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Deal addresses fish, urban & farming needs

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POSTED April 10, 2015 1:08 a.m.

There’s a pending deal striking a balance between agriculture, urban, and fish needs for water from the stressed Stanislaus River watershed.

The State Water Resources Control Board is expected to make a final decision this afternoon on a management plan for river operations based on updated data that includes increased projected run-off, current temperature modeling, and an inspection that determined the outlet gates of the Melones Reservoir that have been submerged since 1981 are still operable.

The new numbers and operating plan hammered out by the representatives of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, Oakdale Irrigation District, Bureau of Reclamation and National Marine Fisheries Service meeting with the top two State Water Resources Control Board officials on Thursday came two days after the SSJID and OID refused to comply with a Bureau directive to ramp up releases from Tulloch Lake to increase fish flows.

The two districts were concerned about whether the 15,000 acre feet that the Bureau wanted to release during the coming weeks to provide a pulse flow for what the National Marine Fisheries Service has determined is needed for six additional endangered steelhead trout to make it at least to the Delta was federal water or was coming from water they were assured would be available this year for farm irrigation and domestic use in the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy.  Also critical to their districts was the amount of water that would remain at New Melones on Sept. 30 and whether it would meet their domestic costumers’ needs, minimum river flows, as well as protect carryover water to start the 2016 irrigation season. As things stood Tuesday, there wouldn’t have been any measurable and/or releasable water on Sept. 30

Based on current modeling in place Tuesday, New Melones would revert to dead pool storage when the original Melones Reservoir pops above the water line sometime in late August.

SSJID and OID just recently sent researchers out to use cameras and sonar to determine whether there were any trees or debris that would make it impossible for 80,000 acre feet expected to be trapped behind the reservoir the two districts completed in 1925.

SSJID Jeff Shields noted that verification of data the two districts submitted to the state is essential before the Water Resources Control Board signs off on the deal.

Shields praised all parties involved working to address serious water concerns for cities, agriculture, and fish.

But he underscored the good news with a warning.

“The good news is that New Melones Reservoir can be drained (in reference to dead pool storage),” Shields said. “Somehow when you think about it that doesn’t sound like good news.”

While the ability to access the reservoir’s last 80,000 acre feet of water is a critical component of the deal Shields said comparable little water will be carried over into the next water year starting Oct. 1 to last until April 2016.

“It is why it is important that we conserve every drop of water now as that is water that will be available next year” Shields said.

The reservoir has declined roughly 500,000 acre feet annually since the drought started over three years ago. If 500,000 acre feet are used this water year it will essentially deplete the reservoir in terms of having cushion storage.

If state officials give their blessing today, pulse flows could resume later tonight.

Thursday’s tentative deal is based in part on updated runoff numbers for the Stanislaus River watershed. The state Department of Water Resources predicts that 280,000 acre-feet of water will flow into federally controlled New Melones this year, an increase of 35,000 acre-feet from previous estimates.

In a typical year, 1.02 million acre-feet of runoff goes into New Melones – Northern California’s third-largest reservoir with a capacity of 2.4 million acre-feet. As of Thursday, it held about 540,000 acre-feet.

The deal envisions that about 150,000 acre-feet will be left in New Melones at the end of September. 

OID General Manager Steve Knell said that should be enough to provide cooler river releases in the fall to attract spawning salmon and meet other environmental requirements until April 2016.

OID and SSJID share rights to 600,000 acre-feet of water behind New Melones this year. As part of the agreement, they reduced their 2015 allotment to 450,000 acre-feet, which they divide equally.

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