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October surprise: Bureau of Reclamation water boards farmers
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The Bureau of Reclamation is proving itself more than slightly inept at managing water.

Just a few months ago the Bureau decided it had to increase the capacity of New Melones Reservoir to hold snow melt runoff from the Sierra in the spring of this year. Water flows were already high on the Stanislaus River and there were concerns about fish populations being adversely impacted. They approached the South San Joaquin Irrigation District about the possibility of using their canals during October to help get the released water to the San Joaquin River without flooding land along the Stanislaus River.

Water flow in the Stanislaus - although high by historic standards due to the heavy and late Sierra snowpack - had been kept relatively low to accommodate improvement to fish habitat around Honolulu Bar east of Oakdale. Even so New Melones Reservoir with a storage capacity of 2.4 million acre feet of water was nowhere near capacity.

But being nimble adjusting to changing reality is something that’s never been the Bureau’s forte. They “adopt” operating protocol and stick with it regardless of what conditions are.

The SSJID was under the impression they would be helping take releases in October without risking their carryover storage that they did not use in the 2012 irrigation season. Now it turns out the Bureau is essentially saying the water they got rid of belonged to SSJID and its sister district in Oakdale.

Had the SSJID known that was going to happen, they obviously wouldn’t have cooperated. The water that essentially was lost would have more than covered the shortage anticipated during this irrigation season.

If that was the only part of the story, the Bureau probably shouldn’t be harshly criticized. Unfortunately, there is more to it.

The releases were designed to create adequate flood control storage by Nov. 1. It is the Bureau of Reclamation’s operating plan put in response to severe criticism the agency was more concerned about storing water for future use in case of drought set the stage for the disastrous flooding in January 1997. That was after unseasonably warm rain in the high elevation melted much of a heavy snow pack. Some 70 square miles south of Manteca and east of Tracy were flooded. Some of it remained underwater for months.

However, most reasonable people would agree that the Bureau could have released much smaller amounts this year so they could reassess capacity in November and even December by revisiting release flows with whatever snow falls in the early season in Sierra.

On top of that most of the released water simply ended up going into the San Francisco Bay. It made no sense given the fact that one of the key off-river storage reservoirs in the state - San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos - had plenty of capacity.

The Bureau has also told urban and agricultural concerns that rely on contracted Bureau water that they won’t be able to meet commitments this year. Yet the Bureau had no problem squandering water long before it had to make the call.

It is obvious the Bureau bureaucracy is neither nimble, proactive or - in the case of its October surprise - honest and forthright.

This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209-249-3519.