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Growers press for early SSJID irrigation run
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Alfalfa growers in Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon need water.

So do farmers and water districts up and down the state.

South San Joaquin Irrigation District has water — for now.

Those are the realties the SSJID board will be dealing with when they meet on Tuesday, Jan. 14, at 9 a.m. in the district office, 10011 E. Highway 120, in Manteca.

“We’re better off than most districts in the state but better off isn’t the same as well off,” noted SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields.

The SSJID board is already getting requests for an early irrigation run from farmers who planted winter alfalfa crops. The lack of rain is raising the specter of massive crop losses. At the same time numerous requests have come in from districts asking SSJID if they’d sell them water now instead of later.

In January 2012 the district did a rare early winter run ahead of the start of the irrigation season in March. Not only were alfalfa growers in trouble but almonds and other trees were becoming stressed from the lack of rain and the warm winter weather.

With California entering its third year of drought and reservoir levels lower than there were at the start of the devastating drought year of 1977, an early run this year could have major negative implications.

Shields noted if the predicted weather outlook holds the district might not be able to do an extra run if one was needed later in the water season mainly because of the amount  of water it takes to charge the system.

Every year, the district loses 10,000 acre feet of water to seepage and evaporation in the process of simply recharging the system. Because irrigation wouldn’t take place again until March, that means water in canals and other in district facilities would dissipate. A typical run takes 8,000 to 10,000 acre feet. An early run essentially represents two runs as opposed to a late season run that is essentially an add on.

The district has the ability to tap ground water at several wells it owns to meet farmers’ needs. In doing so, though, they would be impacting the ground water used by other farmers and rural residents.

Shields noted the pressure is going to be on SSJID to conserve as much water as it can from farm and urban users in order to help with other areas in California that are under significantly more stress from the drought.