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Harder seeks water solutions that rely on reuse, new tech and cooperation
Josh harder
Josh harder

Congressman Josh Harder doesn’t have to look far to see an example of what could happen if his efforts to bring competing factions in California’s endless water wars together to tweak notions that are often a century old to put 21st technology to work to squeeze more uses out  of the state’s finite water supplies.  

A mile to the west of Ripon as well as four miles south of Manteca is where you will find part of the long-range answer to the Northern San Joaquin Valley’s quest to make sure it’s prosperity and agriculture production that is critical in helping feed the United States is not compromised by efforts to crank up unimpaired water flows for fish by state fiat on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.

It’s the South San Joaquin Irrigation District’s Division 9 pressurized drip irrigation delivery system that arms growers with i-Pads and the water technology that has allowed them to slash water use, substantially increase almond and other crop yields, reverse underground saltwater intrusion by ending the need for pumping water to supplement irrigation flows that before pressurization often didn’t bring enough to the end of the SSJID system, and reduce air pollution by eliminating the need to run well pumps powered by diesel fuel. The state-of-the-art system cost more than $15 million to put in place.

The SSJID in 2015 determined they could save 26,000 acre feet more of water annually if the agency was able to pressurize the entire irrigation. It is an expensive proposition that initial estimates pegged at more than $200 million. But moving forward on such a venture is extremely dicey due to the positions of state and even federal agencies regarding conserved water in droughts.

A state Department of Water Resources “white paper” issued in 2015 — a position paper that doesn’t yet carry the impact of law but indicates where the agency is headed — states any district that sold “conserved water” to another agency during a drought would not meet the threshold of beneficial use as required to retain senior water rights. Selling the water, under the state’s position, would forfeit senior water rights. While the white paper addressed irrigation districts paying crop farmers not to grow for a season in order to sell the water they would have used outside of districts to agricultural concerns willing to pay top dollar to keep orchards and vineyards alive, it also applied to SSJID’s strategy of selling water saved by conservation to fund the expensive pressurized system project by selling water it would save to out-of-district users.

It is such deep rooted logic Harder has committed to change in a bid to persuade players in the never ending fight over Golden State water that there are ways to get more use out of existing water supplies through technological advances and finding common ground.

Working to encourage solution to 

unimpaired fish flows to avoid 

years & years of litigation

It is why Harder has been working behind-the-scenes to get the state to revisit its December decision to increase the Chinook salmon population by 1,103 fish a year by increasing unimpaired water flows on the Stanislaus, Merced, and Tuolumne rivers for fish by 40 percent. By the state’s own analysis it would fallow 132,000 acres of the nation’s most fertile farmland, slam the 10th District and Merced County with an annual economic loss of $12.9 billion, cost 4,000 people their jobs, and jeopardize city water supplies in a bid to grow the fish population by just 1,103 fish per year.

There have already been four lawsuits filed.

“I want to find solutions given if it ends up in court it could take decades to hammer out,” Harder said.

He has meet with Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Department of Water Resources officials and impacted irrigation districts. Harder is hopeful a solution can be hammered out.

SSJID’s Division 9 project is reminiscent of the irrigation technology Harder saw in place when he worked in Israel prior to running for Congress. The technology has helped transform arid land in Israel into extremely productive farmland.

As the District 10 Congressman, Harder is in a unique position. Nearly 70 percent of the state’s water supply — including that captured by the federal Central Valley Project overseen by the Bureau of Reclamation passes through the Delta that’s situated largely in San Joaquin County. At the same time two of the three of the rivers — the Stanislaus and Tuolumne that are the heart of the epic battle between fish flows as well as farming and urban uses throughout his district also involves a CVP dam — New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River. The state’s proposed Delta Tunnel that would have export water heading south bypass the Delta and put additional pressure on the Delta’s fragile ecological system, also poses a threat to people and farms in his district as experts say it is likely to increase demand on groundwater at a time when the state is moving to mandate caps on pumping.

