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Water shortage declared; SSJID moves to assist alfalfa growers

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POSTED March 14, 2012 1:03 a.m.

Not even an early winter irrigation run in January was enough to stave off drought-like conditions for some area growers.

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District Board of Directors on Tuesday morning formally declared a water shortage for the 2012 season that typically runs from April 1 through Sept. 30. They also ordered staff to prepare to deliver water on Monday, March 19, in an attempt to prevent further deterioration of forage crops that have been ravished by the unusually dry and warm winter season.

A host of measures will be put into action to make sure that the district properly monitors its water usage. The list includes flexibility measures approved by the four-member board (Director Dale Kuil was absent due to medical reasons) intended to provide additional resources including not making deliveries to “Tier 2” customers and lowering the peak elevation at Woodward Reservoir from the normal 210-foot elevation down to 205 feet.

The motion that was ultimately approved was made by Director Bob Holmes, who spoke openly about how alfalfa and wheat growers on the west side of Manteca and out into Escalon are facing a 50-percent loss of their current crop without immediate assistance from the district.

“They’re suffering crop loss as we speak. It’s extremely critical that we provide some assistance on the eastside,” Holmes said. “There are rains that are predicted but they aren’t here yet and we don’t know exactly what they’re going to bring.”

A variety of other measures are also going to be taken. The district will partner with the Oakdale Irrigation District in employing a “water cop” that will search for people that steal the precious resource via pumps from legitimate recipients. The fines associated with such an infraction will also increase to discourage people from attempting to swipe the water.

The installation of a high-tech pressurized drip irrigation system for tree crops – something that 19 local growers have already implemented – will also help save water when compared to other irrigation techniques.

And if the district had its way, they would have started the season with at least tens of thousands of acre-feet of additional irrigation water that the Bureau of Reclamation claims was released from New Melones Reservoir for flood control purposes.

According to SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields, the district has an agreement with the Bureau that allows them to carry over any unused water (SSJID has the rights to the first 300,000 acre-feet of water that flow into the reservoir) to the next irrigation season as long as there is capacity.

When the district agreed to use their system to help the Bureau deliver water at the end of the season, Shields said, they did so thinking that they had an allotment that was going to carry over to the next year – an amount that would have covered at least two irrigation runs.

But at the start of the year when they checked in on the account, they were told that it was empty. A grievance has been filed, and the process is moving along. A conclusion to that process isn’t expected in the near future.

But a lucky break in the weather might actually serve as a multiplier for growers worried that the most of the irrigation run coming next week will be soaked up by bone-dry soil.

As it dumps snow in the Sierra – at elevations lower than 5,000 feet – the storm Accuweather predicts could carry rain through the beginning of next week could take care of at least some of the ground saturation between now and when the ditch tenders open the water gates.

Knowing that the storm was going to help fill in the snowpack was enough for grower Woody Van Buren to push for the run two weeks prior to the normal start of the season.

“Two inches of rain is equal to a whole lot more supply at the higher elevations,” he said. “I think right now is the time to start. Enough people need it.”

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