In a cruel twist of irony, the people most likely to suffer from drought this year live right next to lakes.
Some foothills folk near Tulloch, Don Pedro and McClure reservoirs east of Modesto are nearing panic mode as their water supplies slow to a trickle, or threaten to. Many blame environmental rules requiring that dams continue releasing water to benefit fish in the Stanislaus and Merced rivers.
About 3,200 people in Lake Don Pedro communities are on track to run out of water altogether before July. They get domestic water from nearby McClure, whose level has not been lower since the Exchequer Dam was finished in 1926.
“It’s depressing,” said resident Vicki Keefe. “If we end up with no water, our homes are worthless. And you can’t live in a house that doesn’t have water.”
Thousands more around Tulloch, one of the few California reservoirs with waterfront homes, learned this week that their lake could be reduced to a puddle come summer. The lake provides water for their taps and is a popular fishing, boating and camping destination.
“This is misguided policy and bad science pushed by environmental advocates who simply don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Tulloch resident Jack Cox.
U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, last year pleaded with President Barack Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown to intervene, but came up dry. Maybe they’ll listen this year, the congressman said Friday.
Salmon advocates “are willing to sacrifice property values and the local economy and the water supply of the entire community to keep water temperatures a bit colder for fish,” McClintock said. “This is insane.”
Agricultural interests have dominated river-use policy since foothill dams have captured mountain snowmelt in the past century. Policies more friendly toward fish and other wildlife have been gaining traction at state and federal levels, where regulations have been adopted requiring that so much water flow in the spring, reducing reservoir levels.
Dangerously low levels at McClure, which feeds the Merced Irrigation District, are among the most critical in California. The water district serving Don Pedro communities, which rely on McClure, recently warned that their source could dry up by mid-March. State officials agreed to relax the fish-flow requirement, providing a reprieve, but only until about June 29.
“Everyone is anxiously watching,” said resident Jack Wilmeth. Neighbors are deciding which of their trees to save with water captured in buckets while waiting for showers to get warm, he said.
“Most everybody is pretty scared about this,” Keefe agreed. Her front yard tree is blooming in February, weeks earlier than usual. “We know summer’s coming.”
Some neighbors blame past board members of the Lake Don Pedro Community Services District, some of whom were replaced in fall elections, for refusing to bite the bullet and order drastic conservation measures last summer. That reduced the district’s eligibility for grants because agencies are more inclined to help those willing to help themselves.
The newly constituted board hired contract general manager Pete Kampa, who helped develop a strategy including water-use restrictions and drilling wells. The trouble is the district has no money and the well project could cost $1.3 million.
The district already has drilled two test wells and came up dry both times. Each stab in the dark costs $20,000.
At a community meeting Thursday, the board agreed to hold a public hearing soon on a proposal that each customer cut the amount of water used last year after March by half this year; on Friday, the state Office of Emergency Services told Kampa that gesture could be enough to fetch some urgency grants.
“We’re going to conserve a lot of water, drill some wells and hope for the best,” Kampa said.
His customers at Lake Don Pedro use a total of 600 acre-feet of water a year. That’s less than the amount McClure releases every two days to benefit fish in the Merced.
On the Stanislaus, a 16-day “pulse” flow in April, timed to help push young salmon oceanward, drained 63,000 acre-feet from foothills dams.
“We cannot demand that our people scrimp and save and stretch and ration every drop of water in their parched homes while at the same time this government treats our remaining water supply so recklessly, so irresponsibly and so wastefully,” McClintock fumed on the House of Representatives floor in May. He’ll try again this year, he said.
“The drought is Mother Nature’s fault; the water shortage is our fault,” he said Friday, because a generation has gone by without state leaders building new dams.
Tulloch resident Cox, a former journalist and chief of staff for former Sen. Barry Goldwater Jr., said the crisis ought to mobilize legislators on both sides of the aisle. Environmentalists should recognize that draining Tulloch, where he photographed bald eagles a week ago, would ruin habitat for birds of prey and other species, he said.