Jason Cowan
The Union Democrat

A year ago, New Melones Reservoir was just a hair under a quarter of maximum capacity.

The next several months, however — through spring, into summer and then fall — would see storage levels drop so significantly, it looked more like a river than a lake.

The reservoir has crept back up to about the same level as it was last March, but the difference can be seen when you look to the hills and beyond.


Rain provides the immediate benefit, but the snow melt that will come after the rainy season ends will make all the difference, said Louis Moore, a deputy public affairs officer for the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir.

In some places in the Sierra Nevada, snowpack is more than 100 percent of the historical average.

Joel Metzger, spokesman for the Calaveras County Water District, said with a couple more strong storms, the reservoir could reach 700,000 acre-feet before too long. That would be not quite one-third of its 2,400,000 acre-feet capacity.

If everything went well, with wet weather continuing into April, storage could reach 1 million acre-feet, or about 40 percent of capacity, he said.

He added the reservoir could get close to full if a number of massive storms entered the region, though he acknowledged that was unlikely.

Already, the artifacts and vegetation that had been revealed after decades underwater — like the old Parrotts Ferry Bridge — are being submerged once again.


The idea for New Melones as far back as the 1940s was primarily to build a dam on the Stanislaus River to impound water for flood control, but also for irrigating the fields of the Central Valley. Environmentalists protested.

The reservoir, they argued, would cover up whitewater rapids, but more importantly it would hide one of California’s — and in fact the West’s — deepest limestone canyons.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction on the dam in 1966, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation took over when work was finished in the late 1970s.

Protesters, including one man who chained himself to a rock, managed to prevent the lake from filling until 1983, when heavy rains and floods did the work the government could not push through.

Then came the drought of 1987 to 1992, dropping the water level so low, the old dam was visible.

In a history of the project done by the Bureau of Reclamation, officials say New Melones was “a case study of all that can go wrong.”

It is the last large dam built in California, and it is the fourth largest man-made lake in the state by volume.

Water released from New Melones flows to Lake Tulloch, which the Calaveras County Water District draws from to provide for thousands of customers in Copperopolis.

From there, it flows down the Stanislaus River, combining with the San Joaquin into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and eventually to the Pacific Ocean.

“It is now clear that water availability for the New Melones Project is significantly different than expected,” the 1994 report by the Bureau of Reclamation said. It went on to say the project would likely never realize the potential planners had envisioned.

For the record books

That is where the lake remains today, locked in a five-year drought that reached a mere 13 percent capacity at its lowest this past year.

As of Wednesday, the reservoir was at about 23 percent capacity, about 50,000 acre-feet less than exactly one year ago.

This year has offered a good turnaround, Louis Moore, a deputy public affairs officer for the Bureau of Reclamation, said.

At its worst, the storage levels were well below the 438,000 acre-feet storage-level limitations imposed in 1980 by the California State Water Resources Control Board.

It was not until the second-half of last month that the reservoir exceeded the storage limitations that were ultimately lifted in 1983, a flood year that saw the reservoir increase to 1.6 million acre-feet.

Moore said Wednesday, the reservoir is also saving quite a bit of water in the system. Data from the Bureau of Reclamation Monday indicated that the reservoir received inflows of 3,914 cubic-feet per second, with 27 cubic-feet per second going out. One day earlier, the reservoir received 6,112, with 204 outgoing.

“(There is) quite a disparity between what is coming in and what is going out,” Moore said.

Most larger reservoirs, like New Melones, release water to generate hydropower. Other stipulations that dictate water release include state and federal obligations, contract elevations, water-right obligations and fish needs.

Metzger, of CCWD, said while New Melones Reservoir is capturing a vast majority of water, the inflow and outflow can fluctuate pretty significantly.

“We’ve seen almost 7,000 cubic-feet per second for storms,” said Metzger, who works for a district that uses water released from New Melones.

Though New Melones is rising at a seemingly rapid rate, Metzger said storage levels are not rising nearly as fast as some of the other Northern California reservoirs.

Since the beginning of March, Shasta Lake, which can hold 4.5 million acre-feet, has increased almost 1.3 million acre-feet. Bureau of Reclamation data Monday showed the lake received an inflow of 43,965 cubic-feet per second — the lowest since March 10 — and released 1,262 cubic-feet per second.

“They have had much higher rains in the north and south,” Metzger said. “We haven’t had nearly as much precipitation.”

Lake Folsom, on the American River in Sacramento, Placer and El Dorado counties, was at 118 percent of its historical average and earlier this month opened its floodgates for the first time in four years.