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New Melones draining down to 1991 levels
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The New Melones Resevior is continuing to slip toward puddle status.

Sometime today the reservoir with a capacity of 2.4 million acre feet will dip below 300,000 acre feet for the first time since the drought of 1991. It also will drop within tenths of an inch of an elevation of 808 feet.

Slipping below the 300,000-acre-foot threshold is significant for a number of reasons:

uThe reservoir’s “cold water pool” will be diminished so much that releases into the Stanislaus River will start coming from the lower gates instead of New Melones’ upper intakes. That because the Department of Water Resources requires a 65-degree river temperature below Goodwin Dam. Higher temperatures will start killing fish.

uPower generation facilities will start going off line as pressure issues start developing.

The 808-foot level has historical significance among those who have fought to stop the building of major reservoirs. The reservoir was at that level on May 20, 1979 when Friends of the River founder Mark Dubois hiked to a remote area of the reservoir and chained himself to a boulder. The ploy was to get the Army Corps of Engineers to stop filling the reservoir to avoid inundating the world-class white water rapids above Parrott’s Ferry Bridge or drown him.

Dubois prevailed. That set in motion Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto days later of legislation during his first eight years as governor that would have allowed New Melones to be filled to capacity.

New Melones was finally filled during heavy snow runoff in 1982 and 1983 that was so massive that the emergency spillway gates had to be opened.

The boulders where Dubois chained himself are now visible. As for the white water rapids above the Parrott’s Ferry Bridge, they have been filled up with silt.

Current projections call for the reservoir to drop as low as 250,000 acre feet this fall.

The federally operated dam holds carryover water for the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District in addition to water for other uses. An agreement to allow the Bureau of Reclamation to inundate the original Melones Dam built jointly by the two irrigation districts assured their historic rights to the first 600,000 acre feet of water that flows into New Melones each water year.

The two district also operate the Tri-Dam Project above New Melones — Donnells and Beardsley — as well as Tulloch Lake and Goodwin Dam below New Melones.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email