Lake Tulloch Reservoir near Copperopolis could be drained by Oakdale Irrigation District later this summer if the dry weather continues. File photo / Union Democrat.
Lake Tulloch-area residents in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties are concerned a fourth year of drought and federally mandated water releases for fish will dry up what is a key reservoir and tourist attraction later this summer.
Oakdale Irrigation District announced Tuesday it was considering draining Tulloch by July or August. This would help OID meet federal requirements to provide water for fish in the Stanislaus River without depleting the much larger New Melones Reservoir farther upstream, according to OID.
“The goal is to work cooperatively with federal and state officials to stretch what little water there is behind New Melones Reservoir and the other dams the district share(s) to satisfy the crop needs of its 2,900 agricultural customers this year and still bank some water for 2016,” the district said in a prepared statement.
Draining the 67,000 acre-foot Tulloch Reservoir would allow the district and federal government to maintain between 40,000 and 50,000 acre-feet of additional water in New Melones. The savings would be equally split between OID and its partner, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, as both have rights to the water behind the dam.
Relatively warm storms in February did little to bolster the storage at New Melones. The reservoir was holding about 604,000 acre-feet as of Thursday. That’s only about 25 percent of its more than 2 million acre-foot total capacity, and 40 percent of the average for this time over the past 15 years.
New Melones was at 44 percent of its maximum capacity at this time last year, according to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Louis Moore.
The total water storage in New Melones by the end of September has dropped by about 500,000 acre-feet for the past three years, from 1.5 million acre-feet in 2012 to 529,339 acre-feet in 2014. At the same time, California has experienced one of the state’s driest stretches in recorded history.
Not helping matters are federally mandated water releases in April to June each year for salmon, intended to mimic the increased river flows from snowmelt that would occur naturally without the dams in place. Federal and state regulators have maintained the required minimum outflows at New Melones, despite the abnormally dry weather since 2012.
This year, the Bureau of Reclamation is scheduled to ramp up water releases from New Melones in April from 200 cubic-feet per second to 550 cubic-feet per second through June. Moore said the increased releases are part of regulatory requirements commonly referred to as “fish flows.”
According to OID, the total amount of water to be released from New Melones for fish flows this year is expected to be about 128,000 acre-feet. For perspective, the 44,000 residents in Tuolumne County served by Tuolumne Utilities District use about 17,000 combined.
If the weather continues to be dry for the remainder of winter and early spring, the bureau projects New Melones’ storage will shrink to about 123,000 acre-feet by September. The water behind the dam becomes too low to release or generate hydroelectricity when it gets down to 80,000 feet, a condition known as a “dead pool.”
However, Moore said the projections could change if seasonal precipitation returns in March. “These are forecasts,” he said. “They may not have any reality to them whatsoever.”
Still, OID water managers are preparing for the worst-case scenario. The district board plans to meet March 3 to consider moving forward with draining Tulloch, and other operational options to save up to a total of about 70,000 acre-feet.
Copperopolis-area residents are worried about what will happen to their lakefront properties if Tulloch is drained. Others are concerned about the impact on the local economy and tourism.
“It would be devastating to the community,” said Rob Adamson, president of Copper Cove at Lake Tulloch Owners’ Association. “It would probably impact places like Murphys as well. I think it would have a wide-reaching effect.”
It could also affect property owners and home values.
The Copper Cove subdivision has a membership of about 2,500 property owners, said Grant West, a resident of Copper Cove and former president of the association.
Other subdivisions surrounding the lake include Calypso Bay, Connor Estates, Peninsula Estates and Poker Flat.
“I think you’re looking at drops in real estate prices,” West said. “All of the marinas and boat rentals would be out of business, even the local stores. Go see what it’s like in the summertime before a big weekend. They are packed. But all of that would be gone.”
A chief concern for residents is the area’s water supply, which is provided by Calaveras County Water District via Lake Tulloch. The district delivers water to more than 2,500 residents in and around Copperopolis, according to CCWD.
The district says CCWD is working with Oakdale and South San Joaquin to ensure plans are in place so the Calaveras district can continue providing a safe and reliable water supply to the community.
If the reservoir is drained in late summer, the projected water level would be below CCWD’s intake facility where it pumps water out of the lake and sends it to a water treatment plant. Installing new pumps would likely cost upward of $100,000.
“Continued access to water from Tulloch is a very important part of our water supply reliability for the Copperopolis community,” said CCWD General Manager Dave Eggerton, “so we are very concerned about any recommendation to pull the reservoir down to a level below our intake facility.”
Tuolumne Utilities District entered an agreement last year with South San Joaquin for drawing backup water out of New Melones to serve Columbia. TUD General Manager Tom Scesa said on Thursday the backup source won’t be needed this year because the district last year dredged Matelot Reservoir to increase storage for Columbia.
Although TUD is confident about its water supply this year — the result of conservation by customers and district operation changes — a fifth consecutive drought year in 2016 would likely be a different story. The district plans to hold public meetings on the need for future water-storage projects.
“Historically, our main reservoir has been snowpack,” Scesa said. “If that’s not dependable anymore, what does the community want to do moving forward?”
Jack Cox, of the Lake Tulloch Alliance, a group representing the various homeowners associations in the area, wants to see “immediate action” from state and federal lawmakers to curb the required “fish flows” and other mandated water releases during periods of drought.
“What we need right now is a coalition of Democrats and Republicans to work together around an emergency action to end or significantly curtail any more releases out of these reservoirs,” he said. “If we can get a coalition of people around something like the Rim Fire, we should be able to do it with something like this.
“It’s not just about Lake Tulloch and whether people in their big, fancy houses can put their boats on the lake, this is about misguided policy that’s being administered by the U.S. government. We need representatives to come together on this and support quick and immediate action.”
Congressman Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, said he’s had a difficult time over the past year getting other members of Congress — particularly those from eastern states — interested in California’s drought issues as they relate to the required fish flows.
“I tried to raise hell about it,” he said, adding that he has called for a temporary suspension of the requirements in a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. This year, he hopes to get a bill passed that would suspend the requirements in years of extreme drought.
McClintock said a bill is needed because he’s not gotten any assistance from Gov. Jerry Brown to convene a committee with the Secretary of the Interior and other top officials that could take administrative action to temporarily suspend the requirements immediately.
Regardless, McClintock says he will remain aggressive on the issue and try to get something done by adding his legislation as a provision to an omnibus water bill and introducing it separately as a standalone bill.
“Something needs to be done legislatively anyway,” he said. “This is the extreme to which these environmental laws have gotten, and they need to be brought back under control.”