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January was driest month ever on Stanislaus watershed serving SSJID
This photo was taken on Highway 120 heading west toward Tioga Pass just 18 days ago when several feet of snow normally covers the terrain. There is even less snow today. - photo by Photo Contributed

It looks like almost early summer on the Stanislaus River watershed.

Water experts are reading that as a sign that restrictions on water use may need to be tightened up this year for California to weather a fourth year of drought.

Not a drop of rain or a flake of snow is expected to fall today. That means January 2015 will go down as the driest month ever at Beardsley Reservoir — one of three key dams on the Stanislaus River that captures snow runoff and rain to irrigate South County farms and provide water for urban faucets in Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy.

Because of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District’s strategic measures last year, as things stand now they will need to impose measures they took last year to make sure no one goes without water as well as have people step up water conservation.

Those measures include:

• Curtailing water deliveries in Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy by 20 percent over their use in 2012.

• Starting irrigation runs a few days later in March and ending them on Sept. 30.

• Closing Woodward Reservoir for recreation use so water levels can be maintained at a lower level without violating stringent state health rules regarding the intake of water for treatment for domestic use at the South San Joaquin Water Treatment Plant serving the three cities. That move saved enough water to cover one irrigation run of 10,000 acre feet.

In addition the SSJID board is considering imposing volume limits on all irrigators to reduce water use.

The strategy may get SSJID through this year but if the drought heads into a fifth year as San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services expects it to do, the district is not likely to have much if any water in a carryover account to help in 2016. Emergency planners at the state level see the drought possibly going into seven years.

There was only 0.13 inches of rain at Beardsley this month. The previous low for January — one of the three wettest months historically on the Stanislaus watershed — was 1984 when 0.27 inches of rain fell. Normally 6.19 inches falls at Beardsley in January. The average precipitation from Oct. 1 to Jan. 31 is 18.91 inches. For the current period there is only 11.25 inches or 59 percent of average.

“More troubling than the minor amount of precipitation is the pattern we are seeing for the storms that do arrive,” noted South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields. “Since October there have only been three storm events in the upper watershed. Each of these was preceded by several weeks of dry periods. Because of that there has been little inflow into New Melones Reservoir.”

The forecast for February looks like more of the same. Originally some models a month ago called for as many as 12 days of some showers with several of those days having periods of more steady rain. Now they are projecting there will be three days of rain that likely will be relatively light. 

New Melones since Oct. 1 is estimated to have received only 126,000 acre feet of run-off so far. Last year at this time the inflow was 135,000 acre feet

• • •

New Melones out of water this summer?

 Ron Berry of the Tri-Dam Project — using current data and trends — is predicting there will be less than 250,000 acre feet of run-off this year compared to 346,000 acre feet last year.

New Melones as of Thursday had 561,000 acre feet of water. In 2014 at this time there was 1.047 million acre feet of water in storage, in 2013 some 1.624 million acre feet and in 2012 there was 1.975 million acre feet. The reservoir is designed to hold 2.42 million acre feet. 

Essentially carryover storage to help cities and farmers combat the drought is almost gone.

Since it requires 1 million acre feet to operate the Stanislaus River, Shields noted the data points to New Melones not having enough water to make it through the summer.

Once the water that belongs to SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation is taken out — 450,000 acre feet of the 600,000 acre feet they are entitled to plus 177,000 acre feet in their conservation account held at New Melones — the Bureau of Reclamation will have only 94,000 acre feet of federal water left.

It requires 178,000 acre feet to meet the minimal flow requirements for the Stanislaus River let alone the massive water needed to meet court demands for the Delta. 

That would mean no water for Stockton East Water District of the Central San Joaquin Water Agency.