If you had to pick a ground zero for California’s never ending water struggles with nature as well as the Golden State’s 100 Year Water War, the leading candidate would be South San Joaquin County.
Flooding, as an example, was the farthest thing from the mind of most Californians on Tuesday as the mercury reached 90 degrees. In Ripon, seepage from the Stanislaus River flooded part of the Jack Tone Golf Course as a stark reminder the next 60 days will see roughly an average weather year worth of Stanislaus River watershed precipitation make its way down from snow laden central Sierra peaks and into San Francisco Bay.
Less than 30 miles away the massive pumps at Tracy at the start of the 701-mile canal system known as the California Aqueduct are sending huge amounts of water south to massive corporate farms in the Southern San Joaquin Valley as well as into the Los Angeles Basin and beyond.
With reservoirs rising to the brim after five years of drought you’d think a water shortage would be the last concern of regional leaders given that flooding is still a serious concern even as we head toward the 100-degree mark.
Water politics intermixed with federal and state edicts as well as court orders regarding fish flows require those entrusted to guard the region’s water — despite it being secured by what are California’s oldest legally adjudicated rights — to never let down their guards. Irrigation districts on the Tuolumne, Stanislaus, and Merced watersheds are in settlement talks with the State Water Resources Control Board to see if an amicable solution can be reached when it comes to protecting endangered salmon on the three rivers.
If not the state is pushing to commandeer 360,000-acre feet of water between February and June each year to bump up the unimpaired flows on the Stanislaus, Merced, and Tuolumne rivers to 40 percent. The state contends that will lead to a maximum of 200 more fish on each of the three rivers on an annual basis.
In exchange roughly 240,000 acres of farmland will be permanently fallowed under drought conditions, 2,000 to 3,000 jobs tied directly to agriculture would vanish, and annual losses to the economies of San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties would hit $260 million
That, however, is not the only fish-related water issue that regional water agencies are facing.
The Delta — aptly described as a switching yard that moves 70 percent of the water consumed elsewhere than where it is naturally deployed — has its largest slice of territory within San Joaquin County. The Delta has more than 700 miles of waterways protected by 1,100 miles of levees — almost all built in the 19th century.
It is here where over a million acre of feet in recent years flowed from places such as New Melones Reservoir that South County farms and cities depend upon in a bid to up the population of the endangered Delta Smelt but with no success.
It is also where the Twin Tunnels are being pursued to send clean Sacramento River water bound for Los Angeles and other points south under the Delta instead of through it. That would deprive the Delta of water than now helps keep salinity at bay and prevents brackish environments not friendly to fish and wildlife from forming in waterways
Given there is no other source of water to replace the flow that would go underground to flush the Delta, agencies such as the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, Oakdale Irrigation District, Modesto Irrigation District, Turlock Irrigation District and Merced Irrigation District have concluded after the Twin Tunnels are in place the state will seek to use more runoff from the Central Sierra watershed to replace fresh water diverted into the Twin Tunnels. That is on top of the 360,000 acre feet of water they are seeking to increase the salmon population by 600 fish.
Then there are the efforts to restore water flow year round for the San Joaquin River from Fresno to roughly Merced so that fish can return. The Central Sierra watershed is part of that solution as well.
The manmade water strife is on top of what Mother Nature created in the Great Central Valley. It is a basin with a Mediterranean climate that in its natural state is a place where rivers by late summer ran dry and natural vegetation wilted into hues of brown and yellow. When spring rolled around, the valley near the Delta turned into a massive lake from the melting snowpack.
It is the natural cycle that led Spanish explorers climbing to the top of Mt. Diablo in the early summer of 1776 to believe they had stumbled onto a great inland lake.
They reported seeing nothing but water as they scanned the horizon from north to south. In the distance, they spied the foothills of the Sierra.
The Spanish band turned around and headed back to Yerba Buena (modern-day San Francisco) where they unwittingly wrote the first documented account of the Central Valley’s long, tenacious history of flooding.
The building of levees and the construction of dams and canals disrupted the natural cycle.
But as the five-year drought showed — as well as the fairly frequents floods in the South County with the last in 1997 — Mother Nature doesn’t operate at man’s beck and call.
Topping it all off is the state mandate requiring that all groundwater basins are managed to a zero sum change of water levels. It means in a given 12-month period, urban and farm users cannot take more water from an aquifer than what is restored.
The bottom line is the South County can ill afford not to be thinking constantly about drought and flooding or the fact there are government forces in Sacramento and beyond that have plans that in order to implement ultimately would require going after legally adjudicated senior water rights.
The seepage today at Jack Tone Golf Course in Ripon and near levees south of Manteca underscore that even when there are no storm clouds on the horizon — from Mother Nature or politics — water is always the driving issue in the South County.