September 5, 2008

Drought Conditions Lead to Creation of Water Bank

By Mike Taugher

SACRAMENTO -- Fearing next year could bring a worsening drought, state water officials on Thursday said they would create the first drought water bank in California since the early 1990s.

The bank would allow water users, primarily in the Sacramento Valley, to sell water to drier regions of the state, from the Bay Area to San Diego.

Following two dry years, key reservoirs such as Shasta Reservoir and Lake Oroville are at only about half their normal levels for this time of year. Lake Oroville is projected to hit its lowest level since 1977 by the end of the month.

The lake levels are so low that even a normal winter might not refill them. And a wet winter will not necessarily end the drought in parts of the state because new restrictions on Delta water pumping will make it more difficult to send water from Northern California to reservoirs and groundwater basins in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

"We're going to be ending this year with very low carryover storage," said Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow. "We're hoping for the best. However, we would be negligent if we didn't prepare for the worst."

One of the most hard-hit water districts in the state this year, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves 1.3 million customers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, is unlikely to buy water from the bank next year because its north Delta water intake will not be completed.

But the Contra Costa Water District probably will buy water from the bank, said assistant general manager Greg Gartrell.

The Concord-based district, which serves about 550,000 people, would buy water to keep possible mandatory water rationing to a manageable level, which Gartrell said could be around 15 percent to 20 percent.

"It's possible that even in a normal (water) year, we could be in that situation," Gartrell said.

In addition to creating the drought water bank, state water officials plan to promote more statewide water conservation, provide financial help for drought programs and other measures.

State meteorologist Elissa Lynn said it is too early to make accurate predictions of how much rain and snow next winter will bring, but climate models so far are not encouraging.

"If anything, they look normal to drier than normal," she said.

The drought water bank would likely obtain water from willing sellers, including rice farmers.

Because rice prices are high, though, water officials said they expect farmers would ask a relatively high price for their water, which would be made available in part by planting less rice.

"The rice farmers will help urban customers and other farmers in times of drought," California Rice Commission spokesman Jim Morris said.

Also, water officials warned that there was only about a 50 percent chance the drought water bank purchases could be delivered through the Delta next year because of pumping limitations.

Water users that buy water but cannot take delivery would be allowed to store the purchased water in Northern California reservoirs for delivery in later years but they also run the risk that water would be spilled, or essentially erased from the books if the reservoirs fill up.

Mike Taugher covers natural resources. Reach him at 925-943-8257 or [email protected]

Originally published by Mike Taugher , Times Staff Writer.

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