Friant-Sponsored Snow Surveys Concludes Year-One of a Three Year Effort

Imagine how you would make decisions if you received an annual paycheck, with a dollar amount that was announced in March, but which was delivered in June with a 20- to 40-percent difference (plus or minus) from what was announced in March. This has been the experience of water users on the San Joaquin River, where spring snow-melt forecasts have often been off by 350 thousand acre-feet, roughly the storage capacity of Friant Dam. To be fair, conventional DWR snow melt forecasts have performed miracles with a modest budget and limited measurements: for instance, there are roughly thirty monitoring locations in the 1,675 square mile San Joaquin watershed, some which are only monitored once a season. However, better information would clearly provide greater confidence in decisions and fewer missed opportunities for water management. Better information is the promise of a cutting edge pilot program that seeks to measure snow (and its water content) throughout the Sierra Nevada.  The program is NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, or ASO for short.  Water Users in the Tuolumne Basin have used ASO surveys to predict the reservoir inflows from snow within two percent of forecasts. Having seen these improvements, the Friant Division’s water users have committed to a three-year seed funding effort aimed at improving water supply allocations on the San Joaquin and to spring-boarding the adoption of this technology on a Sierra-wide basis.

ASO – a technological response to the growing demands for water

In 2017, the Friant-sponsored ASO surveys of the San Joaquin documented snow drifts with faces of 20 to 40 feet (pictured above) and snow-depths of over 90 feet, the deepest measured by the program to-date. (Photo credit: New York Times)

Snow surveys were pioneered in the Sierra Nevada in 1909, consisting of a handful of permanent locations where snow was monitored on regular intervals. Beginning in 1931, forecasts were conducted by DWR on the San Joaquin River and, over the years, the conventional filed survey methods were augmented with telemetry stations. Presently, the San Joaquin watershed hosts 31 locations where data is collected to help estimate inflow to Lake Millerton.  However, several factors stand in the way of improving the accuracy of the conventional technology, including restrictions on measurement in wilderness areas (where over 40% of the snow fell in 2017). “In some respects, before the ASO technology, we were sometimes flying blind with regards to measuring upper elevation snow pack when trying to predict high volume runoff events. This technology, combined with traditional snow surveying and water prediction methods, allowed us to better understand and predict runoff volumes, which in turn allowed water managers to more appropriately respond to the wet conditions experienced in 2017.” Commented David Rizzardo, Chief for the Snow Surveys Section/Water Supply Forecasting Division, for DWR. Without a doubt, DWR’s survey techniques have yielded a cost effective, and reasonably accurate way to determine spring runoff for decades. However, California’s demands for its water resources have changed significantly over the past several decades.  Maintaining the reliability for water users while meeting the increased demands presents a serious challenge for existing water infrastructure. Friant water users hope that the predictive certainty offered by ASO will help to overcome these challenges.

View NASA's ASO program fact sheet here.

What does this mean for Friant Division water users?

The Friant Division’s water supply allocation is largely influenced by DWR’s snow survey forecasts. These allocations have historically relied upon a drier (more conservative) end of the range. By relying on the most conservative estimates, opportunities have been missed.  In dry years, added precision could avoid unnecessary financial hardships for Friant farmers. During wet years, where anticipated runoff can be up to 10 times the storage capacity of Millerton Lake, the more precise information provided by ASO will be invaluable in managing the entire portfolio of water resources throughout the valley. Year-one of the Friant effort has captured snow accumulation and melt for the second-wettest year on record.  The information collected in this extreme condition will be invaluable for the development of runoff forecasts with ASO in the San Joaquin watershed.  The investment made by Friant Division water users is being matched by an equal expenditure of research dollars at DWR, NASA, and Reclamation into modeling tools that will translate the ASO surveys into runoff forecasts.  As an early investor in the new technology, Friant will be among the first handful of basins in the world to have high-precision forecasts. The adoption of, and enthusiasm for this new technology among DWR and Reclamation represents a significant success for year-one of the Friant-ASO program.  While continued improvement in its implementation are expected over the next year, the primary goal the next year is the development and proposal of a plan for transitioning the Friant-ASO program to the State of California, where responsibility for this survey program and its information rightfully belongs.


