The truth, Shields said, is there’s simply very little water in the Stanislaus River system — with or without the new rules protecting fish. -- Alex Breitler, Stockton Record, Feb. 24, 2015.
California has only five weeks left of the wet season and needs more than the modest storm that just passed through. That was like shooting spit wads at an elephant. -- Mark Grossi, Fresno Bee, Feb. 24, 2015
Lake Tulloch, prized Mother Lode reservoir, may be drained
COPPEROPOLIS — It is one of the most beautiful reservoirs in the Mother Lode, glistening blue and often filled to the brim, its waters plied by boats and its shores lined with million-dollar homes.
But come summer, Lake Tulloch could be little more than a puddle.
Water managers may drain the lake to save water farther upstream for farmers and fish.
Those who live along the lakeshore are fighting the plan, saying that if the lake goes dry, so will the economy of Copperopolis, in western Calaveras County.
“These little businesses around here are barely making it,” said Jack Cox, who lives along the lake and belongs to the Lake Tulloch Alliance. “You dump the water out of this lake and you put them out of business.”
Unlike many Mother Lode reservoirs, Tulloch’s water level normally does not fluctuate much. That’s part of its charm.
But Tulloch wasn’t built for looks. Long before the waterfront homes and jet skis, Tulloch was an irrigation reservoir whose construction was funded by downstream farmers.
And sometimes, during times of scarcity, its water is needed elsewhere. The lake was last drained in 1991.
“There were farmers who lost their farms during the depression because they had a tax obligation on the bonds” that paid for Tulloch’s construction, said Jeff Shields, general manager of the Manteca-based South San Joaquin Irrigation District. “I love Tulloch, and I’m sorry people potentially won’t be able to enjoy it this year, but it was built as an irrigation reservoir and continues to serve that purpose.”
The entire Stanislaus River watershed is in “substantially worse” shape than it was last year, Shields told his board of directors on Tuesday. Normally more than 1 million acre-feet of rain and Sierra snowmelt drain into New Melones Lake, upstream of Tulluch; this year officials are expecting less than one-quarter of that.
Draining Tulloch would serve two purposes: First, it would allow water managers to save more water upstream in New Melones. That water could be used next year by farmers.
Second, the water in deeper New Melones tends to be colder. Releasing that water could help managers comply with rules written by federal biologists to protect threatened Stanislaus steelhead.
It’s that second reason that is drawing criticism from those who live at Tulloch or recreate there. They are calling for Congress to intervene.
“These huge recently mandated releases of water for fish flows, even in the middle of a devastating drought? Come on,” said Greg Mayer, a local real estate agent who warned that draining Tulloch could harm property values across Copperopolis.
But a devastating drought is exactly when fish face the most danger.
The Stanislaus River has been dramatically altered from the days before dams were built. Steelhead previously spawned farther upstream, in cooler waters. Now they’re forced to spawn lower in the watershed, and baby steelhead have been exposed to lethally warm water temperatures as a result.
The National Marine Fisheries Service in 2009 approved rules requiring higher flows than in the past. The agency described the steelhead population as “precariously small.”
Water districts fought those rules in court and won at first, only to lose on appeal. Shields said Tuesday that while he still believes sending more water down the river does not necessarily equal more fish, he does think it’s important that the water district does its part to protect the environment considering the volume of water it diverts, along with the neighboring Oakdale Irrigation District. The two districts combined take the majority of the water flowing into New Melones each year.
“I don’t think it’s a burden to protect the native populations,” Shields said. “We spend a million dollars a year on habitat and biologists on the river. The last thing we want to see is a lethal shot of warm water during the fish migration.”
A fish die-off could also expose the water district to lawsuits.
The truth, Shields said, is there’s simply very little water in the Stanislaus River system — with or without the new rules protecting fish.
And this year, Lake Tulloch may become this region’s most visual reminder of that fact, as the drought enters its fourth year.
Stores and restaurants will be devoid of customers, Cox warned. The local water supply might also take a hit; the Calaveras County Water District draws from Lake Tulloch and said recently that it could cost at least $100,000 to extend its intake and draw from a mostly drained lake.
“Copperopolis turned into a ghost town after the Gold Rush,” Cox said. “This would be the second time they turned Copperopolis into a ghost town.”
Second drought nightmare will become official after federal water forecast
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We’re late in another desperately dry winter, waiting for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s February forecast of irrigation deliveries for this summer in the San Joaquin Valley.
Federal officials were expected to say something last week, but they’re taking a few extra days to consider. You can understand why.
Last year, more than 2 million acres in the Valley went without deliveries of federal river water. This year might be just as bad, and nobody is in a hurry to say this is a replay of last year’s nightmare.
Hundreds of thousands of acres were fallowed, wells went dry for rural residents and losses are expected to be billions of dollars.
I expect reality to spank everyone late this week when the bureau makes some announcement about water supply for east- and west-side growers who buy water from the federal Central Valley Project. Farm water officials say they still cling to hope for at least some water, but they’re expecting to hear a zero allocation again.
Despite a storm Sunday and Monday, the snowpack has dropped to below 20% of the April 1 average. Last year’s puny snowpack was actually larger at this point in the year.
California has only five weeks left of the wet season and needs more than the modest storm that just passed through. That was like shooting spit wads at an elephant.
There is one group of Valley growers who got federal river water last year, mainly because they have rights dating back to the 1800s. They also have contracts assuring them of water even in many kinds of dry years.
The group is in the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority, based in Los Banos. The area covers 240,000 acres from Patterson to Mendota.
Decades ago, they traded their San Joaquin water for Northern California water so east-side growers could use the San Joaquin River — hence the name “exchange contractors.”
Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the Central Valley Project, told the exchange contractors that it is committed to delivering a 75% allotment of water under terms of the contact, which is a higher priority than most customers on the CVP.
The bureau was forced to tap Millerton Lake last year for exchange contractor water. That left no water for the east-side growers — the first time that has ever happened to growers in the Friant Water Authority.
A key to avoid tapping Millerton is the projected inflow of river water to the largest CVP reservoir, Shasta in Northern California. This year, Shasta would need to have 4 million acre-feet of water, roughly eight times the capacity of Millerton Lake.
But the expected inflow for this year is now projected to be 3.3 million acre-feet, far short of the mark.
There is more to the story. The river water coming from Northern California must cross the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where endangered fish and water quality require additional flows of river water.
The State Water Resources Control Board, the arbiter of California’s water, has declined a request to temporarily increase water pumping from the delta, even though the idea was supported by the U.S. Department Fish and Wildlife and others.
Last week, speakers at a lengthy state board meeting urged officials to allow the pumping. There is no word yet about any possible change. Stay tuned.