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Trying to go it alone with SSJID is foolish move for City of Manteca

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POSTED May 19, 2016 1:45 a.m.

Politicians, they say, are wise to know the lay of the land.
It is advice the Manteca City Council needs to take to heart to prevent municipal staff from inadvertently steering them down a path that fails to protect the community’s groundwater — that accounts for roughly half of the city’s needs — to the fullest.
Manteca along with all other California cities and counties need to join or form an authority to start the task of regulating groundwater by next year or else the state will move in and do the job for them.
There are several options for the council. They could join a basin-wide authority from Lodi to Ripon and the San Joaquin River to the foothills being pursued by the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, partner with Lathrop to create an urban authority, join the South San Joaquin Irrigation District along with Ripon and Escalon, or go it alone.
Staff stressed the need to put Manteca in a position of strength and argued they had the expertise on staff to handle legal matters, engineering needs and ancillary issues that go with essentially creating another layer of government mandated by the state. And to emphasis this isn’t just any old layer of government, staff astutely pointed out the groundwater agency would essentially have the power to tell people — including the city — whether they need to turn off their well pumps or whether they can sink new wells.
After that, staff’s advice started becoming counterproductive. They argued the SSJID proposal that had the five-member SSJID board as the governing body with representatives from the three cities on a technical advisory board as essentially an approach that would require Manteca giving up control of its own destiny.
That isn’t true unless you want municipal staff to directly control that destiny instead of Manteca’s residents.
The council, which will make a decision about what to do in the next few months, seems to have bought into the argument from staff’s perspective. Councilman Vince Hernandez suggested maybe extending the SSJID groundwater authority board to include an elected representative from each of the three cities, restrict the SSJID board to three members and have the seventh member either rotated between the cities or assigned to Manteca as it is by far the largest city in such a scenario.
Hernandez gave the impression it makes sense to go with the agency that has faithfully looked out for the City of Manteca since 1909 including pushing for the South County Surface Water Treatment Plant behind the visionary thinking of the late SSJID board member Nick DeGroot when the city didn’t think it was necessary. The councilman, without a doubt, is right. Without SSJID’s stewardship Manteca would be just a wide spot on the road as it is water secured and developed by SSJID that powered the city’s birth and growth.
Where Hernandez is off track — and staff as well — is their myopic view of the political landscape.
Much like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Manteca’s leaders have no idea that Manteca already controls its destiny.
There is absolutely no way that the majority of the SSJID board can get elected without securing the majority support of the Manteca voters in their respective director areas. Current incumbents John Holbrook, Dale Kuil, and Dave Kamper have large chunks of Manteca voters they have to answer to.  Manteca voters also have a say in the selection of the remaining directors. About a third of the voters in Bob Holmes’ distruct that incudes Escalon reside in Manteca. And about a quarter of Ralph Roos’ district includes Manteca with two thirds of it consisting of the City of Ripon’s population.
With 75,000 of the SSJID’s roughly 110,000 residents, Manteca already has a majority voice on the SSJID board. The SSJID board for all practical purposes has to have the best interests of Manteca city residents in mind as well as farmers or else they won’t get elected.
And no offense to municipal staff, but I seriously doubt their level of expertise with water issues comes anywhere close to SSJID’s whether it is procuring it, legal matters, inter-regional power struggles, or dealing with state mandates.
Both the Manteca municipal staff and elected city leaders have a lore more things on their plates to worry about than only water. Water is what SSJID does. And given how beneficial they have been to Manteca — as well as the farmers they serve — for the past 107 years there is no reason not to keep the relationship intact.
There are also practical matters. If the SSJID seeks to go to drip irrigation districtwide as they have done in Division 9 south of Manteca, that means flood irrigation of almond orchards will be virtually eliminated. That would have major consequences on recharging the water table. One would rather have a SSJID board that has to stay focused on everyone’s groundwater, urban and otherwise, than create a separate City of Manteca groundwater authority that wouldn’t be on their day-to-day radar.
Municipal staff is correct to a degree when they note being closer to the river we’re in better shape than the rest of the Eastern San Joaquin County Water  Basin, but keep in mind that comes with a significant cost. The high water tables we experience are kept fairly high during the drought due to salt water intrusion in the aquifer. More salt in water has serious consequences.
Besides the high water table issues that cause problems with laying pipeline and such does not involve portable water tables. The water tables that matter and that Manteca pumps from are much deeper.
Changing horses when you’re winning the race is foolish.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209.249.3519.

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