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The Little Red Hen & Tulloch Lake
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Copperopolis residents are worried sick.

They don’t like the idea “their” lake may be drained this summer as part of a strategy for fish, as well as the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District to survive the drought.

They fear their property values will drop, especially those who own $1 million lakefront homes. They worry businesses in their small community will suffer. And they worry that they will have to pay more for water as the Calaveras County Water District may have to put in place a $100,000 pump to reach water so it can continue to flow through their taps.

Here’s a news flash for the good people of Copperopolis. Not only is there a severe drought going on but “their” lake isn’t really theirs.

The 67,000 acre-foot Tulloch Reservoir was completed in 1955 on the dime and property values of those in the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District. It was designed as a reservoir for agricultural water.

Copperopolis residents, including those with lakefront property, have no skin in the game when it comes to Tulloch Reservoir. They did not pay a cent toward creating it. They do not pay dock fees or fees for water skiing. Their homes wouldn’t command million-dollar prices if it weren’t for the lake. It is a lake that exists only because of the foresight and the risk SSJID and OID property owners took on.

The reason for draining Tulloch for the first time since 1991 is simple. The massive 2.4 million acre-foot New Melones Reservoir, under current projections, is going to “run dry” with only 60,000 acre feet of dead storage below outlets sometime this summer leaving the Bureau of Reclamation without any water to keep the Stanislaus River flowing.

Draining Tulloch and increasing storage in New Melones will not only save fish but it will also save between 40,000 and 50,000 acre feet of water for SSJID and OID to split.

The SSJID and OID have invested well over $1 million a year for the past 10 years to study fish and improve the Stanislaus River habitat. They have a legal obligation to protect fish. They also have a moral role to serve as stewards of the Stanislaus River that not only flows through the Sierra and the foothills but their own communities.

The two districts also built the Tri-Dam Project in 1950 above old Melones Reservoir that deserves credit today for releasing water that is helping keep the Stanislaus flowing.

The farmers and people of the SSJID and OID have never asked for a free ride or accepted a penny from the state or federal government to develop their water.

Property owners in both districts put everything on the line in 1909 to buy water rights and build the Goodwin Dam.

They risked everything again in 1925 to build Melones Dam.

And while water helped the people of SSJID and OID prosper, the bonds for the two projects took their toll. During the Depression, a number of farmers and others within the district couldn’t pay their taxes and lost their property to foreclosure.

The Tri-Dam Project that includes Donnells, Beardsley and Tulloch was completed in 1957. At the time it was the largest irrigation system ever undertaken by an irrigation district in the United States.

When the federal government wanted to build a reservoir on the Stanislaus River as part of their Central Valley Water Project, they negotiated with the two districts in inundate Melones Reservoir. Not only did the subsequent deal respect the fact the two districts held senior water rights to the Stanislaus River watershed but it also set in place clear language that the first 600,000 acre feet of inflow each year belonged to the two districts.

Again, not a single penny of state or federal money went into paying for the reservoirs put in place by the two districts. They were built first and foremost as reservoirs to capture irrigation water for SSJID and OID farms using water rights the two districts purchased and legally secured under California law.

The people who own lakefront home that are raising Cain about their property values dropping due to the prospect of Tulloch being drained never had to share their increased property values with the people who financed the very reservoir that made their property valuable.

Now they are demanding state and federal intervention to protect their way of life, namely their million dollar homes and free water recreation. They are zeroing in on what could very well be a bonehead operating strategy on the part of the Bureau of Reclamation when it comes to fish flows over the past years on the Stanislaus River.

But here’s the thing: The people who have the most to lose from water going to fish flows – the SSJID and OID – have been working with the Bureau and others to protect fish. At times it has been frustrating. And it has cost them $10 million to get where they are at today – a Bureau strategy that will help them along with fish survive this year and set up a water bank for next year as there is a good chance the drought will linger for five or more years.

Now because their freeloading days of using a lake to build personal wealth and recreation may have to go into hiatus for a number of months, they are adopting the role of victims.

Do not cry for Copperopolis. They are like the barnyard animals that didn’t want to help the Little Red Hen plant and harvest grain or bake the bread but who are more than eager to eat it.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.