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Wanted: A white Christmas & winter
New Melones Reservoir is half empty, San Luis at 12%
The San Luis Reservoir west of Los Banos is at 12 percent of its 2 million acre-feet of storage as of Wednesday. - photo by Photo Contributed
The name of Jeff Shields’ favorite Christmas song? Try “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow.”
The South San Joaquin Irrigation District general manager is happy about the snow finally falling in the Sierra but he’ll be the first to tell you California is still in deep trouble. Two-back-to-back drought years plus a past spring that was the driest on record has sent storage levels in reservoirs up and down the state plunging.
At the end of November, Shasta Lake — the backbone of the state’s complicated water supply and transport system — was 170 feet below its high water mark. The lake’s record low was in 1977 when the level was 230 feet below the high water mark. The state now has 35 million residents — 14 million more than back in 1977.
San Luis Reservoir in the Coastals west of Los Banos is now down to 12 percent of its 2 million acre-feet of water capacity and is still dropping.
“It’s good we’re getting the snow,” Shields said. “The snow pack is a critical component of the state’s water storage system.”
New Melones — the reservoir that partially dictates the SSJID’s water fortunes  — holds 2,420,000 acre feet of water. As of Wednesday, it was down to 1,131,000 acre feet.
“I’d like to say the glass is half full but it is really half empty,” Shields said of the continuing stress the drought is placing on the state’s water supplies.
Shields believes if the snow predicted for next week materializes, it will put the SSJID in a fairly decent position for next spring given the capacity of the Tri-Dam System it operates with Oakdale Irrigation District. But even he concedes it is “iffy” depending upon how the rest of winter plays out.
Experts have even said a much higher than above normal winter in terms of precipitation won’t get California out of the woods. Farmers up and down the state have already plowed crops under and yanked out orchards. A number of urban areas have imposed mandatory water rationing. Also, court orders regarding flows out of the Delta to protect the Delta Smelt are also putting a big crimp in available water for urban and agricultural uses.
Shields said the SSJID is following the board’s direction to prepare the district for what he calls “SSJID’s second century” in reference to it turning 100 years in May.
“We are working to irrigate more land with less water,” Shields said.
That means the district is working toward weaning farmers off flood irrigation. The first step is putting in a pressured irrigation delivery system southwest of Manteca. Engineering has already started and construction is expected to get under way in the near future.
So far, farmers like the idea. It will allow them to drastically reduce pumping costs and reverse a growing salinity problem. It will accommodate fertilizing with water meaning the nutrients are more effectively applied.
“They won’t be driving tractors for fertilizing and there won’t be a lot of waste,” Shields said.
Shields noted the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy have also stepped up their efforts to conserve water.