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Farmers scrambling to survive with 16% less water
Other almond growers arent as lucky as the ones in SSJID territory. This photo is of a fairly young dying almond orchard near the San Luis Reservoir that did not receive water last year to simply keep it alive. - photo by Photo Contributed

For the first time since it was formed in 1909 the South San Joaquin Irrigation District will restrict the irrigation water it delivers to customers to 36 inches per acre for a mandatory 16 percent reduction. 

In a historic move Tuesday morning the district’s Board of Directors voted to impose the cap that they believe could end up saving as much as 35,000 acre-feet of water by the time the end of the irrigation season finally comes to a close – enough storage to allow for three full water runs in 2016. 

California’s worsening drought, which is now entering its fourth year, combined with a dismal snowpack outlook and a lack of forecasted rain has SSJID brass looking at every possible way to conserve water.

“Right now the precipitation on our upper watershed is an inch-and-a-half lower than it was in the summer of 1977 – the year of 1976/77,” SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields said. “This summer is projected to produce the lowest water levels on record, and we’re already below that. We’re on track to have the driest watershed in history, so it’s important that we look at all of these things.”

Making the decision wasn’t an easy one for the five member board of directors that’s comprised of farmers, growers, dairymen and even a  non-farmer that have to deal with the ramifications not just from those they meet in the street, but on their own properties. 

While Director Dave Kamper was still in high school when the last major drought hammered the northern San Joaquin Valley, he remembers it vividly and knows how appreciative longtime local growers are just to get a guaranteed allotment of water. Other irrigation districts, he said, aren’t faring as well as SSJID and people recognize that. 

Modesto Irrigation District, as an example, is being capped at 16 inches per acre this year. That amount won’t keep most crops alive.

“Most of them are grateful for anything they can get – most people get that whatever we can provide is a gift,” Kamper said. “Quite a few have farmed in other areas where there isn’t much else available. Whether this limit will really impact people depends on the circumstances – half of our growers got by with that inch count last year and different soils have different requirements. 

“But there’s a difference between keeping stuff alive and keeping stuff flourishing. We made it through 1977, which was worse than it is now and groundwater dropped 20 feet at least back then. People were scratching and scrambling to put their pumps in deeper because the district was out of water by June – it was a long, hot summer. Nothing was more helpful for us than the 1988 agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation that gave us storage at Melones – that’s the Mother Lode right there. That’s what has made a difference these past few years.”

In Escalon Director Bob Holmes said that at his dairy the 36 inch limit will mean deciding which annual row crops are the most critical and which land will likely produce the best crop – forcing him to fallow land. 

While every farmer and grower got the water that they needed last year, Holmes said, the 36 inch mark tips right in the middle of the scale – exactly half used less than that amount, and exactly half used more. 

“The thing about this is if you’re putting in an annual crop like silage for winter or corn you’re going to face the possibility of fallowing a few acres and transferring the water to your best acres and seeing what you can do there. If you’re a permanent crop guy you have to keep the trees alive and that’s your biggest concern,” said Holmes. “There are challenges for everybody, and the difference is in how you want to protect your investment – if you’re fallowing some acres then you’re out on a short run but you’re getting a good crop. If you’re not getting water on trees then you’re losing a long-term investment. Everybody has sacrifices that are a little bit different, and everybody is facing something that’s a little bit different.

“But you look at New Melones and that agreement and you can see how vital that has been to our water supply these last two years and how it continues to be this year. We complain all day about fish flows, but we’re not getting good production out of Mother Nature. If we had an average runoff year of a million acre-feet into the Stanislaus River, we wouldn’t be talking about this. But we’re way below that.”