California creates a “water bank” to handle chronic drought: Will it be temporary, or permanent?

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After several years of chronic drought, facing the most significant water crisis in its history, the State of California formally declared a drought emergency in June and last week resurrected a mechanism last used in 1992 for delivering “surplus” water from northern California to the much thirstier southern regions.  On September 4, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced the formation of the 2009 Drought Water Bank that will allow California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) to move water from willing sellers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the more densely populated and water-starved areas in the south.  However, pumping high volumes of water over long distances is energy-intensive, further taxing California’s energy resources.  How permanent can this solution be, and what are California’s long-term prospects if drought conditions persist?

Post and photo by Anne Polansky.

In 2007 and 2008, California suffered from severe water shortages as a result of below-normal precipitation, decreased snowmelt from the Sierra snowpack, and a broad set of court-ordered water transfer restrictions.  Water levels in reservoirs have become abnormally low.  On June 4, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger held a press conference formally declaring a state-wide drought and a state of emergency in nine Central Valley Counties, and signed into law an executive order (EXECUTIVE ORDER S-06-08) putting into place a wide range of measures for conserving water, and improving water management.

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Though many of these measures are being implemented with varying degrees of success,  persistent drought and dim prospects of normal precipitation for 2009 led the DWR to re-instate its ability to act as a broker, charging a fee to buy water from farmers and other entities who can manage to employ conservation techniques, pump it, and resell it to more needy customers.  The decision to bring back the “water bank” was agreed to during the September 4, 2008 DWR “drought summit” in Sacramento, attended by agricultural, urban, and other groups representing a majority of California water users.  Multiple uncertainties, including how much rain California might get this coming winter,  preclude the DWR from ironing out the details of how and when these water transfers might take place; the cost of the water will be market-driven, based on supply and demand.  However, some rules are in place:  for instance, to limit additional crop loss, farmers will not be permitted to idle more than 20% of the cropland to free up water for selling—the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture reports a $260 million loss attributed to drought conditions—and would-be buyers will have to demonstrate water conservation savings of at least 20% to qualify for the program.

The Association of California Water Agencies, a water utilities trade organization representing 450 public California water agencies and responsible for 90% of the water delivered in California, applauded the creation of the water bank and sent a letter making a series of recommendations including encouraging the DWR to respect existing water rights as much as possible while it implements the program swiftly and effectively.

The establishment of a system that will by definition require vast amounts of water to be pumped long distances raises deep concerns about the energy needed and the consequences of increasing California’s energy consumption.  The California Energy Commission reported on the California Water-Energy Relationship in 2005, noting that “water-related energy use consumes 19 percent of the state’s electricity, 30 percent of its natural gas, and 88 billion gallons of diesel fuel every year.”

Calling for closer coordination between the energy and water sectors, a theme that is also often promoted and elaborated upon by University of California - Santa Barbara Professor Robert Wilkinson (and Director of its Water Policy Program), the CEC report warns:

[T]he times when the highest energy intensity water supply options will be most needed are most likely to occur during multi-year drought periods when surface water supplies are low and groundwater levels drop, requiring even more energy for pumping each gallon of water. To compound the problem, reduced surface water supplies and snowpack in high elevations are likely to reduce the availability of valuable hydroelectric supplies. Yet, these are also the times when the most aggressive water conservation efforts are implemented, reducing overall water use, which helps reduce the total impact on energy demand. Although the net effects of this dynamic are not fully understood, this report presents current knowledge to assist with further analysis.

The preamble (see below) to the June 4 Executive Order paints a dire picture; just how long California will be able to sustain measures to deal with prolonged drought is still a lingering question.

WHEREAS Statewide rainfall has been below normal in 2007 and 2008, with many Southern California communities receiving only 20 percent of normal rainfall in 2007, and Northern California this year experiencing the driest spring on record with most communities receiving less than 20 percent of normal rainfall from March through May; and

WHEREAS California is experiencing critically dry water conditions in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River basins and the statewide runoff forecast for 2008 is estimated to be 41 percent below average; and

WHEREAS water storage in many of the state’s major reservoirs is far below normal including Lake Oroville, which supplies the State Water Project, at 50 percent of capacity, Lake Shasta at 61 percent of capacity and Folsom Lake at 63 percent of capacity; and

WHEREAS the Colorado River Basin has just experienced a record eight-year drought resulting in current reservoir storage throughout the river system reduced to just over 50 percent of total storage capacity; and

WHEREAS climate change will increasingly impact California’s hydrology and is expected to reduce snowpack, alter the timing of runoff and increase the intensity and frequency of droughts in the western United States; and

WHEREAS diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta for the State Water Project (SWP) and federal Central Valley Project (CVP) are being greatly restricted due to various factors including federal court actions to protect fish species, resulting in estimated SWP deliveries of only 35 percent, and CVP deliveries of only 40 percent, of local agencies’ requested amounts for 2008; and

WHEREAS dry conditions have created a situation of extreme fire danger in California, and these conditions resulted in devastating fires last year, resulting in proclamations of emergency for the counties of El Dorado, Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Diego, with wildfires there causing millions of dollars in damages; and

WHEREAS on May 9, 2008, I signed an Executive Order directing various agencies and departments within my administration to respond to these dry conditions and prepare for another potentially severe wildfire season; and

WHEREAS the current drought conditions are harming urban and rural economies, and the state’s overall economic prosperity; and

WHEREAS some communities are restricting new development and mandating water conservation and rationing, and some farmers have idled permanent crops and are not planting seasonal crops this year, because of unreliable or uncertain water supplies; and

WHEREAS recent supply reductions have jeopardized agricultural production in the San Joaquin Valley; and

WHEREAS it is not possible to predict the duration of present drought conditions; and

WHEREAS while communities throughout the state have worked to significantly improve their drought preparedness, the readiness to cope with current and future drought conditions varies widely; and

WHEREAS immediate water conservation measures are needed this year to address current conditions and prepare for a dry 2009; and

WHEREAS the State of California is committed to enhancing drought response and drought preparedness and to protecting the state’s economy and its environment

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