Jason Cowan
The Union Democrat

It was a nice, sunny afternoon in October along the New Melones Reservoir.

Joel Metzger was on the water in a raft just beyond Camp 9 Road, riding the same rapids that were so popular decades ago when the Stanislaus River flowed freely through the gorge between Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.

As he traveled downstream, passing through the canyon, he saw parts of the great limestone cliffs, once submerged under the water, bleached so bright they would glow under a full moon. As he leaned back on the buoyant platform to look upward, he saw the high-water mark, or bathtub ring, on the limestone where the water in the reservoir once sat.

“It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had on the river,” said Metzger, who is also a public information officer for the Calaveras County Water District, “I really did cherish the opportunity to see part of the county that I’ve never seen before.”

It was due to the drought that began in 2011 that left New Melones emptier than Metzger, who was born in 1986, had ever seen before.

As of Wednesday, New Melones, which has a surface area of 12,500 acres and 100 miles of shoreline, was 13 percent full.

At maximum capacity, New Melones has a water volume of 2.4 million acre-feet. The reservoir as of Thursday held just over 320,000 acre feet of water within its boundaries. The storage this year is down even from this time last year, when it held 550,000 acre feet.

It is the lowest water levels have been in New Melones since the drought of the early 1990s. The lake fell to 83,631 acre-feet in October 1992. The amount then was lower than the storage-level limitations imposed in 1980 by the California State Water Resources Control Board of 438,000 acre-feet. The New Melones Dam — which saw fierce public opposition, including one man chaining himself to a boulder on the surface — was constructed in 1979, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

The storage limitations lasted until early 1983, when a flood year saw water levels within the reservoir increase to 1.6 million acre-feet. At that point, the control board removed all filling restrictions.

Thus far in the water year, which began on Oct. 1, Shane Hunt, a public affairs officer for the Bureau of Reclamation, says that storage capacity has increased 55,000 acre-feet. In all, the reservoir has risen 15 feet.

Since the start of the year, the reservoir has seen inflows of approximately 125,000 acre feet — about 80 percent of the average through the first three months of the new year — but has released water daily.

There is always a release, Hunt said. Water is released from every reservoir to meet stipulations, such as state and federal obligations, contract elevations, water right obligations, fish needs among other needs.

On Wednesday, the reservoir released water at a pace of 220 cubic feet per second, which is not considered fast. Though many independent variables are involved to influence the speed, Metzger said it is water that can be kayaked on.

Hunt said, most times, larger reservoirs like New Melones — which is among the top five largest in the state — release water to generate hydropower.

“People are releasing water from the dam during the day for three or four hours at the most,” Hunt said. “Like turning on a faucet.”

Hunt said New Melones is unique. The reservoir is one of the few that can hold every drop of water without releasing any. But it also does not fill to maximum capacity as often as others might.

“But it does fill,” Hunt said. “When it does, it’s a flood year.”

Forecasts indicate that it is unlikely that the reservoir will fill this year, despite the weather in the Mother Lode thus far. Hunt says the River Forecast Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is forecasting slightly below average inflow this year — a little more than 1 million acre feet.

To fill New Melones, the inflow would have to be double the forecasted indications, and the reservoir would have to retain all of it, with no release.

The rise in water capacity and elevation is not something restricted only to the wet weather months, however. Metzger says the New Melones Reservoir could continue to see a steady increase into the spring months.

“That’s when the snow at the higher elevations melt and travel down the watershed,” Metzger said.