Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California


SFEWS provides credible scientific information on California's complex water issues, linking new science to policy with great effect. SFEWS retains a regional focus on the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, also known as the Bay–Delta watershed. At the heart of open access from the California Digital Library, SFEWS's scholarly output ranks #1 for the UC Davis Institute  of the Environment and ranks #3 campus wide.

Volume 19, Issue 4, 2021

Issue cover
Cover Caption:A view from on the water of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Northern California on April 18, 2008.Credit: Dale Kolke, California Dept. of Water Resources.

Research Article

Patterns of Water Use in California

Recent patterns of water use and supply in California are presented based on a new data set compiled from the California Department of Water Resources water balance data for 2002 through 2016. The water use and supply include surface water and groundwater, although groundwater reporting has been incomplete. These data are used to support the Water Plan released every 3 to 5 years and are the most comprehensive and finest spatial- and temporal-scale data set for California water resources. First, using the Bay–Delta watershed as a case example, we show that recent fluctuations in water use are highly correlated with variations in precipitation. Developed water supplies and use show these fluctuations, but they are modified by reservoir inflows and releases, groundwater supplies, and Delta outflows. Second, although the annually precipitated water supply in the Bay–Delta varies by about 30%, the developed water supply damps this considerably. The water management system maintained nearly constant agricultural water use even in periods of intense drought, with year-to-year variation of about 7%. Variability in urban water use is higher (∼20%), largely from conservation during periods of drought. Finally, this information can help improve water resource management because it connects regional-scale data to meaningful policy decision-making at county and sub-county levels. At a time when water policy and management are being re-evaluated across the American West in the light of changing climate, decision-making informed by science and data is urgently needed. The statewide water balance data provide the means to establish a consistent, quantitative framework for water resource analysis throughout the state.

A Survey of X2 Isohaline Empirical Models for the San Francisco Estuary

This work surveys the performance of several empirical models, all recalibrated to a common data set, that were developed over the past 25 years to relate freshwater flow and salinity in the San Francisco Estuary (estuary). The estuary’s salinity regime—broadly regulated to meet urban, agricultural, and ecosystem beneficial uses—is managed in spring and certain fall months to meet ecosystem objectives by controlling the 2 parts per thousand bottom salinity isohaline position (referred to as X2). We tested five empirical models for accuracy, mean, and transient behavior. We included a sixth model, employing a machine learning framework and variables other than outflow, in this survey to compare fitting skill, but did not subject it to the full suite of tests applied to the other five empirical models. Model performance was observed to vary with hydrology, year, and season, and in some cases exhibited unique limitations as a result of mathematical formulation. However, no single model formulation was found to be consistently superior across a wide range of tests and applications. One test revealed that the models performed equally well when recalibrated to a uniformly perturbed input time-series. Thus, while the models may be used to identify anomalies or seasonal biases (the latter being the subject of a companion paper), their use as inverse models to infer freshwater outflow to the estuary from salinity observations is not expected to improve upon the absolute accuracy of existing outflow estimates. This survey suggests that, for analyses that span a long hydrologic record, an ensemble approach—rather than the use of any individual model on its own—may be preferable to exploit the strengths of individual models.

  • 1 supplemental PDF

Apparent Seasonal Bias in Delta Outflow Estimates as Revealed in the Historical Salinity Record of the San Francisco Estuary: Implications for Delta Net Channel Depletion Estimates

Accurate estimates of freshwater flow to the San Francisco Estuary are important in successfully regulating this water body, in protecting its beneficial uses, and in accurately modeling its hydrodynamic and water-quality transport regime. For regulatory purposes, freshwater flow to the estuary is not directly measured; rather, it is estimated from a daily balance of upstream Delta inflows, exports, and in-Delta water use termed the net Delta outflow index (NDOI). Field research in the 1960s indicated that NDOI estimates are biased low in summer–fall and biased high in winter–spring as a result of conflating Delta island evapotranspiration estimates with the sum of ungauged hydrologic interactions between channels and islands referred to as net channel depletions. In this work, we employed a 50-year observed salinity record along with gauged tidal flows and an ensemble of five empirical flow-salinity (X2) models to test whether a seasonal bias in Delta outflow estimates could be inferred. We accomplished this objective by conducting statistical analyses and evaluating whether model skill could be improved through seasonal NDOI flow adjustments. Assuming that model residuals are associated with channel depletion uncertainty, our findings corroborate the 1960s research and suggest that channel depletions are biased low in winter months (i.e., NDOI is biased high) and biased high in late summer and early fall months (i.e., NDOI is biased low). The magnitude of seasonal bias, which can reach 1,000 cfs, is a small percentage of typical winter outflow but represents a significant percentage of typical summer outflow. Our findings were derived from five independently developed models, and are consistent with the physical understanding of water exchanges on the islands. This work provides motivation for improved characterization of these exchanges to improve Delta outflow estimates, particularly during drought periods when water supplies are scarce and must be carefully managed.

