Jeff Jardine

A view of the drought from the bottom up

New Melones, on the Stanislaus River, in November. This is the Stevenot Bridge (Highway 49), taken from old Highway 49.
New Melones, on the Stanislaus River, in November. This is the Stevenot Bridge (Highway 49), taken from old Highway 49. Modesto Bee file

Sometimes words aren’t enough. Charts, graphs and even photos might help somewhat. But there’s nothing like seeing it in person.

The drought is one of those cases. The groundwater we can’t really see. That bigger picture requires math, computer models and serious guessing.

But the surface water – man-made reservoirs that store water for irrigation and keep the valley from flooding (with 1997 being a catastrophic exception) – offers a more stark and obvious picture. Take a drive into the foothills and you’ll see lakes that, using their high-water marks as measuring sticks, look like puddles. And if you really want to experience the shock and awe of it all, skip the vista points and go to near the water’s edge, then look up – way up.

Wednesday morning, I took a walk down the old Parrotts Ferry Road, north of Columbia State Park, to where the silt-covered pavement disappeared into the murky water of New Melones Reservoir. It’s a road I’d traveled many times while growing up in Sonora, and often with my grandfather to visit his brother in Vallecito. The path has been narrowed by brush above the high-water mark, but still seemed familiar, as did the hairpin turn upstream toward the bridge. A gate, rusted from decades in the drink, stands open on another road leading downstream toward the new bridge.

Otherwise, it’s another water-depleted reservoir, the hillsides of which have been exposed for so long in this drought that shrubs are starting to grow. The pavement remains, though, all the way to the bridge and, presumably, up the Calaveras County side as well. The Duchess Mine tailings stand guard overhead as a reminder of where the road once crossed the Stanislaus River below.

About a week ago, Federal Bureau of Reclamation officials anchored a couple of white buoys marked “Hazard,” in essence warning boaters that the old bridge is nearing the surface. To be clear, the bridge isn’t rising. It’s in the same place it’s been since a previous version washed out, replaced in 1937 by what lies beneath. The water level is coming down to the bridge and, sometime in late June or early July, will expose it once again to daylight and people.

At high-water mark, the lake level is 1,088 feet above sea level. It is now at about 848 feet, or 240 feet down. When you are standing near the bottom you get a real feel for how much water isn’t in that reservoir. A feeling of emptiness? Think of the 49ers or the Raiders starting at their own 20-yard line and looking at the goal line 80 yards away, down four scores.

Because the irrigation season is underway, and due to releases mandated for fishy reasons, the lake has dropped nearly 8 feet since April 29 and is falling by more than 3 inches per day. When the water drops below about the 840-foot elevation, the bridge will begin to emerge for the first time since 1992.

The piers of the bridge that replaced it, completed in 1979 and about a half mile downstream from the old one, have been completely out of the water since last summer. That bridge rises 355 feet over the original riverbed.

A few miles to the west, just two of the five piers of the Stevenot Bridge on Highway 49 remain in the water. The bridge rises 450 feet above the riverbed.

Around the corner and just upstream, concrete foundations from the old town of Melones, originally known as Robinson’s Ferry, are now visible to the naked eye.

Granted, the reservoir has been lower than the 456,000 acre-feet it holds today. The old Highway 49 bridge at Melones was completely out of the water in 1992, when the reservoir dropped to about 100,000 acre-feet and didn’t even fill the footprint of the old reservoir before New Melones Dam was completed in the late 1970s. But there are far more people needing or wanting the water now than in 1992.

Standing Wednesday where the old highway now enters the lake, looking up at the bridge, I was reminded of craning my head out of the school bus window as we were headed to play a football game in San Andreas in the early 1970s. It was under construction at the time. The piers were in place but the span wasn’t completed. Even so, the bridge impressed then because it was so tall, so far above the old reservoir level.

It is nearly as impressive today, perhaps more so because it is apparent how much water the lake will hold.

I can tell you about it ad nauseam. We can print graphics and charts and photos that attempt to put this drought into perspective from the sheer volume standpoint.

But there’s nothing like standing at the bottom and looking up to understand how far down the water has come, with an entire summer to go.