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Hopes dry up: Tight water year is here

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POSTED February 21, 2009 5:10 a.m.
There’s a silver lining in the dry cumulus clouds that have passed over the South County during the past year – the foresight of the founders of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District.

Many California farmers are plowing under crops and tearing out orchards while mandatory water rationing is in effect in a number of urban areas as the state reels under the news Friday that the Central Valley Water Project is reducing water deliveries to zero for farm users for the start of March while drastically cutting back urban customers. That, however, isn’t the case in SSJID territory.

General Manager Jeff Shields believes with aggressive management and everyone working in unison to watch water use from SSJID ditch tenders and farmers to urban users the South County will survive the third year of the drought.

The SSJID board has taken steps to stretch the district’s water supplies. They 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.

•Asking Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy – three cities that secure treated surface water from SSJID sources – to tighten up and aggressively enforce water conservation measures.

The Bureau of Reclamation made it official what water managers up and down the state had feared – there will be no deliveries of water from the federal dam system to agricultural users at least for the first two weeks of March. The State Water Project is slashing deliveries to 15 percent.

The storm that just passed and two more predicted in the coming weeks can’t reverse the accumulative impact of a third consecutive year of drought coupled with the driest January on effort in terms of Sierra snowfall.

The Bureau’s announcement Friday verified what the SSJID has been projecting since mid-January – there is an estimated run-off of only 360,000 acre feet at the moment. Due to senior water rights established a century ago this spring on the Stanislaus River water shed, SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation District equally share the first 600,000 acre feet of inflow. And although ultimately there may be slightly more water than that to run into New Melones Reservoir this spring,  there will be no water deliveries for Stanislaus River contractors for the Central Valley Project’s Eastside Division.

New Melones as of Friday morning had 1,183,026 acre feet. The reservoir has a capacity of 2,419,523 acre feet.

It is perhaps appropriate that this May in the middle of a third year of drought that SSJID is celebrating its 100th anniversary of securing senior water rights on the Stanislaus watershed and forming the district to bring prosperity via agriculture to the South County.

The building of Goodwin Dam on the Stanislaus River above Knights Ferry in 1913 and the completion of irrigation canals triggered the rapid spread of farming and prosperity around Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon. As agricultural growth taxed the young SSJID system, the Woodward Reservoir storage facility was added in 1916.

Those two improvements, though, weren’t enough though when drought hit in 1924. Voters in 1924 eagerly approved bonds for the Melones Dam. The dam was completed in 1926 and was credited with adding $700,000 in annual crop production (1926 numbers) to the South County region. The Melones Dam also was responsible for avoiding a repeat of 1924 twice when dry years produced little rain or snow.

The Tri-Dam Project on the Stanislaus River – a partnership with Oakdale Irrigation District – in 1955 added additional water resources. The Bureau of Reclamation eventually replaced Melones Dam with New Melones while SSJID and OID continued to have water rights secured by the original dam.

SSJID weathered the drought of 1977 and again in 1982 providing virtually full deliveries. The SSJID expected to do the same thing this water year with aggressive conservation measures and water management.
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