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December 24, 2008 > Water, will there be enough?

Water, will there be enough?

Recent storms have quenched a bit of the Bay Area thirst. This brief respite from dry weather has eased a bit of local water companies' tension, but they are still searching the skies for more. Adding to the precarious situation, a recent federal biological ruling will slow pumps that draw water from the delta to the Tri-City area. One of the major suppliers for the Greater Tri-City area, Alameda County Water District (ACWD) has, along with all local agencies, been carefully monitoring the situation. TCV spoke with ACWD General Manager Paul Piraino and Water Resources Planning Manager Eric Cartwright, P.E. about current circumstances.

TCV: Has recent rain made an appreciable difference in our water outlook for the year?

Piraino: No, I can't say it has. We will have to wait until the winter season is over before we know what the full impact will be. This is just the beginning of the "storm window" opening and it is certainly a good thing, but it is much too early to see whether the season will be a wet one or not. Reservoir levels at Oroville and Shasta are so low that it will take an above normal year to bring them back.

TCV: Has the problem of the October Alameda Creek decline in fish population been discovered? If so, what will be done to avoid this in the future?

Piraino: Yes. A combination of abnormal algae growth behind our dam which demanded high levels of oxygen and turbid runoff from the first rain of the season caused many fish to die from lack of oxygen. We have removed the algae and now that the season has changed, warm weather that favors algal growth is no longer a factor. Now that we know why this happened, we can monitor these factors in the future.

Water flow from the recent storm, as in any storm, is monitored. When the runoff reaches approximately 700 cubic feet per second, we lower the dams to allow the water to bypass our collection due to flood control issues. The dams are located just downstream from the Mission Boulevard bridge over Alameda Creek near Niles.

Cartwright: We monitor the rainfall and upstream flow to capture as much water as possible, but follow guidelines for lowering the dams as well.

TCV: Does this action have anything to do with the Sierra watershed?

Piraino: No, this is from the Alameda Creek Watershed of about 630 square miles of drainage that extends from Mt. Diablo and Mt. Hamilton. This area is prone to flash floods and for our two ACWD controllers that monitor this flow, it is their busiest time of year. It takes two to three hours to lower the dams so when flows begin to increase we need to anticipate what will happen. We have never had a problem with this.

TCV: What effect will the biological opinion on Delta smelt have on our water supply?

Piraino: That opinion was published on Monday, December 15, 2008. Additional restrictions above and beyond the judge's original order will result in restrictions during the fall season as well as the spring. At this time, we do not have a clear idea of exactly what the impacts will be but there will be impacts. The wide estimate of pumping restriction from fifteen to fifty percent is due to water levels and their effect on the fish.

Cartwright: We are waiting for the California Department of Water Resources to analyze this ruling so we can use more refined information to measure its impact. The idea is to keep the Delta smelt out of the southern area and away from the pumps of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project.

TCV: U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein has sent several letters to the Secretary of the Interior asking for modification of this ruling in consideration of the impact on water resources to our area. Has there been any response?

Piraino: Not to our knowledge. She has sent additional letters and is certainly engaged in this issue.

TCV: Is this a final ruling?

Piraino: This is the final ruling from the Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries. The State of California was also involved through the California Department of Fish and Game. I do not know of any lawsuit to stop this although there is a filing by the state water contractors, of which we are a part, against similar actions for the long-finned smelt challenging that analysis.

TCV: Is this an immediate problem?

Cartwright: The restrictions are in place now. They will be especially noticeable in the spring and fall months. There is no anticipation of stopping pumping from the delta altogether. We are waiting for more information to analyze the full effect on our water resources.

TCV: Is our area affected as much as other agencies?

Piraino: Zone 7 which serves Eastern Alameda County - Livermore, Pleasanton, Dublin - will be more heavily affected. They get 80 percent of their supply from the State Water Project. Santa Clara Valley Water District is in a similar situation to ACWD in that they also have multiple sources of water. Any users whether for urban or agricultural purposes that rely on Delta water through state or federal agencies will be impacted.

TCV: What practical effect will this have on the public in a normal year of rain?

Piraino: There will be an effect but the extent has not yet been determined.

Cartwright: Such restrictions could cause shortages in our service area. We also have another issue that may pose further challenges regarding protection for Salmon in the Delta. We expect that biological opinion in March. When that comes out, it will be additive to the smelt opinion and then we will be able to see how it all affects our resources.

Piraino: Senator Feinstein's letters are referring to additional "stressors" in the Delta besides pumping and that a comprehensive solution should be used rather than piecemeal opinions.

TCV: Will the result of these decisions be changes in rates and usage restrictions (i.e. rationing)?

Piraino: Potentially, yes.

TCV: Does this have any effect on other sources of water for ACWD?

Piraino: We are fortunate to have multiple sources that are independent of the Delta. Hetch Hetchy supplies are dependent on the winter season and we will have to wait until the spring to know if that supply is at normal levels. At the present time, San Francisco is asking for a 10 percent voluntary reduction. Our desalination plant is increasing its capacity and will help to stabilize our water supply.

TCV: ACWD has reserves in Kern County. Will this make up for the decreased supply due to the biological opinion?

Piraino: We do have off-site storage and it can be used to help but this is a finite amount of water and will not solve our problem on a long term basis. This water was primarily designed to help in dry years, but if we use it continuously, it will be depleted much faster.

TCV: Are there any practical solutions if we have tapped our supply resources?

Piraino: We are planning to use recycled water for non-potable uses in the next 10-15 years primarily for landscape irrigation in newly developed areas such as Pacific Commons and Area 4 and 5 in Newark. This represents a considerable change since about 40 percent of water usage is for landscape purposes.

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