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Swifter water on Stanislaus in coming days
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At one point early Wednesday, dam operators at New Melones Reservoir cut the flow of water releases severely to help searchers in their bid to find a 5-year-old girl who was swept away by the fast-moving Stanislaus River current near Knight’s Ferry three days earlier.

 Just over a day before – on the day after Matilda Ortiz slipped on a rock while enjoying an unusually warm day with her family – the dam was letting almost 9,000 cubic feet of water out every second, prompting first responders and rescuers to work with the state to try and cut down the flow of water to aid in attempts to find the girl’s body. The capsizing of a rescue boat trying to navigate the fast-moving water exacerbated the request, and a plan was put into place to begin cutting back of discharges for a brief period of time early Wednesday morning. 

The dam was scheduled to cut back to only 2,000 cubic feet per second at its lowest point, which was expected to rise back up to normal levels at some point on Friday to make room for the melting massive snowpack in the Central Sierra that is now at 156 percent of average. 

The discovery of her body Wednesday evening – 72-hours after she first went into the water – may change the schedule of the water release, but Stanislaus County officials warned residents and those who may be near the Stanislaus River in the coming days that once the releases go back up, the level of the river and the swiftness of the already fast-moving water will only increase.

The speed of the water was one of the factors that made searching for the young girl so difficult for rescuers – the constant churning of debris made visibility too low for a dive team to be utilized, and even boats had a hard time navigating the river’s current, which will likely be swift for the foreseeable future as water managers carefully judge how much room needs to be made in the reservoir for the massive amount of water that will flow in once the spring melt hits full swing. 

New Melones – which at 2.4 million acre feet of storage capacity is the fourth-largest reservoir in the State of California – is currently at 136 percent of its historical average and has eclipsed the 2 million acre feet mark to reach 84 percent of total capacity. Just three years ago the reservoir dropped to just 13 percent of capacity and revealed sections of the original lake that hadn’t been seen in decades – much to the delight of outdoor enthusiasts that fought to keep a fabled whitewater section of the Stanislaus River from being inundated in the 1970s when the dam was raised to create more storage capacity. By the following year, both Melones and Don Pedro Reservoir – on the Tuolumne River – were inundated with a record amount of snowpack that prompted the managers of Don Pedro to open the emergency spillway for the first time since the winter of 1997. 

That’s the same year levee failures along the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers flooded 70 square miles between Manteca and Tracy forcing 2,000 rural residents to flee.

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.