June 2017 – Region 9 Reports

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Region 9 Water Committee Hot Topics
by Xavier Irias, P.E., M. ASCE
Chair, ASCE Region 9 Water and Environment Committee

As of April 26, 2017, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) announced snow packs of 150% to 210% of the average for this time of year and in addition, we’ve received record amounts of rainfall this season.  On April 7, Governor Brown issued an executive order to end the drought state of emergency in all California counties except Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne, where emergency drinking water projects will continue to help address diminished water supplies. In those areas, reporting requirements and prohibitions on wasteful use remain in effect.  Throughout the state, current surface water storage in major State Water Project reservoirs ranges from 44% to 99% of historic average.

During the wettest months, many reservoirs exceeded their capacity resulting in spillway releases, which for some facilities had not occurred in decades.  Although a welcome sign from a water supply viewpoint, the spills raised new concerns with statewide dam safety.  Oroville Dam, owned and operated by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), is the tallest dam in the U.S.  At 770 feet in height and capable of impounding more than 3.5 million acre feet of water, Oroville dam provides water supply, hydropower generation and flood control for the region and much of the state.  Heavy rains between mid-January to mid-February led to record releases of water.  During this time, a large crater formed in the dam’s main spillway. In an attempt to minimize further damage, flows were reduced.  As storms continued, lake levels rose, necessitating the use of the dam’s emergency spillway on February 11th, for the first time in its nearly 50-year history.  The releases caused erosion, resulting in a concern for the integrity of the structure, and on February 12th authorities issued a mandatory evacuation of over 180,000 people in downstream communities.  The root causes of failure have been studied and no doubt will lead to a better understanding of dam design and inspection practices.  The state legislature has engaged.  Assembly Bill 884 (Levine) Dams and Reservoirs: Inspections, AB 1270 (Gallagher) Dams and reservoirs inspections and reporting, and AB 1271 (Gallagher) Dams and reservoirs, have been introduced to address dam safety practices and funding.

Funding in this area is clearly needed, as ASCE’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card gives dams “D” rating.  According to the Report Card, the average age of the 90,580 dams in the country is 56 years.  As our population grows and development continues, the overall number of high hazard potential dams is increasing, with the number climbing to nearly 15,500 in 2016.  Due to the lack of investment, the number of deficient high hazard potential dams has also climbed to an estimated 2,170 or more, according to ASCE’s Dams summary for the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card.  The Report Card estimates that it will require an investment of $45 billion to repair aging, yet critical, high hazard dams and other industry reports indicate that costs may be even higher.  The Governor’s four-point plan to bolster dam safety and flood protection in the state proposed a $437 million investment in near-term flood control and emergency response actions, which only scratches the surface of the overall infrastructure need.

As California experiences the most varied climate in the nation, it is also important that we continue to stay focused on integrated regional water management, groundwater management and conservation.  As the range of climate variance is expected to increase in the future, it is important that the Engineering community continue to look at ways to balance flood control with water supply through focus on forecast-informed reservoir operations.  Real-time reservoir operations using actual watershed data on snowpack and soil moisture combined with improved forecasting of Atmospheric Rivers can improve operations of multi-purpose reservoirs with little capital investment.

Our varied climate and diversity throughout the state has also highlighted the need to provide sustainable water for disadvantaged communities.  This past year has seen increased legislative support and funding, which has led to the implementation of projects to inventory and improve water supplies for small rural communities.

The recent drought highlighted the need for a multi-pronged approach to water supply resiliency.  DWR has continued to implement the new and expanded measures identified in the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) including developing groundwater basin boundaries, adopting regulations for implementing Groundwater Sustainability Plans, identifying over-drafted basins and potential sources and specific projects for groundwater replenishment.  The first major deadline in SGMA is approaching on July 1 of this year for all high and medium priority groundwater basins.  Groundwater Sustainability Agencies must be formed by then and must cover the entire basin with no underlap or overlap of responsible agency boundaries.  Groundwater basins missing this target will likely see enforcement intervention by the State Water Resources Control Board.  Even if governess issues are resolved, many areas, notably in the San Joaquin and Tulare Basins are expected to experience a difficulty in providing sufficient recharge supplies to offset historical pumping demands.

In addition to the myriad new investments required to maintain reliable water supply, flood protection, wastewater treatment and recycling, and protection of our environment, significant additional investments are needed to simply maintain existing infrastructure in a reliable, sustainable fashion.   Much of the California’s existing water infrastructure is at or near the end of its useful life, and agencies lack the funding for replacing this infrastructure.  This investment need adds to the burden to construct new infrastructure to maintain pace with economic growth while balancing environmental needs.

It is clear that the State is in need of additional infrastructure investment, and ASCE’s Report Card has helped build public awareness of that need.  In addition, the advocacy of civil engineers expressed through participation in the annual ASCE D.C. and Sacramento Legislative Fly-Ins, and in participating in the ASCE’s Key Contact program, is needed to ensure that the need is heard and understood by policy-makers and lawmakers.  The other challenge for us is to continue to make the best use of the funds that we have.  The ASCE’s Grand Challenge (www.ascegrandchallenge.com) calls on us to rethink what is possible within our areas of practice.  With a goal of reducing infrastructure life cycle costs by 50% by 2025, that initiative challenges us to optimize the size, scope and character of infrastructure for society.

If you would like to learn more about the activities of the Region 9 Water & Environment Committee, please contact me at xavier.irias@ebmud.com


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