Harder’s push for water solutions is a stepped up version of his predecessor Jeff Denham’s efforts. In fact part of his overall water plan — the section involving specific projects that would create additional water storage — is torn from Denham’s playbook.

Harder said he has no qualms with picking up legislation Denham crafted and running with it if will produce sound results. Another example of that was Denham’s take on addressing the DREAMers problem — children brought here illegally by their parents — that Harder believes has the best chance of passing this session of all immigration legislation on the table.

Harder was able to get language for funding the water projects incorporated into a funding bill that would help create additional storage — something that hasn’t happed in California for years — by working closely with Congressman Jared Huffman. The San Rafael Democrat chairs the House Water, Ocean and Wildlife subcommittee.

Conventional wisdom in the whirlpool of California water politics would say that would never have happen given Huffman’s background as a senior lawyer for the National Resources Defense Council. The NRDC isn’t traditionally thought to be a friend of agricultural water or development of storage for urban use given fish, wildlife and wild rivers are their de facto clients.

But Harder was able to find common ground.

Harder gets funding for

water projects inserted

into federal legislation

As a result federal funding for nearly $14 million in Central Valley and Northern California Water projects is advancing in Congress.

It includes:

$4.1 million for the Northern Valley Regional Recycled Water Program that will help take upwards of 30,600 acre feet of treated wastewater a year from Turlock and Modesto and distribute it to western Stanislaus County farms.

$6.1 million in new funding for the Sites Reservoir west of Colusa that would create 1.8 million acre feet of off-stream storage to capture water in heavy precipitation years for use during dry periods for farms, cities, and fish.

$1.5 million for the Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir west of Patterson to increase off-stream storage by 85,000 acre feet.

$2.1 million plus to expand the Los Vaqueros Reservoir northeast of Tracy from 160,000 acre feet to 275,000 acre feet.

Harder has also rolled out his own take on how best to increase effective stretching of water supplies.

It includes $500 million in funding for programs investing in reusing water, up from the $50 million the federal government now spends.

“That’s $50 million with an ‘m’ and not a ‘b’,” Harder emphasizes with an incredulous edge in his voice.

Harder firmly believes the ultimate solution for addressing the state’s complex water needs is not just new storage and conservation but maximizing the use of what water we have whether it is recycled treated wastewater or finding ways to marry ag and urban uses with fish needs.

It is why he opposes the Delta tunnel project.

“One tunnel is better than two but there should be no tunnel,” Harder said of Newsom’s tweak of former Gov. Jerry Brown’s Twin Tunnels plan that was a regurgitation of the ill-fated Peripheral Canal effort.

The diversion of water to go under the Delta instead of through it would rob the Delta ecological systems of its beneficial use before the pumps near Tracy sends it south into either the California Aqueduct.

Harder also is pushing for leveraging federal resources to identify prime locations such as soil with extensive clay for groundwater storage to help farmers as well as cities that rely on underground water sources to meet the coming state mandate that requires no more water to be pumped out of a basin than is replaced in a given year.

Harder also wants to create an “X-Prize” program to incentivize private sector development of cutting-edge water projects, establish a $300 million fund to develop water infrastructure and drought solutions, create an innovate financing program to provide low interest deferral loans to fund local water infrastructure projects, and to re-authorize the Bureau of Reclamation effort to work with rural communities to improve access to safe and clean sources of drinking water.

Harder emphasized the best solutions to help those within the 10th District when it comes to water are those that can also benefit those in other regions of the state that have more political muscle. That requires finding approaches that keeps the Northern San Joaquin Valley whole while addressing needs elsewhere and that of fish and water ecological systems.

Aside from that, the biggest challenge is simply getting those in other parts of the state and country that benefit from the fact the San Joaquin Valley grows more than 70 percent of the nation’s fruit, vegetables, and nuts.

“Agriculture needs water to grow the food they eat,” Harder said.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email