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August 2, 2013
Editorial: Water agencies must prep for climate change

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(Aug. 2 -- By the Editorial Board)

The scene at Folsom Lake isn't pretty, and it's sure to become far uglier if Mother Nature doesn't save the state with a wet winter.

Barring any early storms, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expects the lake to fall to one-fourth its capacity, or 241,000 acre-feet, by December. With another dry winter, the lake could drop to what is known as "dead pool" - too low for local water agencies to procure water from it.

More than half a million people in the region depend on Folsom Lake for water, and cold water supplies in the reservoir are crucial for fish downstream, including imperiled steelhead and salmon. The lower the lake drops, the more the anxiety meter rises - alarm that threatens to turn into a serious water battle between local water agencies, the Bureau of Reclamation and the state Department of Water Resources.

Some of the region's water agencies, including the San Juan Water District and the Placer County Water Agency, accuse Reclamation of mismanaging water supplies in Folsom Lake to the detriment of local users. Reclamation officials dispute these claims, arguing that, as part of the Central Valley Project, they are obligated to operate Folsom for several uses - including local water supply and recreation but also for flows downstream to maintain water quality and fish flows in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Asked specifically what Reclamation should have done this year to better manage water supplies in Folsom, San Juan and Placer water officials couldn't say. But in general, said Shauna Lorance, general manager of the San Juan district, Reclamation hasn't honored agreements to serve local water needs before making surplus water available for export to other users.

San Juan and Placer officials are also angry at state officials involved with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which has released modeling projections for what could happen to the state's big reservoirs under climate change scenarios. That modeling estimates that Folsom could drop to dead pool status once every eight or nine years by 2060, assuming existing requirements for flows in the Delta continue.

Einar Maisch, strategic affairs director for the Placer County Water Agency, says he's astounded that the state would base a major infrastructure plan on the assumption that Folsom would drop to dead pool at least once a decade. He also questions claims that BDCP will reduce pressure on Folsom Lake, given that state officials may not know for years - after they have started construction on the tunnels - how much water will be made available for Delta fish flows and how much will be earmarked for export to state and federal water contractors.

Sacramento water agencies have some reasonable concerns about BDCP, which mirror those expressed by this editorial board. But in venting their anger, the region's water leaders need to take seriously the threat of climate change, regardless of whether a tunnel is built and regardless of how Reclamation continues to operate Folsom.

Many localities in this region - Folsom being one of them - are far too reliant on Folsom Lake for water supplies, even with big plans for growth and expansion. Some have worked to create a backup supply through banking groundwater, but not enough of them have. And far too many remain profligate in their water use, including the city of Sacramento.

Although Sacramento is making progress installing water meters, old habits die hard when it comes to outdoor watering by residents. Walk down almost any street and you see sprinklers gushing water into storm drains.

That kind of waste can't continue if the Sacramento region is to insist that our water rights be protected. In the face of climate change, every water user in California will have to make sacrifices and develop strong contingency plans. Our home region can't ignore that.

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