The snowpack on the far reaches of the Stanislaus River watershed in late June was as anemic as it gets in mid-August.
Atop the 11,404-foot summit of Sonora Peak — the highest and eastern most point where water from melting snow makes its way into the middle fork of the Stanislaus River — the view was reminiscent of a typical precipitation year leading up to Labor Day and not the Fourth of July weekend.
Small splotches and not wide swaths of snow were on the horizon looking south toward Yosemite.
Anecdotal evidence aside, sensors recorded the last trace of snow on May 19 at a snow station near Sonora Pass at 9,623 feet.
Had this been an average year instead of the third year into a deepening drought there would still have been a significantly larger snowpack remaining this time of year.
This is the result of 60 percent of California being in an exceptional drought — as in exceptionally bad.
The Central Sierra that is the upper part of the watersheds for the Merced, Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers that the Northern San Joaquin Valley depends upon is now in severe drought slipping toward extreme drought.
Extreme drought is where almost all of San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties are at today.
Water Managers On Edge
Recently, 130 plus miles to the southwest as the water flows, Peter Reitkerk was fielding questions about the water supply at the South San Joaquin Irrigation District offices on the eastern outskirts of Manteca.
The general manager and his bosses on the SSJID board are the guardians of what has become an increasingly precious commodity for urban customers in Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy as well as farmers that grow what feed people on 52,000 acres: surface water.
Look out his office window and you can see the ornamental grass in front of the SSJID headquarters in its death throes.
The district cut the water off as ordered by the state of California on June 10.
Reitkerk and the SSJID board got the message a long time ago things are getting serious in California.
Using potable water — essentially that which can be treated for drinking — to irrigate ornamental grass at commercial, industrial and institutional locations such as hospitals, schools, municipal facilities and such unless they are used for recreation as well as a few other exceptions — is against the state’s emergency order.
Purveyors of water — those that deal with end use customers — are the ones that must enforce the mandate and work with people to reduce water ruse.
SSJID has been doing that with farm customers and will step up their efforts. They also have been looking at every possible way to modify water deliveries to reduce waste.
They already have notified the cities, as required under state law when a second stage water emergency is reached, that they need to work to voluntarily cutback overall water consumption by their customers overall by 20 percent.
The state order regarding ornamental turf is designed to make that do-able given watering grass is the biggest urban water use category in California. It’s been estimated by the State Department of Water Resources full compliance to the mandate will save enough water for one year’s consumption by 760,000 California households. That’s the population equivalent of 3.5 times that of San Joaquin County.
“We’re lucky,” Reitkerk said of how SSJID is positioned with this year’s hydrology.
With careful use, the district will be able to meet the supply needs for this year for the three cities and farmers.
But that isn’t what is worrying Reitkerk and other water managers up and down California.
It’s next year.
A fourth year of drought will be devastating with its severity determined upon what water amount of waters is left in reservoirs this year.
Reservoir Levels Low
New Melones Reservoir — the linchpin of Stanislaus River watershed storage — now is only a third full with 789,545 acre feet of water in a reservoir designed to hold 2.4 million acre feet. That is 52 of normal for the date of June 29.
It is also where the reservoir was at in late 2014 when California was in a drought. The following year the drought continued triggering mandatory cutbacks in water deliveries to SSJID farmers and local cities.
Keep in mind perhaps as much as 200,000 acre feet of water is in dead storage. That means it is below outlets to the Stanislaus River.
Back in 2015 things were to the point the Bureau pondered breeching the original Melones Dam SSJID and OID built in 1925 that was inundated with water when New Melones was filled in a bit to squeeze out more water for use downstream.
The inflow to New Melones currently is half the outflow.
If you head into the mountains to the two uppermost reservoirs operated by the Tri-Dam Project that is a partnership between SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation District, things don’t look bad at first glance.
Beardsley is at 91 percent capacity with 88,972 acre feet of water.
Donnell’s is at 61,509 acre feet or 98 percent of capacity.
Looks, however, can be deceiving.
Keep in mind that SSJID and OID have rights to 600,000 acre feet of runoff each water year on the Stanislaus River basin that they split 50-50. What is behind the two dams right now is about 60 percent of the water SSJID delivered to farmers and cities last year.
OID also needs water.
The two districts have water set aside on a “conservation account” that’s part of the new Melones storage.
Beardsley had an inflow of 91 cubic feet per second. That’s the volume of water that would fill 91 basketballs passing a set point every second.
The flow into Donnell’s is 98 cubic feet per second.
In a normal year those water inflows would be more robust.
The inflow as summer unfolds is likely to become anemic. That’s based on observations on the way up to St. Mary’s Pass recently at 10,100 feet. There are usually four streams crossing the trail sending water on a journey to the north fork of the Stanislaus River.
There were only two streams flowing; both were at a rate you’d expect in mid-August and not late June.
A Normal Year In 2023 Would Help
It should be noted Tri-Dam as well as New Melones have been doing their job so far helping SSJID and OID — as well as Bureau of Reclamation water customers — weather the drought that’s now in its third year.
A normal year of snow and water next year would still keep supplies dicey while a significantly above year would take a lot of pressure off.
But if 2023 is a continuation of the drought — even a bit milder than the driest January-February on record we had this year — it is a given there will be cutbacks. The degree depends upon how anemic snowfall is and how much water is carried over in storage.
“California continues to experience severe dry conditions and extreme weather as summer officially begins,” noted Joaquin Esquivel, Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board.
“Many reservoirs throughout the state sit at critically low levels, the Sierra snowpack is essentially gone, and runoff has peaked for the year. Having foreseen this possibility last July, Governor Newsom called on all Californians to voluntarily cut back their water use by 15 percent in comparison with 2020, but there was a disappointing increase in water consumption in March and April of this year,” Esquivel added. “However, based on the latest preliminary data, I am hopeful that recent state actions, including regulations passed by the State Water Board to curb water waste and ban non-essential watering, will have an impact.”