A deal that averted a legal showdown between the Department of Water Resources and the South San Joaquin Irrigation District/Oakdale Irrigation District will help fish, bring some relief to stressed farmers down the valley, and give the two districts cash to further step up their conservation efforts.
The deal involves using 23,000 acre feet of water the two districts have in their conservation account at New Melones Reservoir and releasing it over a 24-day period from Saturday through Nov. 14 into the Stanislaus River for fall fish flows. Once it reaches the Delta it will then be taken by San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority that will pay $500 an acre foot or $11.5 million.
Originally the state — desperate to make sure there was water in the Stanislaus River this fall for fish — threatened to simply take the water, arguing it didn’t belong to the two districts. The districts countered by referencing the original agreement inked with the federal government.
To avoid a long and expensive legal fight, the water release doubling as a water transfer deal was made. That means each district will receive $5.25 million paid for by the San Luis & Delta Water Authority.
There is currently 200 cubic feet per second flowing down the Stanislaus River. That will be ramped up to 700 cfs Saturday and eventually peak at 1,200 cfs before dropping back down to 200 cfs on Nov. 10.
When mid-November rolls around, SSJID expects to have 77,000 acre feet of water as its half of the conservation account in storage at New Melones to start the 2016 irrigation season. That’s roughly what the district had at the start of the current season.
Originally storage was projected to been lower at New Melones than the 273,098 acre feet currently behind the dam. A relatively wet May for Sierra snow coupled with SSJID farmers and the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy all meeting the goal of reducing water use from the Stanislaus River watershed by 25 percent provide more water than expected when the water year ended Sept. 30.
By the end of the water releases that will serve both fish and farmers down the valley, the 2.4 million acre foot capacity New Melones will be down to almost 10 percent of capacity.
Only 260,000 acre feet of water flowed into New Melones in the water year that just ended. The SSJID and OID have rights to the first 600,000 acre feet that flow into the reservoir. Carryover storage from previous years has helped water users depending on the Stanislaus River watershed weather four consecutive years of severe drought as has been the case with the rest of California and other reservoirs.
It is why SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields continues to stress that conservation is extremely critical even with talk of a possible strong El Nino weather pattern in the upcoming rainy season.
Shields and other experts warn the El Nino weather pattern settling in over California may be of little or no help.
That’s because not all El Nino systems bring above average — or even average — precipitation to the mid-Sierra that feeds the Stanislaus River.
In fact, most models that favor an El Nino developing indicate rainfall and snow will drop off significantly as systems cross over the Sierra and San Joaquin Valley.
Overall, Southern California typically benefits the most. That will have minimal impact on water storage critical for bridging the summer and fall months given the south state doesn’t have that much storage capacity. Sixty percent of the state’s developed water supply relies on the Sierra snowpack to serve as de facto storage.
It will take 3.1 times the rainfall and snow that fell on the Stanislaus River watershed this past year in order for the SSJID and the three cities they serve — Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy — to be where they are at now when October 2016 rolls around.
Modeling conducted on the watershed indicated 800,000 acre feet of water must flow into New Melones Reservoir between over the next 12 months to preserve the current status quo.
Without it, the SSJID and the growers and cities they serve will face a “dire situation next year” Shields warned.