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SSJID fights to protect water

Drought prompts state options to up end water right law

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SSJID fights to protect water

Come October there may not be enough water in the Stanislaus River to float boards as is shown here on t he river as it runs through Caswell State Park..

HIME ROMERO/ Bulletin file photo/

POSTED May 25, 2014 11:58 p.m.

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District has something that at least two thirds of California wants — water.

And the SSJID board isn’t about to let state water bureaucrats use the drought emergency as an excuse to toss aside legal court adjudicated rights to Stanislaus River water that the district can trace back to 1853.

“There is 150 years of water rights law that were put in place for times such as droughts to provide order,” SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields said. “It’s not an issue when water is plentiful.”

Shields was in Sacramento last week testifying before the State Water Board that has been presented by staff with the option to deal with the statewide drought including two options that the SSJID general manager said “turn water rights on its head.”

Shields reminded the state board that the agency’s executive director Tom Howard in a letter to the Manteca Bulletin last month stated emphatically that any action the state would take during the drought would protect superior water rights held by agencies such as the SSJID. Howard was responding to a Bulletin story outlining SSJID board concerns over a letter the state sent them regarding possible curtailment of water rights.

The State Water Board on Wednesday issued curtailment orders for three creeks including Mill Creek and Bear Creek due to projections they will run dry and endanger salmon. That means no water can be taken from those creeks for any purpose even if someone holds water rights.

The next set of curtailment orders are expected to be issued by mid-June.

The state has indicated they will also probably order all water users to stop diverting water for storage from rivers in the coming weeks. In SSJID’s case, that would apply only to water flowing into New Melones Reservoir. It doesn’t cover water released from New Melones that the district has stored already for downstream diversion into Woodward Reservoir.

Shieds noted tossing aside water rights would have a “chilling impact” on financial markets. That’s because bonds used to secure expensive dams and delivery systems are based on districts having certain water rights.

California’s pecking order for water rights is based on first in line, first served.

The SSJID appropriated water rights in 1909 by purchasing miner water rights and others that dated back to 1853 on the Stanislaus River watershed. They were legally adjudicated in court in 1923. That means the district has adjudicated pre-1914 water rights that under California law are superior to virtually everyone else except those with riparian water rights that have been used annually predating 1914.

Simply holding water rights, though, doesn’t guarantee them unless they have been put to beneficial use. The SSJID has done just that. They built Woodward Reservoir in 1914. In conjunction with the Oakdale Irrigation District the SSJID built Goodwin Dam shortly after the two districts were formed. They also built the original Melones Reservoir in 1925. Then in 1952, the two water districts developed the Tri-Dam Project consisting of Beardsley, Tulloch, and Donnells reservoirs.

All of the funding for the five reservoirs came from local property taxes. Not a single federal or state penny was spent on any of them.

Then in the 1970s the two districts agreed to allow the Bureau of Reclamation to create New Melones Reservoir by inundating the original Melones Reservoir in exchange for guaranteeing the two districts the first 600,000 acre feet of inflow every year into New Melones.

Since then the district has provided surface water to the cities of Manteca, Lathrop and Tracy and has plans to provide it to Ripon and Escalon to supplement ground water pumping. That is in addition to 54,000 acres of farmland that are irrigated with SSJID water within the district’s 72,000 acres,

The SSJID has also put in place a $3 million farm water conservation program district-wide plus paid $E14 million for a state-of-the-art pressurized delivery system for drip irrigation in Division 9 west of Ripon and south of Manteca. Such a system is considered the ultimate irrigation delivery system to maximize water efficiency and conservation. Few irrigation districts have such a system that is controlled by farmers using their smartphones and tablets.

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