  • 1 supplemental PDF

Dispersion and Stratification Dynamics in the Upper Sacramento River Deep Water Ship Channel

Hydrodynamics control the movement of water and material within and among habitats, where time-scales of mixing can exert bottom-up regulatory effects on aquatic ecosystems through their influence on primary production. The San Francisco Estuary (estuary) is a low-productivity ecosystem, which is in part responsible for constraining higher trophic levels, including fishes. Many research and habitat-restoration efforts trying to increase primary production have been conducted, including, as described here, a whole-ecosystem nutrient addition experiment where calcium nitrate was applied in the Sacramento River Deep Water Ship Channel (DWSC) to see if phytoplankton production could be increased and exported out of the DWSC. As an integral part of this experiment, we investigated the physical mechanisms that control mixing, and how these mechanisms affect the strength and duration of thermal stratification, which we revealed as critical for controlling phytoplankton dynamics in the relatively turbid upper DWSC. Analysis of a suite of mixing mechanisms and time-scales show that both tidal currents and wind control mixing rates and stratification dynamics in the DWSC. Longitudinal and vertical dispersion increased during periods of high wind, during which wind speed influenced dispersion more than tidal currents. Thermal stratification developed most days, which slowed vertical mixing but was rapidly broken down by wind-induced mixing. Stratification rarely persisted for longer than 24 hours, limiting phytoplankton production in the study area. The interaction between physical mechanisms that control mixing rates, mediate stratification dynamics, and ultimately limit primary production in the DWSC may be useful in informing habitat restoration elsewhere in the Delta and in other turbid aquatic environments.

Concentrations, Loads, and Associated Trends of Nutrients Entering the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, California

Statistical modeling of water-quality data collected at the Sacramento River at Freeport and San Joaquin River near Vernalis, California, USA, was used to examine trends in concentrations and loads of various forms of dissolved and particulate nitrogen and phosphorus that entered the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta (Delta) from upstream sources between 1970 and 2019. Ammonium concentrations and loads decreased at the Sacramento River site from the mid-1970s through 1990 because of the consolidation of wastewater treatment and continuously reduced from the mid-1970s to 2019 at the San Joaquin River site. Current ammonium concentrations are mostly below 4 µM (0.056 mg N L–1) at both sites, a concentration above which reductions in phytoplankton productivity or changes in algal species composition may occur. The Sacramento River at Freeport site is located upstream of the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District’s treatment facility’s discharge point; nutrient water quality there is representative of upstream sources. Inorganic nitrogen (nitrate plus ammonium) concentrations and loading differed at both sites. At the Sacramento River location, concentrations decrease in the summer agricultural season, reducing the molar ratios of nitrogen to phosphorus.

In contrast, inorganic nitrogen concentrations increase in the San Joaquin River during the agricultural season as a result of irrigation runoff, increasing the molar ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus. This increase suggests a possible nitrogen limitation in the northern Delta and a phosphorus limitation in the southern Delta, as indicated by the molar ratios of bioavailable nitrogen to bioavailable phosphorus. Planned upgrades to the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant (SRWTP) will reduce inorganic nitrogen inputs to the northern Delta. Consequently, the supply of bioavailable nitrogen throughout the upper estuary should diminish. Source modeling of nitrogen and phosphorus identifies agriculture, atmospheric deposition, and wastewater effluent as sources of total nitrogen in the Central Valley. In contrast, geologic sources, agriculture, and wastewater discharge are the primary sources of phosphorus.