Is it all a cash grab gone terribly wrong?
As everybody living within the flood plain of the San Joaquin River waits on pins and needles for word about rising waters, I can’t help but ponder all the scenarios that led to this situation right now.
It’s all a bit too ironic.
Five years into the worst drought that the State of California has ever seen, we get a record-setting amount of rainfall and a historic snowpack and within less just over a month, reservoirs that were disastrously low are now full again.
But when you compare the two largest reservoirs on the San Joaquin River watershed – New Melones Reservoir and Don Pedro Reservoir – the amount of water in each of them is starkly different despite getting their water from a similar region in the Sierra.
Why is Don Pedro full to the brim and facing disastrous scenarios while just up the road New Melones is effectively able to grind their releases to a halt to give the overburdened San Joaquin River a break?
It just seems to me like the calculations are a bit off in this scenario.
Yes, New Melones is a larger reservoir – with just under 400,000 acre feet of additional storage space. And yes, a different river feeds it. But even with both of those considered, something just isn’t adding up.
Water deliveries to the southern part of the state have become big business in the age of the drought, and as long as the Los Angeles Basin continues to grow, irrigation districts from Northern California are always going to have a cash cow they can tap to get money for infrastructure improvements.
I’m not saying that’s the situation that led to what we’re facing right now – other factors are in play, like the flooding of parts of Modesto that will assuredly come if the outflow from the reservoir increases much more than it currently is.
But it certainly seems that way. According to the historical storage capacity for Don Pedro dating back to September, the lake level has only gone up while Melones, from August through October, continued to decline.
And that decision paid off in leaps and bounds when the capacity at Melones shot up from just over 628,000 acre feet in December to more than 1.1 million acre feet in January.
If you look at a chart of the outflow for Don Pedro, it appears that a decision was made in the last week of January to slow the releases down to just over 4,800 cubic feet per second, and in the week that followed, it shot up significantly. It then dipped last week to just below 7,500 cubic feet per second, and in less than seven days has shot up more than 50 percent.
And now, for some reason, the information on the outflows from Don Pedro on the website of the California Department of Water Resources has stopped being updated. You would think that if the water dealings of one reservoir could affect the lives and the livelihoods of thousands of people, that would be updated even more frequently. For some reason, that is not the case.
Farmers are worried. Rural residents are bracing for the worst. Livestock and equipment is being moved to higher ground.
If it turns out that all of this could have been prevented by better management, there are a lot of people who need to be held accountable.
Don’t underestimate the threat
Part of this job is taking the pulse of the community, and in this modern age of technology one of the ways that can be done is through social media.
As a result, I’m in multiple Facebook groups of Manteca residents that deal with public safety and community functions, and I read the thoughts and the theories about why things are the way that they are in Manteca.
And there’s one question that keeps popping up on various groups across the spectrum: Do I need to take this whole river situation seriously?
While I’m not nearly educated enough in the ways of water to make any sort of predictions – people get paid good money for that kind of knowledge – I am smart enough to go to the people that depend on the bounty of that river to put on their tables. And ours for that matter if you think about it.
And after spending hours talking with South Manteca farmers and going on a patrol of the levees that protect large swaths of rich agricultural farmland, I can say this with confidence – those people are very concerned about what is going to happen.
That should tell us all that we need to know.
At one dairy on Airport Way, a makeshift levee has been built around the complex to stop any water from a levee break from killing animals. When you’ve got hundreds, and possibly even thousands of cows that you milk, packing all of them up and moving them to another location takes careful planning, a large amount of money, and a whole lot of luck. Considering that some of these farmers are already losing money from seepage and other high-river issues, risking something like that when you can just build your own protection doesn’t seem prudent.
Nobody knows what is going to happen in South Manteca, or in Lathrop, or in Weston Ranch.
Emergency responders, water professionals, and even contractors are doing everything within their power to address the issues that pop up and are working to protect the people who rely on those levees from decimating their properties.
But if you’re in a flood plain and you’re wondering if you need to prepare for this, I think it’s safe to say at this point that the answer is yes. Keep your vehicles gassed up. Have clothes packed in a bag. Keep some cash on hand, and make sure that your medicine and medical supplies are easily accessible if the unthinkable happens and a sheriff comes knocking on your door.
It’s better to be safe than sorry in a situation like this, and it’s far better to lose a little bit of time getting everything together now than to have to turn your back on your belongings as you drive away into the unknown.
There used to be signs that scattered along the ranches of South Manteca that read “Pray for Rain.”
Now it’s time for all of us to pray for some relief.
To contact reporter Jason Campbell email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 209.249.3544.