John Liechty tried to take a break Monday from helping customers at one of the cash registers at Glory Hole Sports, a primary outfitter for people going fishing and boating at New Melones outside Angels Camp.

But it was busy Tuesday like it’s been all this spring and winter, because the state’s fourth-largest capacity reservoir is filling up now more than it has since spring and summer six long years ago.

“Overall morale in the area has definitely been uplifted,” Liechty said between customers. “We’re not talking about the drought and its impact on the economy any more. People are upbeat.”

Liechty has been working at Glory Hole Sports for eight years, and he’s been guiding fishing trips part-time on New Melones for four years. The boom in business so far this spring and the expected summer crush have helped convince Liechty he can switch to full-time guiding for the first time.

“Today is my last day here,” said Liechty, who runs Xperience Fishing Guide Service with his dad, Dan Liechty. “I’m going to go full-time. There’s other reasons aside from the water level, but it’s been good this year. It’s a good six, seven years since we had a full pool like this. Fishing’s been phenomenal.”

When the water’s rising

At the marina on New Melones, Amy Flanagan, of Angels Camp, and Shawn Cowperthwaite, of Jamestown, were busy moving T-shirts, sodas and other merchandise into the marina store and getting ready for spring opening later this week.

Matthew Dalton, 35, and his dad, Phil Dalton, 69, both of Modesto, were preparing to haul their bass boat out of the water at the wide ramp at Glory Hole.

“He caught five or six,” Matthew Dalton said. “I caught a couple.”

“We came up a week ago,” Phil Dalton said. “We had a great day then and a pretty good day today. Bass are doing what they’re supposed to do this time of year.”

Phil Dalton said he came to New Melones for the first time 30 years ago when the reservoir was filling up behind New Melones Dam, completed in the late 1970s. He compares conditions at New Melones favorably to the few times he’s seen it nearly full over the past three decades.

“It’s really looking good to me,” Phil Dalton said. “I’ve fished it when it’s low and when it’s high. This is like the top 10 percent I’ve seen here. And the fish are always more active when the water’s rising. It’s been coming up nearly every day since January.”

Filling up

As of Tuesday afternoon, New Melones was 85 percent full and the water surface elevation was 1,056.24 feet above sea level. That’s more than 172 feet higher than Jan. 1 and more than 192 feet higher than Oct. 1, when the current water year started.

Inflow has exceeded outflow nearly every day so far this water year, so the water level has continued to come up, inch by inch, over the past seven months.

The last time the reservoir was this full was in October six years ago as the level dropped from a peak that summer of 1081.51 feet in July 2011.

New Melones was holding 2,044,233 acre-feet on Tuesday. One acre-foot of water is enough to flood to a typical American football field 12 inches deep.

The reservoir covers about 12,500 acres of flat water surface area when it’s full. At 85 percent full, there’s about 10,625 acres of room for boaters, water skiers, swimmers, fishing and wildlife on the reservoir surface. At it’s low point in November 2015, the water level dropped to below 800 feet and the surface area decreased to just 1,375 acres.

In addition, at 85 percent of capacity, there’s still 360,000 acre-feet of space in New Melones for more runoff as this spring’s snowmelt continues.

Economic impact

Gaging the economic impact of New Melones in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties is difficult. More people come to Calaveras and Tuolumne counties when the reservoir is near-full, creating more demand for visitor services and more jobs.

But the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages New Melones, does not count visitors or economic impacts that way, according to staff in Sacramento.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the most meaningful visitor statistics that help show what a full reservoir can mean and what a near-empty reservoir can mean for Mother Lode tourism are numbers comparing 2016 to 2011.

Last year, the Bureau of Reclamation counted 283,938 visitors at New Melones in 2016. The last time the reservoir was near-full, federal custodians of New Melones counted 456,939 visitors.

Louis Moore, a public information officer for the Bureau of Reclamation in Sacramento, said last week, “This will be an awesome year for our recreating public. The fishing should be great with the increased water and habitat.”

Asked how many campground reservations and other type of reservations have been made at New Melones for this spring-summer season, Moore said, “Summer holiday weekends are completely booked and we are rapidly filling our sites for a majority of the weekends.”

Rafting the Stan ‘not viable’ right now

Last July, the Bureau of Reclamation issued a 45-page draft environmental assessment for a proposed plan to allow local whitewater outfitters increase commercial boating operations on the main stem Stanislaus River below Camp Nine, upstream from New Melones.

That plan remains in the works for now. Bob Ferguson of Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions, based in Columbia, who started rafting the Stanislaus River from Camp Nine to Parrotts Ferry back in 1973, says the recent near-record wet winter has boosted rafting conditions on the Tuolumne, Merced and Kings rivers. But commercial rafting is not viable on the Stanislaus upstream from New Melones right now.

“We're not doing anything on the Stan,” Ferguson said Tuesday. “You can’t take out at Parrotts Ferry and you have to go all the way to New Melones, a place called Robinsons Ferry near the Highway 49 bridge.

“Even if the reservoirs weren’t filling up nobody is running trips on the Camp Nine section because of problems with put-ins and take-outs,” Ferguson said. “Of course the reservoirs are expected to continue filling, and it will inundate the portion of the traditional Stanislaus River run if it hasn’t already.”

All the rivers coming off the west slope of the Central Sierra are running strong right now, and that’s generating excitement in the whitewater community and among people who want to try rafting or kayaking, Ferguson said.

On the Tuolumne, the “water’s been pretty high and we’re selective about who we put on the river,” Ferguson said. “Normally it’s 12 years old minimum. Now we’ve gone up to age 14 to 16 in some cases depending on water levels. Right now we’re using the main 18-mile section, between Lumsden Campground and Wards Ferry Bridge. The Cherry Creek section on the Upper Tuolumne is too high and probably will stay that way until mid-July.”

Unrestrained rivers

On the Merced River, Ferguson says he and Zephyr staff are running trips just about every day.

“It varies on the Merced, up to three trips a day,” Ferguson said. “From six people a day up to 40 people a day.”

The Kings River coming out of Kings Canyon National Park is also near-ideal for rafting right now, Ferguson said.

“Those rivers, the Merced and the Kings, will probably remain raftable into August,” Ferguson said. “That’s a great thing on these wild rivers. They’re natural runoff rivers with no upstream dams. We get whatever comes down from Mother Nature.”

Asked about economic impacts of recreation at New Melones compared to rafting the Stanislaus River, Ferguson said if the Stanislaus River was still raftable like it was in the 1970s and 1980s, if New Melones Dam had never been built, the economic benefits of whitewater rafting on the Stanislaus would be at least 10 times greater than economic benefits the reservoir has for recreation.

“Most people buy their gas, their boat gas in the valley, their fishing tackle and their bait in the valley,” Ferguson said. “The economic impact of the river itself, that drew thousands of people up here. They stayed the night and they ate their meals up here, they came from all over the world.

“The Stanislaus River was a huge draw,” Ferguson said. “It was one of the most popular rivers in the West. If the river was still there, the economic impact would be great in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, much more than the reservoir brings in terms of recreation.”

New Melones is the fourth-largest reservoir in California and it’s part of the federally controlled Central Valley Project. Completed in 1979, New Melones Dam impounds water from the Stanislaus River and other tributaries in a 980-square-mile watershed.

According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the New Melones project provides flood control for the lower Stanislaus River and San Joaquin River delta, irrigation and municipal water supplies, peak-use period hydroelectric production, recreation, water quality, and fish and wildlife enhancement.

The reservoir recreation area encompasses about 30,000 acres, which includes New Melones, 12,500 acres when it’s full, and the surrounding project lands.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.

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