The South San Joaquin Irrigation District is guaranteed water — providing it snows in the Sierra.
There are all kinds of agreements, legal documents, understandings and adjudications that make it so. But it has to rain. And it has to snow. And while Mother Nature finally let precipitation fall in the last few weeks after 52 straight dry days slightly easing the driest year on record, SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields is more concerned about the long-term trend.
Shields threw a whole bunch of charts and graphs and numbers at those gathered Thursday at the Manteca Historical Society to try and point out what, ecologically speaking, is going on right now in California and how it will affect the day-to-lives of growers, residents and, ultimately, the world at large.
And he was able to boil it down to one alarming recent trend.
The SSJID – which built the original dam in 1925 to create Melones Reservoir in conjunction with the Oakdale Irrigation District — signed an agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation when the federal government decided to increase the storage capacity. That agreement guarantees the two districts the first 600,000 acre-feet of water that flows in from the Stanislaus River every year. From 1895 to 1975, there were seven times that the inflow did not reach 600,000 acre-feet of water.
Since 1975, it’s missed the mark a total of 14 times.
On a protracted timeline, Shields told the group, it appears that the drier years are extending further out and that’s only making it more difficult to recharge the sources that are being taxed. Groundwater tables during the previous driest year on record – 1976-77 – plummeted in some parts of San Joaquin County and never recovered. Other parts saw saltwater intrusion when it did come back. Those same problems might happen again this year if a series of healthy winter storms fail to batter Northern California before the end of the winter.
So what that does mean to Manteca and Lathrop residents as well as farmers in Ripon, Manteca, and Escalon that rely on the SSJID for water?
It could mean money. Shields talked about how fresh, clean water is fetching ridiculous prices in parts of California right now simply because the supply is so low. Water that was selling for less than $160 an acre foot last year is fetching upwards of $1,350 an acre foot. Water experts believe ultimately metered urban water will start climbing significantly in price.
As a result of the drought crisis and the pending water bond in November that includes partial funding for the controversial $23 billion Twin Tunnels proposal to allow Sacramento River water to bypass the Delta for diversion to Los Angeles, water politics are now heating up in a replay of the 1982 Peripheral Canal vote. That election realigned politics in California as agricultural and environmental activists teamed up to fight the plan that was viewed as favoring Los Angeles water needs at the expense of the north state, farming, and the environment. The canal vote failed by a wide margin but nowhere was the no vote bigger than north of the Tehachapi Mountains where almost 91 percent of the voters cast no votes.
President Barrack Obama was in Fresno, Firebaugh, and Los Banos on Friday to talk about the drought and how its impacts will affect the rest of the country. Federal politicians on both sides of the aisle are already lining up to try and push through what they see as the best way to proceed. The Republicans, a contingent that includes Ripon and Manteca Congressional Representative Jeff Denham, want to bypass current federal endangered species requirements and send water south while Democrats, led by Senator Diane Feinstein want to spend more time and money figuring out how best to proceed.
Shields tried to stay out of the political discussion, saying only that neither option being advanced is a complete solution. He added that what’s best for the people will be a compromise that includes parts of both plans.