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Executive Summary for February 19th

In this weekly roundup, we analyze key developments in the California drought, including calls to revise the process for determining how much water to release from reservoirs for flood protection. And here’s an update on drought conditions and new financing for recycled water projects.

Published on Feb. 19, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Flood Strategy Outdated?

The drought’s effect on Folsom Lake east of Sacramento made headlines throughout the fall, as water levels fell to the lowest level ever and emergency floating pumps were put in place as water levels dropped dangerously close to the intake pipes. Photos of beached boat docks were widely shared, and a Folsom Lake Drought Facebook page tracked the details of the reservoir’s steady decline.

And then came January and El Niño rains and snow. Suddenly the news headlines were all chronicling rising water levels at Folsom Lake, including a 44-foot gain in a month’s span. But now, by mid-February, there is another issue at the lake that has to do with the potential for too much of a good thing.

As the Sacramento Bee reports, even as the reservoir still remained at only 60 percent full, dam operators increased flows out of it to prevent the potential for flooding. The decision to release the water wasn’t made on the best available data or the forecast for future storms, but instead on a 30-year-old manual written by the Army Corps of Engineers that specifies that water must be released when it reaches a certain height at a certain time of year.

With water a coveted resource in another drought year, some water experts are saying the flood rules should be updated. The last update was done in 1986 following a large flood – a legitimate concern in the Sacramento area, but it’s due for another update soon after a new spillway is under construction.

Even small changes in how much water is stored can have a big effect on resource management. Right now, the reservoir can’t top 60 percent during the winter. But if that number is bumped up to 65 percent, that means an additional 50,000 acre-feet of water. “That 50,000 acre-feet would be equivalent to all water used in 2015 by the roughly 220,000 retail customers in Roseville, Folsom and the San Juan Water District, the three agencies most reliant on Folsom Lake for drinking water,” the Sacramento Bee reports.

Forecast for Drought

It’s been a rollercoaster of emotion this winter. The much-hyped El Niño appeared to be delivering a welcome dose of wet weather, at least to the northern half of California. The snowpack in January climbed over 100 percent of normal, reaching up to 114 percent across the state.

But February has so far proved not just drier, but much warmer, threatening to undo some of the benefits of January’s snowpack already. Southern California endured record temperatures, and many have speculated that El Niño may be a bust.

But it’s soon to give up yet, since Niño can bring more rain through Spring. However, it is a reminder that California is still firmly entrenched in a long-term drought.

The U.S. Drought Monitor for this week reports “notable pockets of short-term dryness over central and southern California contributing to the long-term drought signal.” Even though the snowpack in the mountains is good, the monitor reports, reservoirs on either side of the Sierra are still below average.

“Adding to the drought are localized areas where it has been a drier-than-normal Water Year to date; counties near and west of Sacramento have averaged 60 to 75 percent of normal precipitation since October 1, while coastal locales from Los Angeles north to Santa Barbara have reported on average 35 to 50 percent of normal rainfall during the current Water Year,” according to the Drought Monitor.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is still predicting that El Niño will move toward neutral conditions in late spring, and we’re likely to see a La Nina follow in the fall, which likely means more dry weather for California. However, NOAA cautions: “Computer models still have a wide range of possible outcomes for next fall, though, so stay tuned!”

Financing Help for Recycled Water Projects

The drought is helping to shift wastewater from being a nuisance to a valuable commodity as more water agencies are seeing the potential in recycled water. In response, the State Water Board is adding more to a coffer to help fund such efforts.

Yesterday, the State Water Board announced $960 million in 1 percent financing to fund recycled water projects that can be completed in the next three years. The money would come through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and would be available for all projects that filed an application by Dec. 2, 2015.

The number of projects eligible is 36, and combined, they could produce 150,000 acre-feet of water annually.

Top image: Spencer Parker takes advantage of unusually warm Fall weather to relax on an inflatable raft while floating on Folsom Lake near Folsom, Calif., Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. Some water experts are advocating for updated rules for flood control on the lake that could mean keeping more water for future supply. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

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