Ken Carlson

County Pulse: GOP leaders ask president, governor for strategy to capture El Niño runoff

In letters to President Barack Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives and California Legislature asked that federal and state agencies take steps to capture and store the runoff if El Niño storms produce significant precipitation in the next few months.

Experts have said a strong El Niño, or warming of ocean waters, could result in big storms for a state that’s suffered through four years of drought.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and fellow Republicans suggested that lawmakers have not always acted to increase storage behind dams for cities, farms and businesses.

“As you know, California is experiencing the driest years on record since 1895,” the GOP letter stated. “This has resulted in communities we represent depleting their existing water supplies or simply running out of water altogether, as we have seen in some Central Valley regions.”

Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen of Modesto was among those who signed the letter from state lawmakers. They are posing a number of questions:

▪  Does the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and state Department of Water Resources, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, have plans for increasing storage with El Niño precipitation?

▪  If there are no plans for changing operation of the state’s water system, what is the timeline for developing a strategy?

▪ How will state and federal agencies overcome regulations, such as fish protections in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, so more water can be sent to Central and Southern California?

▪ What special actions have been taken to capture water for human use?

Don Pedro Reservoir in Tuolumne County has the ability to hold more than 2 million acre-feet of water for Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts. Those districts deliver water for farms in the Valley, helping to replenish groundwater. Under a special contract, the MID treats some water released in the Tuolumne River for homes and businesses in Modesto.

Don Pedro is essentially at one-third capacity as we head into the wettest time of the year.

TID spokesman Calvin Curtin said there are no plans for operational changes to boost Don Pedro storage if the heavy storms materialize.

The dam’s operating license requires the release of a certain amount of river flow for environmental purposes.

Don Pedro also provides flood control in coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If a deluge reminiscent of 1997 or 1983 hits our part of the state, mandatory protocols would be followed to prevent flooding in the Valley, Curtin said.

“What we can divert is pretty much etched in stone,” TID Board President Ron Macedo said. “We are limited to our storage capacity. We will save as much as we can.”

There is no guarantee a strong El Niño will generate a large amount of precipitation. According to the Republicans, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a 66 percent chance of normal to above-normal precipitation in Northern California this winter.


Anxiety has run high in Stanislaus County over the punishing drought, dry residential wells and the effects of agricultural pumping on groundwater levels. County officials say they have received reports on 80 failed residential wells and know there are more.

County-hired consultants have developed a permit-review process to regulate the drilling of powerful agricultural wells, according to a presentation to the Board of Supervisors this week.

County government was criticized for issuing hundreds of well permits last year before Nov. 26, which became the effective date for tougher review of drilling applications.

Roseville-based Jacobson James & Associates drafted the review process, which requires applicants to show their proposed wells won’t have undesirable effects on groundwater. County leaders asked the consultants for an objective, well-documented review process that protects groundwater but is “not unduly burdensome.”

An administrative review will determine if enough information is received from applicants to show groundwater will be pumped in a sustainable manner. According to the application materials at, the county wants to prevent:

▪ Chronic depletion of groundwater levels. Overdraft during a drought period may be tolerated, however, if extraction and recharge is managed to ensure reductions in groundwater levels during drought years are offset by water table increases in other years.

▪ Significant and unreasonable reduction of groundwater storage.

▪ Land subsidence.

▪ Degradation of water quality, including the migration of contaminated groundwater plumes.

Farmers can have new wells sunk in water districts that have an approved groundwater-management plan without jumping through the permitting hoops.

The new well permit application requirements can be viewed at, under the “application packet” resource link.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321