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DROUGHT DEAL

State board should support responsible plan for New Melones Reservoir & Stanislaus River

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POSTED March 28, 2015 12:07 a.m.

By STEVE KNELL

General Manager, Oakdale Irrigation District

By JEFF SHIELDS

General Manager South San Joaquin Irrigation District

There is no way to get around the human, environmental and financial consequences of a fourth consecutive drought year in water-starved California. We have seen it in the fallowed fields on the west side of the Southern San Joaquin Valley and the economic devastation in that region. We have seen it in the reduced flows in rivers and historically low levels of many of the state’s reservoirs. 

Closer to home on the Stanislaus River, responsible water management and sensible conservation by our customers has enabled us to avoid the worst of those outcomes the past three years. But New Melones Reservoir – the largest dam on the river – has receded to levels not seen since 1991. The Central Sierra snowpack is a paltry 12% of average, and current watershed precipitation is 1½ inches less than that received in the historically dry winter of 1976 for this same period.  February and March this year will likely be the driest months on record and seasonal runoff is predicted to be 20% or less of normal. It’s terrible and there is no relief in sight.

All of which underscores the importance of a tentative agreement recently reached between the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts and federal officials regarding management of New Melones for the remainder of this year. 

We believe this consensus plan balances the needs of fish and farmers, domestic users, recreation, power generation and carryover storage. It is the result of weeks of serious discussion and compromise between our irrigation districts; the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages New Melones; and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has regulatory responsibility for steelhead trout and salmon in the Stanislaus River.

The basics of the plan are this:

• Federal officials will be able to meet all their springtime “pulse flows.” During pulse flows, more water is released into the river to help young fish swim toward the Delta and beyond. The first pulse flow was March 24-26 for steelhead; the second from mid-April to mid-May for salmon. 

• Officials will be able to meet base flow needs for the fish in the river through December.

• The irrigation districts will equally divide 450,000 acre-feet of water this year. That’s 150,000 acre-feet less than normal. SSJID already has capped deliveries for its farmers and OID will consider it at the April 7 board meeting.

• By Sept. 30, at the end of the irrigation season, New Melones is expected to hold just 115,000 acre-feet of water; its capacity is 2.4 million acre-feet. The reservoir’s “dead pool” – the level of water below the lowest spill gate – is 80,000 acre-feet. The 35,000 acre-foot difference will be used to meet flows for spawning salmon through Dec. 31.

• The irrigation districts are considering additional conservation measures this season to ensure that the end point of 115,000 acre-feet in New Melones is met or exceeded.

• Lake Tulloch is downstream of New Melones. It is jointly owned and operated by OID and SSJID. The intent is to keep Tulloch at normal operational levels through September.

The plan is supported by the region’s two congressional representatives – Jeff Denham and Tom McClintock – as well as state legislators Kristin Olsen, Adam Gray, Tom Berryhill and Frank Bigelow. 

As part of the agreement, the Bureau of Reclamation filed a Temporary Urgency Change Petition with the State Water Resources Control Board. The water board must approve the petition for the New Melones plan to be fully implemented. If it imposes additional terms and conditions, the delicate balance reached by the water districts and federal regulators may be lost.

The Stanislaus River is the lifeblood for an agricultural industry worth $6 billion in our two counties, fish listed on the Endangered Species Act and people who enjoy its natural beauty. This plan represents the most responsible way to protect all those things. We encourage everyone with an interest in the river  to show their support by contacting the water board at info@waterboards.ca.gov. 

Knell is general manager of the Oakdale Irrigation District, which serves about 62,000 acres in northeast Stanislaus County and southeast San Joaquin County. Shields is general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, which provides water to about 55,000 agricultural acres in Escalon, Ripon and Manteca, and also domestic water for the city of Tracy.

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