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River Feeds Prosperity, Politics; Generates Power, Clashes
Along The Stanislaus
The Stanislaus River as it passes Caswell State Park at the end of Austin Road south of Manteca and west of Ripon.

As you read this there is just a tad more than 50 inches of snow at the 8,770-foot level below Sonora Pass where the now closed Highway 108 — the second loftiest highway in California — crests the Sierra at 9,264 feet.

The snow from Sonora Pass — as well as the surrounding peaks and that covering the Sierra dozens of miles to the west — will ultimately melt.

Some will flow through dozens of penstocks unleashing power as it cascades downhill to generate electricity that will light homes, power milking machines, and provide the energy to keep a large segment of the Silicon Valley humming.

Some of the water from the snowmelt will nourish more than 110,000 acres of crops ranging from almonds to grapes within the boundaries of the South San Joaquin and Oakdale irrigation districts.

Some of it will recharge underground aquifers, feed the ecological system that’s conducive to salmon, and provide recreational opportunities for white water rafters, floaters, swimmers, and boaters alike.

What snowmelt manages to go the distance from the outer edges of the headwaters will have traveled 150 miles including 96 miles as part of the Stanislaus River and will join the San Joaquin River less than a quarter of a mile from the Airport Way bridge some 10 miles south of Manteca.

The snow that will melt from the tallest point at the most eastern stretch of the watershed — Sonora Peak at 11,459 feet — will have dropped to 20 feet above sea level once it joins forces with water on the San Joaquin that at its farthest point originated from Thousands Islands Lake in the eastern Sierra wilderness just outside the southeast boundary of Yosemite National Park.

To reach the end of the line at Vernalis — the name given to the area near the confluence of the San Joaquin and Stanislaus rivers and plays a key role in data collection for a slew of water-related decisions impacting fish, farms, and close to 20 million Californians — the snowmelt has to run the gauntlet of dozens of dams including New Melones that played a watershed role in shaping the modern environmental movement.


New Melones Dam energized

river environmental movement

In the 1970s the spectacularly scenic limestone walls of the Stanislaus River canyon was home to the most popular whitewater rafting run in the western United States.

This was where the Bureau of Reclamation would build the last major dam project in California to create a 2.4 million acre foot reservoir that stands as the fourth largest in the state.

The Friends of the River qualified a measure on the statewide ballot — Proposition 17 — that would have conferred National Wild and Scenic River status on the Stanislaus to effectively stop the New Melones Project.

The measure was narrowly defeated. Refusing to give up, the Friends of the River switched tactics. They focused on political and legal ways to prevent the dam from being filled behind a certain point even after construction was completed in 1978.

Environmental activist Mark Dubois chained himself to a boulder in the Stanislaus Canyon while the organization announced to the world that federal authorities would have to stop filling the lake or drown him. A frantic week-long search by authorities followed by national news coverage that was fed footage of Dubois chained to a boulder put a halt to the reservoir’s filling.

Then Gov. Jerry Brown in November of 1980 issued an order to keep the laws level below Parrott’s Ferry Bridge that marked the end of the whitewater run. Brown also questioned the economic justification for New Melones. The Department of Water Resources weighed in by casting doubt on the need for additional irrigation water. And the Department of Fish & Game contended the reservoir would hurt the fisheries the Bureau said the reservoir would protect.

That led to a compromise between the state and environmentalists to cap the reservoir level at 26 percent of its design capacity.

The bickering then accelerated in the ensuing years before Mother Nature put an end to it in 1982-1983 when the wettest back-to-back water years on record filled the reservoir in two years — it was supposed to take eight — and nearly spilled over the emergency spillway. The dam prevented $50 million worth of downstream damage effectively demonstrating its need for flood protection. The temporary limit was then dropped.

New Melones was made possible only after the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District were assured their water rights to 600,000 acre feet of water dating back to 1913 were protected and were the first in line for runoff.

In order to build the massive reservoir the two districts had to agree to allow the Bureau to inundate the Old Melones Dam they had built in 1926.

The SSJID and OID through their Tri-Dam Partnership also built Donnells, Beardsley and Tulloch reservoirs along the Stanislaus.

The battle over the Stanislaus River is credited with focusing public attention on the environmental impacts of larger dam projects. No dam since then of its size has been built in the United States as the battle significantly boosted the political clout of the river conservation movement.

Today it is ground zero in the fight over Chinook salmon, water releases for the Delta smelt, as well as irrigation and urban water needs.



Watershed drains 1,075

square miles in 5 counties

The Stanislaus River watershed drains 1,075 square miles spread across five counties — San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Calaveras, and Alpine counties.

The headwater of the Middle Fork is near the 9,365-foot Leavitt Peak near Kennedy Lake. The North Fork headwater is Mosquito Lake at 8,075 feet in Alpine County.

The two forks join at the popular Camp Nine recreational spot at 1,238 feet near Hathaway Pines in Calaveras County.

The mouth is near Vernalis south of Manteca.

The watershed was first inhabited by Native Americans known as the Miwoks.

The river had several names over the centuries but what stuck was the name of a native Yokut who led an uprising in 1828 against Mexico that controlled California at the time. Estanislao successfully repelled much better armed Mexicans under the command of General Vallejo near modern-day Caswell State Park west of Ripon and south of Manteca before eventually being defeated.

When the river was renamed it had been called Rio de los Laquisimes based on a name conferred by the Miwok. It was at one point in 1806 christened Rio de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe or the River of Our Lady of Guadalupe by the Spanish expedition led by Gabriel Moraga.


Stanislaus water rights are

extremely overcommitted

The river based on its size is considered one of California’s most heavily dammed and diverted rivers in the Golden State.

The river and its tributaries sport 28 dams with combined storage in excess of 2.8 million acre feet of water along with 14 hydroelectric plants. The watershed has been harnessed to potentially irrigate more than 213,000 acres with more than two-thirds within the SSJID and OID boundaries. It also supplies water for Tracy, Manteca, and Lathrop.

The watershed in a normal year generates 1.1 million acre feet of water that makes its way into the Stanislaus. That is minuscule compared to water rights represented in 160 separate claims for close to 19.7 million acre feet. Of that, 3.9 million acre feet are designated as “consumptive use” that is defined as not having to be returned to the river such as water rights for hydro power generation that has to be returned. As a result it is considered one of the most overly allocated rivers in the nation.

The 600,000 acre feet of water rights the SSJID and OID share were the first established and were legally adjudicated in 1913 putting theirs first in line.

Whitewater rafting on the Stanislaus River above New Melones.