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March 11, 2014 > Man Winter, missing in action

Man Winter, missing in action

While howling at the midsection, southern and eastern regions of the United States, OlÕ Man Winter appears to have been unfocused and inattentive to California. Weather forecasters have unleashed a torrent of new terms for the public such as Arctic Blast and Polar Vortex to describe the especially vicious winter weather Ð cold, snow, freezing rain, thunder snow, etc. - that has attacked residents of the rest of the United States.

The flip side of this coin is the scarcity of winter weather in California; the Bay Area in particular. Although recent wet weather is good news, the heart of the rainy season did little to quench state water demands. The months of December and January usually feature a series of low pressure systems aimed at California, sending waves of rain to coastal regions and snow to the Sierras. For the past three years, Òstorm doorÓ openings have been erratic and brief; the winter of 2013-2014 has, for the most part, remained temperate and dry. Even a repeat of the Miracle March of 1991 that helped alleviate water woes of an extended drought that began in 1987, will not solve critical shortages of this third abnormally dry year.

Restrictions by water agencies across the state and reductions by the State of California are rapidly changing in tone from voluntary toward mandatory. In a recent discussion with Alameda County Water District (ACWD) General Manager Walt Wadlow, Assistant General Manager Robert Shaver and Special Assistant to the General Manager Eric Cartwright, it was obvious that warning bells were ringing long before an announcement of Òzero allocationÓ of the State Water Project by the State Water Resources Board. Although water agencies hope for the best from Mother Nature, they try to anticipate the worst scenarios. This is one of them.

ACWD has developed a variety of water sources as protection against drought conditions but even these are severely tested when faced with monumental weather changes. Water storage in a major underground aquifer in Kern County called ÒSemi-tropic,Ó has helped maintain consistent supplies to the Tri-Cities by trading these reserves for water traveling along the State Aqueduct. However, if the State allocation of water is reduced to zero, what is there to trade?

According to Wadlow, due to a variety of factors, ACWDÕs contract for water with the State is, on average, delivered at approximately 60% of the allocation. ÒWe never depend on getting 100% of our allocation.Ó Even during dry years, ACWD has not used all of its allocation. Last year, for instance, about 10,000 acre feet (about 20%-25% of normal demand) was stored as Òcarryover water.Ó Use of water last year from Semitropic storage rather than State water, created a credit for this year. Dry conditions this year does not mean that no water will flow along the South Bay Aqueduct. For health and safety reasons, the pipeline will always carry a limited amount of water necessary for urban areas to function Ð drinking water, sewage, fire protection, etc. ÒEven though the allocation is zero, they [State Water Project] will still try to deliver water through the South Bay Aqueduct.Ó

Use of water reserves in the Semi-tropic aquifer is currently under negotiation with the State, says Wadlow. Cartwright spoke of the balancing act of shifting water supplies, ÒThis is not an allocation or under the contracted amount of water; it is water stored for dry times.Ó The question is whether the State has the ability to run the pumps depending on not only endangered species but the salinity of Delta water. Since ACWD draws from the Southern portion of the Delta, if there isnÕt enough stored fresh water to dilute salt content, what flows may become unusable. Water Districts are now trying to determine at what point the water is too salty for use. Carryover water is being delivered to Lake Del Valle and will be available to ACWD during summer months. ACWD has also entered into an agreement with Contra Costa Water District to store 5,000 acre feet of water in Los Vaqueros Reservoir. Shaver notes that each water agency uses their own strategies to assure an adequate supply during dry years.

Cooperation between water districts is a major consideration at all times. Wadlow says, ÒIts water and its California, so there is always potential for conflict especially when it gets dry.Ó When dealing with a plethora of delivery systems Ð state, federal, San Francisco, etc. Ð the need to cooperate and be flexible becomes paramount. He says that water contractors recognize the advantage of long term relationships with the knowledge that Òthe game doesnÕt begin and end this year.Ó Also, the State of California, through the Department of Water Resources, has significant authority that can be used to Òcoax good behavior.Ó

A common misconception is that water is purchased, but as Wadlow explains, ÒYou donÕt really buy water in California. The water is a resource held in public trust.Ó Water rights are a grant from the State to use water. What water districts and consumers pay is for the delivery of water Ð collection and storage, pipelines, pump stations, staff, etc. Ð and the system, operations and maintenance to bring it to customers. If, in dry years, water is more plentiful in one area than another, for example Hetch Hetchy, even agencies such as ACWD, with a diversity of sources, may have to rely more heavily on that system and incur the costs associated with it.

This does not necessarily have an immediate impact on ACWD rates since a reserve fund Ð rate stabilization fund - of $10 million has been established over time to smooth the impact. In dry years such as this, delivery costs go up and consumption, at water agency request, decreases, and the rate stabilization fund absorbs at least a portion of the financial impact. When dry years occur consecutively, reserve funds may be exhausted, causing significant issues Ð asking people to use less and charging more. Wadlow says, ÒThis is a very odd business. The water business is so different from our everyday sense of the economy.Ó

Since San Francisco is in a unique position as both water wholesaler and retailer, an organization called Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA), represents the interests of 24 cities and water districts and two private utilities that purchase water wholesale from the San Francisco regional water system. A detailed formula allocates costs between regional customers and San Francisco to assure an equitable arrangement. Regional partners such as ACWD only pay a share of that part of the system that benefits them.

Different storage and pump facilities have different maintenance costs which can impact the actual rate paid by retail customers. As an example, when considering State Water Project water from the Delta, pumping costs to deliver water through the South Bay Aqueduct is considerably less than water that must be pumped over the Tehachapi range to Los Angeles.

Desalination is one source of water for ACWD that can help augment surface water supplies. San Francisco Bay salt water intrusion into ground water has created ÒbrackishÓ pockets underneath the Tri-Cities. This water is being pumped to the surface, desalinated and used. This is a less expensive and more efficient process with fewer environmental obstacles than trying to remove salt from ocean water. Of course, ocean water is a much greater resource than finding pockets of brackish water. Coastal communities are exploring this, but finding a balance between the need for water and higher costs and environmental impacts is under review. It will depend on how critical and continuous the need for fresh water becomes. Other parts of the world such as Australia have moved forward with ocean desalination. Over time, desalination operations in California will probably increase.

For the time being, water is at the forefront of the news these days Ð too much there and too little here. Water districts across this State are trying to cope with a shortfall of vital reserves. Speaking of future planning, Cartwright notes that ACWD doesnÕt have a crystal ball; it relies on 80 years of historical hydrology and the assessment of other agencies to plan for contingencies. Plans of supply and demand extend for 35-40 years but are constantly updated. He adds, ÒThe problem with this year is that is just off the records. It will rewrite the record books for future planning.Ó

An ACWD Board of DirectorÕs meeting scheduled for Thursday, March 13 is poised to take drastic action. Will a mandatory water conservation order be the result? Even though water supply is factored into plans for future developments, will they be affected? Is this a bellwether for the entire Bay Area and State of California?

Thursday, Mar 13
Water Emergency Public Hearing
6:45 p.m.
Alameda County Water District Board Room
43885 South Grimmer Blvd., Fremont
(510) 668-4200
www.acwd.org.

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