Historically Low San Luis Reservoir Highlights Broken Water System

  • by Timothy Quinn
  • Aug 17, 2016
  • Voices on Water

If you need a sign that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is broken, look no further than San Luis Reservoir. Despite near-average precipitation this year and healthy storage in other north state reservoirs, San Luis is so precipitously low that deliveries were nearly shutoff in early August.

Meanwhile Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir, sits at 109% of its historic average for the date.

What’s wrong with this picture? In a nutshell, we have a water system that is broken from a physical and policy standpoint.

Recent developments illustrate the problem. Earlier this year, during the El Niño storms that provided at least some respite from the drought, federal officials over-cautiously kept pumping levels very low to protect Delta smelt, which prevented water from being delivered for storage in San Luis and later to farms and cities south of the Delta.  Not long after that, other federal officials decided to reserve significant volumes of water in Shasta this summer to keep it cold for winter-run salmon. Their plan restricted releases into the Sacramento River so much that some growers were at risk of supply disruptions. Delta salinity problems exacerbated by the low flows made it extremely difficult to move water into San Luis, to the point that the Bureau of Reclamation exhausted its share of stored water in the reservoir and struggled to maintain even minimal deliveries to agricultural water users south of the Delta. Algae problems in the low reservoir are creating water quality challenges for urban users in the Santa Clara Valley that rely on San Luis.

This scenario underscores the peril of regulatory agencies focusing almost exclusively on species protection at the expense of water supply.  Moreover, efforts to protect endangered fish virtually always narrowly focus on a single element – temperature control or flows – while failing to address other important factors affecting the species. Allowing a single-stressor approach to drive water management decisions only serves to maximize conflict between species protection and water supply, while failing to adequately serve either. And we continue to lose water supply every day as a result.

No one wants to see the demise of fish species. In fact, the water community is demonstrating quite the opposite with major investments by several water agencies to improve habitat and fish passage for salmon populations. Through the Salmon Recovery Program, funded in large part by water agencies, more than 200,000 tons of gravel has been deposited into waterways, improving salmon spawning ground. Fish screens also have been built to protect fish migrating up the river to spawn.  In recent decades, entire streams have been reconfigured using comprehensive management tools to provide habitat for salmon, while protecting the ability to provide reliable water supplies, sometimes with spectacular results.

Another bright spot is the Delta Smelt Resiliency Strategy released by the Brown Administration this summer. Though still relying on unproven flow elements (this time requiring increased flows during the summer months when they would never occur naturally), the strategy emphasizes multiple stressors and puts a comprehensive, lifecycle approach to saving Delta smelt on the table for the first time.

The water community strongly supports the California policy of coequal goals. Sadly, actions by regulatory agencies continue to undermine that policy. Any one driving past San Luis Reservoir this summer can see the result.

We need a comprehensive strategy for managing water supply and our aquatic resources if we are to achieve the coequal goals. Our environment, and our economy, can’t wait.


Executive Director Timothy Quinn may be reached at timq@acwa.com

Suggested Resources

15 RESOURCES prev next
Priority Issues Bulletin

Sorry, but only ACWA members have permission to view this content. Member login is required.

Comments on Preliminary Draft of California Water Plan Update 2018

Submitted to the California Department of Water Resources on Jan. 16, 2018

ACWA Scholarships Toolkit

Sorry, but only ACWA members have permission to view this content. Member login is required.

Federal Regulatory Chart

Sorry, but only ACWA members have permission to view this content. Member login is required.

ACWA Lead Testing & Service Line Inventory Webinar

On Jan. 9, in cooperation with the State Water Resources Control Board, ACWA hosted an informational webinar for public and […]

Comment on Sustainable Management Criteria Draft Best Management Practices

Submitted to the California Department of Water Resources on Jan. 8, 2018.

Coalition Comments on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Draft Endangered Species Act Compensatory Mitigation Policy

Submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Jan. 5, 2018.

Comments on Draft Regulation to Prohibit Wasteful Water Use Practices

Submitted to the State Water Resources Control Board on Dec. 21, 2017.

