California Drought: Deja Vu All Over Again

California’s Department of Water Resources recently announced its plan for operating the massive State Water Project in 2022 if dry conditions persist. When rolling it out, DWR’s Director acknowledged that “[i]t is going to take a multi-pronged approach to successfully respond to these unprecedented drought conditions.” But DWR is not on track to successfully respond to drought; in fact, it is not doing much of anything different from the same old disastrous response to drought over the last decade. It’s time for the State Water Resources Control Board and other decisionmakers to take the reins of drought management away from DWR and put California on a track to successfully manage the new normal of intense and frequent droughts.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

DWR’s main strategy for 2022—just like its main strategy in the drought years of 2014, 2015, and 2021—is to seek to weaken water quality standards to allow for diversions for water users from our already parched rivers, worsening the drought’s impacts on our beleaguered fish and wildlife and ensuring that the fishing, Native American, and other communities that depend on healthy rivers for their livelihoods will suffer for years to come. This approach of waiving environmental protections to deliver millions of acre-feet of water to primarily agricultural water contractors has proven disastrous in the past, with the State Water Board explaining in 2016 that the approach is “not sustainable for fish and wildlife and that changes to the drought planning and response process are needed to ensure that fish and wildlife are not unreasonably impacted in the future and to ensure that various species do not go extinct.”

Despite the State Board's caution, DWR and Reclamation plan to follow the same playbook in 2022, after their similarly disastrous drought operations in 2021:

  • Waiving water quality standards while diverting more than 4 million acre-feet of water out of our rivers for delivery mainly to agricultural water contractors;
  • Draining the State’s main reservoirs, leaving us all worse off with less water in storage that we should have this fall;
  • Nearly killing off the second year in a row of young endangered winter run chinook, placing this species that typically only lives three years at very high risk of extinction in the wild during a dry 2022 (and DWR's interim operations plan is likely to result in a third consecutive disastrous year for this endangered salmon run, with NMFS estimating that the plan would kill up to three quarters of the winter-run Chinook salmon from lethal water temperatures if 2022 is critically dry);
  • Worsening toxic algal outbreaks in communities like Stockton and Discovery Bay in the Delta.

DWR's own "TUCP" (temporary urgency change petition) for 2022 admits that, if approved, it likely would appreciably reduce the survival of juvenile salmon migrating through the Delta, harm Delta Smelt and Longfin Smelt, and worsen conditions for other native fish and wildlife in the estuary.

The State Water Board must not allow DWR to take this same approach in 2022. First and most importantly, DWR has entirely failed to show that it’s necessary for it to waive water quality standards again this year. Instead, the agency is once again prioritizing delivery of water to agricultural contractors that hold so-called settlement contracts over the rights of everyone else in the system, including the environment. In fact, this presentation below (that DWR and Reclamation made to the State Water Board on September 21st) shows that DWR and Reclamation generally do have enough water to meet Delta water quality standards, except for their water deliveries to settlement contractors: 

This year, DWR delivered nearly 600,000 acre-feet to those “Feather River contractors” – water that could have and should have been used for higher priority tasks, such as increasing storage in Oroville reservoir and improving water quality and fisheries by increasing downstream flows. DWR appears to be on track to do the exact same thing this year, with its modeling for 2022 operations showing 50% of contract deliveries to its Feather River contractors (an amount close to 600,000 acre feet), even in a dry year, and 100% in an average water year (more than 1 million acre feet) (indicated below by the notation that “the 90% studies reflect a 50% FRSA delivery pattern; and the 50% study reflects a 100% FRSA delivery pattern”).

There is simply no excuse for DWR to prioritize these deliveries over meeting higher public needs. The State Water Board should curtail DWR and Reclamation from making any deliveries to their settlement and exchange contractors unless water quality standards and other environmental protections are being fully met in 2022.

Second, it’s important to note that deliveries to the so-called settlement and exchange contractors of DWR’s State Water Project and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project are NOT deliveries for human health and safety purposes, such as the deliveries that DWR has committed to make to its urban water contractors. Instead, these deliveries are overwhelmingly for agricultural water use, primarily to grow high water use crops like flood-irrigated rice and nuts. These are precisely the types of water use that the State can and must curtail in extensive drought periods to ensure that people receive sufficient water for drinking and bathing, that our wildlife refuges can keep migrating birds alive, and our rivers are maintained to provide us with resources for future years. The State Water Board has curtailed these uses of water in several other river basins this year, such as the Scott and Shasta Rivers. If they had done the same in the Bay-Delta watershed, the public would have seen close to 4 million acre-feet more water available for public uses from the SWP and CVP alone, resulting in no waivers of water quality standards, far fewer salmon killed by lethal water temperatures below Shasta Dam, and more water stored in Shasta and other reservoirs to begin this water year. .

DWR announced plans to deliver 340,000 acre feet of water for human health and safety purposes in 2022. That’s 130,000 acre feet MORE water than DWR allocated to its non-settlement SWP contractors in 2021 (210,266 acre feet). We are not asking the State Water Board to modify those deliveries, nor would an order that curtails agricultural deliveries when water quality standards are not being met affect those deliveries. But there is so simply no excuse for the State Water Board to allow DWR to keep making the same mistakes in drought over and over again, and allow them to provide its Feather River settlement contractors with nearly 600,000 acre feet if next year is dry, while waiving water quality standards. The rest of us are paying a heavy price for those mistakes, and the price tag is only getting steeper as drought persists in holding California in its grip.

About the Authors

Kate Poole

Senior Director, Water Division, Nature Program

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