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Gloomy water outlook shaping up for next year
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New Melones reservoir is now 15 percent lower than it historically has ever been in mid-October

Millerton Lake near Fresno – one of the main feeds of the San Joaquin River — is down to 35 percent capacity. It is normally at 89 percent capacity at this time of the year. Both Lake Oroville and Shasta Lake are down more than 15 percent each, and Don Pedro also sports a double-digit drop.

Those figures alone are enough to scare a person in South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields’ position who has to try and plan for the worst because the worst is taking place right now. Water diversion amounts for 2014 are at the lowest point that they’ve been since the turn of the century. And unless a massive storm can dump enough snow in the mountains to fill reservoirs by the end of spring, those shortages will not only continue, but worsen. 

Shields gave an update on the state’s overall water situation on Tuesday to the SSJID Board of Directors. He praised the board’s foresight when it came to doing everything possible early in the season to make sure that customers got all of the water that they needed to make it through the agricultural growing season. 

Things like keeping Woodward Reservoir low for as long as possible – eliminating seepage and evaporation – got things started. Timing the early season water runs was another crucial element, and doing everything possible to maintain the conservation account – the amount of water that the district has “stored” on the books with the Bureau of Reclamation for excess at New Melones – has helped them keep a little something stashed away.

But none of that will matter if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate this winter. 

Over the course of the last several months Shields has been a guest speaker at multiple local organizations and has put California’s dire water situation into perspective the best way he knew how – using charts and graphs and numbers to show those that aren’t well-versed in industry lingo just what SSJID and other water agencies are up against. Take, for example, this sobering statistic: In the first 85 years that records were kept about the annual inflow to Melones, only seven times did that number not reach 600,000 acre feet – the number of water that is needed for SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation District to split the 300,000 acre feet that each of them are entitled to in a given season. 

In the last 40 years that mark has been missed 14 times. And when you look at the amount of water being generated annually, the Central Valley, technically, is right in the middle of a “wet” phase despite the fact that a dire drought emergency has been on the books since January.