LOS BANOS, California: Robert Haskins walked across a vast expanse of cracked mud, littered with old beer bottles and millions of tiny clam shells that in most Augusts would be 50 feet underwater.
But the San Luis Reservoir, the vast inland sea along Highway 152 that is a key part of Silicon Valley’s water supply, is only 10 percent full, the lowest level in 27 years.
“Normally that’s an island,” the Santa Clara Valley Water District maintenance supervisor said, pointing to a towering hill.
The nation’s largest off-stream reservoir is high-and-dry this summer, and it’s not really because of the drought. Northern California received the most rain this winter in five years.
Instead, a “perfect storm” of controversial human causes — from an attempt to save endangered salmon hundreds of miles away, to age-old water rights that give rice growers near Sacramento the water first — has left the state’s fifth largest reservoir so low that the last time the areas now dry were exposed to the air, George Bush Sr. was president, Joe Montana was quarterback of the 49ers and the Loma Prieta Earthquake hadn’t happened yet.
“It is extremely frustrating,” said Melih Ozbilgin, a senior water resources specialist with the district.
Some relief may occur in about a month. But for now not only has the situation enraged farmers, it has sparked algae problems and other headaches for nearly 2 million residents of Santa Clara County who drink the water.
What’s difficult for many people to grasp is how the massive reservoir could be so low after rains this winter were the best in Northern California in five years.
One of the most contentious reasons is the effort to save an endangered fish.
Even though the state’s largest reservoir, Shasta, near Redding, is 75 percent full, federal officials reduced the rate this summer at which they would normally release water from it. In a typical year, water would pour out of Shasta, down the Sacramento River to the Delta, and some would be drawn from pumps near Tracy to be put into San Luis, about 75 miles south of the Delta.
But this summer, in an effort to protect endangered winter run Chinook salmon, the National Marine Fisheries Service required the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to cut flows from Shasta from roughly 13,000 cubic feet per second to 10,500.
The idea was to preserve plenty of cold water, which sits deep in the Shasta reservoir, so that it could be released steadily through the summer at about 52 degrees, helping the endangered fish eggs and young fish survive in the Sacramento River.
Environmentalists say the decision was a good one. The iconic fish suffered terrible losses last year and the year before, in part because of the drought, but also water management.
“The past two years, they ran out of cold water in Shasta and the water got so hot it fried virtually all of the salmon,” said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Natural Resources Defense Council. “Because the salmon that are returning this year are perhaps the last winter run that exist in nature, they are being more conservative. This is the last of the last.”
But farmers say the bureau and the fisheries service are being overly cautious.