New Melones Reservoir

New Melones Reservoir was 54% full when this photo was snapped on Tuesday.

As much as 100,000 acre-feet of water — enough to meet the annual demand of more than 40,000 Tuolumne County residents for at least five years — that’s currently stored in New Melones Reservoir could soon be sent south to aid drought-stricken farmers under an agreement between the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts.

On Wednesday, the districts announced their respective boards had approved the proposal that would benefit agricultural contractors on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley who’ve been cut off from their typical annual water supplies through the federal Central Valley Project due to the drought conditions.

The districts have senior water rights on the Stanislaus River that entitle them to the first 600,000 acre-feet each year that flows into the reservoir, which is the fourth largest in California at a total capacity of 2.4 million acre-feet.

General managers of the districts said they had already secured this year’s water supply for their own customers and set some aside in case drought continues into next year to provide the water from the reservoir, which was about 54% full at nearly 1.3 million acre-feet as of Wednesday.

“The water is there because we’ve planned for droughts and implemented measures to make sure that it would be there when we need it,” Steve Knell, general manager of OID, said. “The emergency that exists demands extraordinary actions to mitigate the impacts of the drought emergency, and we are pleased to be in a position to help farmers on the west side of the Valley.”

Specifically benefitting from the transfer would be agencies that are members of the San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority, which would pay $400 per acre-foot, or up to $40 million. 

The San Luis and Delta Mendota Authority consists of 27 member agencies that provide water to more than 2 million people, 1.2 million acres of irrigated pasture and 130,000 acres of wetlands within the western San Joaquin Valley, as well as San Benito and Santa Clara counties.

Proceeds from the transfer would be split between SSJID and OID to be used for improving their water conveyance and distribution systems, the districts said.

Peter Rietker, general manager of SSJID, added that his district’s board was also “very concerned for the communities in the San Joaquin Valley who have endured over a year of COVID-19 and are now heading into the irrigation season with almost no water supply.”

Water would be sent from New Melones Reservoir beginning July 1 down the Stanislaus River and into the Delta, where it would be pumped south in the federal Central Valley Project canal  that typically provides the authority’s water supplies.

Due to the drought conditions this year, the CVP did not provide any water to agricultural contractors south of the Delta. 

The proposed transfer still must be approved by the State Water Resources Control Board and federal U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the latter of which owns and operates the reservoir that was constructed mainly for irrigation water supply, flood control and hydropower production.

“A zero allocation leaves us little option other than to reach out to other agencies who have available water supplies,” Frederico Barajas, executive director of the authority, said. “Fortunately, OID and SSJID have answered the call. The next step is for the state and federal government to quickly approve the transfer.”

Providing the water to the authority would have additional statewide benefits by helping water officials save as much cold water as possible in Oroville and Shasta reservoirs that could be sent down rivers in the fall to aid Chinook salmon returning to spawn, the districts said.

Having cold water for the endangered fish is important because their eggs can be “cooked” if the releases are too warm, the districts said.

California is currently in the midst of one of its driest years on record, with most of the state’s major reservoirs about half full. Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency on April 21 that he later expanded on May 10.

More than 85% of California, including all of Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, was in “extreme drought” on a map by the U.S. Drought Monitor released last Thursday.

The upper Tuolumne River watershed in the high southeastern end of Tuolumne County was in the most dire stage of drought — designated “exceptional drought” on the monitor’s scale.

As of Wednesday, the Stanislaus River and Tuolumne River watersheds had received just 18.3 inches of precipitation since Oct. 1, when the current water year began, according to a state Department of Water Resources five-station index that includes Calaveras Big Trees and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

The current water year total is seven-tenths of one inch less than the 19-inch total the Central Sierra region received for the entire 2014-2015 water year, the most recent severe drought year endured by Mother Lode residents.

Tuolumne County currently doesn’t have access to any water from New Melones Reservoir and benefits mostly from the recreational tourism it attracts, in addition to providing local public agencies with low-cost power. 

Negotiations are ongoing between the Bureau of Reclamation and attorneys for Tuolumne Utilities District, the county’s largest water purveyor, on a potential agreement that would provide a portion of water from the reservoir in times of need. 

The talks, which began under former TUD General Manager Tom Haglund, were expected to take at least two years when the TUD board approved entering a negotiating agreement with the bureau in late 2019.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 768-5175.