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Mountain House facing severe water shortage; SSJID will help
Water flows into a SSJID canal - photo by HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

Mountain House is literally days away from having its water cut back severely by the State of California.

Today the South San Joaquin Irrigation District board will consider a transfer of 1,800 acre feet of water to help the community of 28,000 northwest of Tracy avoid being forced to ration water as California’s drought crisis deepens.

The reason why the state is turning down the spigot to Bethany Irrigation District that Mountain House relies on to a mere dribble and how the SSJID is able to transfer water without hurting its tight supplies underscores how complicated both water policy and law is as well as the hydrology dynamics that Californians depend upon.

The SSJID has asked its urban customers in Tracy, Manteca, and Lathrop to voluntarily cut back on their contracted water use by 20 percent as the state is in its third year of drought. Its ditch and canal operators are tasked with making sure they avoid any water being wasted. Farmers are also have been asked to be extra vigilant in the application of water.

The district expects to have enough water to meet demand with conservation measures. But more important they need to have carryover storage in the likely event the drought enters a fourth year in 2023 in order to avoid mandatory cut backs next spring.

The water that the district will send to Mountain House, however, doesn’t impact that equation.

It is because it will come from some of the 24 water wells the district operates.

While those wells are designed to augment surface water supplies from the Stanislaus River watershed, some do double duty of “dewatering” high water tables that collect seepage from farms being irrigated with SSJID water.

The high water table — especially in the western end of the district in the Ripon and Manteca area near the San Joaquin River — poses a serious threat to the roots of orchards. Too much water in the soil if it doesn’t drain works to harm and ultimately destroy tree roots.

The water being transferred to Bethany Irrigation will be pumped from the high water table.

Overall, the water SSJID sells to farmers helps recharge a large swath of the Eastern San Joaquin Subbasin and enables water levels within the district’s boundaries for its customers and others to remain healthy.

Only in the western end does it have the potential to create issues due to the proximity of aquifers under the Delta.

Meanwhile, Bethany Irrigation — like SSJID and other pre-1914 water right holders — are facing curtailment orders as the state tries to figure a way to weather the drought. While pre-1914 water rights have legal adjudication and are at the front of the line of claims on water in California, the state has made it clear it will take the unprecedent step of essentially overriding those rights to deal with the statewide emergency.

The SSJID made a similar water transfer in 2015 to help Mountain House replace water the state curtailed from being delivered to Bethany Irrigation.
Steve Pinkerton, who serves as general manager for the Mountain House Community Services District, indicated the state has told the jurisdiction that they will have water cutbacks starting within the coming weeks or even days.

The state would allow just enough water to be delivered for minimum use inside of homes but none for landscaping.

That poses a severe safety issue for Mountain House.

While Pinkerton noted $80 million worth of landscaping would likely be lost given the state cutback would force lawns and shrubs to be left to die, the biggest problem is the impact of the loss of healthy vegetation that helps reduce the threat of fire from spreading.

 Not only is Mountain House surrounded by dry wildland, but is is in one of the most wind-swept areas in the state as witnessed by the proliferation of wind mills generating electricity literally just miles away from the community.

Given the water transfer is water that the SSJID is pumping within its boundaries it doesn’t require a state Department of Water Resources approval. As such the transfer — once the SSJID board agrees — could start within days.

The board when they meet at 1 p.m. today at the district office, 1101 East Highway 120, will be setting the price per acre foot.


To contact Dennis Wyatt, email