Water…It’s Complicated

Geoff Vanden Heuvel

Director of Regulatory and Economic Affairs


In a dry year like this one, when there is not enough water to go around, who gets what and why is very complicated. The Friant division of the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) takes San Joaquin River water that originates in the Sierra Mountain range above Fresno and collects in Millerton Lake and diverts it into a 160-mile canal that runs south to Bakersfield. The natural flow path of the San Joaquin River is to head west and north eventually joining up with the Sacramento River that comes all the way down from the north before heading out to the San Francisco Bay.

There are four water districts along the San Joaquin River that “exchanged” their water rights for water that comes from the north through the delta. These four districts are called the Exchange Contractors. However, they retain a commitment from the federal government that if they are not able to receive their full allotment of water from the delta, then the San Joaquin River water must be returned to them to make them whole. Exchange contractors are entitled to no less than 75% of their contracted water, even in the driest years.


The storms of this past winter took non-traditional paths over the watersheds of Northern California. The watershed that supplies Lake Shasta, the biggest federal CVP lake, received substantially less rain and snow than normal, leading to very low levels in the lake. But slightly south of Shasta, the winter storms and particularly two late April storms dumped significant moisture in the American River watershed, which feeds Folsom Reservoir, which is also a federal CVP facility and is nearly full. This fact has created an interesting situation. The low precipitation in the Sacramento River (Shasta) watershed triggered a serious reduction in water deliveries to Sacramento Valley water right holders, which has almost never happened in history. Hundreds of thousands of acres of Sacramento Valley agriculture land will not be planted this year. Many domestic wells in that region are also going dry.


As I wrote about a couple of months ago (read here), by court order, much of the water still stored in Lake Shasta must be conserved to preserve cold water for endangered salmon spawning in the Sacramento River tributaries. Meanwhile, Folsom Reservoir has water than can be released to meet the Exchange Contractor needs, thereby reducing their demand on San Joaquin River water. This in turn should allow the Friant water users to move up from their current class I allocation of 15% to maybe 30% or more.


It is a bad situation when getting 30% of your class I water is good news, but the other CVP contractors are at 0% supply, and even senior right holders in the Sacramento Valley are projected to get less than 20%. The State Water Project (SWP) contractors, whose water originates in the Feather River watershed and collects in Lake Oroville, are at 5% allocation right now. This is the second year of 5% allocation for the SWP. One half of the SWP is owned by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which is now instituting strong water conservation dictates to their urban Southern California customers.