The Bureau of Reclamation is interpreting a state order designed to protect senior water right holders such as South San Joaquin Irrigation District during the drought as a directive to possibly cut off water releases for SSJID use from New Melones Reservoir.
If the Bureau does that, the SSJID along with Oakdale Irrigation District could face severe water shortages in 2015 if the drought persists. If that happens, surface water supplies for Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy would also be threatened.
SSJID General Manger Jeff Shields said the district was scrambling to clear up what he described as a “misinterpretation” of the state’s water curtailment directive.
“It (the state order) was designed to protect senior water rights such as the ones that SSJID and OID hold,” Shields noted.
Very few water users have pre-1914 adjudicated water rights in California as SSJID does. Also, Shields said the Bureau is bound by a 1988 agreement with the SSJID and OID that assures the two districts spilt the first 600,000 acre feet of water flow each year into New Melones Reservoir.
That agreement was made in exchange for the federal government being allowed to build New Melones Reservoir that inundated the smaller Melones Reservoir the two water districts built in 1925.
The state Water Resources Control Board website states, “The right to divert surface water in California is based on the type of right being claimed and the priority date. Water right permits specify the season of use, purpose of use and place of use for the quantity of water authorized under the permit or license. In times of drought and limited supply, the most recent (“junior”) right holder must be the first to discontinue use. Even more senior water right holders, such as some riparian and pre-1914 water right holders may also receive a notice to stop diverting water if their diversions are downstream of reservoirs releasing stored water and there is no natural flow available for diversion. In the coming weeks and months, if dry weather conditions persist, the State Water Board will notify certain water right holders in critically dry watersheds of the requirement to stop diverting water under their water right, based on their priority.”
The Bureau apparently is interpreting the reference to “no natural flow available for diversion” to mean SSJID is subservient to court orders regarding flows into the Delta regarding fish decisions.
While Shields said both the SSJID and OID are confident they ultimately will have their rights protected, they are not leaving anything to chance.
They are aggressively seeking a Bureau clarification of their position regarding the curtailment order.
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Bigger releases now underway from New Melones
Meanwhile, the Bureau started draining what water is left in New Melones more rapidly to meet a court order designed to provide pulse flows for fall fish migration in the Stanislaus River.
The flow went from 200 cubic feet per second on Oct. 14 to 500 cubic feet per second on Oct. 15 and then 750 cubic feet per second on Oct. 16. Then it was ramped up to 1,250 cubic feet per second on Oct. 17. It will stay at that level until this Sunday and then be scaled back over three days to 200 cubic feet per second.
New Melones was at 524,617 acre feet as of Oct. 19 at midnight. That is at 22 percent of the 2.4 million acre foot capacity of the reservoir and 39 percent of the historic average of 1.3 million acre feet for Oct. 19.
New Melones is the state’s fourth largest reservoir behind Shasta Lake, Lake Oroville, and Trinity Lake. The fifth largest is San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos and the sixth largest is Don Pedro Reservoir along Highway 120 on the way to Yosemite.
The SSJID’s biologists have argued based on 10 years of research of fish movements along the Stanislaus River that such large pulse flows are unnecessary. They noted fish have a built-in instinct to migrate and don’t need to be coaxed. Even so, if a higher flow rate was justified it would have been just as effective of having “pulse” releases for a much shorter period.