.
Water that had been stored in the San Joaquin Valley during the very wet year of 2018 helped the district meet some customer demands last year.
But storage — and additional pumping — add cost, Neisler said.
And, the DWR noted, while California’s surface water conditions have greatly improved this year following three years of historic drought, several water supply challenges remain in parts of the state.
The state must address subsidence along the California Aqueduct in the Central Valley and advance the Delta Conveyance Project so that the state can move as much water as possible during high flow events, the agency said.
And the Colorado River Basin, which is a critical water supply source for Southern California, is still in the midst of a 23-year drought.
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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