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Stealing water could cost $4,200

SSJID, Stanislaus watershed may not benefit from El Nino

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Stealing water could cost $4,200

A Caltrans electronic message sign in Sacramento reminds motorists California is in a severe drought.

Photo contributed/


POSTED May 14, 2014 1:47 a.m.

Steal water from the South San Joaquin Irrigation District or use it on land it is not intended for and it will cost you $1,500.

Do it a second time and you’ll get slapped with a higher $2,700 fine plus be permanently cutoff from accessing district canals.

The SSJID on Tuesday took the first steps toward imposing draconian fines for water theft after directors were told not to put too much hope that an El Nino weather system — should it materialize as some meteorologists predict in 2015 — will break the back of the drought that’s now in its third year.

SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields shared historic hydrology data from the Stanislaus River watershed from previous El Nino years. El Nino patterns that start when water warms above normal temperatures near the equator in the Pacific Ocean typically brings wetter years to California. Most of the time in an El Nino year extra water falls along the northern coast and the north state. The Stanislaus River watershed typically can expect a one in three chance of more rain and snow, a one in three chance of normal precipitation, or a one in three chance of below average rain and snow in an El Nino year.

“We have people saying go ahead and use water freely as an El Nino year is on the way,” Shields said. “It’s not a sure thing by far.”

In the past El Nino weather patterns have sometimes abruptly stopped before the arrival of winter meaning no extra water anywhere in California.

That is why conserving water continues to be the mantra for the SSJID.

“Cities and farmers should get what they need this year,” Shields said.

That said the improved water outlook has an asterisk. That’s because even with careful conservation the district is still going to have to dip into the conservation account at New Melones Reservoir. Back in February the outlook was so bleak the district looked as if it would need to wipe most for it out to meet the needs of farmers and the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy. Now they are hoping to use less than half of the 75,000 acre feet stored as part of their account behind New Melones Reservoir.

A fourth dry year in 2015 with a reduced water conservation account would make it difficult at best to meet the basic needs for agricultural irrigation as well as urban uses. It is why conservation is still the 24/7 battle cry.

“We need to have as much water as possible (in the conservation account) at the end of the water year,” Shields said.

The district is keeping irrigation runs at 12 days. But if water supplies shrink faster than anticipated the district may switch to 10 day runs. The SSJID still intends to start lowering the level of Woodward Reservoir on July 7 meaning on-water recreation would cease for the season.

One thing that appears to be working in the district’s favor is the fact signs point to an earlier harvest due to the warmer weather at the start of the season. If that happens the district could avoid October or even late September irrigation runs to save water.

The district is also holding off on pressing the three cities to pump more water to reduce the use of surface water.

That’s because more water pumping from wells will overtax the underground aquifer creating supply problems for those that depend upon that source of water for domestic and irrigation uses.

Shields indicated that in past years there have been two or three cases of water theft uncovered by ditch tenders. That number is expected to increase as the state prepares to move to cut off some riparian water users and as wells run dry or significantly reduce water production.

“Hopefully farmers in need of water will work with us,” Shields said. “We will do everything we legally can to help them for a year.”

But if they opt to steal water instead, the SSJID will have fines in place to deal with water thieves as allowed under state law.

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