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California Water Officials Made the Drought Worse

There's strong evidence that the state shipped extra water in 2013 — enough for about four million people — despite the threat of a third year of little to no rain.

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There's no doubt that California is facing a potentially devastating drought this year. After a record-dry year in 2013, the Sierra snowpack measured at just 12 percent of normal late last week. And state officials responded by announcing that cities throughout the state, including some in the East Bay and many in the South Bay, would not receive any water allocations from the State Water Project in 2014. But there is evidence that our current water shortage is worse than it should have been because of questionable decisions made by state water officials. And as a result, many communities may unnecessarily face severe shortages this year, while others, including much of Southern California, are flush with water.

So what happened? Last spring, Northern California's three major reservoirs had plenty of water despite the fact that the state had just endured its second consecutive winter of below-normal precipitation. Records show that by April 2013, Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom reservoirs were at 101 percent, 108 percent, and 96 percent of their historical averages, respectively.

According to a report prepared last fall by the Central Delta Water Agency that was obtained by the conservation group California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, state officials — mindful of the possibility of a third dry year — planned to cut back on the amount of water pumped out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta from 1.67 million acre-feet to 1.46 million acre-feet in 2013. Federal water officials announced similar reductions. But then the state reversed course last spring and summer and pumped more water from the delta than it had said it would — about 827,000 acre-feet more, enough for about four million people. The state appears to have released this extra water from Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom reservoirs into the Sacramento River to the delta. The State Water Project then shipped it to water districts in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

As an apparent consequence of this move, and because of a record-dry winter this year, Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom now sit at dangerously low levels. Shasta and Oroville are both at 54 percent of average and Folsom is at 34 percent of average (and just 17 percent of capacity), according to a report last weekend by environmental journalist Dan Bacher. "They went ahead and exported the 800,000 acre-feet of water and brazenly rolled the dice with Nature," Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, told me. "And Nature won."

And so did the water districts that got water they didn't need. In fact, the Metropolitan Water District, which serves Los Angeles and receives allocations from the State Water Project, now has plenty of water in its large reservoirs. According to Bacher's report, Pyramid Lake and Castaic Reservoir in Southern California are both at 105 percent of their historical averages and are in no danger of running out of water. "We'll have plenty of water in 2015," Metropolitan General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger boasted last month to the Sacramento Bee. "And even if it's still a drought, we'll still have enough water in 2016."

Indeed, much of Southern California won't have to ration water at a time when many Northern California communities are facing severe shortages. Jennings has called the state's decision to ship out the extra 827,000 acre-feet of water last year "egregious mismanagement."

In an interview, Terry Erlewine, general manager of the State Water Project, disputed the accuracy of the Central Delta Water Agency report. But he said he did know exactly how much extra water his agency shipped last year. And when asked why Southern California received water it didn't need, he said that was "Monday-morning quarterbacking." He also said it "was easy to second guess" the decision in light of this year's record-dry weather.

In a press release last week, state water officials also contended that the current water crisis proves that California should move forward with Governor Jerry Brown's plan to build two giant water tunnels underneath the delta in order to ensure a steady water supply for San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

But there's no evidence that Brown's plan would benefit the state during a drought. The tunnels wouldn't produce extra water; rather, they would just make it easier to ship water to the south, which, right now, should not be a priority.

Nonetheless, the governor is still lobbying heavily for the water tunnels, and last week he even launched a not-so-subtle attack on federal government scientists who have sharply criticized it. Brown told Sacramento TV station KCRA Channel 3 that when he spoke to President Obama recently, he told the president that "lower-level [federal] officials aren't being helpful ... in fact, quite the opposite."

These "officials" are biologists who have contended that the water tunnels could divert too much freshwater from the delta and thus make it too salty and inhospitable for fish and wildlife. In an interview, Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, executive director of the conservation group Restore the Delta, said Brown's comments amounted to the "bullying of scientists. It's quite disheartening."

Brown's comments also closely mirrored those made last month by Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, which represents agricultural interests in the western San Joaquin Valley. According to Bacher's report, Birmingham blamed "biologists in the federal agencies" for holding up the tunnel plan.

The close similarity between Brown and Birmingham's comments also reveal that the governor is apparently more interested in helping Big Agribusiness than in saving the fragile delta — just as state water officials seem to care more about sending water south than in preparing properly for a drought.

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