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Fourth year of drought likely

Stanislaus River watershed historic data points to drought year in 2015

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Fourth year of drought likely

Sandbars lay exposed on the San Joaquin River near the Airport Way bridge where the river level is at the lowest it has been in years.

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

POSTED January 24, 2014 1:43 a.m.

History isn’t on the side of farmers and cities that rely on the Stanislaus River watershed for water.

Five times since 1926 there have been stretches of four years or more where dry conditions of significantly below average rain and snow plagued the Stanislaus River watershed.

Data gleaned from Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Water Resources records point to a strong likelihood the current drought cycle will stretch until at least the end of 2015. That means unless the South San Joaquin Irrigation District conserves water this year the odds are good there will be inadequate water in 2015 to meet farming and urban needs in the South County as well as the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy.

Key to meeting the water needs of the SSJID and its sister agency the Oakdale Irrigation District is inflow in to the New Melones Reservoir.

The districts share 100 percent of the first 200,000 acre feet of inflow that is split 50-50. They then get one-third of inflow beyond the 200,000 acre feet that is split between the two districts until they reach 300,000 acre feet of water.

Currently, the model calls for only 150,000 acre feet of run-off to flow into New Melones this year. The average season run-off is 1,144,200 acre feet of water. That means SSJID would receive 75,000 acre feet that when coupled to its conservation account carryover at New Melones would barely give the district enough water to meeting urban and farming needs providing there is aggressive conservation.

The SSJID has been helped by implementing multi-million dollar water conservation programs at various farms in the district plus the implementation of the closed irrigation system in the Division 9 region west of Ripon and south of Manteca.

The run-off forecast of 150,000 acre feet — roughly the same in the last severe drought year of 1977 — strikes some experts as too rosy.

“From the way things are looking, 150,000 acre feet is optimistic,” noted Bere Lindley of the SSJID management team.

Lindley noted even if the crucial snowfall happened to pick up, that it may not help at all.

What snowfall remains in the Sierra may never make it to the Stanislaus River. That’s because in the course of a normal snowmelt Lindley noted the high terrain will act “like a sponge” with much of the water yield being absorbed into the ground leaving the runoff into the river high and dry.

That likely scenario has caught the attention of Manteca Public Works Director Mark Houghton.

Houghton and his staff are now preparing a strategic plan on how best to conserve water this year to reduce the chances of Manteca being caught in a severe water situation in 2015.

Houghton will make the first water crisis report to the Manteca City Council at their Feb. 4 meeting.

While Manteca has the luxury of pumping well water too much reliance on it could create a number of problems.

The long-range impact would be taking the aquifer down faster than it can be replenished. That would negatively impact the city in future years.

More immediate issues are the possibility of increasing nitrates in the city water system plus saltwater intrusion.

Much like above ground when lower water flows into the Delta allows salt water to reach further east; aquifers that have water pumped out of them near the Delta run the real risk of having salt water intrusion.

Eventually salt can render a water source useless for irrigation as it kills vegetation and ultimately renders soil sterile. And removing salt to keep water safe for domestic use is extremely expensive.

Back in the dry years of 1991-92 salt water intrusion was detected in water wells as far east as Jack Tone Road.

Lathrop, which is closer to the Delta, has already imposed a plan aimed at reducing water consumption by 15 percent to limp through this year.

SSJID has no plans to sell water

SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields noted with aggressive conservation the district will be able to meet urban and farming needs for this year. However, unless the effort to save water starts today and not months down the road, the SSJID may not be in the position to meet a large chunk of urban and farm water needs in 2015.

“Our intent is to manage water so farmers can bring a crop in this year and urban customers can meet their basic needs,” Lindley noted.

Shields emphasized the SSJID board has made it clear they will not be selling water based on current conditions. The OID has created an uproar with farmers in their district by proposing to sell water now.

Shields said the SSJID’s stance could be re-examined in late summer but expects the no water sale position to stay intact unless there is a major significant turnaround in precipitation.

Shields further emphasized the importance of paying heed to historic water flows on the Stanislaus River watershed as a means to underscore what the South County is up against.

In 2002 there were just barely 600,000 acre feet of run-off into New Melones with last year the inflow shrinking to 580,000 acre feet. That’s less than half of the historic inflow.

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