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SSJID: 101 years of making the right moves

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POSTED May 23, 2010 2:05 a.m.
Men driven by a vision of bringing prosperity to the sandy plains on the southeast edge of the Delta have put Manteca and its neighbors in Ripon and Escalon in one of the strongest positions in California when it comes to water and power.

Manteca wouldn’t amount to much of anything today if it hadn’t been for the formation of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District 101 years ago. Farming using well water wasn’t producing abundant crops. The agricultural production wasn’t much to support a town let alone a railroad stop.

That all changed when the SSJID was formed to bring water from the Stanislaus River to Manteca by diverting it at Knights Ferry.

The SSJID founders had critics. They were told it was foolish, too expensive, and would be a big flop. The farmers who helped launch SSJID had faith in their conservative approach to a long-term investment.

Within a year of irrigation water arriving in Manteca, a boom was on.  Manteca was virtually doubling in size. More people moved her to buy land to farm. Plentiful water helped improve the quality of life and money that families could earn.

The SSJID board followed it up with another shrewd move by building the 36,000-acre-foot Woodward Reservoir to provide an in-district storage facility to make sure adequate water could be stored for irrigation runs.

As farming literally mushroomed, the SSJID board realized the district would be vulnerable during a drought. They proposed building the Melones Dam. This time around, the critics were able to convince voters that it was unnecessary and a waste of money. Two years later in 1924 a severe drought hit laying waste to farms. Voters then reversed their sentiment and Melones Dam was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1926.

By the next year, the dam had added $700,000 annually to crop production in the SSJID territory. The new dam was credited with saving Manteca famers several times in the ensuing 20 years when droughts hit.

In the 1930s, the SSJID leadership made plans to build the Tri-Dam Project with Oakdale Irrigation District. It involved three dams, three power houses and seven miles of tunnels carved through solid rock.

The project didn’t move forward until after World War II.

Naysayers called it a boondoggle and claimed it would hurt taxpayers.

The Tri-Dam Project gave SSJID three times the amount of water than the original dams supplied plus power that it sold to PG&E through 2005 to pay off bonds to construct the system.

It stands as a rarity in California as it was built without a cent in state or federal funds. In fact, the entire SSJID system was built without having to hit up Sacramento or Washington, D.C.

The federal government finally saw the potential of the Stanislaus River watershed by completing the New Melones Reservoir on the site of Melones Dam with the creation of 2.4 million acre feet of storage. The Bureau of Reclamation was able to build the reservoir by agreeing to provide SSJID and OID with their historic water rights.

Those water rights have been used to provide a clean, safe and secure water source for Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy domestic use

The same SSJID board also put in a solar farm to power the surface water treatment plant to avoid the cities being held hostage to escalating PG&E power bills that had reached $450,000 annually to treat the water. At the same time, the solar power provided juice without interruption. The same couldn’t be said about PG&E which often had power disruptions to the treatment facility.

Now the SSJID is taking two more bold and well thought out initiatives.

The first is to convert an area southwest of Manteca to a closed irrigation system which means less water use and a decrease in salinity issues in farm soil.

They are also harnessing the benefits of Tri-Dam - in excess of $12 million a year that the SSJID clears alone - to reduce power costs 15 percent across the board in Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon.

The SSJID board has not gotten to this point through recklessness or knee jerk decisions.  It’s been a deliberate 12-year process.

Yes there are naysayers - many of whom have PG&E ties- who say it won’t work.

Given the 101-year track record of the SSJID, their conservative approach, the fact they are flush with revenue, haven’t raised taxes in over 20 years, have been able to suspend water fees twice in the past decade due to their fiscally conservative management, have delivered wholesale power virtually flawlessly for 55 years including more than a half century to PG&E, and has never had to lay off a worker due to money flow issues there is no reason to suspect that the SSJID leadership has gone crazy.

They are just carrying out a 101-year tradition of forward thinking that has brought prosperity to Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon.
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