Drought Plan Means Full Lake, Empty River

Drought Plan Means Full Lake, Empty River

In the mountains and foothills of California, an enduring drought has depleted the state’s major reserves of water. There is virtually no snowpack, and most of the state’s large reservoirs are less than 40 percent full. But in the central Sierra Nevada, a trio of artificial lakes remain flush with cold mountain water. The largest of them, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, from which millions of Bay Area residents receive water, is more than 80 percent full. This remarkable plentitude is the...
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The Tunnel Plan: Thoughts a Month Later

It’s now five weeks since Governor Newsom’s Delta tunnel plan was unveiled in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Time enough for the main ideas to sink in; time enough for familiar players to strike their familiar positions; and time enough for some of us to burrow deep into its tables, figures, and appendices. To recap briefly: water taken from new intakes near Hood on the Sacramento River would enter a tunnel and flow 45 miles underground before being lifted again...
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Flow Deal: Peace Treaty or Trojan Horse?

Promising up to 825,000 acre-feet a year of new water to protect endangered fish and thousands of acres of habitat improvements, the Newsom administration and others hailed the March announcement of a proposed voluntary agreement on Bay-Delta flows as the beginning of the end of California’s water wars, and a boon to the Bay-Delta ecosystem.  “We think this has the promise to give us more benefit for ecosystems because we would be combining both flow and habitat assets,” says California...
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chart by Hutton

An examination of 50 years of records reveals an apparent seasonal bias in estimates of freshwater flow from the Delta to the San Francisco Estuary.

The seasonal bias suggests flows were overestimated during the summer months and underestimated during the winter. Estimates of Delta outflow use a measurement called net Delta outflow index (NDOI), which is determined by taking the amount of Delta inflow, from sources such as the Calaveras, Sacramento, and San Joaquin rivers, and subtracting Delta exports, a direct measurement, and net Delta channel depletions. A team led by TetraTech’s Paul Hutton compared NDOI estimates against measured Delta outflow at four points, as...
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field in delta with irrigation

Rain or shine, farmers in California use about the same amount of water every year, while residential water use varies considerably with precipitation.

A research team led by UC San Diego’s John Helly processed 15 years’ worth of water-use data from the state’s Department of Water Resources, reporting in the March 2022 issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science that while “the annually precipitated water supply in the Bay-Delta” varied by 30%, agricultural water use scarcely changed year to year. “The water management system maintained nearly constant agricultural water use even in periods of intense drought, with year-to-year variation of about 7%,”...
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Will Salmon Simmer Again?

After two critically dry years that coincided with Trump-era rollbacks to environmental protections, some iconic Delta fish are closer than ever to the point of no return. Last fall, for the second year in a row, the fall midwater trawl found zero wild Delta smelt, while a coalition of environmentalists and fishermen is asking a federal court to help prevent a repeat of 2021’s near-obliteration of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon. Their lawsuit is just one of the balls to watch...
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Sub-Standard Snow

At a glance, the recent winter storms and inches of snow in the Sierra seem like a reassuring sign: more snow means more snow melt, which means more water moving through our freshwater systems during dry summer months. But it turns out that there are different types of snow with differing levels of moisture locked up inside — and the latest Sierra snowfall appears to be holding less water than usual. This means the Bay’s streams and estuaries could have...
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The Delta’s Blooming Problem

Bright-green blotches of algae have been popping up all over the Delta since early summer, from Discovery Bay to the Stockton waterfront, befouling the air and poisoning the water with toxins that can sicken or even kill humans and animals. Veteran Delta watchers believe that this year’s harmful algal blooms may be the worst ever, and worry that some features of Governor Gavin Newsom’s recently released Water Resilience Portfolio for California will aggravate the problem. “We don’t have enough data...
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wetland landscape photo

Better scientific preparation could help Delta water and environmental managers respond to droughts more effectively.

That’s one key takeaway from a review of environmental management and the use of science during the 2012-2016 drought commissioned by the Delta Science Program and published in the June 2020 issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science. “There are lots of mysteries about how to manage water to benefit species, agriculture, upstream and downstream users. I think science is going to be the best solution,” says lead author John Durand of UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Science. Durand...
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Two recent exercises in modeling the hydrological effects of forest thinning and wildfire are yielding intriguing insights.