Friant Water Authority Board of Directors Moves to Support Water Bond

At their July 27, 2017 meeting, the Board of the Directors passed a resolution in support of the Water Supply and Water Quality Act of 2018.

If approved by voters, a portion of the measure would appropriate $750,000,000 for a grant to the FWA for water conveyance capital improvements, including restored and increased conveyance capacity to and in the Madera and Friant-Kern canals. This will result in greater groundwater recharge, improved conveyance and utilization of flood waters, and water conservation.

Kent Stephens, Chairman of the FWA, described the difficult reality facing the San Joaquin Valley, “The effects of surface water shortages and drought are still being felt throughout the San Joaquin Valley.   Many farmers made ends meet in the recent drought by shifting heavily to groundwater – which is the type of conjunctive management the Friant system was designed to handle. However, this temporary shift followed decades of water supply reductions from Delta, because of regulatory changes that have shifted all San Joaquin Valley growers heavily over to groundwater. The combination of these conditions has caused significant groundwater overdraft and land subsidence throughout the San Joaquin Valley.“

In the past year, land subsidence has significantly reduced the capacity to move wet-year water from Millerton Lake to groundwater recharge and in-lieu projects throughout the San Joaquin Valley. In places, the Friant-Kern Canal has lost 60% of its original capacity. This large degree of capacity loss puts a tremendous constraint on the movement of flood condition water supplies. With the investment provided for in the bond, significant public benefit can be realized, including avoiding increased unemployment, stabilization of groundwater along the 150-mile length of the Friant-Kern Canal and for those disadvantaged communities that rely on groundwater, and securing a more stable food supply for California. Without this investment, the subsidence will continue to get worse and those local communities, including disadvantaged communities, who largely rely on groundwater to serve their citizens, will continue to suffer adverse effects.

The bond would also provide funding for other actions beneficial to the San Joaquin Valley, including $685 Million for projects and programs that support sustainable groundwater management, and $750 Million to provide disadvantaged communities with clean, safe, affordable, and reliable drinking water.  For a complete summary of the bond measure, visit


Chowchilla Water District rejoins Friant Water Authority

Visalia, Calif. – During its July Board of Directors meeting, the Friant Water Authority (FWA) approved the addition of another member district. This followed a vote by the Chowchilla Water District Board of Directors on July 12, 2017 to join FWA as an Associate Member.

During the meeting, the Board approved a membership agreement with Chowchilla Water District (WD). The Chowchilla WD had previously been a member of the Friant Water Users Authority (FWUA), FWA’s predecessor, and Kole Upton, current President of the Chowchilla WD, served as FWUA’s Chairman from 1998 to 2008.  With the addition of Chowchilla WD, all previous FWA districts currently part of the Friant North Authority are represented on the FWA board. The water districts within Friant North Authority will continue to caucus on issues important to farmers in that region. As members of FWA, they add an important voice and give FWA a stronger, more effective voice in representing its members on water resources issues.

Kent Stephens, chairman of the FWA, is pleased by this addition. “The Chowchilla Water District has long played a critical role dealing with the difficult issues facing the Friant Division, and having their voice back will provide tremendous value both to the board and the entire Friant Division”

Kole Upton observed, “The CWD staff and board was impressed by the presentation from Jason Phillips and Jeff Payne during the past few months at CWD and FNA Board meetings. We are impressed with the leadership of the Board of Directors particularly Kent Stephens and Eric Borba. It appears Friant is on the way back to becoming the water leader of the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.”

The membership of FWA is comprised of Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, Chowchilla Water District, City of Fresno, Fresno Irrigation District, Hills Valley Irrigation District, Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District, Kern-Tulare Water District, Lindmore Irrigation District, Lindsay-Strathmore Irrigation District, Madera Irrigation District, Orange Cove Irrigation District, Porterville Irrigation District, Saucelito Irrigation District, Terra Bella Irrigation District, and Tulare Irrigation District.