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Reservoirs starting to fill in California, but nobody’s saying the drought is over

Photos show varying water levels at Pine Flat Lake in 2015 (left), 2016 (middle) and now. Images were shot at the marina at the Deer Creek Recreation Area. The island that appeared the past two Januarys is now underwater.
Photos show varying water levels at Pine Flat Lake in 2015 (left), 2016 (middle) and now. Images were shot at the marina at the Deer Creek Recreation Area. The island that appeared the past two Januarys is now underwater. Fresno Bee staff

As a result of the nearly weeklong deluge, water is flowing into California lakes and reservoirs, prompting dam operators to release supplies in advance of a storm expected next week.

But it’s too early to say if the series of storms is a drought-buster.

“Very generally, the storms are very beneficial to reservoir storage,” said Ted Thomas, spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources.

But dam operators are watching the skies, he said.

Very generally, the storms are very beneficial to reservoir storage.

Ted Thomas, Department of Water Resources

“They are required to keep a certain amount of empty space for incoming water,” he said. “It’s always a balancing act. You want to conserve water for the hot summer and have room for flood flows.”

After a dry weekend, the National Weather Service is forecasting another storm next week.

San Luis Reservoir west of Los Banos is about 67 percent full, and more water is going into the reservoir, Thomas said.

“That’s 94 percent of the historical average for today’s date,” he said.

The balancing act is being felt in Madera County.

For the first time in six years, water is flowing in the Fresno River in Madera County after the Army Corps of Engineers began releases from Hensley Lake to make room for storm runoff.

Wednesday, about 2,000 cubic feet per second of water was being released into the Fresno River. (One cubic foot per second is 448 gallons in a minute.)

That’s up from 45 cubic feet per second on Friday. Releases will continue through at least Sunday, said Joe Forbis, chief of water management for the Army Corps’ Sacramento district.

The corps is also releasing water from Lake Kaweah and Lake Success in Tulare County, but not from Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River.

Pine Flat can hold about 1 million acre-feet. It was at about 430,000 acre-feet as of Wednesday. It would have to be at 643,000 acre-feet for the corps to start releasing water for flood control.

It’s too early to say if the storms that bought an “atmospheric river” into the state can be called drought-busters, said Shane Hunt, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“They’re definitely helping, but we need to end the snow season with at least an average snowpack and good storage levels in the reservoirs,” he said.

Water is also being released from Millerton Lake, managed by the Bureau of Reclamation. It captures San Joaquin River water.

There is a lot of pent-up demand for recharge basins and water-banking programs.

Dan Vink, Lower Tule River Irrigation District

Millerton Lake can hold more than 520,000 acre-feet, but the bureau’s goal is to keep it at about 351,000 acre-feet to leave room for incoming runoff. As of Wednesday, the lake held about 407,000 acre-feet.

“We’re a little bit over the conservation level,” Hunt said. “We’ll walk our way back to that conservation target.”

The lakes upstream in the upper San Joaquin River basin, such as Shaver and Mammoth Pool, have a total capacity of about 1.1 million acre-feet and are holding a little under 800,000.

Some water at Millerton Lake is being shunted into the Friant-Kern Canal for irrigation districts to take. The canal had been closed for maintenance and a construction project, but water started flowing into it Saturday night or Sunday, said Duane Stroup, deputy area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation in Fresno.

When the storms end and the ground starts to dry, irrigation districts and farmers will take some water from the canal, said Dan Vink, executive director of Lower Tule River Irrigation and Pixley Irrigation districts in Tulare County.

The two districts have been taking excess water out of the Tule River for recharge basins, he said.

“There is a lot of pent-up demand for recharge basins and water-banking programs,” he said. “All our recharge basins are full.”

Many irrigation districts have waited years for the chance to put water into recharge basins.

“It looks like it won’t be a dry year,” he said, “but I don’t know if it wipes out the impact of  years of drought.”

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

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