Rep. Denham trumps Sen. Feinstein’s call for more water storage

Rep. Denham trumps Sen. Feinstein’s call for more water storage

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is calling for more water storage for California. But the storage already exists for much of what is needed. New Melones Dam and Lake, which are under the purview of the federal government, sit half empty due to regulatory overkill.  The dam is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and is located east of Stockton along the foothills of the Sierra-Nevada Mountain Range.

New Melones Dam (Wikimedia)

New Melones Dam (Wikimedia)

As a solution, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Modesto, has proposed H.R. 2554. In the bill’s language, it aims “to increase water storage availability at the New Melones Reservoir to provide additional water for areas served below the reservoir, and for other purposes.” The bill further specifies that none of the added water storage can go toward the dam’s “conservation account,” which already takes most of the water stored during dry years.

New Melones is California’s first “Green Dam”

Melones is a former settlement formed around a ferry terminal along the Stanislaus River in Calaveras County. It now sits submerged under a lake formed by the New Melones Dam built in 1979 mainly for flood control and agricultural irrigation.  Water originally designated for farming has mostly disappeared, except in very wet years. The water didn’t disappear from drought but from a series of regulations.  An April 9, 2013 Board Letter of the Tuolumne Utilities District explained:

“The Bureau [of Reclamation] has not been delivering the water because the water for delivery to a contractor hasn’t been available from Melones, except in above normal years.  The shortage results, not from drought conditions, but from Congress’ enactment of the Endangered Species Act in 1972, from Congress’ enactment of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act in 1991, and the SWRCB’s [State Water Quality Control Board’s] adoption of the Bay Delta Water Quality Control Plan in 1995 and its implementation decision D 1641 in 2001.  All of these resulted in required increases in bypass flow from Melones.  All of these actions combined have resulted in the Bureau saying that, except in very wet years, all of the yield of New Melones is now required for water quality and fishery flows in the lower Stanislaus and in the Delta and there is no water available for the [irrigation] Project.”

New Melones Dam may now be called California’s, and the U.S.’s, first “green dam.” It is only able to meet its contractual obligations to supply farm water to all recipients during wet years.

Farming and commercial mining losses

Environmental water diversions from New Melones also have caused the Stockton East and Central San Joaquin areas to suffer the greatest shortages of contracted water.  In dry years these agricultural districts were shorted more 100,000 acre-feet of water.

Part of the dam improvements include a system of pumps costing about $11.3 million in today’s dollars owned and operated by the Tuolumne Utility District to supply the Columbia and Sonora Mining Company. In the current operating regime, the pumps have sat high and dry during three dry years, causing even greater loss of commercial productivity over and above agricultural losses.

Denham’s Bill

Denham’s new bill would require that local irrigation districts be offered a contract to store up to 100,000 acre feet of water in the unfilled portion of New Melones reservoir.  The reservoir has a capacity of 2.4 million acre feet of water.  That is enough water to irrigate about 800,000 acres, or 1,250 square miles, of farmland for one year.  Some 450,000 acre-feet of the water are stored for flood control.

But the reservoir is reported to be often less than half empty due to priority diversion of water to the environment.  As of July 6, the California Department of Water Resources reported that New Melones reservoir is at 51 percent of total capacity, but 82 percent of its historical average of 2.0 million acre-feet of water.

The additional water proposed for storage in the reservoir could also be used for water transfers or exchanges for water-short Central Valley farmers; or to provide a source of cold water for migrating fish in dry years.

The Denham bill requires no appropriation of federal funds and no construction of new dams. It would not have significant negative environmental impacts and would help recharge Central Valley groundwater basins. Farmers have offered to pay to park the added water in the reservoir, and water could be made available for the 2014 irrigation season. All that would happen if the bill is passed by Congress.

Denham’s bill offers to drain part of the proverbial swamp of regulations that is keeping farmers, miners and the environment from needed water supplies.


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  1. Linda
    Linda 24 July, 2013, 17:31

    She calls for more storage for water and all the while they are working night and day to remove the dams on the Klamath River in northern California. They are doing under the guise of saving fish. The fish they are want to save is a non native fish to the Klamath River system
    . Some relative must have interest in building water storage in the southern part of the state. That is how Feinstein, Boxer and Pelosi work. They feather their own nest.

    Reply this comment
  2. Bill - San Jose
    Bill - San Jose 24 July, 2013, 19:16

    30 new reservoirs / dams with hydro-electric. Problems solved.

    Two senators / one stone.

    Reply this comment
  3. Itachee
    Itachee 25 July, 2013, 05:45

    I have worked on and studied CVP operations and issues for 35 years. What most people don’t realize about New M is that USBR while doing its design and yield studies grossly over estimated the average runoff on the Stanislaus River. Put another way New M is much larger, about 35% actually, than is necessary for the watershed runoff. That, coupled with downstream environmental demands, is precisely why New M rarely ever fills.

    Reply this comment
  4. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 25 July, 2013, 09:22

    Reply to Itachee

    Thank you for your intelligent comment.

    I believe what we’re talking about is just re-allocating existing Melones Lake water so that 100,000 acre feet can be used for farming instead of spilled and allowed to flow to the ocean or evaporate. Please correct me if I am in error.

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  5. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 25 July, 2013, 09:32

    There is an interesting article in this week’s Pasadena Star News about Morris Dam in the Angelus National Forest above San Gabriel Valley in the Los Angeles area. The dam will silted up and could not spill enough water to recharge aquifers and settlement basins below in the valley. The basin of the dam was dredged and a newer hydraulic spillway was installed that now allows more spillage. I assume that such an engineering fix might be possible on the New Melones Dam as well. The article in the Pasadena Star News is: “Morris Dam Upgrades Improve L.A. County’s Water Preservation, Management Efforts,” July 24, 2013.

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