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El Nino may not deliver for California

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POSTED August 15, 2015 12:53 a.m.

Jeff Shields’ message couldn’t have been clearer.

Either Northern California gets an abundance of rain this year – enough storms to not only fill reservoirs but generate precious snowpack – or the drought that we’re facing right now will seem like paradise compared to what is to come.

On Thursday the outgoing South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager, who is set to retire at the end of the year, spoke to roughly a dozen members of the Manteca TEA Party Patriots at Angelano’s about the horrific circumstances that could come if California gets another dry winter.

And expectations of an El Nino year – where warmer waters in the Pacific Ocean generate more winter storms – could be, according to Shields, overstated and misunderstood.

“I wouldn’t go out and buy that new boat just yet,” Shields quipped to a round of laughs.

Part of the issue surrounding the pending winter storms, Shields said, is that they’ll pepper portions of California with water and bring an abundance to the Central Valley which will regenerate the groundwater table but also melt whatever snow has accumulated in the higher elevations of the Sierra – the reserve of which helps districts like SSJID manage river flows throughout the dry season.

A warm tropical storm in 1997 was responsible for the surge that ultimately led to the weakening and breaking of levees on the San Joaquin River. And regenerating the massively depleted reservoirs in a single year – almost all of which are below 50 percent capacity with more than two months of warm water left – would be highly unlikely.

Everything, he said, comes down to whether Mother Nature wants to cooperate.

“In order for us to be okay we’re going to have to have a regular year – which means that we get the 600,000 acre-foot allotment of water that flows into New Melones Reservoir,” Shields said. “We haven’t had that for several years and if we don’t get that this year then a lot of the reservoirs that are up there now – Relief Reservoir and Spicer and our lakes up there – are going to run dry.

“I don’t want to bring the doom-and-gloom but it’s the reality that we’re facing right now.”

And a betting man would estimate that Northern California residents are likely to see more of the same.

One of the pieces of material that Shields distributed was a chart that showed the annual flows into New Melones over the last century which, he says, shows some alarming trends.

In the first 80 years that were charted, only seven times did 600,000 acre-feet not flow into the reservoir. In the last 40 years the number of dry years has doubled – including every year since 2012 that currently leaves the reservoir at 13 percent of capacity.

To top that off, the district – which is still fighting PG&E in court over the LAFCo decision to allow SSJID to enter the retail power business – is also dealing with upset Lake Tulloch neighbors who don’t approve of the move to funnel cold water out of Melones Reservoir and into Tulloch in order to reduce water temperatures on the Stanislaus River in an effort to protect salmon fingerlings.

“When a real estate agent calls from the Bay Area and says that I’m declining the value of his rental property, he doesn’t get a lot of sympathy from me,” Shields said. “The only reason they have any property values up there at all is because our farmers invested in and built that reservoir.

“They should be sending us a thank you letter for not dropping it the last few years.”

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.

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