California Water supplies at record lows
State of California faces third straight drought year
This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press
Thursday, January 29, 2009.
Valley Press Staff Writer

PALMDALE - Water supplies in California have not yet hit rock bottom, but at some of the reservoirs in the State Water Project, they're coming darn close - dipping to record low levels.
The situation threatens to reduce 2009 California Aqueduct allocations to between 5% and 10% of the entitlement for state water contractors such as the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency, Littlerock Creek Irrigation District and Palmdale Water District.

That's the potential doomsday message coming out of the California Department of Water Resources as California faces a potentially third consecutive dry year.

Russ Fuller, general manager at the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency, said two years of drought caused the DWR in 2008 to allocate 35% of its entitlement to the 29 state water contractors. For AVEK, that meant 49,490 acre-feet at most. Each acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons, the amount used by the average Antelope Valley household in a year.

Annual water demand from AVEK customers - water retailers such as Quartz Hill Water District and Los Angeles County Waterworks District 40, plus agricultural users - reaches on average 55,000 acre-feet, according to Mike Flood, agency engineer for AVEK.

"In some years, we get orders for 70,000 acre-feet," he said.

AVEK delivered in excess of 48,000 acre-feet in 2008.

"People have cut back, conserving from the very beginning," Flood said.

For 2009, Flood added, "we have orders for 60,000 acre-feet."

As if the 2008 allocations didn't worry water suppliers enough, Fuller said the outlook for 2009 is even more grim. In December, DWR projected a 15% allocation for state water contractors.

At 15%, AVEK could draw a maximum of 21,210 acre-feet from the 444-mile California Aqueduct, which is fed by the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Since that projection, another snag surfaced involving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - a situation which threatens to reduce 2009 allocations to between 5% and 10%, Fuller said.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials issued a biological opinion suggesting extra measures for protecting the Delta smelt, a 2-inch fish whose population was declining due to being sucked into the pumps that send water into the aqueduct. Federal District Court Judge Oliver Wanger last spring ordered a slowdown of the pumps. Wanger's decision resulted in less water coming through the aqueduct, which reduced the allocation for state water contractors. The federal government and environmentalists also have emphasized a need to restore salmon runs.

Aside from Delta smelt and salmon concerns, the California Fish and Game Commission, in November 2008, sought to protect longfin smelt by further limiting pumping in the Delta.

"If the biological opinion (by Fish and Wildlife) stands," Fuller said, "the decision will be more severe than Wanger's decision."

"This litigation is going to start soon," Fuller said. The state water contractors' Joint Powers Authority will fight back in court, he said.

Kern County Water Agency and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will hire their own counsel, in addition to the State Water