The Stanislaus River and environs experienced dramatic changes beginning with the Gold Rush. The site of the reservoir is at the very heart of Gold Country, and development began there with the arrival of the miners in the 1840s. Water was immediately diverted, the riverbeds scoured for gold, and the banks colonized by miners and the businesses that served them. By 1900 the flowing water was used to create electricity. Some of it was channeled out for use in agriculture. The original Melones Dam was built in 1926.
The New Melones Project was authorized in 1944 to create a much larger reservoir and to establish a new hydroelectric plant. It would also be specifically designed to prevent floods. It was a controversial issue. The dam's opponents argued that its presence would inundate the river valley, eliminate the natural whitewater rapids, flood many of the massive unique limestone cave formations characteristic of the area, and destroy archaeological resources found along the river. Initial archaeological surveys were made by the Smithsonian River Basin Surveys in 1948 (Fredrickson 1949). Further surveys were done by regional universities. The consensus after the surveys was that the dam would be built. Upon the dam's completion, the valley filled with water, covering the old mining town of Melones and the original Melones Dam.
The lake was constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers and transferred to the Bureau of Reclamation shortly after its completion in 1980. Cultural resources affected by the project were transferred to the Department of the Interior with the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Services (HCRS, a short-lived organization that was established during the Carter administration) responsible for the archaeological mitigation program. New Melones is a unit of the Central Valley Project.
Today New Melones Lake provides irrigation water, hydroelectric power, flood control, wildlife habitat, fishing, camping, boating, and other recreation as part of the Glory Hole Recreation Area.
The New Melones Visitor Center and Museum contains information about local history, cultural and natural history. Exhibits focus on the use of the Stanislaus River by prehistoric and historic peoples, including Miwok Indians, the California Gold Rush, ranchers, and the now defunct community of Robinson Ferry, renamed Melones in 1902. Other exhibits highlight the area's geologic past, natural history and the New Melones project.
New Melones Lake Activities for Spring 2012 Support the America's Great Outdoors and Let's Move Initiatives
Mar 23, 2012; WASHINGTON -- The following information was released by the Bureau of Reclamation: The Bureau of Reclamation's Central California...