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Sounding the alarm: New Melones could go dry

POSTED July 1, 2011 7:34 p.m.

With recent rains filling the State reservoirs and the above average snowpack in the Sierra, Governor Jerry Brown declared California’s three-year drought officially over on March 31 of this year. While the “state of emergency” may be over, the problem is not going away.  Anyone who has lived in the Valley for the last decade knows that next year could see a return to below normal rainfalls and snow. Snow in the mountains is critical for the Valley because it is our summer water for homes, businesses, electricity and farming.  The snow melts and trickles into streams which empty into our network of rivers and flows into our reservoirs where some of it is stored until needed by our region while the balance flows to the Delta. 

 

Here in our area we depend on the Stanislaus River and storage in New Melones and other reservoirs to balance the needs of the region.  New Melones is more than a giant water tank; it is a source of fun for boaters, campers, fishers and others who enjoy outdoor recreation.  It brings millions of tourist dollars to our region and many in our communities derive their living from the Stanislaus River and New Melones Reservoir.

 

If drought wasn’t enough to worry about, there is another problem that is a “clear and present danger.”  It is the implementation of a federal ruling called the Biological Opinion (BO) that calls for more water to be released from New Melones down the Stanislaus to supposedly help declining native fish like salmon and steelhead.  Putting aside the issue of whether more water going down the Stanislaus will help native fish– it won’t—there is the question of what impact more releases will have on New Melones?  It is a question that anyone who depends on the Stanislaus and the water behind New Melones should be asking.

 

For years we at the Oakdale and South San Joaquin Irrigation Districts have been studying the river, its flows and the native fish—spending millions on research to protect the fish population.  That research has shown two key factors:  first, the problem with declining salmon is predation, not lack of water.  Even the National Marine Fisheries Service acknowledges the problem of predation in the delta.  Unfortunately, it’s taken a court action to convince the California Department of Fish and Game, who make money selling fishing licenses, of that fact. 

 

The second factor is so serious we must continue to sound the alarm.  If the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates New Melones, continues with the requirements in the Biological Opinion, which it intends to do, New Melones could be emptied!  Yes, emptied.  A simple hydrologic run on the watershed’s “yield vs. demand” shows this to be the case going forward 13 out of the next 80 years.  No water in the lake.  The government’s own June 2, 2009 Technical Memo (pg. 72) on the BO admits that these added New Melones flow demands are not sustainable unless the feds can wrestle water away from agriculture on the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers, and that’s not a guarantee.  So without that guarantee in-place, they’ll rely on and continue to drain New Melones.

 

In the mean time, think of what an empty reservoir means to tourism and to businesses that depend on recreational dollars in our region.  Draining New Melones will wreck havoc for our local businesses, our local communities and yes, on our local agriculture.

 

The government says they would never let New Melones go dry, but the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has no Operations Plan for the reservoir, hasn’t produced one and can’t say when they’ll have one put together to insure this won’t happen.   Forgive us for being somewhat concerned about the economy of the region and your jobs, but you need to know. The Biological Opinion is based on poor science (another discussion for another time) and needs to be revamped.   

 

We will make it through this year and there is a chance, because of this big winter, that with normal rain/snow we could make it through 2012.  What happens beyond that is what concerns us.  The BO must be revamped and the Bureau compelled to provide an Operations Plan for New Melones that is sustainable.  Until then, we are going to continue to raise the issue, sound the alarm bell and write more to educate more.   

 

— Jeff Shields is the General Manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District

Steve Knell is the General Manager of Oakdale Irrigation District

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