Facing a ‘new reality’ on water
July 12, 2014
If there were any doubt that Nevada County is feeling impacts from the drought, check out the wider-than-normal grainy beachfront at the campgrounds along Scotts Flat Lake reservoir.
"The selling feature of these campsites is that you're right on the water," said Chip Close, operations manager for Nevada Irrigation District. "That's not the case this year."
According to Close, the dry beach expanse on view now, in early July, is usually not seen until the latter part of summer.
"We're about a month behind the average," Close said. "Scotts Flat reservoir is at an elevation you don't generally see until mid-August."
While the sight of Scotts Flat Lake's low levels may cause some to panic, for Close and Rem Scherzinger, Nevada Irrigation District's general manager, it's a call to action on multiple fronts.
The greatest of those is that, after 94 years of operating as a primarily Sierra snowpack-driven water management agency, NID is radically shifting to a rain-capturing and storage model.
"We're clearly operating in a new environmental reality," Scherzinger said. "The National Climate Assessment came out last month and identified that the Southwest region, of which we are a part, will have longer dry periods and more intense wet periods.
"This is very different from how the district has operated in the past," he added.
NID, the surface water management agency in the county, has 10 major reservoirs, and Scotts Flat and Rollins are the two largest low lying ones here in the foothills, with the rest in the Sierra mountains. Total storage is roughly 280,000 acre feet of water, of which the district uses up an average of 200,000 acre feet per water year.
"You can see how crucial the winter rainfalls are," Close said. "On top of that, we need to leave some water in the reservoirs at all times; they're not allowed to drain."
Scherzinger has already made plans to increase storage at Rollins Reservoir by 25,000 acre-feet — 20,000 acre-feet as a purchase from PG&E and 5,000 acre-feet through a structure to be placed atop the Rollins dam spillway to block more water from spilling over.
"We don't have to lift up the dam itself," he said. "We'll just change the spillway."
On the good-news side, Close said the Pacific Ocean waters are already warming, signalling a likely El Nino — or significant rainy season — this fall. If it is a weak El Nino, however, the rain won't be enough to make a dent in the drought. A strong El Nino would be ideal, he said.
But there is no room for complacency.
The California Water Resources Control Board on May 27 issued orders that all public and private owners of all post-1914, or "junior," water rights were to immediately stop diverting water from area rivers and streams. Luckily, Nevada Irrigation District holds only 16 licenses and deeds for junior water rights; dozens more are for pre-1914, or "senior," water rights acquired by NID founders in the 1920s. For NID, the order mostly affected diversions from tributaries of the Yuba River.
"It's very fortunate for us that our forefathers were very longsighted," Scherzinger said of the abundance of senior water rights. "We're trying to follow in their footsteps."
On July 2, the state water board issued an emergency declaration saying it would not touch the senior water rights at present unless there is a complaint from one of the senior rights holders that the water has run out.
"They also stiffened up the penalties for people who haven't complied with the (junior rights) curtailment orders," Close said. "Only about 60 percent or so complied; it wasn't as good as they had hoped."
How long the curtailment orders will last is anybody's guess.
"We hope they release the curtailments before winter so that we can capture the winter storms as they start rolling in," Close added.
Meanwhile, Close and others at NID are enacting strong conservation measures on an operational level. Those will complement the 20 percent voluntary reduction conservation measures already in effect for all of NID's 80,000 or so residential and commercial treated water customers.
With enough customer and operational conservation measures in place, Close and Scherzinger hope to avoid mandatory water use restrictions that are already in place in other areas, such as Placer County.
"We're not talking just about low-flow toilets or high-efficiency washers," Scherzinger said. "It's the whole system.
"In the past, we've said, 'We'll let this amount of water go and that amount of water go; spill this, spill that,'" Scherzinger said.
"Instead, Chip and his staff now are really looking to hold water as high up in the system (storage) as we can, so that we can strategically release that water when it's called for."
NID is also building major "backbone" transmission lines to connect its seven water treatment plants that are currently isolated from each other. Not only will the backbone mains offer treated water to areas where wells are in short supply or failing — and where fire protection water is needed — but it will also build in redundancy in the system so that one treatment plant can supplement another plant in an emergency. The first leg of a transmission line is currently under construction on East Hacienda Drive, which will travel from the Alta Sierra treatment plant to Lake of the Pines. Another line is planned from the top of Banner Mountain at the Elizabeth George treatment plant to Cascade Shores.
"By connecting them, we can help move water and buffer them operationally," Scherzinger said.
"If one plant gets into a jam, another plant can help pick up the slack."
Compared to NID and its surface water emergencies, Nevada County's groundwater situation is relatively better, although many well customers are seeking better guarantees by building storage tanks, said Greg Peters of Peters Drilling and Pump Service in Grass Valley.
Peters said people who always have problem or marginal wells are running out of water earlier this year than normal.
"People who always run out of water by the end of summer are doing it already," he said. "We're not seeing it in any one particular area."
Peters, who has been in business for 41 years and seen droughts in the past, said the difference this year is people watching Sacramento television news and not realizing that Nevada County has a different type of underground rock than in the Sacramento Valley. The underground water in the foothills flows through cracks in fractured hard rock as opposed to the valley, where the water flows through gravel.
"They look at photos of Folsom Lake, and it's pretty pathetic," Peters said. "That impacts mostly ag well drillers; those wells are 16 inches (in diameter)."
Peters, who mostly installs 6-inch diameter wells — the standard for hard rock — said he is booked about three weeks out for new well drilling.
"The ag well drillers are booked out for a year and a half," he said. "You're not going to get some big irrigation wells up here."
Much of Peters' business now is installing 4,000-gallon water storage tanks for existing wells.
"It really is interesting, how many people are being proactive," he said.
"Even people who are doing fine with their wells are saying, 'I don't want to have a problem.'"
The average well depth in Nevada County is about 350 feet, Peters said. A good well in Nevada County will pump about 10 gallons of water per minute; an ag irrigation well in the valley could pump as much as 3,000 gallons a minute.
"We are not in a panic mode," Peters said of the groundwater situation.
"I think a lot of people watch TV and see what's going on in the valley, and we're up here in the hard rock mode — two different things.
"Ours is a confined aquifer, but in the valley it's unconfined," he said. "Tons of water flushes through the gravel."
Meanwhile, on the surface water side, Scherzinger and his staff are "working really hard to make sure this community is protected," he said. "Our mission is to protect this resource for our community."
He noted that in the three years that California has been in a drought, "we've completed 100 percent of our deliveries.
"We're trying to maintain that ability to maintain service," he added.
NID began enacting conservation measures from its five-stage Drought Contingency Plan back in December, Close said. The county is currently at Stage 2, or voluntary conservation, although some Stage 3 measures are currently in effect.
The agency has the Contingency Plan and conservation tips posted on its website. A water conservation efficiency expert is also available to provide telephone and in-person suggestions.
For more information, see http://nidwater.com or call (530) 273-6185; toll-free from Placer County (800) 222-4102
To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4239.