Deal on Stanislaus River fish could aid Lake Tulloch

A tentative agreement on Stanislaus River flows could shore up irrigation supplies and keep Lake Tulloch from emptying this summer.

The deal calls for regulators to relax the springtime flow requirements aimed at getting young salmon to the Pacific Ocean. The saved water could allow the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts to get through summer without draining Tulloch, an idea that had stirred protest from lakefront homeowners.

Each district would get up to 225,000 acre-feet of water this year under the agreement. That’s well short of the 300,000 available in better times, but more than what many districts elsewhere will deliver in this fourth year of drought.

“It’s not ideal, but I think it’s a genuine effort on everyone’s part ... to find a compromise with the hand we are dealt,” SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields said Tuesday.

His district and OID reached the agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the National Marine Fisheries Service, both of which are involved in river flows. The State Water Resources Control Board has consented to the change in spring flows and will consider related issues next month.

A key detail is that the releases are coming from New Melones Reservoir, which is just upstream from Tulloch. New Melones is the deeper of the two, so the water is colder, maximizing the benefit to salmon. And unlike Tulloch, it does not have homes around its shore.

The agreement did not impress Jack Cox of the Lake Tulloch Alliance. He told the Stockton Record that it is just a “Band-Aid.”

“This simply delays the day of reckoning,” he said. “It’s a fine stopgap measure, but it doesn’t look to 2015-16.”

The parties acknowledged that a fifth dry year would mean even greater challenges.

The agreement projects that New Melones will hold just 115,000 acre-feet at the Sept. 30 end of the current irrigation season – just 5 percent of its capacity. That’s when more releases will be needed for salmon returning from the ocean to spawn, Shields said.

OID General Manager Steve Knell said the state board will have to sign off on the proposed Sept. 30 level. It also will consider changes in the lower river’s salinity, temperature and dissolved oxygen, all indicators of water quality.

The increased flows were scheduled to begin Tuesday on the Stanislaus, which started the day at 200 cubic feet per second in its lower reaches. The river will hold at 1,500 cfs until early Saturday, then ramp back down to 200 by April 2.

The boost is happening about three weeks earlier than usual in an effort to maximize the lower temperatures, bureau spokesman Louis Moore said.

SSJID and OID have fared relatively well during the drought, thanks to conservation efforts and strong water rights, but they are feeling some of the pain this year.

SSJID has imposed its first cap on irrigation deliveries – 36 inches for its farmers around Escalon, Ripon and Manteca. OID also is considering a cap, also its first, for its users in northeastern Stanislaus and southeastern San Joaquin counties.

The Modesto Irrigation District is looking at a possible cap of 16 inches. The Turlock Irrigation District, MID’s partner on the Tuolumne River, could do about the same. The Merced Irrigation District expects to deliver zero river water this year, as do suppliers in many parts of the western and southern San Joaquin Valley.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.