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DROUGHT: 3rd worst year since 1896

10% cutback for Manteca?

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POSTED February 11, 2009 5:18 a.m.
Barring a series of Sierra blizzards of Biblical proportions, the watershed that supplies water for South County farms and cities will face its third skimpiest yield in the past 113 years.

That’s not good news for almond and grape growers who are fretting over unusually dry soil for early February. Nor is it good news for corn and oat farmers who are faced with making a decision in the coming weeks whether to plant and face possible crop disaster or let land lay fallow and go without any income production.

Tracy, which relies on treated surface water from South San Joaquin Irrigation District to supplement its overtaxed well system while dealing with the double whammy of salt water intrusion, faces the possibility it’ll have water deliveries slashed by 10 percent along with Lathrop and Manteca. Salt water instrusion is a growing problem with each passing year of drought for farmers southwest of Manteca as the underground aquifer is being contaminated as less fresh water stands as a barrier to salt water seeping in from the San Francisco Bay.

The news isn’t my much better for the City of Manteca that is relying on surface water to blend with well water to reduce the levels of arsenic.

That is why the South San Joaquin Irrigation District board concurred Tuesday with General Manager Jeff Shields that agencies depending upon SSJID to supply water need to be notified of the worst-case scenario that could be developing despite storms over the next eight days expected to dust the Sierra with up to 20 inches of snow and to drop over two inches of rain on the South County.

SSJID directors also want meetings within the service area with farmers to apprise them of the critical water situation and steps the district is taking to stretch the supply.

SSJID tightening up on water use & theft

Those steps include:
•Keeping Woodward Reservoir at 190 feet – the level it is at now – to drastically reduce seepage and evaporation loses.

•Institute an aggressive monitoring system to go after those illegally taking water from SSJID canals.

•Implementing tightly controlled irrigation runs to eliminate spillage that will vary depending upon soil type of farms being served.

Those measures could have a devastating impact on non-SSJID customers who rely on ground water and spillage from SSJID canals.

The seepage from Woodward Reservoir is critical to recharging the ground water as is the flood irrigation of orchards. When flood irrigation of orchards is tightened up after the early runs it could substantially reduce water levels underground. The result would be non SSJID farmers forced to pump deeper which escalates power costs and cuts into the aquifier.

Flood irrigation of almond orchards is credited with helping the South County skate by severe aquifer problems plaguing the county east of Stockton.

Stockton East Irrigation District will also be notified they may not receive their contracted 15,000 acre feet of water. The SSJID under current striations can cut back delivery to 4,000 acre feet and charge more per acre foot of water they deliver.

The Stockton East has already taken water for this water year.

SSJID tightening up could spell trouble for farmers just outside of the SSJID service area north of French Camp Road. Many rely on spillage from SSJID canals to water their crops. Those farmers have been exploring the possibility of annexing to the SSJID service territory.

With 2008-09 shaping up to be a third straight dry year, the SSJID watershed on the Stanislaus River is heading toward the third driest year on record. The record was 1923-24 when 17.1 inches of snow fell triggering the worst drought in Manteca history when the last water delivery to area farms was made in June. The irrigation season normally runs through the middle of October. The second direst year on record was 1977-78 when 19 inches of snow fell. The average snowfall in the portion of the Stanislaus River basin that impacts SSJID is 50 inches.

Sierra snowpack at 27% of normal

The snow pack – which is essentially the state’s biggest reservoir for water – is at 27 percent of normal on the watershed supplying SSJID. January — the wettest month of the year on the critical Sierra watershed — ended up as the driest on record. February, the next wettest month, has been a bust so far despite the rain. Shields noted that as of Monday need snow had been recorded on the Tri Dam System in the Sierra that supplies part of the SSJID water. The Sierra snowpack is effectively the largest water reservoir in California and is the backbone of the supply chain for both the Central Valley Water Project and Stet Water Project.

The Central Valley Water Project could do the unthinkable this year and not deliver any water to farms and cities. The State Water Project Has already warned it would deliver only 15 percent of its contracted amount although there have been an indication that may be cut even lower.

“We’ve been blessed,” Shields said in noting the SSJID watershed is in better shape than much of the rest of the state.

He used a bit of dry humor, though, to put that in perspective.

“That’s like being hung by the softest rope on the gallows,” Shields said.

There is also the strong possibility that areas with more water than others may be tapped for water by the state declaring an emergency due to water supply conditions worsened by having more than 10 million additional Californians since the last drought as well as court orders to maintain fresh water flows into the Delta to keep fish populations at a specific level.

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