This past weekend’s summer-like temperatures mean the state’s already meager snowpack is quickly melting. And for much of the Central Sierra, those waters will eventually find their way into Millerton Lake, behind Friant Dam. But as FM89’s Ezra David Romero tells us in our series Voices of the Drought, managing those waters is a tough job, especially this year.
Deep inside Friant Dam, Nick Zaninovich pulls out a ring of keys and opens a small gray door. We’re about to descend to the very bottom of the 319 foot tall concrete structure, to the original bed of the San Joaquin River.
“It’s nice and cool down here, watch your step," Zaninovich says.
He's the regional water operations manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs Friant. It’s an important job. The dam holds back the San Joaquin to form Millerton Lake, about 15 miles northeast of Fresno.
In a normal year, it provides precious water to farmers and cities from Madera County to Kern County, through both the river and the Friant-Kern Canal. The reservoir can hold over 500,000 acre feet of water, but right now it’s only at around 45 percent of its capacity.
As we walk through a cavernous system of tunnels and drainage channels, Zaninovich tells me a joke.
“What did the fish say when he hit the concrete wall?” Zaninovich says.
I say, “Dam?”
“Dam," he says.
But all humor aside, Zaninovich says the drought has made him a little nervous.
"We all hope and we all pray that this is it - we're gonna start getting wetter years again for a period of time before we go into the next drought, but there's no guarantee of that," he says.
At the moment water levels are slowly rising at Millerton Lake, thanks to a rapidly melting snowpack. But Zaninovich says they’re likely to come down quickly because of strong demand. If the lake drops too low, it could cut off access to the canal that provides water to several east side cities, like Orange Cove and Lindsay.
“What’s going to happen this year at Friant is that we’re going to try and sustain a minimum elevation to the Friant-Kern Canal," he says. "With that being said we are going to try and store a contingent amount of water for municipal and industrial use for cities that rely on that water. At this point there is a zero allocation for agricultural use coming out of Friant.”
About 30 feet from where we were standing inside the dam, an 18 inch flow of frigid water meets the San Joaquin River downstream.
“If we put too much water down the river then we hear about it from the water users that are on the canals and if we don’t give enough water then the folks on the river call us and say I’m not getting my water," he says. "So it’s quite a balancing act to meet those demands.”
Zaninovich says it’s even more complicated this year. A group of senior water rights holders called the Exchange Contractors could choose to draw down even more water from Millerton Lake. And that means Friant would essentially have to release whatever snowmelt is flowing in.
“Basically they will go into a pass through operation where what goes in comes out," he says. "On a daily basis if they get a thousand cubic feet per second in their reservoir on average per day then they are going to be releasing a thousand cubic feet per second.”
If that takes place, it would be the first time in the dam’s 72 year history.
“We’ve gotten close before prior to my time here but we’ve never gotten this close," he says. "We’re on the eve of this decision being made one way or the other. Before it was like it might happen or it might not, but this year it’s right on us. It’s right on the razors edge.”
Zaninovich says his department is working with water managers and users both upstream and downstream to find a solution.
“It seems like all the concerned parties are doing everything they can to look at all the alternative water sources out there and try to avoid making that call," he says.