A deal hammered out by South San Joaquin Irrigation District, Oakdale Irrigation District and the State Water Resource Control Board avoids a major fight over water on the Stanislaus River in the coming months.
It is in sharp contrast to the animosity that flared up last spring when Sacramento officials were implying they would commandeer water that SSJID and OID holds legal and superior rights to in order to meet fish flow needs.
And while it doesn’t address long-range proposals by the state to increase unimpaired water flows on the Stanislaus River that in most years can only be accomplished by dipping into OID and SSJID water, it does lay out the an agreement between three agencies for managing New Melones Reservoir through the end of the year.
The deal assures water for farmers and fish as well as the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy for the next eight months. The operations plan, part of a Temporary Use Change Petition being considered by the state board, will benefit the districts, the river conditions, and salmon migrating toward the ocean this spring and returning to spawn this fall. The complex plan was crafted in conjunction with state and federal agencies and the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages New Melones.
The key points are:
This year’s proposed plan would ensure there is more water in New Melones to meet fish needs in October, November and December.
The plan also would alleviate any demands on Tulloch Reservoir, a popular late downstream of New Melones, thereby allowing it to have normal operational and recreational water levels throughout the summer season.
Uses fish flow water from SSJID and OID holdings amounting to 65,000 acre feet to be sold to the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority after it flows out of the Stanislaus River for $300 per acre foot. SSJID and OID each will receive $9.75 million. Farmers in the OID program will receive $3 million for another 10,000 acre feet from that district’s farmers’ conservation program.
Last year, the state was threatening to take the water for fish flows and not pay for it while SSJID and OID countered they would sue and possible seek criminal charges for the unlawful taking of property.
“In addition to benefits for fish and farms, this proposal also allows New Melones to make positive storage gains for the first time in four years,” said SSJID General Manager Peter Rietkerk. “This not only preserves water supply for next year, but also provides water temperature benefits in the Stanislaus River for this summer and fall.”
Thanks to water rights that were established between 1853 and 1909, and an operating agreement between SSJID, OID and the Bureau of Reclamation, the districts are guaranteed the first 600,000 acre feet of runoff into New Melones. They also are entitled to a “conservation account” of up to 200,000 acre feet.
New Melones has been drawn down to record low levels because of the four-year California drought. New Melones has room for 2.4 million acre-feet of water. As of April 11, it had 629,355 acre feet or about 26% of capacity.
This year, for the first time since 2011, snowmelt and other runoff into New Melones is projected to be near the historic average – about 1 million acre-feet. But as one federal official acknowledged at Tuesday’s hearing, the reservoir is “over-allocated” – meaning there is more water promised than is expected to flow in this year.
Given the current level of New Melones, all the water behind the dam is owned by the districts. In recognition of their responsibility to balance competing water needs, SSJID and OID recently agreed to provide 75,000 acre feet to state and federal authorities. Beginning mid-April, the releases will be timed to provide so-called “pulse flows” in the Stanislaus River to help young salmon move downstream. Once the water reaches the Delta, it will be diverted to state and federal water contractors on the parched West Side of the San Joaquin Valley.
Last fall, New Melones dropped to about 267,000 acre feet and river temperatures were a concern. Conservation by SSJID’s and OID’s ag customers enabled 23,000 acre feet to be sent down the Stanislaus to benefit fish then.
“This is a balanced operations plan,” said OID General Manager Steve Knell. “The districts are making water available to assist with pulse flow operations that are important to federal and state regulators. At the same time, ag interests on the West Side are going to be able pick up and benefit from that water.”
The plan is a collaborative effort of the Bureau of Reclamation, SSJID and OID, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the state Department of Water Resources and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.