Stanislaus River pact would end local defiance

The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts are optimistic that state water officials on Friday will approve a compromise that should satisfy local farmers and fish advocates and keep Tulloch Lake high enough for recreation until fall.

If terms are finalized Friday, the irrigation districts would end this week’s defiant snatch of Stanislaus River water meant to help fish, and a surge of higher-than-normal flows would resume.

A deal would guarantee that farmers near Oakdale, Riverbank, Escalon, Ripon and Manteca get the amount of snowmelt captured behind New Melones Dam that they’ve been counting on. New estimates of runoff flowing into the reservoir predict an extra 35,000 acre-feet than initially feared, OID said Thursday.

The districts for a short time Wednesday channeled extra water, released by federal agencies, to Woodward Reservoir near Oakdale rather than letting it run down the Stanislaus, where it would help propel young steelhead trout toward the ocean.

Tom Howard, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, said he’ll approve the deal only if information submitted by the districts and federal agencies checks out. He added that the districts on Wednesday should not have pulled a fast one by seizing the extra water meant for fish.

The drought has reduced New Melones’ level to about 23 percent of capacity. Although the districts normally split 600,000 acre-feet of water, they agreed last month to tighten belts and get by with 450,000; SSJID put its farmers on a water diet with its first delivery cap, and OID expected to follow suit this week until plans were set aside when the fish-flow spat arose.

The districts said they had not anticipated the latest surge, called a pulse flow. Although the sight of a swollen river in times of drought can be alarming, it’s timed by environmental agencies to best help young fish. The Tuolumne River, the main source for the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, also swells with spring and fall pulse flows managed in accord with the federal Endangered Species Act.

The districts disobeyed pulse flow etiquette because, they said, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the State Water Board had not confirmed that the extra water wasn’t coming from the districts’ share of New Melones storage.

“All we’re saying is, ‘If you think this is a credible use of your water, tell us it’s your water’” and not ours, said Jeff Shields, SSJID’s general manager. “Don’t surprise us and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, where did the water go?’”

This week’s standoff occurred when the districts saw that the federal agencies were preparing a pulse flow that would not leave enough water in New Melones for fall surges. The districts diverted a small amount of pulse water to Woodward for safekeeping, prompting the federal agencies to reduce the Stanislaus’ flow to normal pending Thursday’s meeting in Sacramento. It was attended by all affected parties, plus staffers of U.S. Reps. Jeff Denham and Tom McClintock.

“When you walk in, sit down and look across the table, you can get a lot done,” said Steve Knell, OID’s general manager. “We’ve got our fingers crossed, but we’re not putting candles on the cake yet.”

Howard’s staff is reviewing a load of technical documents, many provided by the districts, including temperature modeling – because fish like cold water – and water-quality tests. Officials had worried that water from the lower depths of New Melones could carry too much dirt, but analyses suggest it should be OK, Shields said.

The Stanislaus and Tuolumne also play a role in keeping saltwater at bay near the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and providing correct concentrations of oxygen.

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