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SSJID declares water emergency: Cutbacks to farms, Manteca, Lathrop
This photo taken on the Stanislaus River in late July shows what the river looks like with water flowing at 200 cubic feet per second. The outlook now calls for flows on the Stanislaus River at Knights Ferry east of Oakdale to be even lower 150 cubic feet per second. Usually in the spring and early summer it is between 600 to 700 cubic feet per second at Knights Ferry. - photo by Photo Contributed

Four winters. Four consecutive years of drought. 

And it doesn’t look like that cycle is going to change anytime in the near future. 

When South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields gave his water supply forecast for 2015 at the district’s board meeting Tuesday morning, the outlook was bleak. The deterioration of conditions of just one month ago was calculated off of the driest January ever recorded on the Stanislaus River watershed. February is just 65 percent of normal. 

The long spells in between short storms at the higher elevations means that the precipitation that does fall – and unfortunately isn’t being made into snow – is being soaked up instead of making its way into the Stanislaus River. Last year the total inflow of water into New Melones Reservoir was 346,000 acre feet of water, and some experts predict they could be lucky if it breaks the 250,000 acre-foot mark this season. 

A snow survey from the Department of Water Resources, which is expected to come out by the end of the month, has experts on edge as well – preparing to hear that the amount of snow at the highest elevations has declined to just 17 to 19 percent of normal. 

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a water emergency. 

And as such, the SSJID board declared a water emergency on Tuesday and put Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy on notice as well as South County farmers that water deliveries will be cutback because there isn’t enough water.

The State Water Resources Control Board has already informed junior water rights holders that if conditions don’t improve by March that curtailment orders could be next. The agency has asked all water rights holders – both junior and senior – to submit data regarding diversions and according to Shields’ report be believes that curtailments will be issued this year on the Stanislaus River in some capacity. 

Both the South San Joaquin and Oakdale Irrigation Districts hold pre-1914 adjudicated water rights, putting theirs senior, but a water crisis like this has never been challenged statewide. 

Typically about 1.1 million acre-feet of water flow in to New Melones, which has a capacity of 2.4 million – a flow that is more than enough to meet the demands that the Stanislaus River has. This year, however, things are going to be much different. There was no snow reported below 8,500 feet when the Central Sierra snowpack was reported by the Department of Water Resources. Temperatures have been higher than normal in places that typically get snow – up to 51 degrees in places like Pincecrest when it is supposed to be, at this time historically, 41 degrees. So missing the white stuff on the ground this season will distort the natural inflow. 

But there is a temporary fallback plan. Currently SSJID and OID have 166,000 acre-feet of water to split between them from a conservation account of water that flows in to the reservoir after the cutoff date.

And some cities could end up going dry. 

While the 225,000 acre-feet that SSJID says that it’ll like end up getting when it’s all said and done will handle all of its agricultural uses and domestic customers, cities that rely on water from the Stanislaus River or areas around it – like the City of Tuolumne or Calaveras – might find that the cost of water will be so exorbitantly expensive that they can’t afford it. 

In order to maintain the delicate water balance the board has imposed a 36-inch cap per-acre on a 10-day maximum watering cycle. The board also agreed to keep a “no bodily contact” order at Woodward Reservoir through the end of April and then bring the reservoir up to the 210-foot elevation and hold it at 205 feet through Labor Day and to call on cities to make voluntary reductions of 20 percent from the surface water treatment plant. 

The water on Tulloch Reservoir might also be lowered sometime after July 1 – requiring notices to property owners.