ACWA’s 2017 Accomplishments

Each year as guided by the Board of Directors’ Priority Goals, ACWA works cooperatively and collaboratively with its members to […]

ACWA 2017 Fall Conference Presentations

Presentations from ACWA’s 2017 Fall Conference & Exhibition held Nov. 28 – Dec. 1 in Anaheim are available below. Please […]

ACWA’s 2017 Legal Affairs Committee CLE Workshop Materials

The following presentations and materials for ACWA’s 2017 Legal Affairs Committee CLE Workshop on Nov. 28 from 9 a.m. to […]

Can We Really Predict the Weather? The Latest in Forecasting

Presentations from the Nov. 9 program, “Can We Really Predict the Weather? The Latest in Forecasting” are available below: Challenges […]

Coalition Statement on 21st Century Approach to Water Management for the Bay-Delta

Submitted to the State Water Resources Control Board on Nov. 13, 2017.

Comments on Proposition 1 Groundwater Grant Program Funding Guidelines

Submitted to the State Water Resources Control Board on Nov. 9, 2017.

ACWA 2017 Regulatory Summit Presentations

ACWA’s 2017 Regulatory Summit was held on Oct. 17, 2017. This one-day summit provided information about new requirements to “reduce […]

Suggested News

15 Articles prev next
Western Municipal Water District’s 2018 Board of Directors Announced

Board’s 2018 goals focus on local water reliability projects and community engagement Riverside, Calif. – Western Municipal Water District’s (Western) […]

January Priority Issues Bulletin Available to Members

The January 2018 Priority Issues Update is now available online to members. The update is bullet-style summary of the latest […]

ACWA News: Jan. 19, 2018

Read the Jan. 19 issue of ACWA News for more information about the Brown Administration’s 2018-’19 budget proposal and a potential budget […]

Overcoming 2018 Challenges Can Build on Past Success

As with any new year, 2018 arrives with an exciting mix of unique challenges for ACWA members. But the key […]

Member Spotlight – January 2018

A Look at the Past, Present and Future of Palmdale Water District This year marks the 100th anniversary of the […]

Faces of Water Q&A – January 2018

Telling the stories of the people who work to deliver California’s water… 1.) Describe your job. I am the Operations Superintendent […]

ACWA Looking to Fill Vacancies on Region Boards

ACWA is seeking interested candidates to fill several vacancies on its Region Boards for the 2018-’19 term. Members of the […]

West Basin Offers Free Rainwater/ Greywater Workshop Series For Residents

CARSON, Calif. – West Basin Municipal Water District (West Basin) will host its Rainwater/Greywater event series beginning in February through […]

ACWA Members Testify at Senate Hearing on Title Transfers

ACWA Members Jerry Brown, General Manager of Contra Costa Water District (CCWD) and Jason Phillips, Chief Executive Officer of the […]

Earn CLE Credit: Videos from ACWA’s 2017 CLE Workshop Now Available for Purchase

Held on Nov. 28, 2017, ACWA’s Legal Affairs Committee CLE Workshop provided continuing legal education for water professionals and covered a […]

ACWA Scholarship Program Revamped for 2018

Now Accepting Applications through March 1 Each year, ACWA awards a number of scholarships to qualified graduate and undergraduate students […]

Western’s Plant Database Makes Water-Wise Landscaping Simple

Customers can search for more than 700 plants suitable for the Inland Empire RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Western Municipal Water District’s […]

Karla Nemeth Appointed DWR Director as Grant Davis Returns to Sonoma County Water Agency

Gov. Brown today announced the appointment of Karla Nemeth as the new director for the California Department of Water Resources. […]

Governor Releases Proposed 2018-19 Budget with Funding for Key Water Projects

Gov. Jerry Brown today released a proposed $190.3 billion spending plan that includes funding for several key water-related issues. Below […]

Materials From ACWA’s Lead Testing & Service Line Inventory Webinar Now Available Online

On Jan. 9, in cooperation with the State Water Resources Control Board, ACWA hosted an informational webinar for public and […]