Lake Tulloch water outlook precarious

Pressuring Gov. Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama might represent the best hope for Lake Tulloch neighbors trying not to wither in the drought.

That’s what an overflow crowd of several hundred anxious people in Copperopolis heard at a meeting Saturday sponsored by irrigation districts warning that farmers’ thirsty crops might force them to reduce Tulloch to a veritable puddle this summer.

A coalition of homeowner groups said Monday that they’ll sponsor their own town hall meeting at 10 a.m. March 28 with an appearance by Rep. Tom McClintock and perhaps other legislators. They are lobbying state and federal officials to relax Stanislaus River rules favoring fish habitat; the rules govern the river’s flow, including the irrigation districts’ water supply.

Meanwhile, a Modesto Bee calculation shows that the irrigation districts’ official warning about draining Tulloch – even at the minimum amount announced – would reduce its level below the intake source for municipal water. In other words, 2,500 customer accounts in Copperopolis and around the lake would lose their tap water source, absent some other solution.

That would mean no water for drinking, bathing or anything else for nearly 10,000 people in thousands of homes and a nearby state prison. The foothill lake between Oakdale and Jamestown is a popular spot for boating, fishing and camping.

The Calaveras County Water District, which pumps from the lake to a treatment plant before delivering it to customers, says it could extend the lake’s intake pipe to a deeper spot in a nearby canyon, costing at least $100,000. That could allow taps to continue flowing even if the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts make good on a warning to send from 40,000 to 50,000 acre-feet of water from Tulloch to farmers.

At its normal summer elevation, Tulloch holds 66,344 acre-feet. Draining 40,000 acre-feet would bring its level just below the municipal intake pipe, and a 50,000-acre-foot reduction would take it far below.

The irrigation districts have offered two points of justification: First, Tulloch’s mission is agriculture, not recreation or municipal water; and second, it’s easier to comply with fish rules regarding water temperature when Tulloch resembles a pond rather than a lake.

The irrigation districts’ partnership, called Tri-Dam, sponsored Saturday’s meeting and advised people to check its website, at www.tridamproject.com, for regular information updates.

McClintock attempted last year to persuade federal authorities to relax fish requirements but got little traction. On Monday, he told The Bee he’s trying again this year but declined to share publicly a letter to Obama circulating among various agencies.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.