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Bureau blocks water transfer to help save SJ Valley farmers
New melones dam pix.jpg
New Melones Lake offers a variety of hiking trails, school-based programs and family friendly events throughout the spring and early summer. Photo Courtesy Of The Bureau Of Reclamation

Farmers on the western edge of the parched San Joaquin Valley have little or no ground water resources this year.

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District have legal rights to 200,000 acre feet of water sitting behind New Melones Reservoir beyond this year’s needs of the farms and urban customers they serve.

The two districts want to help the farmers who will face a difficult choice: Let tens of thousands of acres of productive orchards die and leave cropland fallow or else accelerate groundwater pumping to exacerbate dropping aquifers the State of California has identified as a pressing issue.

They are even willing to transfer 100,000 acre feet of water at $400 per acre foot rate — significantly lower than the spot market demands — as the drought deepens.

At the same time Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued an executive order to reduce roadblocks whenever possible to facilitate water transfers to help California weather the drought.

The Bureau of Reclamation didn’t get the message.

And while the Bureau is a federal agency and is not under the governor’s jurisdiction they did sign an agreement in 1988 with the two local agencies that created a 200,000 acre-foot water conservation account they can carry over under certain conditions each year in addition to the historic rights they have to the first 600,000 acre feet of water from the Stanislaus River watershed.

The Bureau so far has declined to approve the water transfer.  

The sudden shift this year by the Bureau to use New Melones water for Delta water quality control — a mission explicitly assigned by the Central Valley Project for water captured by the Shasta and Folsom dams while charging New Melones with other fish and environmental missions for water releases — has raised concerns with SSJID and OID leaders.

While cutting the Bureau slack for using “out of the box” solutions during a pressing drought that go against legal agreements, the two water agencies are worried the CVP may make it the new norm even in wet years as well as drought years. As such it could have serious negative implications for the SSJID and OID.

Simply holding into the water in the conservation account to cushion the two districts against a third dry year is impossible under the language of the contract governing the use of the water. There are a series of variables  that control if the districts can tap into the water in a given year. At the same time, the 200,000 acre feet in the conservation account is the first New Melones water spilled in a new water year that starts Oct. 1.

Current water conditions based on contract language allows the two districts to access the conservation account this year. At the same time as conditions shape up they won’t be able to use the account this year.

That means it is essentially use ot or lose it.

Both districts have tightened pressure on farmers and water users within their boundaries to conserve water due to the drought.

SSJID General Manager Peter Rietkerk noted this is not just about helping other California farmers who are in a desperate position but to help those with water contracts with the Central Valley Project — the very water system the Bureau operates — who the Bureau has told they won’t be getting any water this year.

By the Bureau blocking the water transfer they will saddle west side farmers with massive losses that could be financial fatal especially if it involves the loss of productive orchards that require three to four years of upfront investment before the start yielding crops.

Faced with such a prospect it will likely force many farmers to resort to what they did in the last drought which is take out more ground water to further compromise aquifers.


SSJID board today

ponders another

water transfer

It is against that backdrop that the SSJID board when they meet today at 9 a.m. at the district office will consider a smaller water transfer request that does not involve conservation account water.

It involves 1,750 acre feet to the Stockton East Water District immediately north of the SSJID.

Similar transfers have been done on a temporary basis in previous dry years. The water will come from the  two districts’ 600,000 acre feet of annual water rights.

Even though it is helping an immediate neighbor, it is also helping farmers within the SSJID boundaries as well as the City of Manteca. That’s because if Stockton East farmers can’t access surface water once their district’s supply runs out, they will kick up ground pumping.

They tap into the same sub-basin many farmers do in SSJID territory that opt to rely on ground waste. It is the same sub-basin the City of Manteca taps into for a share of its Jenna water supply.

The water transfer is being done at $125 an acre feet. It will generate up to $109,375 for each district.

The transfer is similar to one SSJID made with South Delta Water Agency farmers in mid-April.

The transfer involves  266 acre feet of water at $150 per acre foot to farmers west of SSJID territory. That represents about 1/10 of a percent of the district’s overall anticipated water allocation this year.

This is shaping up as either the fourth or fifth driest year in the 125-year history of records being kept on the Stanislaus River watershed.

It will be one of the lowest snowpack yields in terms of water in recorded history.

Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy all receive treated water from SSJID in addition to pumping water from aquifers. However, all areas in California are facing a looming mandate preventing them from taking more water out of the ground than they return in a given year.



To contact Dennis Wyatt, email