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Sierra snowpack at 6%, SSJID wants cities to declare water emergency

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A skier is shown at Squaw Valley on March 21. Lake Tahoe’s snowpack was 3 percent of normal on Tuesday.

Photo contributed/

POSTED April 1, 2015 1:20 a.m.

Every drop of water now counts.

Water managers up and down California are reeling with the news the snow survey for April 1 in the critical Sierra snowpack is coming in at 6 percent of normal.

It’s the most dismal measurement on record for the Sierra that provides upwards of 60 percent of the state’s developed surface water supply.

That’s the good news. When specific regional data is released today, the Stanislaus River watershed that Manteca Lathrop and area farmers rely on is expected to be even lower.

A snow survey conducted Tuesday by Nevada had the Lake Tahoe snowpack at 3 percent of normal.

“This is it,” said South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields. “We’re going to be telling our grandchildren years from now that we were there in 2015 when California had its worst drought on record.”

And 2015 may be the good memory.

Shields and others have pointed out that if 2016 is anywhere near as bad as 2015 and sends the state into a fifth straight drought year, there simply won’t be adequate water.

“This year with conservation and cutbacks we (the state) may get through meeting reduced deliveries for everybody,” Shields said. “That won’t be the case in 2016 if this continues.”

Shields said when he appears before the Lathrop and Manteca city councils next Monday and Tuesday respectively he plans to ask elected leaders to follow SSJID’s lead and declare a water emergency.

• • •

Meeting urban needs this winter now dicey

The rapidly deteriorating watershed conditions on the Stanislaus River now is making it dicey for SSJID to assure the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy will have surface water supplies from Oct. 1 through the winter.

“(SSJID’s) goal is now to make sure we have enough water to meet the reduced deliveries we established through Sept. 30 and to make sure we have water for the cities’ surface water treatment plant through the winter.”

Shields said the district is currently “looking at every drop, and who has rights to it” as well as critical water temperature that impact fish to scramble to find a way to get through this year. A tentative deal between the National Fisheries Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Oakdale Irrigation District and SSJID that is before the state for approval that would have left 115,000 acre feet in New Melones on Sept. 30 based on projections made three weeks ago may now be impossible to meet with the latest snow reading.

Crafters of the deal had been planning on a worst case scenario of a 12 percent snowpack as of today. Instead it came in at 6 percent.

Shields said the district is going to be looking at the outlets for the original Melones Resevior the district built in 1925 in conjunction with OID and agreed to allow being flooded when the Bureau built New Melones in the 1980s. The old dam — unseen for close to 30 years — will rise above the water level in New Melones sometime this summer under the latest conditions. A strategy may develop where they can squeeze more water out of the reservoir for fish, urban, and farming needs.

As of Tuesday, the Stanislaus River watershed is below the driest year on record which was the weather year 1976-77 when 18.76 inches had fallen by April 1. The rainfall is currently at 17.75 inches.

The 1976-77 drought – the worst in recent memory — happened when California had 22 million people or 16 million less than today. Shields noted there was also less water committed to regulatory uses concerning fish flows and such.

“This by far a worse situation,” he noted.

New Melones is trailing last year’s dismal storage and is at 555,000 acre feet of water currently out of a capacity of 2.4 million acre feet. New Melones had 1,038,250 acre feet of water on March 31 of 2014 when California was entering its second year of drought.

While 2015 is going to be a tough year, Shields fears what 2016 might bring.

“Another big difference between now and previous droughts is this time around we have pretty much burned through our carryover storage or will have by end of the water year,” he said.

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