Union Democrat staff

The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts announced Monday afternoon they've reached a deal with federal government officials that could allow more water to be held back in Tulloch Reservoir this year.

Under the agreement, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and National Marine Fisheries Service would grant the districts a partial exemption for springtime fish "pulse flows" intended to push salmon smolts to sea. The flows are required by federal laws intended to bolster salmon populations on the river that were killed off by decades of dam building and operation.

The riverflow requirement would be met by releasing 120,000 acre-feet from upstream New Melones Reservoir, operated by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Meeting downstream customer demand and fish flows this year was earlier supposed to be accomplished by draining the irrigation districts' Tulloch Reservoir, while holding back water in upstream New Melones. The water in the latter reservoir is cooler so would be more-beneficial later in the year for temperature-sensitive fish, like threatened steelhead.

OID General Manager Steve Knell said operational details are still being worked out.

But he said the agreement means Tulloch Reservoir should "survive" the summer.

Property owners with homes along the lakeshore, and those living in Copperopolis, who rely on drinking water from Tulloch, were concerned it could be drained by July to meet fish-flow requirements and also the needs of OID and SSJID customers in and around Escalon, Manteca, Oakdale, Ripon and Tracy.

Jack Cox, spokesman for the Lake Tulloch Alliance, representing various homeowners associations, was cautiously supportive of the pact.

"I think it's great in the short-term, but not in the long term," he said, noting the possibility of drought in 2015-16.

"The federal government needs to basically stop fish flows," he said, adding, "If we stopped the fish flows, we'd have 120,000 acre-feet more water behind New Melones this year."

The agreement still requires state approval. The districts this week petitioned the California State Water Resources Control Board to alter its river-flow requirements, filing a "Temporary Urgency Change Petition." The board is set to consider it next month.

Officials still warn New Melones could be mostly drained by fall, to meet downstream needs.

Congressman Tom

McClintock, R-Roseville, and Rep. Jeff Denham,

R-Modesto, were "instrumental in advocating for a balanced approach to all needs," according to OID and SSJID officials.

PUBLIC FORUM: A Lake Tulloch "Water Crisis Forum" will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Black Creek Park in Copperopolis, featuring federal, state and local representatives and water experts.