The Water Scare

This story from the Bakersfield News tells a somewhat scary story about how water is managed in California.

An excerpt.

Millions of Californians nearly had their water shut off late last month because the federal government ran out of water — sort of.

Yes, you read that right.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation ran out of water in the San Luis Reservoir and sent shutoff alerts (giving three days notice) to 26 districts it serves in the northern San Joaquin Valley and Bay Area.

One of those was the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which provides water to about two million customers including a few companies you may have heard of such as Apple and Hewlett Packard.

The shutoffs were narrowly avoided thanks, in part, to some quick water trades courtesy of the Kern County Water Agency and Arvin-Edison Water Storage District.

Still, San Luis Reservoir is at historic low levels. Dangerous lows, in fact.

And none of it should have happened at all, say water managers.

Because Lake Shasta is full to the brim.

Yes, you read that right, too.

The feds have heaps of water. Just not in the right place.

That, and other water maneuvers by the Bureau, have water managers up and down the state fuming that regulators’ overly strict operation of the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) has been so reckless it could cause problems years into the future.


To understand how this near-shutdown happened and why water managers are so worried for the future you have to understand the Central Valley Project (CVP).

Don’t be scared! We’ll take baby steps.

The CVP is the federal side of California’s two biggest water systems. The other is the State Water Project, which we will mostly ignore in this story.

To start, I want to make it clear this isn’t a “fish versus farms” rant. Though the Endangered Species Act is the underlying factor for how this all unfolded.

I’m just fascinated by how turning a valve — or not — 500 miles away can wreak havoc throughout the entire system.

So, here’s what happened.


After four years of unprecedented drought, we actually had a decent water year in 2015-2016 (in Northern California, anyway).

The two main reservoirs the CVP relies on, Shasta and Folsom, were full.

The Bureau of Reclamation was able to repay water it had borrowed the previous year and on April 1 told its contractors how much water it would be able to provide.

It promised 100 percent to all its contractors north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, 100 percent to so-called Exchange Contractors in the northern San Joaquin Valley and 100 percent to wildlife refuges south of the delta.

It also promised 55 percent of contracted allotments to its municipal users in the Bay Area and 5 percent to its west side agricultural contractors (Westlands Water District and a few other districts).

It made those promises based on approval of a so-called temperature plan for Shasta Lake by the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS).

Because Shasta is a linchpin in the survival of the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, regulators have to make sure it has enough cold water to run down the Sacramento River at the end of October.

The temperature plan outlines how much water can be released from Shasta each month to preserve that needed chunk of cold water. Typically, downstream users can expect up to 13,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) a day in the river.

But salmon took a beating these last few drought years so the Bureau and NMFS created a more cautious plan with limits of 9,000 CFS in June, 10,500 CFS in July and 10,000 CFS in August.

With approval by all the regulating agencies, cities made their water supply plans, farmers planted their crops and wildlife refuges let out a sigh of relief after several dry years.

Happy days, right?

Not so fast.


In early May, NMFS became concerned that initial lake temperature readings came in higher than predicted.

It scrapped the original plan and announced what many saw as a draconian reduction in Shasta releases, no more than 8,000 CFS all summer. In fact, June’s releases were cut back to 7,400 CFS at one point.

The announced reduction caused pandemonium among water contractors south of the delta and the Bureau set about re-negotiating the plan.

Compounding reduced supplies from Shasta was salt.

The delta was hit with a “king tide” starting in June that brought more salt from the San Francisco Bay than had been anticipated.

That required the Bureau, along with the state Department of Water Resources (DWR), to push more fresh water out through the delta to maintain water quality for municipal users.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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