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New norm: Exceptional drought?

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POSTED July 11, 2014 12:59 a.m.

It’s been 14 years since the United States drought monitor went into effect. 

In that time no county in California had ever entered the “exceptional” drought level – the fourth and highest rung of the ladder.

Until now. 

The deep maroon portion of the map that South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields handed out Thursday night at the meeting of the Manteca TEA Party Patriots at Chez Shari showed that more than one-third of California now meets that qualification, and that’s only going to get worse as the exceptionally dry summer drags on.

But it was a chart that showed the projected flows into what would now be New Melones Reservoir (SSJID originally had Melones Reservoir which was flooded for the current reservoir in the early 1980s) from 1895 through today that was the most telling. 

According to Shields, SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation District split the first 600,000 acre-feet of water that flow into the reservoir every year, and from 1895 through 1975, only seven times did that amount of water not flow down the Stanislaus River into the reservoir. 

From 1975 through today that number has more than doubled – a stark indication that long, dry stretches have started to become the norm. 

And Shields has had his hands full in working to make sure that every drop of the water that the district does have access to – secured in pre-1914 adjudicated water rights on the Stanislaus River – will go to benefit the very users that have invested in the infrastructure over the course of the last 100 years. 

That means battling the State of California. 

Last month Shields met with California Assemblymembers Adam Gray and Kristin Olsen in an attempt to make sure that the State Water Resources Control Board’s attempt at appropriating the water follows the letter of the law as already outlined and not the newly rewritten rules that the district was facing. 

It is far from the only thing that he faces on a daily basis. 

One of the forms that Shields handed out showed that scientists that studied California’s hydrological past – chiefly by measuring the rings on ancient trees – have determined that past dry periods in the state have lasted for more than two centuries before an extended wet period came along. 

“We’re in a relatively wet period right now,” Shields said, laughing. 

He said that even though the state as a whole is facing a water emergency, local farmers are in a relatively good position this year and will likely get a good price for the crops that they’re producing. The true gauge will come this winter when an El Nino system – when Pacific Ocean temperatures rise and mix with high air surface pressure to create storms – is expected to hit the state. 

While Shields was forthcoming, he was also quick to point out that a lot of the things that he was showing those in attendance were forecasts, and that nobody – not even him – had all of the answers. 

“There are a lot of things that we’re going to have to start getting our head around,” he said. “I’m not going to say that I have all of the answers, but there are questions that we need to be asking.

“I’ve got to look after 50,000-acres of crops and it’s important not to look back and be able to say we goofed up that for them.”

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