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What if OID & SSJID had built New Melones?

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POSTED December 15, 2016 12:54 a.m.

Is New Melones Reservoir as completed in 1980 bureaucratic overkill?
A case can be made that not only has historic runoff in the Stanislaus River watershed never consistently justified a reservoir capable of holding 2.4 million acre feet of water, but it is also argued that its construction had an inverse impact on fish numbers.
Since its completion New Melones has been an underperforming component of the Central Valley Water Project when it comes to water storage. The current water pie is cut into the following slices: 600,000 acre feet for the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District, 274,000 acre feet for fish, 148,000 acre feet for water quality, and 45,000 acre feet to the Stockton East Water District with another 66,000 acre feet lost to evaporation. Rarely is there any water to meet Stockton East’s needs let alone other water purveyors that the Bureau originally envisioned.
As far as flood control, the record has been a little bit better. The Bureau of Reclamation likes to brag about how the reservoir avoided an estimated $128.5 million in flood damage from 1979 to 1993. But by 1997 the Bureau stopped being nimble and buried its head in the proverbial sand by continuing to operate New Melones as if drought conditions existed in December of that year when they ignored warm rains in the Sierra that triggered a massive early winter snowmelt. By the time they reacted by stepping up releases they had set the stage to cause $80 million worth of avoidable flood damage south of Manteca.
All of this makes the New Melones Reservoir a case study in why water management is best left to local interests with a track record of safeguarding the watershed.
The original Melones Reservoir was completed in 1926 by the SSJID and OID with a capacity of 112,000 acre feet of water. The fact the two districts built and owned the original reservoir as well as holding senior adjudicated water rights is the basis for the agreement that led to the building of the New Melones Reservoir that provides the SSJID and OID with the first 600,000 acre feet of water inflow each year into the reservoir.
What a lot of people forget is in the 1940s SSJID and OID conducted a study that a bigger Melones reservoir able to hold 1.1 million acre feet of water would better meet their needs and could be supported by run-off. That came on the heels of the Federal Flood Control Act of 1944 that figured a dam capable of holding back 650,000 acre feet of water would provide flood protection to Ripon, Oakdale, and Riverbank along with 35,000 acres of farmland.
The Bureau in the 1950s after the Central Valley Project was authorized determined a reservoir capable of holding 2.4 million acre feet of water could be built. The dam was authorized as part of the Flood Control Act of 1962.
New Melones is the fifth largest reservoir in California. Even in non-drought years it often peaks with water levels well below its capacity. Today it is at 23 percent pf capacity, or 558,373 acre feet out of a possible 2.4 million. It is consistently at the lowest level of the state’s eight largest reservoirs.
Had the two water districts proceeded and the federal government not stepped in New Melones would have been right-sized. Flood control through nimble local management still would have occurred and fish flows for water temperature and such would have been met without wild swings.
But by adding a federal element on the Stanislaus River, it mixed water with bureaucratic management that in recent years has been micro-managed from Washington, D.C. That led to the devastating flood of 1997 and for the craziness of the past 10 years over fish flows that — after legal wrangling in federal court — the SSJID and OID have prevailed with wins that have benefitted fish without decimating irrigation and urban water supplies.
One can’t undo what has been done.
However, ignoring a track record of 110 years established by the SSJID and OID that includes stewardship of the Stanislaus River including its fish is myopic at best and reckless at worst.
That 110-year history respects the fact one can’t devastate the watershed and expect to have sustainable farming or urban development.
It explains why OID and SSJID are more than a decade ahead of the curve when it comes to research and taking steps to enhance fish population on the Stanislaus River.
Then there is the other truth that out-of-the-region pundits and politicians ignore. The original Melones Reservoir, Goodwin Dam, the Tri-Dam Project consisting of Donnells and Beardsley as well as Tulloch plus all canals in the two districts were built on the dime of local property owners without a penny from state or federal government.
Had the two districts and not the federal government moved forward with the replacement of Melones, promises of water deliveries would not have been made that have never been kept. At the same time, a number of experts believe fish would have been better off.
It is something to keep in mind Friday if you happen to go to the public hearing at 9 a.m. at the Stockton Civic Auditorium regarding the State Water Control Board’s plan to pump up fish numbers by 200 a year on the Stanislaus River. That state plans to accomplish that by flushing away water along with a healthy chunk of the area’s jobs and economic wealth while drastically cutting back water flowing through faucets in Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.

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