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February 21, 2014
Viewpoints: Time to change water management in Northern California

FolsomLake_aerial.JPG(Feb. 21 - By Randall R. Wilson, Special to The Bee)

Recent images of Folsom Lake speak a thousand words about the drought Northern California faces and the potential dire consequences.

Until the recent rains, our local water agencies were projecting that by September the water level in Folsom Lake would fall below the outlets that provide water to people served by the Roseville, Folsom and San Juan water districts.

If that were to occur, hundreds of thousands of residential and business customers would be subjected to severe water rationing. In addition, rivers and streams that provide a habitat for fish and other species would have reduced flows and the water that remains would reach a higher temperature, threatening migrating fish in the lower American River.

While state and federal water managers and biologists work to make the most of this year's water and local officials urge conservation, we must use this experience to reconsider how water in Northern California reservoirs is managed by state and federal water managers - and to ensure that we do all we can to prevent them from leaving us with little to no water in the future.

Unlike most reservoirs in California, the Folsom, Shasta and Oroville reservoirs not only serve the water needs of people locally and our economy, they also serve the needs of waterways and the species that inhabit our local ecosystems.

In an effort to maintain the salinity level in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and provide water reliability for the Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California, state and federal water managers and biologists maximize the water released by the reservoirs, without input from the local government representatives responsible for ultimately delivering water to local customers. The current approach simply doesn't work.

It doesn't address local concerns and it doesn't reward local conservation. For example, if people in Granite Bay and Roseville saved water last summer, that wouldn't have resulted in more water in Folsom Lake. It would have meant more water flowing for use in the Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California.

The "maximum outflow" strategy employed by state and federal water officials relies upon a critical assumption: that we will have plenty of rainfall and snowpack every year to replenish our water supplies. When the inevitable drought occurs, a crisis is born. The people, the local economy and the environment will be immediately at risk.

A family strives to save money to ensure that when the unexpected happens, there are sufficient reserves available to make it through hard times. Similarly, Folsom Lake is our "water bank," and we need to maintain adequate, reliable water supplies as a reserve against circumstances like those we currently face.

Maintaining reasonable water reserves in Folsom Lake will require that we move away from the "maximum outflow" strategy.

Instead, outflows into rivers need to be sufficient to maintain the ecological balance required - but no more. When extra water does come in the winter, this water could be released to prevent flooding, our other major regional water problem, but never at the expense of our precious water reserves.

Water releases from Folsom Lake must be managed more carefully. During the months of November and December 2013, with little snow in the mountains and little rain forecast, water was released from Folsom Lake at a rate of 1,300 cubic feet per second - enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in just over a minute.

Recently, a cutback in these outflows to the American River finally was made, reducing the flow to 500 cubic feet per second - twice the minimum required flow established by the State Water Resources Control Board.

It is time that we learn from these decisions and chart a new course. More reservoirs and water storage are certainly elements, as is ongoing conservation.

But we need new policies that emphasize maintaining greater water reserves in our reservoirs so that we are better prepared in case a drought occurs. That means lowering year-round outflows to the Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California until we are certain we have enough water to be prepared for a drought.

This more conservative management will boost our water resources in times of drought - and reduce the chance of economic and environmental disaster when a drought occurs.

Randall R. Wilson, a partner with Sinclair Wilson Baldo & Chamberlain, is the president of the Roseville Chamber of Commerce.