Hydrogeologist Fadji Maina and colleague Erica Siirila-Woodburn of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory ran simulations of wildfire effects in the Cosumnes River watershed (see map). “We chose the Cosumnes because it’s one of the largest rivers that has no dam in California,” explains Maina. The most significant findings concerned the way wildfire affects groundwater recharge and storage. “It depends on where the wildfire occurs,” says Maina. The underlying rocks—foothill volcanics or High Sierra granites—make a difference. Consistent with earlier studies, the model also...
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State Plan Doubles Down on Alignment

By Cariad Hayes Thronson The California Water Plan Update 2018—released by the Department of Water Resources in July—is meant to guide state policy and investment over the next 50 years to maximize the benefits squeezed out of every drop of the water supply. The timing of Update 2018 is fortuitous. In April, Governor Newsom ordered the California Natural Resources Agency, California Environmental Protection Agency, and California Department of Food and Agriculture to develop a portfolio of water resilience strategies. “There’s...
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New Regional Rainmaker

By Joe Eaton Environmental issues were important to Michael Montgomery as a young man. Montgomery’s career path led to 33 years with the United States Environmental Protection Agency, where he gained a wealth of experience in navigating complex regulatory landscapes to protect water resources, and ultimately to the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, where he is now executive officer. “The Bay Area has a strong tradition of coming up with collaborative solutions,” he says. That’s how he...
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Joaquin Esquivel is impatient with the narrative that has dominated California water policy for decades, especially when it comes to the Delta and the eternal tug-of-war between farms, cities and the environment.

“For so long in the water space you’ve had these false dichotomies where you are being told you have to choose one or the other,” says Esquivel, who Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board in February. “These narratives can fuel themselves, they take root in communities, but they don’t really do much to get to the heart of the policy question.” A native of the Coachella Valley, Esquivel served on the State Board for...
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Choppy Waters for Flow Rules

By Cariad Hayes Thronson The winter kicked off with the State Water Resources Control Board’s December vote to adopt increased flow objectives for the southern Delta. The vote provoked an immediate volley of lawsuits, both from water users and from environmental organizations. The water users claim that the required flows would be an unconstitutional waste, while the environmental groups argue the plan doesn’t go far enough to restore endangered fish populations. Overshadowing the discussions are the vigorous efforts by the...
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Estuary’s Question of the Month: What is the weirdest species in the Estuary and why?

A fall flight over the Mexican coast where the Colorado River meets the Sea of Cortez offered me a gut-punching, eye-screwing, visual on the results of impaired flow. The semantics of ‘unimpaired’ and ‘impaired’ flow have laced the language of California water management debates since some engineer invented these politically ‘neutral’ terms long ago. The terms refer to our alteration of freshwater flows from snowmelt and runoff by dams and diversions. But whatever the labels, or whichever estuary you’re referring...
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Reflowing the Sierra to the Sea

A fall flight over the Mexican coast where the Colorado River meets the Sea of Cortez offered me a gut-punching, eye-screwing, visual on the results of impaired flow. The semantics of ‘unimpaired’ and ‘impaired’ flow have laced the language of California water management debates since some engineer invented these politically ‘neutral’ terms long ago. The terms refer to our alteration of freshwater flows from snowmelt and runoff by dams and diversions. But whatever the labels, or whichever estuary you’re referring...
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Estuary Partners Choose their Battles Coast to Coast

A boatload of estuary experts from around the country gathered on an early October day to tour the prettiest part of San Francisco Bay. They paid rather less attention to Alcatraz and the Golden Gate than to each other. In town for the National Estuary Program’s annual Tech Transfer Conference, they had come to compare notes and strategies from the 28 varied bays, bights, bayous, and river mouths that benefit from one of the nation’s most durable, and efficient, environmental...
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Recent Milestones for the Twin Tunnels and WaterFix

Spring and summer 2018 saw frenzied activity around California WaterFix, the latest iteration of a decades-long, on-again-of-again effort to convey fresh water from the Sacramento River to the South Delta while bypassing the Delta itself. Governor Jerry Brown has made WaterFix a top priority, but the project – including twin tunnels comprising the largest infrastructure project in state history – still faces a raft of uncertainties.
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Dioxins Are Sticking Around Nearshore and in Fish, RMP Reports

As the “Fish-SMART” signs on local piers warn, the tissues of fish reeled in from San Francisco Bay waters can contain mercury or PCBs, but a new RMP report reminds us of a third contaminant of concern to human health: dioxins. The report, due out in October 2018 and prepared by staff of the San Francisco Estuary Institute and the SF Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, confirms that while levels of this toxic contaminant in sediments nearshore have declined...
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California’s groundwater faces widespread chromium contamination risk resulting from natural, rather than industrial sources.

Chromium’s toxic form, known as hexavalent chromium, is used in steel manufacturing, leather tanning, and wood treatment; its lethal effects were popularized in the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich. But today transformation of the benign form of chromium naturally found in soils poses the larger risk, according to a recent Stanford University study. Dr. Debra Hausladen and her colleagues used a statewide groundwater database to trace the origin of 90,000 chromium samples, and discovered toxic chromium from natural sources is affecting...
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