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Secure water spurred economic development
water canal
A SSJID canal carries water to farmland near Ripon and Manteca.

A bold move by farmers to form the South San Joaquin Irrigation District 110 years ago literally changed the economic fortunes of Manteca, Ripon and Escalon.

And no way else did SSJID have as big as an impact as it did on Manteca.

Prior to the formation of the SSJID on a district wide vote of 396 to 67 in May of 1909 and approval of a $1,875,000 bond to built a dam and canal system that critics viewed as fiscally irresponsible arguing voters would never see that money produce anything of value, Manteca had just a handful of stores and scattering of less than a dozen homes.

Virtually overnight, Manteca turned into a boomtown. Lots were selling for between $300 and $1,000 apiece — more than quadruple the value of prior years. By the time SSJID released its first water in 1913, the South County had grown from 3,000 to 15,000 residents as people from throughout the state and the West came to buy irrigated land to farm.

Twice in the ensuring 50 years, SSJID leaders — consisting almost exclusively of farmers elected to oversee the district — have made bold moves to secure water and power critical to the South County’s economic success. And each time they were told by critics they were undertaking foolish ventures. And each time not only were major dams and other water and hydroelectric improvements built without state or federal help — a rarity among California irrigation districts— but they also had major positive impacts on the coal economy.

One of those two bold ventures — the decision to build a series of three dams on the Stanislaus River in conjunction with the Oakdale Irrigation District - is being used as the financial foundation in SSJID’s quests to enter the retail power business. In doing so, they plan to initially reduce power costs 15 percent across the board compared to PG&E rates.

SSJID has been a wholesale power provider for 65 years through the Tri-Dam Project with a 52-year record of providing reliable electricity supplies to PG&E.

The district, which is one of the few government agencies left with a AA bond rating in California due to its minimal debt load an undistributed reserves of just over $60 million, intends to borrow the money with low-interest bonds to purchase the system from PG&E, to severe the system, to set up a support system, and to modernize te system.

They will use anywhere from $10 million to $20 million of that undistributed reserve to get things started.

And if needed, they will dip into their annual minimal cut of the Tri-Dam Project net proceeds each year to help pay down the debt if necessary. That share of the annual net proceeds is now $10 million. Some years it has come in as high as $15 million. The SSJID paid off their share of the bonds in the early 1990s and used that to keep water rates unchanged for 22 years as well as to make improvements to the irrigation system. Then about 14 years ago when n PG&E’s original 50-year contract expired, Tri-Dam was able to secure much higher rates for its power.

The result has been a surge in reserves despite the district under taking major capital improvement projects.

Going into retail electrical power in a bid to reduce the overall power bills paid by South County residents, farmers, businesses, schools, and cities by $12 million a year is an extension of the philosophy behind the formation of the district: Harnessing nature resources for the benefit of residents.

Goodwin Dam

dedicated in 1913

The dedication of Goodwin Dam on April 6, 1913 included Gov. Hiram Johnson opening the head gate before a crowd of 4,000. 

The dam completion was followed by the construction of 300 miles of ditches, flumes, and tunnels to bring the water to Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon.

The first water released on Aug. 13, 1913 by the SSJID was on the E.N. Pierce Ranch on the southeast corner of Austin Road and East Highway 120 less than a quarter of a mile from the present-day SSJID headquarters.

The first full year of irrigation in 1914 had water delivered at a rate of 35 minutes per acre about 30 days apart.

The initial year there were 14,195 acres irrigated with the top three crops alfalfa (7,889 acres), vines (3,189 acres), and corn (1,154 acres).

By the second year 24,210 acres were under irrigation with the top three corps alfalfa (11,549 acres), orchards, (3,100 acres) and vines (2,495 acres).

Farmland triples while

production per acre jumps

The impact of the SSJID on farming and the South County’ prosperity can’t be overstated. In 1909 with dry land farming there were 15,539 acres in farm production. Delivering water to every 40 acres increased farm production to 51,095 acres.

The next step was building a storage reservoir for in-district storage. Walter J. Woodward chose the site in 1916. Woodward Reservoir added 36,000-acre feet of storage.

The SSJID leaders wanted to build one more dam as protection against flooding as well as a hedge against drought. The proposal was rejected. Then the drought of 1924 struck.

Voters approved bonds the second time around for the Melones Dam. Melones Dam was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1926 and added $700,000 in annual agricultural production after the first year it was completed.

Melones Dam was credited with saving farmers in the SSJID several times over the next 20 years when drought periods devastated farm production in other parts of California.

In the late 1930s, SSJID directors — in conjunction with Oakdale Irrigation District – made plans for three dams – Donnels, Beardsley, and Tulloch — along with three power houses and  a seven-mile tunnel carved through solid rock.

Nothing happened until after World War II when the Tri-Dam Project actually started taking shape. Financing for the $52 million project was secured when Pacific Gas & Electric signed a contract with the two districts to buy electricity from the three dams through 2005.

The Tri-Dam Project gave the district three times the amount of water the original dams supplied and added 120 megawatts of power production.

The project was dedicated on June 15, 1957 at Beardsley Dam. It was hailed as a remarkable project since it was completely financed by the SSJID and OID without any aid from either the state or federal governments.

At the time it was completed, it was the largest irrigation project ever undertaken by a local district in the western United States.

The Bureau of Reclamation built the 2.4 million acre-foot capacity New Melones Reservoir at the site of the original Melones Reservoir. Part of the agreement for the two districts giving up the dam site was to assure them of a set amount of water — 280,000 acre feet in a typical year — based on their historic superior water rights on the Stanislaus River.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, e-mail