Steve Knell, General Manager of the Oakdale Irrigation District, was invited to speak at special meeting of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources on March 19 at Fresno City Hall. The oversight field hearing was on “California Water Crisis and its Impacts: The Need for Immediate and Long-Term Solutions.”
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) of the 10th Congressional District arranged for Knell to speak on behalf of water district managers in California. Other speakers included farmers, a mayor, a county farm bureau president, the regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), and the undersecretary of California Natural Resources Agency. The chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) was invited and slated to speak but did not attend.
Knell said he counted eight news networks and estimated that a couple hundred people showed up outside Fresno City Hall for a water rally opposing the state and federal governments’ handling of the drought. Inside the hearing, he said, it was standing room only.
Knell said that the general tone of the meeting that focused on hearing the concerns and issues surrounding the third year of drought in California did not contain many conflicting views. He noted that the House Resources Committee is composed of equal members of Democrats and Republicans; however, Jim Costa was the only Democrat there but Knell said Costa was very much in line with other members of the House regarding water.
“They were really calling on the governor to step up to the plate – while he didn’t support the legislation that’s currently in and before the Senate. They were asking Janelle Beland, she was the undersecretary, they were asking her to provide any insight into what the governor would support or would not support. He just said he wouldn’t support it. There are lots of things in there (the legislation), and they’re trying to drill down on him a little bit. So she took a lot of heat and the Bureau took a lot of heat for how the drought is being managed,” Knell said.
He felt the meeting was very well run and that it was a very respectful crowd. He reported that each Congressperson there, including Congressman Denham, had five minutes to say their piece. Then each invited witness had five minutes to say their piece and when they were done, each Congressperson had five minutes to ask each and any witness they chose questions about their testimony or area of expertise, as it related to the drought. Knell also said that Doc Hastings, the Chairperson of the House Resources Committee, was very disappointed that Felicia Marcus, SWRCB Chairwoman, declined to attend at the last minute.
“I was the anomaly there,” Knell said of his presence at the meeting. “The other witnesses there, they need water… There’s going to be a lot of heartache on the Westside (of the valley). This summer is going to be full of devastating stories – the human needs.”
He mentioned the Mayor of Huron who spoke and Knell said that they are economically challenged and are losing 60 percent of their water for the city alone. Huron is a small city but a major agricultural area which has had significant water shortage issues. Knell said there were some very compelling stories coming from the witnesses who represented cities and towns, farmworkers, farmers and families.
“Lots of fear, uncertainty, and unknowns regarding their futures in this the third year of drought,” he said. “It’s going to be a hard summer for those folks and I am sure we’ll see lots of it on TV as the drought impacts deepen.”
Knell went prepared with a 12-minute presentation, but he said the witnesses were limited to five minutes, so he had to pare it down quite a bit. His presentation included impacts of the drought, and also immediate and long term solutions, which included more reservoir storage and maximizing the use of existing storage.
He specifically spoke about New Melones Reservoir, which has a capacity of 2.4 million acre feet and is operated by the USBR, and reported that there is plenty of room for additional storage behind the dam that is without cost, compared to proposals to raise other dams or build new storage facilities for billions of dollars. His presentation notes state that OID’s “initial review indicates somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 acre feet could be put into storage annually. The cost to raise Shasta Lake and get 20,000 to 72,000 acre feet of water is $280 million to $360 million. The cost to raise the San Luis Reservoir is $360 million for 130,000 acre feet of water. To store 20,000 to 40,000 acre feet annually in New Melones would cost zero dollars. In fact, the Federal Treasury would receive up to $1 million in Warren Act contract payments.”
He talked about the multiple benefits of access to storage in New Melones, and also covered the various disincentives and inability to currently store water in the reservoir because of legislation and the federal “Biological Opinion,” which actually would drain the reservoir in certain years because it calls for such large annual inflow and releases to benefit environmental purposes.
Knell criticized the state for “not developing a focused plan and investing time and resources to achieve drought preparedness.” He talked about how the state is spending billions of dollars on a river restoration program on the lower San Joaquin to achieve 500 returning spring-run salmon, while communities in the valley don’t have safe, affordable, reliable drinking water. His presentation also charged the state with choosing to build a bullet train over water storage or conveyance facilities. It further states that storage projects are useless if the state, through the SWRCB, is focused on taking more water out of existing storage and sending it to the ocean.
David Murillo from the USBR and Natural Resources Undersecretary Beland really had the focus of the committee, Knell said. He added that the committee was also asking what the federal government was doing. He noted that USBR has to comply with both federal and California law, which makes it difficult because their hands are tied in some ways.
Knell said that since the last big drought, even the drought in the 1980s, the state hasn’t made a plan. He said that state officials have had 24 years to figure it out, to look at all the watersheds and plan for different levels of drought at each one, but they haven’t done anything.
“When you ask people who are at the state level about what they’re doing and they don’t know much… The state is not prepared for this. No plan has been crafted. If you’re the head of State (Natural) Resources and water is the main resource… I would have a plan,” Knell said. “…They just don’t have a clue. They’re shooting from the hip… There are lots of legal questions.”
He added that the reason there are water rights in California is that it brings organization to chaos.
“When water is short, go to junior (water rights holders) and say ‘we have to cut you off’… They’re not doing that,” Knell said.
He added that this has become a political game because a lot of junior water rights holders are cities and municipalities and they have political clout – the officials “kind of dance to the tune” of the junior rights holders, while a lot of the senior rights holders, such as many of the irrigation districts, don’t have that political pull.
“It’s problematic for all of us,” he said.
Knell reported that water curtailment notices for some post 1914 water rights holders have been sent out by the state. He believes that pre-1914 rights holders, which includes OID, may get notices in April.
“They say you can’t move water to storage. What flows into the dam, has to flow out of the dam,” Knell explained.
He added that curtailment notices won’t affect OID because of the way its rights are written. Any water released would flow to OID under the rights. What the “Feds” (USBR) release from New Melones, goes to Goodwin Dam, and OID diverts it from there. However, he said that districts that are on the Tuolumne and Merced rivers, for example, that water has to go to the ocean.
Right now, Knell said, from OID’s perspective, the notices are manageable because there is no one downstream to Oakdale that needs to be satisfied and OID won’t give its water to junior rights holders. However, he said OID is waiting to see, should the state not comply with senior water rights on the Stanislaus, then they’re willing to go to court if need be. He also said that because every basin is so different, the irrigation districts will have to stand on their own as opposed to banding together.