Editorials

A new lake in west Stanislaus County? That sounds good

The area west of Patterson Calif. along Del Puerto Canyon Road is pictured on Wednesday afternoon May 29, 2019. A proposal for an 800 acre reservoir that would include a lake in the scenic canyon in the foothills west of Patterson is underway.
The area west of Patterson Calif. along Del Puerto Canyon Road is pictured on Wednesday afternoon May 29, 2019. A proposal for an 800 acre reservoir that would include a lake in the scenic canyon in the foothills west of Patterson is underway. jlee@modbee.com

In a few years, a new 4-mile-long lake amid cliff-framed hills could be visible for about 15 seconds to people driving 60 mph as they pass Patterson on Interstate 5, 25 miles southwest of Modesto.

At a time when building anything large and important — like roads, dams and bridges — can be tied up in red tape and take forever, the optimism of this reservoir’s supporters is audacious. And unless opponents emerge with impressive arguments, the Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir deserves the area’s support.

This is a good project because:

  • Capturing water in wet years will allow owners to provide more water in dry years to farmers on the West Side of Stanislaus County, as well as parts of San Joaquin, Merced, Fresno and Madera counties.
  • Some should be available for wildlife refuges, too.
  • It could mean more reliable groundwater for communities like Patterson, Newman, Westley, Grayson and Gustine.
  • It could reduce periodic flash flooding of Del Puerto Creek. Its neighbors are not as much at risk as those down the road near Orestimba Creek, but this still is a positive.
Opinion

If the dream becomes reality, the new reservoir would be owned by Del Puerto Water District, based in Patterson, and four water agencies stretching south of Patterson to Mendota between I-5 and the San Joaquin River. Draft environmental studies are expected in a few weeks, and construction could begin in 2022 and finish six years after.

They hope to build a 200-foot earthen dam costing up to $500 million on Del Puerto Creek just west of I-5 and Patterson, plus three or four small saddle dams to contain the new lake of up to 85,000 acre-feet of water, with a surface area of 800 acres. By comparison, Woodward Lake north of Oakdale holds 35,000 acre-feet, and Turlock Lake holds 45,600 acre-feet.

So far, the idea has generated relatively little opposition, led by bird watchers who enjoy the canyon’s rugged beauty and wildlife.

Patterson City Hall is closely watching, because the collapse of a poorly planned dam could inundate that community of nearly 24,000.

Del Puerto Water District and its partners, who would pay for this project, must take their questions seriously and provide adequate responses in upcoming studies.

Others might be expected to come forward. For example, off-roaders who enjoy Frank Raines Park should pay attention to plans for relocating Del Puerto Canyon Road, which will be expensive and difficult.

The project also would require moving some utilities, including a Shell Oil gas line.

And, proponents acknowledge “archeological features” in the canyon, but they say none are sacred to Native Americans. Tribes will want to verify this.

It’s too bad Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir, because of steep slopes, would not be available for boating and other recreation. Owners say they’re open to hiking trails, which might lessen opposition from birders.

Proponents say they’re undaunted by any of these challenges. Some water storage proposals, such as Sites Reservoir near Colusa, or Temperance Flat in Fresno County, have been floating around for decades with little forward progress. The Del Puerto idea likewise arose quietly a few years ago, but only became public this year, and again, mostly has escaped negative publicity.

That’s largely because fish aren’t involved. Most other dams are on rivers and affect fish habitat; this wouldn’t.

Second, it would be privately owned, avoiding the headaches of state or federal ownership. And it would not affect the Delta and hypersensitive balancing between its agricultural and environmental interests.

Opponents to the Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir, if any, must articulate reasons in upcoming comment periods. Otherwise, it appears that more good than bad will come from a new lake in our region.

Garth Stapley is The Modesto Bee’s Opinions page editor. Before this assignment, he worked 25 years as a Bee reporter, covering local government agencies and the high-profile murder case of Scott and Laci Peterson.
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