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Water managers bracing for the worst
How low will it go?
water update
An aerial drone view showing low water under the Enterprise Bridge at Lake Oroville with a water elevation of 743 feet on March 17. As of Oct. 6, Lake Oroville was down to an elevation of 694 feet and was at 34 percent capacity. Photo courtesy of Department of Water Resources.

New Melones Reservoir — critical to Escalon farmland, as well as Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy water supplies — was at 616,704 acre feet on Oct. 6.

That’s less than half the average 1,326,146 acre feet of water storage for the date of Oct. 5.

To put that in perspective, it is 47 percent of the average in storage for the start of a new California water year that officially started on Oct. 1.

That’s the worst water storage among the state’s six largest reservoirs.

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District, which ended its irrigation season a week ahead of normal in a bid to maximize carryover as California starts its fourth year of drought, is not in the worst possible shape as measured by the past three decades.

That was in 1977 before the district was supplying surface water to Manteca, Lathrop and Tracy. Water supplies were so low that year they had to curb irrigation deliveries to farms.

And while the district is positioned a tad better than they were at the start of the final year of the 2012-2016 drought cycle, that situation could deteriorate significantly if Mother Nature doesn’t deliver for a fourth year in a row.

“The inflow (for the water year that just ended) into New Melones was 360,000 acre feet,” noted SSJID General Manager Peter Reitkerk.

SSJID and Oakdale irrigation District in an average year split 600,000 acre feet of water they have the historic rights to on the Stanislaus River watershed.

“Drought patterns are difficult to predict,” Reitkerk noted.

That said, he noted all indications from various weather modeling for the water year that got underway Oct. 1 is for it to be a “triple dip La Nina year.”

Typically, a La Nina year delivers less than average when it comes to precipitation whether it is rain on the Valley floor or critical snow in the Sierra.

What will unfold before the end of the wet season on March 31 is essentially a roll of the dice.

And given water managers up and down the state aren’t gamblers by nature, districts such as SSJID are trying to hedge their bets, so to speak, by conserving as much as they can to carry over water.

It was carryover water for the water year ending on Sept. 30, 2021 that allowed area farmers to escape more draconian conservation measures.

But, as some water experts have noted, if cities don’t find ways to scale back water use in the coming months and drought conditions persist, they could be more local jurisdictions literally rationing water use by so many gallons per day for households than the handful that have been forced to do so currently.