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Fish study threatens water supply
Impact could be worse than drought for SSJID
A fish study could cut into the flow of water through South San Joaquin Irrigation District as well as into pipelines serving the cities of Manteca, Tracy and Lathrop. - photo by HIME ROMERO
An unprecedented fourth consecutive drought year in modern times that is threatening California may not be as disastrous for the South County as a federal fish study.

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District along with Oakdale Irrigation District is seeking to gain assurances from the Bureau of Reclamation – and Congress – that the biological assessment regarding the Central Valley Water project and State Water project won’t jeopardize the 1988 stipulation agreement that essentially served as federal acknowledgment of the two districts’ superior water rights on the Stanislaus River watershed.

The importance of protecting water rights was underscored Tuesday when state officials announced they expect to only deliver 5 per cent of water requested from urban and agricultural contractors if current weather patterns continue. That is the lowest projection in the history of the State Water Project. The state delivered 40 percent of its contracted commitment this year forcing tens of thousands of acres of crops orchards to be plowed under and although Southern California users of imported water continued to water lawns.

The State Water Project supplies most of the water for Southern California cities plus assists in the irrigation of 750,000 farm acres in the Southern San Joaquin Valley as well as San Diego and Orange counties.

Kern County, where thousands of pistachio and almond trees grow near the Tehachapi range, told the Associated Press Tuesday’s news was akin to a worker hearing his wages would be cut to 5 percent.

Bureau officials have told SSJID and OID officials that they will abide by the terms of the 1988 stipulation agreement. That agreement essentially keeps the two districts whole for the historic water rights they had when they allowed the federal government to replace the Melones dam the two agencies built with local tax dollars in 1925 with the larger New Melones Reservoir operated by the Bureau.

The Bureau insists that the 2008 biological assessment will not trump the longstanding agreement with IOD and SSJID but the two agencies aren’t taking any chances. They are enlisting the help of Congressman Dennis Cardoza.

Should the biological assessment supersede the stipulation agreement the SSJID could find itself being shorted water – especially in drought years – as fish would take a high priority.

The SSJID serves 72,000 acres in Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon areas plus provides treated drinking water for the cities of Manteca, Tracy, and Lathrop with plans to add Escalon and possibly Ripon to the list.

As things stand now, the SSJID and OID split roughly the first 300,000 acre feet water each year from the Stanislaus River watershed. There is no carryover storage for the two districts in the New Melones Reservoir. That means if run-off is less than 300,000 acre feet all of the water would go to OID and SSJID. Local water officials fear the biological assessment would essentially turn the stipulation agreement on end.

The two districts would not be in this position if the federal government hadn’t opted to take over the Melones Dam site and build a new reservoir.

Last year, the Bureau’s water deliveries were just 10 percent of the normal allocations. The lack of water ended up fallowing tens of thousands of acres that forced numerous bankruptcies that contributed to record unemployment in the Southern San Joaquin Valleys some counties experienced a jobless in excess of 30 percent.

The Bureau is not expected to announce its water delivery plans until February.    

Some state leaders Tuesday were calling for stepped up and aggressive water conservation now to avoid what they fear may be a major disaster late next summer.

Many state reservoirs are at 40 percent less than normal levels for this time of the year.