New Melones an ‘absolute mess’

That’s how Jeff Shields, general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, described it to me the other day.

The key reservoir east of Stockton is 23 percent full and 40 percent of normal.

Last year at this time, with the drought already well underway, New Melones held more than a million acre-feet of water. Now it’s down to a little over half a million.


What gives?

“The fact is we just have not had any rain or snow in the upper watershed of the Stanislaus River,” Shields said.

This will, in fact, be the driest January on record in that watershed, with just .13 inches of precipitation upstream of New Melones at Beardlsey Lake, he said.

Sure, things got wet earlier this fall, but there was very little runoff into New Melones. That’s because the storms were spread out, Shields said. Reservoirs are replenished with runoff when multiple storms hit quickly. When there are long breaks between storms, the ground absorbs more water each time it rains.

What does this all mean?

South San Joaquin and neighboring Oakdale Irrigation District have senior rights to New Melones water. They are entitled to the first 600,000 acre-feet flowing into New Melones each year.

If there’s not 600,000 acre-feet of inflow, Shields said, the allocation is decided by a complex formula that would probably allow both districts to share about 450,000 acre-feet this year.

The forecast for the end of February is 544,000 acre-feet of water stored in the lake, Shields said. 544,000 acre-feet minus 450,000 acre-feet leaves us with 94,000 acre-feet to play with if there are no additional storms.

That certainly ¬†explains why the city of Stockton isn’t expecting to receive its contracted New Melones water this summer. Stockton East Water District and the Central San Joaquin Irrigation District contract for 155,000 acre-feet collectively. That water might simply not exist.

That doesn’t even factor in flows for Stanislaus River fish, and flows to flush salt out of the south Delta. In the water-starved San Joaquin River watershed, New Melones plays prominently in both of those roles.

This year, as Shields puts it, “New Melones is an absolute mess.”

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