Fish flows and water rights at New Melones, the giant reservoir in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties that’s 74 percent empty, were on the agenda Tuesday in Sacramento and as usual it turned into a finger-pointing festival.

The fish flows are necessary for vulnerable juvenile salmon called salmonids, J.D. Wikert, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologist told the State Water Resources Control Board.

But the reservoir that lies on the Stanislaus River is already “over-allocated,” according to the federal Bureau of Reclamation that manages New Melones.

That means there are too many straws sucking water out of the man-made lake, and despite the fact this has been the wettest winter since 2010-2011, multiple agencies argue there’s not enough water to go around.

The big straws in New Melones include Tri-Dam, Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation district, holders of the oldest water rights on the Stanislaus. Other straws include the federal Central Valley Project and federal agencies that try to improve conditions in the Stanislaus River for vulnerable fish.

The state water board called the hearing Tuesday in Sacramento to seek input on Bureau of Reclamation plans to once again change pulse flow releases from New Melones for struggling fish downstream.

People from Tuolumne and Calaveras counties attended to criticize the board and the bureau for overlooking local concerns, which include economic impacts on tourism and recreation when the reservoir sits more than half-empty.

Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors chairman Karl Rodefer sent a letter blasting state water officials for holding the hearing on less than a week’s notice.

Outrage over fish-oriented releases at New Melones from Mother Lode residents and elected representatives has flowed freely as the giant reservoir has emptied out each summer in recent years.

The difference this year is water conditions are improved compared to 2014 and 2013.

Water availability

“It is now clear that water availability for the New Melones project is significantly different from what had been expected.”

That’s what Bureau of Reclamation historians said more than 15 years ago.

Asked what that statement means today, Janet Sierzputowski of the federal bureau that manages New Melones said, “In addition to the drought that we’ve now been in since 2012, unprecedented dry conditions in 2014 and 2015, and particularly low reservoir storage in New Melones, the reservoir is over-allocated, and multipurpose demands have increased over time.”

Increasing demands are part of the reason Reclamation files Temporary Urgency Change Petitions for pulse flows and other New Melones operations, including the most recent one filed April 1, Sierzputowski said.

As of Tuesday, the reservoir was holding 621,876 acre feet of water, 26 percent of its capacity. New Melones capacity is 2.4 million acre feet. It’s billed as California’s fourth-largest reservoir.

Tulloch was holding 54,556 acre feet, 81 percent of its capacity. Tulloch can hold 67,000 acre feet when it’s full, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

Rodefer sounds off

Karl Rodefer, Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors chairman and president of the Tuolumne County Water Agency Board of Directors, sent a letter to be read aloud at the hearing.

“I am extremely disappointed and personally insulted that the State Water Resources Control Board has chosen to hold this Public Workshop on less than one week’s notice, on a day of the week that is constitutionally set aside for local county governments to hold their Board of Supervisors’ meetings, and by providing the supporting materials for this important forum less than two work days ahead of time,” Rodefer said in the letter.

Rodefer said the meeting was scheduled to preclude participation by elected representatives of the people that will be most impacted by the dialogue outcome at the hearing. He also said it was impossible for anyone to adequately prepare to address key points to be discussed.

Requests by several people to have the hearing delayed were denied, Rodefer said.

State water board officials said they had to stage the Tuesday hearing on short notice because a letter they received from the Bureau of Reclamation was dated April 1 and it addressed changes to their operations from March through June of this year.

“The time window is already compromised,” Tim Moran, a public information officer for the board, said Tuesday. “Today was the first State Water Board regular meeting date after we received the request.”

Dennis Mills, an elected member of the Calaveras County Water District, evoked the 2015 Butte Fire, listed as the seventh most-destructive fire in 165 years of California history.

“Calaveras County is continuing to recover both physically and economically from the effects,” Mill told the state water board in Sacramento. “To date the state and federal taxpayers have poured millions into this effort and it is not over. We are asking the state to assist Calaveras County in that recovery by providing the full use of New Melones during this critical time.”

Mills said he was speaking Tuesday for residents he represents in Angels Camp, Vallecito and Copperopolis who have been directly impacted by low New Melones levels.

“We are the ones that watched New Melones turn into a ‘mud flat’ last summer while our county was burning up,” Mills said. “We are the ones that suffered the additional economic devastation locally due to inability to use the full recreational potential of the lake during this critical time.”

In February 2015, when Tri-Dam announced it might drain Lake Tulloch, the impact on the local real estate market was immediate and pronounced, Mills said.

“We worked hard to educate and inform everyone on the value our lakes bring to our local economy,” Mills said. “Calaveras County suffered financially because CCWD was then forced to extend our community water supply intakes to the lowest possible point costing nearly $1 million of our rate payers’ dollars at a time when we were trying to replace leaking water supply pipes to reduce water consumption the state was requiring.”

The pumps weren’t needed to secure a stable water supply for the community of Copperopolis, Mills said.

“They were fish pumps installed as a result of the potential by the Bureau of Reclamation and Tri-Dam to flush all the water out of New Melones and Lake Tulloch last year trying to save a few fish,” Mills said.

The original reasons the New Melones project was envisioned in 1944 were flood control, irrigation and recreation, Mills said. Power generation was added in 1962. Calaveras and Tuolumne counties have benefited from low cost power from the project.

But with power generation lost at New Melones due to water being flushed last year, local taxpayers now have to pay additional millions in higher utility rates, Mills said.

“We are asking for your help in giving us the time to recover and rebuild our county by assuring a full use of New Melones,” he said.

Tulloch Alliance

Jack Cox is chairman of the Lake Tulloch Alliance, representing as many 500 residents in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties. He went to the hearing Tuesday with several other residents and spoke during public comment.

“New Melones built in 1978 over a period of nearly 30 years had become relatively stable depending upon the winter precipitation,” Cox said. “The outflows were tied purely to releases for agriculture and power generation.”

New Melones contributed significantly to regional growth of tourism, at a critical time as the logging industry was winding down because of outspoken environmental critics and legislation, Cox said.

“Our Lake Tulloch community alone below Melones began to grow in the 1970s now with nearly 10,000 residents,” Cox said. “All of that changed 15 years ago when environmental organizations dreamed up the idea of enhancing the fish population in the San Joaquin River flowing out of the Sierra east of Fresno. These environmental groups filed lawsuits against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and a number of irrigation districts.”

The San Joaquin River Settlement Agreement was reached 10 years ago to achieve goals for enhancement of fisheries and provide more opportunities for sport fishermen, Cox said. Under the agreement, a significant amount of the water to achieve its goals would come from the Stanislaus River through New Melones which is part of the Central Valley Project.

“This placed the burden on our counties to pay the environmental cost of meeting the agreement’s requirements for all of the San Joaquin River Basin all the way to Bakersfield,” Cox said. “This has had a disastrous impact on the people, agriculture and economies of both Calaveras and Tuolumne counties as well as San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.

“The tragedy is that the amount of water flushed down our river doesn’t even achieve the goals the agreement required,” Cox said. “Last May, for example, 25,000 acre feet of water was flushed out of Melones in an attempt to promote fisheries. The value of this water was $21 million. According to Fishbio, the total number of fish pushed down the river was nine fish — a value of $2 million plus a fish.”

Cox said members of the Lake Tulloch Alliance believe public policy should focus on storing as much water as possible at New Melones, particularly during times of drought, and ineffective environmental schemes need to be totally reconsidered.

This story has been edited to remove a subhead that introduced information from Dennis Mills, an elected member of the Calaveras County Water District board. Mills was speaking to the State Water Resources Control Board, not as a representative for the district or its board, but for the residents he represents.

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