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SSJID OKs emergency water sale to Tuolumne
Fishermen have a long way to go to reach the water at New Melones Reservoir.

Nobody just gives away water these days.

But that’s exactly what Tuolumne County ended up doing when firefighting crews started tapping into the supply at Lyons Reservoir to stop the advance of the 257,000-acre Rim Fire that burned into Yosemite National Park this past summer.

And without help, they have no way of replacing what was lost. That could mean running out of water completely by the end of the summer.

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District isn’t going to let that happen it. On Tuesday morning the SSJID board voted unanimously to approve an allotment of 2,400 acre-feet of water that will help the 44,000 residents of Tuolumne County get through what could be one of their worst water years on record. The district will allow the water to be pumped from the New Melones Reservoir at $200 an acre foot or 50 percent less than what the cheapest water is now being sold for in drought ravaged California. The district will receive $480,000. The SSJID will still have enough supplies to meet South County farming and urban needs as long as conservation practices are followed.

According to SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields, the daily Office of Emergency Services conference call that he listens in on has been mapping out the water crisis for a number of weeks. Tuolumne was suddenly added to the list of concerned communities and it instantly became the direst situation on the list.

Unlike other reservoirs in the area that are fed by mountain streams and rivers, Lyons Reservoir gets all of its water from snowpack runoff. It was used as an emergency water access point for aerial tankers and helicopters that spent weeks trying to curb the advance of the largest forest fire ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada.

Unusually low snowfall coupled with exacerbated depletion have left the communities that rely on that water – which includes Sonora, Tuolumne, Jamestown, a host of Cal-Fire facilities and at least one correctional center – with bleak prospects.

Actually getting the water up to the storage tanks in the communities in need won’t be much of a problem since the county already has a working pump at the New Melones inflow point. An agreement between the two would give them permission to turn the pumps on and get the water headed to where it can actually be used. But the timetable in doing so might prove to be its own problem.

The water that both the SJJID and the Oakdale Irrigation District are guaranteed through an agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation is technically only available through the end of September. Any water that flows into the reservoir beyond that point would then be categorized as storage for the next season. A deviation from that would require federal permission.