With 2015 emerging as another dry year in California, there are several important lessons from the past several years that help inform water management this year and how we can make every drop count by serving multiple beneficial purposes that benefit both the economy and the environment during these challenging years.
The first is the importance and value of water storage. California has 38 million people and a highly managed system where all beneficial purposes depend in some fashion on water in storage. What we have learned is that in dry years we need as much water in storage as early in the year as possible so the water will be available later in the year for all these beneficial purposes. In other words, in a managed water system, downstream uses depend upon the timing of water availability and thus benefit from capturing as much water in storage as early as possible. The timing is particularly important for salmon, where the earlier water is captured in storage, the deeper the water in the reservoir, which allows for colder water releases later in the year for critical salmon rearing.
The second is for creative water resources managers to work together to develop operation plans for this stored water that will provide water for multiple beneficial purposes. In California’s Sacramento Valley, the water resources managers last year partnered with state and federal agencies (both water management and fishery agencies) to develop operational scenarios to maximize water use for fish, farms and birds. Importantly, in years like 2014 with limited water availability, the fish, farms and birds all suffered—the fish and birds did not have ideal habitat conditions and many acres of farmland were left fallow or yields were reduced due to a compressed irrigation season. What did emerge, however, was a creative partnership that worked to optimize the conditions for all these purposes, recognizing the lack of water in the Sacramento Valley. For perspective, without these creative efforts in a year like 2014, there would have been little (if any) water for any of these purposes and they all would have suffered even more.
To show how this worked on the Sacramento River, the diagram below shows water released from Shasta Lake and how it will serve triple duty in the Sacramento Valley.
1) Below Keswick Dam, water was initially released for temperature control for the winter-run salmon rearing in the upper mainstem of the Sacramento River. This reflects the priority that the fishery agencies are placing on salmon. Once water serves this first purpose, it continues to flow downstream, then;
2) Less than half of the released water was diverted for use by farms and habitat in the Sacramento Valley. These districts and agencies had their supplies reduced by 25 percent, plus they rescheduled their deliveries so water could be retained for fish and they worked with their neighbors to help provide water supplies in areas that had no water supplies. Along with these diversions;
3) Water was diverted for the Pacific Flyway and other bird habitat. Ricelands that has water within the water districts was farmed to provide food sources for the Pacific Flyway and Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (GCID) also delivered water to the three National Wildlife Refuges: Delevan, Sacramento and Colusa. The water thus served millions of birds along the Pacific Flyway.
Water is the lifeblood of the Sacramento Valley—this example shows how creative water resources managers have made every drop count in supporting our economy and the environment—the fish, farms and birds.