What are we supposed to do with all this water?

Joe Sallaberry, president of a reclamation district along the San Joaquin River, shows where high flows have caused seepage into an oat field near Crows Landing.
Joe Sallaberry, president of a reclamation district along the San Joaquin River, shows where high flows have caused seepage into an oat field near Crows Landing. jholland@modbee.com

Danger could be headed our way. Again. Those living near the San Joaquin and Tuolumne rivers west of Modesto have already seen high water, and they’re going to see much more.

A week of higher temperatures in the mountains could turn snow into runoff. That would be nice if we had some place to put the water, but we don’t. The state is dragging out the process of spending the $2.5 billion voters approved in 2014 for more storage.

Our reservoirs are full, or close to it. That’s especially true of Don Pedro on the Tuolumne River. Built to hold 2,030,000 acre-feet, it had 1,980,360 as of Friday – leaving a 2 percent cushion. Knowing there’s 17 feet of snow in Tuolumne Meadows and an estimated 2 million acre-feet of frozen water in the watershed, dam managers would like to increase flows now to avoid an emergency later.

If the snow melts slowly, the Tuolumne River can likely handle it – though it will remain high for months as it flows through Modesto. But if all that water arrives at once, we’ll have the same kind of problems the folks living along the San Joaquin and lower Tuolumne are having already.

The San Joaquin River is already out of its banks in places in western Stanislaus and southern San Joaquin counties. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is releasing twice as much water as is flowing into Fresno’s Millerton Reservoir (10,500 cubic feet per second) and another 7,600 cfs is flowing out of the Merced. Add 10,000 from the Tuolumne, and the San Joaquin looks more like the Sacramento on an average day.

What does 28,000 cfs look like? It’s roughly 200,000 gallons a second, or 12.6 million gallons a minute. That’s enough water to cover a football field 36 feet deep. And that’s without any additional snowmelt or rain.

All that water is putting some badly dilapidated levees near Manteca under extreme stress. In the last storm, a large gap opened in one levee; if not for some fast-acting farmers who risked their heavy equipment to close it, it could have been a disaster.

If those levees fail, hundreds of homes in Manteca and Lathrop could be flooded.

That’s why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – knowing full well how much water awaits above – won’t allow greater releases from Don Pedro. They’d rather bet on continued cool weather than create “unnecessary risk downstream,” said Corps spokesman Rick Brown.

It’s hard to fault the logic, but we know all that snow eventually will melt. So isn’t keeping Don Pedro so full chancing a greater risk to more people later?

“We are already above danger stage downstream,” Brown said. “That ‘known danger’ is what we have to deal with.” But he admitted, “looking into a Magic 8 Ball is a little precarious.”

We didn’t need a Magic 8 Ball to see this coming. It’s been obvious for years.

In 2015, state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani requested $110 million from a 2006 bond to fix these very same levees. Her legislation died. So Galgiani asked for $5 million to study possible solutions. Before providing even that much, state and federal agencies wanted local officials to identify where the water would go if it topped stronger levees.

“It’s unbelievably frustrating,” Galgiani said. “The bureaucracy is so strong that we end up fighting to address a crisis after it happens instead of getting in front of it. I was trying to get ahead of it, but I got shot down.”

So, we must rely on already-full reservoirs to hold back any deluge.

Manteca and Lathrop aren’t blameless. In 1997, Manteca had only the Highway 120 bypass to protect it from flooding if those old levees broke. It threw sandbags onto Union Road, which runs under the bypass, to halt any floodwater. Yet, the city allowed hundreds of homes to be built behind those same century-old levees south of the bypass. The city should have known better.

Perhaps the weather won’t warm quickly. Perhaps we won’t get another late-winter storm. Perhaps we’ll dodge another flood.

We’re not the only people dealing with floods; we’re just the only ones getting so little help.

The people of the Northern San Joaquin Valley deserve the same kind of concern shown those living closer to Sacramento, the same kind of solutions being considered for those living in San Jose. We need to make our levees stronger before they break. Danger is headed our way; we need help in heading it off.