Jeff Jardine

Bridge over troubled Stanislaus about to be inundated again

A view of the water level at Lake Don Pedro on Feb. 2, 2016. The reservoir stands at 41 percent of its 2.03 million-acre-feet capacity. Taken from Shawmut Road near Chinese Camp.
A view of the water level at Lake Don Pedro on Feb. 2, 2016. The reservoir stands at 41 percent of its 2.03 million-acre-feet capacity. Taken from Shawmut Road near Chinese Camp.

Sometime soon, and possibly by the end of this week, we’ll again bid goodbye to the old Parrotts Ferry Bridge.

It’s been nice revisiting the 78-year-old concrete crossing, north of Columbia State Park in Tuolumne County, since it re-emerged from the murky waters of New Melones Reservoir last summer. It had been submerged from the time the last major drought ended in the mid-1990s until about six months ago. Its reappearance rekindled memories for those of us who recall driving down into the brush-lined Stanislaus River canyon and crossing it to go to Natural Bridges, Moaning Cave, Vallecito, Bear Valley and points beyond. And for those who in 1979 tried to stop the government from filling the reservoir – and eliminating miles of whitewater in the process – it brought back some emotions as well as the thrill of rafting the rapids once again.

When the lake level fell to 797-foot elevation (above sea level and the lowest point of the ongoing drought) on Nov. 20, the river returned to its original channel beneath the old bridge. Now the winter runoff and snowmelt are under way and likely accelerated by temperatures in the 70-degree range forecast for at least the next seven days. The lake is up 40 feet, or about 6 inches per day, since November and registered at 837 feet on Monday. When it gets to about 840 feet, the bridge will begin its vanishing act again, unlikely to be seen anytime soon. Or will it?

Unless you live in Southern California, surf the giant Maverick waves at Half Moon Bay or own the apartment complex dangling over the cliffs at Pacifica, the vaunted El Niño to this point has been ho-hum. Unimpressive, for the most part. Driving into the foothills last week, the lower-level streams and brooks that boom during winter rain are flowing, but not as much as you’d expect with the rain we’ve had so far. Country creeks that normally have as much as 8 to 10 inches of water where they cross the concrete road fords have maybe 4 inches.

Sure, the Sierra snowpack seemed at its best since 2011, with an early reported snowpack of 123 percent above average. But the Super Bowl of winter storm patterns thus far has been as overhyped as the Super Bowl itself. State hydrologists on Monday released new and less-promising numbers for the Central Sierra: 106 percent of average for Feb. 8 and a forecast of 74 percent of the April 1 average.

That is not a drought-breaker. In previous El Niño years, February and March have been major snow and rain producers. But this February has been dry, with above-average temperatures – like the T-shirt weather we’re experiencing now – forecast at least through Feb. 16. There’s still hope, officials claim.

“With our recent dry spell, we’ve been getting a lot of social media inquiries asking if El Niño is over,” the release stated. “The answer is ‘No.’ The sea surface temperatures are still in the strong category and are expected to remain there into the spring months.”

When comparing New Melones’ water level from one year ago and today, there’s some serious catching up to do. On Feb. 9, 2015, the lake stood at 24 percent of capacity, 34 feet higher, and holding 156,736 more acre-feet of water than it does today at 17 percent full.

Both Lake Don Pedro on the Tuolumne River and McClure on the Merced contain more water than they did a year ago, but they are still below average for this time of year.

Two things to consider: First, hydrologists warned even as the Pacific Ocean’s water warmed and El Niño formed that it would take several good winters to overcome the effect of the four-year drought and refill the reservoirs.

Secondly, the 1992 drought was much worse. New Melones’ level fell so low that it didn’t fill even the old Melones Reservoir footprint, which is about an eighth the size of the newer reservoir. The old Melones Bridge, five miles downstream from Parrotts’ Ferry, was completely out of the water and the Stanislaus ran beneath in the original riverbed. We made it through that one.

But the demands are greater now, from agriculture to fish and environmental and domestic needs.

Which means that for as cool as it was to walk across the old Parrotts Ferry Bridge again, it’s time to say goodbye and hope we don’t have to see it again anytime soon.