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Deal will leave New Melones dry 12 times every 95 years
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New Melones Reservoir water storage could dry up 12 times every 95 years under adopted state plan.

State water officials Wednesday approved a plan to increase water flows in the Lower San Joaquin River that has a high likelihood of New Melones Reservoir — based on the planned diversion and historic hydrology on the Stanislaus River Basin — going dry 12 times every 95 years.

That means residents in Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy as well as farmers in the South San Joaquin and Oakdale irrigation districts that originally developed river basins and have senior court adjudicated water rights will pay the heaviest price as they do not import water from outside of their respective river basins as do western San Joaquin Valley farmers and Bay Area cities that can — and are – securing water from other sources.

“It is an onerous plan,” said Peter Rietkerk, South San Joaquin Irrigation District general manager. “It’s going to be disastrous for our region.”

Rietkerk made it clear litigation is now on the table.

The 4-1 vote by the State Water Resources Control Board was widely lauded by the salmon industry and sports fisherman to increase unimpaired flows to 40 percent in a bid to produce the Chinook salmon population. Some have said it doesn’t go far enough.

 “The State Water Resources Control Board took a small step in the right direction today to restore salmon in the Central Valley, by modestly increasing flows on the San Joaquin River,” said John McManus, president Golden State Salmon Association. “Hanging heavy over today’s activity was the invisible hand of the Trump administration, which is working to pump more water from the Delta to their allies in the western San Joaquin Valley.  The best outcome for salmon, that we can hope for now, is for the Brown administration to ride off into the sunset and for the Newsom administration to step up, restore our salmon runs, and let the Trump administration know that it’s required to follow California law.” 

The decision that the board argued could be adjusted if water users along the Stanislaus and Merced rivers would agree to concessions to improve fish habitat as agencies along the Tuolumne River did has been characterized by state officials as one that would make farmers in the western San Joaquin Valley lose some of the water stored behind reservoirs such as New Melones they have contracted for but has rarely acknowledged the loss to farmers and cities in the northeastern San Joaquin Valley in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced counties. Property owners and residents in the three counties have legally adjudicated pre-1914 water rights in addition to having developed reservoirs to use those water rights long before out-of-basin users such as west side farmers, San Francisco and other Bay Area cities entered the picture.

Rietkerk noted SSJID and OID — up to the morning of the vote — had been negotiating with the state believing they were close on several points that he called “low hanging fruit.”

Board Chair Felicia Marcus said there’s no reason there can’t be a settlement later, even if the debate ends up in court.

Rietkerk was not as optimistic noting the state bureaucracy will be acting to implement the board’s direction — which is their primary directive — rendering any negotiations difficult to conduct at best.

The Stanislaus River is unique in the San Joaquin basin. The river is already flowing at 30 to 35 percent unimpaired flows — significantly more than most rivers in the state. 

Rietkerk noted that “while we see some marginal benefit to additional flows, we’ve also experienced water supply impacts and fishery declines because current river operations cannot sustainably be manage for both.”

The SSJID and OID have more than a decade of scientific fish studies on the Stanislaus River and have invested in habitat improvement for salmon. That has not been done on either the Merced or the Tuolumne nor has the state done extensive research related to fish specifically on the three rivers.

Rietkerk said the two districts have data that shows a more moderate increase in impaired flows as well as their timing would be much more beneficial than the state’s plan.

The two Bay-Delta Plan updates are part of a delicate balancing act aimed at addressing an ecological crisis in the Delta and preventing further collapse of Bay-Delta fisheries while considering other water uses for millions of Californians.

A release Wednesday from the State Water Control Board pointed to “a dramatic decline in the once-thriving populations of native fish species that migrate through and inhabit the Delta has brought some species to the brink of extinction. In 1984, for example, about 70,000 fall-run Chinook salmon adults returned to the San Joaquin Basin. The number of returning adults dropped to 40,000 in 2010 and just 10,000 in 2016 and 2017.”

The SSJID and OID do not dispute that. Instead they have pointed out the increased water flows as the state envisions would increase the salmon numbers now pegged at 10,000 by just over 10 percent will bringing widespread economic losses to the region.

At the same time another mandate from Sacramento — groundwater sustainability means more water cannot be pumped from an aquifer in a given year than what is replenished — will significantly impact water supplies in San Joaquin County.

“What the groundwater mandate means is coming into focus as studies are being done,” Rietkerk said.

That — coupled with the state’s decision Wednesday — could severely cripple farming and cities in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Tuolumne River water users agreed to a variety of concessions to improve salmon habitat over 15 years. They would increase water flow less than the state mandate while allowing larger river flows during certain critical periods of fish migration; barriers to block the passage of invasive predators that feast on young salmon; and more gravel in rivers to provide spawning habitat for salmon.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email