Drought Shows that CA’s Water Rights System Is Bankrupt

The only way out of this cycle of destruction—other than praying for rain, which is not a strategy—is to reduce water deliveries and diversions in order to maintain adequate carryover storage in Shasta and upstream reservoirs this year.

California’s ongoing drought—or more accurately, our new normal in light of the reality of climate change—demonstrates that California’s water system is effectively bankrupt and broken, the result of having promised far more water (through claimed water rights and water contracts) than is available in an average year, let alone can be sustainably delivered during dry years.  

The drought disaster we’re facing this year is not simply a hydrologic problem; it is the result of the State’s failure to plan for droughts, particularly the failure to maintain adequate carryover storage in Shasta and other reservoirs last year.  While conditions have been very dry the past two plus months, droughts are a fact of life and we can’t control hydrology. But we do control what happens to water in the Bay-Delta watershed, and the failure to plan for droughts last year—particularly the failure to maintain adequate carryover storage in upstream reservoirs in 2021 by reducing water supply allocations and water diversions, as we warned last fall—leaves California without good options in 2022. 

The only way out of this cycle of destruction—other than praying for rain, which is not a strategy—is to reduce water deliveries and diversions in order to maintain adequate carryover storage in Shasta and upstream reservoirs this year.

2022 is on track to be worse than 2021—because of the state’s failure to limit unsustainable water diversions

Last year was devastating for native salmon runs and endangered species in the Delta, and the thousands of fishing jobs, Tribes, and communities that depend on a healthy environment. For instance, last year 75% of the endangered winter run salmon eggs were killed by hot water temperatures below Shasta Dam because the state and Feds failed to require adequate storage and temperature control, and substantial harmful algal blooms and degraded water quality occurred in the Delta as a result of the State Water Board allowing the CVP and SWP to violate water quality standards. 

Unless the State changes course, the effects of the drought this year are likely be far worse than in 2021, because of the failure to plan for drought last year and/or to reduce excessive water diversions this year.

If the state and federal governments pursue these planned operations, this graphic shows that storage in the state’s two largest reservoirs is on track to be even lower than the disastrous storage levels in 2021, and at or near record low storage levels (at least since 1977).  It is based on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s modeling of potential operations of the state and federal water projects this year, based on the February 1, 2022 99% exceedance forecast of hydrology (this modeling is available here).  Not only will these storage levels be devastating for salmon, but they will also reduce or eliminate hydropower production at these reservoirs (Oroville stopped producing hydropower last year because of low water storage).

These results occur because Reclamation’s modeling is assuming unsustainable water diversions in the Sacramento Valley, primarily by the CVP’s Sacramento River Settlement Contractors and DWR’s Feather River Settlement Contractors. If those groups of contractors diverted as much water this summer as they did last year, they would divert nearly all—or even more than 100%—of all the water that flows into Shasta and Oroville this summer:


The only way to avoid this result is to curtail diversions by these contractors, something that the State Water Resources Control Board has the power to do.

In addition, DWR and Reclamation announced that they will submit a Temporary Urgency Change Petition on Friday to allow the SWP and CVP to violate the minimum water quality objectives in the Delta from April to June, and will likely file a subsequent TUCP to violate water quality standards in the fall.  This TUCP will cause significant harm to salmon migrating through the Delta and to native species in the Delta like longfin smelt and Delta Smelt, and it will likely contribute to harmful algal blooms that threaten communities in Stockton and elsewhere in the Delta.

But Reclamation's modeling shows that violating Delta water quality objectives through a TUCP would not improve Shasta storage (actually making it worse), while it does improve storage at Oroville, indicating that the TUCP is designed not to help fish and wildlife but instead to protect hydropower production at Oroville:


Record low reservoir storage is not inevitable this year, if the state curtails water diversions

Record low reservoir levels this fall is not inevitable; it is fundamentally a policy choice about whether to continue to allow excessive water diversions and deliveries to these contractors.

Reclamation’s modeling assumes reservoir releases that are higher than needed for temperature control, and simplified calculations demonstrate that reducing reservoir releases for water deliveries to water contractors could substantially increase reservoir storage this fall: 


According to the Anderson Cottonwood Irrigation District (a Sacramento River Settlement Contractor), these contractors may be limited to a 20% or 25% allocation, capping Sacramento River releases at 5,000 cfs or 4,000 cfs this summer (see slide 12 of this link).  Doing so could increase Shasta storage even more than shown in the table above, to between 1.2 to 1.5 million acre feet.  While that’s still lower than the 1.9 million acre foot end of September storage level that scientists have found is needed to help ensure adequate water temperatures in 2023, it is far better than the dismal storage levels predicted if these water allocations are not reduced.

Increasing Shasta storage from the record low levels in Reclamation’s February forecast by reducing water diversions is critical not only to prevent the near-complete mortality of salmon this year that would occur under those forecasted operations, but it is also essential to prevent a repeat of this disaster in 2023. 

Governor Newsom’s Water Resilience Portfolio calls for the State to be able to protect fish and wildlife during a six year drought (recommendation 26.3), but the state can’t even manage two years of drought without waiving water quality objectives in the Delta and causing massive mortality of salmon. This year will continue the pattern and practice of waiving water quality objectives in the Delta in every critically dry year since 2012. 

The State’s failure to plan for drought isn’t just wiping out salmon and other native species, but it also threatens farms and communities in the Delta and hydropower production again this summer. Reducing water diversions and deliveries, particularly to Settlement and Exchange Contractors, is essential to prevent 2022 from being a worse disaster than 2021.

If we don’t rebuild reservoir storage by the end of 2022—or if we allow water transfers after September that deplete Shasta storage—we have learned nothing from the droughts of the last several years, and will simply repeat this disaster until there’s a flood year.


Praying for rain is not a strategy.

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