According to David Murillo, regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, recent storms and runoff may have added enough water to the federal system to provide senior water rights holders elsewhere in the state a slight “bump” in their allocation. Earlier this year Murillo’s agency shocked senior water rights holders with news that they would receive 40 percent of their contracted water allocation. The contract between the government and those users specifically spells out a 75 percent or 100 percent allocation based on water conditions. Water rights holders fired back with a letter from their attorney saying the federal government has no legal authority to arbitrarily choose an allocation less than 75 percent under terms of the contract.

Murillo was one of several federal and state officials who manage projects like the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State Water Project (SWP) to brief the media by telephone on the newly-released California Drought Operations Plan. He was joined on the phone with Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, and representatives of several state and federal wildlife agencies including the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries.

The 158-page plan for operating the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project in an epic drought year is called a “framework” by California Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin and others. It is the combined effort of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), California Department of Water Resources (DWR), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB).

The plan has several purposes. It seeks to operate CVP and SWP facilities to meet essential human health and safety needs related to drinking water, sanitation and fire suppression; it seeks to control saltwater intrusion in the Delta region; it attempts to hold enough storage in facilities like Shasta Lake to provide cold water flows in the Sacramento River during the various runs of Chinook Salmon; and, it seeks to maintain minimum protections for endangered species and other wildlife impacted by the drought.

The human needs related to Delta salinity levels are particularly critical since millions of urban users receive their water from Delta pumping stations. Those pumps must remain free of saltwater and officials fear that in extreme conditions there may not be enough storage in the reservoirs to repel saltwater and maintain a freshwater supply for millions of urban residents.