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SSJID boosting crop output 30%
Cutting edge pressurized irrigation on its way
Open irrigation canals will become a thing of the past in South San Joaquin Irrigation District’s Division 9 southwest of Manteca. - photo by HIME ROMERO/ The Bulletin
Manteca is about to make its mark on the agricultural world.

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District - tapping the flow of revenue in excess of $10 million a year from its share of the Tri-Dam Project - is moving forward with a $13 million pressurized irrigation system for Division 9 farmland south of Manteca and west of Ripon.

The system not only reduces water waste but studies have shown pressurized systems such as the one being constructed can increase production from almond trees and other crops by as much as 30 percent.

The SSJID board on Tuesday will consider authorizing a $15,000 expenditure to have the firm of Provost and Richard conduct a peer review of the Division 9 Irrigation Efficiency Project. The move is to assure there are no quirks that could cause expensive delays since the project relies on state-of-the-art technologies that have limited precedent in the design and construction of such a system. The board meets at 9 a.m. at the district office, 11011 East Highway 120, on Tuesday.

If successful, the district may eventually become the first irrigation district in California to have an all-pressurized irrigation delivery system. In doing so it would not only significantly raise per acre crop yields but it would reduce water loss, cut energy consumption by eliminating pumps, improve safety by eliminating open canals, and have a number of side benefits. The additional pluses include minimizing the spraying of pesticides and fertilizer as they can be delivered as part of the closed system on each farm. It also would reduce the use of herbicide somewhat since sprinkler irrigation and flood irrigation would be eliminated basically cutting the water supply that fuels weed growth.

Economically it would further strengthen the value of farmland in orchard or vine production by further increasing its value to make it less susceptible to urbanization.

It also may allow the district to go to “any time” water use by farmers. Currently farmers are alerted when a water run takes place and have to work their schedules round the availability of water.

Division 9 was selected for the project initially for several reasons. It is at the end of the system which means the scheduled water runs often come up short. The district has a series of pumps in the area that uses ground water dumped back into the canals to meet the demand.

In doing so, though, they’re tapping into a high water table that has salt water intrusion from the Delta. By applying water with higher than normal salt content, farmers run the risk in the long haul of severely reducing crop production, plus - if continued for a number of decades - could render the land infertile.

The contract is expected to be awarded in 2011 for the system’s construction. Work would be completed sometime in 2012.

SSJID grower surveys show there is a strong interest district-wide from farmers to switch to pressurized delivery systems.

The district plans to borrow the $13 million needed to implement the system and then use part of the annual proceeds from the Tri-Dan project to pay off the loan. They are doing that because the district will actually get the most value for its money that way by keeping long-term investments it has in place. The district routinely compares to see whether paying cash or financing gets them the most bang for the buck.

Also by borrowing the money it means it can use Tri-Dam proceeds, if the board so decides, to ultimately convert the entire district delivery system to a pressurized model and do so in a timely manner.

The district already has built a $60 million undisturbed reserve from Tri-Dam receipts. The amount coming into district coffers accelerated sharply after the 50-year contract with PG&E to buy wholesale power ended allowing the project to increase its wholesale power charges to market rates.

The Tri-Dam receipts are also the financial linchpin that would allow the distinct to enter the retail power business and reduce rates by 15 percent across the board in Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon and surrounding farming areas.

The initial plan called for $10 million to leverage necessary borrowing that would then be repaid by retail power receipts. The district is prepared to commit a larger chunk of that reserve if needed as well as diverting part of the annual receipts from Tri-Dam to retail operations in the unlikely case there is a revenue shortfall.

The district’s decision to take irrigation delivery to the next level effectively negates an argument that PG&E-sponsored fronts such as the now-defunct Stop the Power Grab advanced that the district should spend its money on the water system and not lowering retail power rates.

The district is essentially doing both. Theoretically there will come a time down the road - in 30 or so years - that future SSJID boards may have to figure what to do with the Tri-Dam receipts as they will continue to flow in even after massive retail power and irrigation improvements are completed.

Actually, the district has been using Tri-Dam receipts to finance capital improvement projects since 1991. That’s when the SSJID paid off their half of the bonds. The other half was paid off by Oakdale Irrigation District. The upswing in revenue starting in 1991 is also responsible for SSJID’s unprecedented 22 consecutive years of no water rate increase including two years when water delivery charges were suspended due to financial surpluses.

Once the PG&E contract expired and Tri-Dam was getting market rates, money started flowing in larger amounts. It has allowed SSJID to undertake six years of capital improvement projects in the last two years. It is also financing the district’s challenge to PG&E’s proposed $1.01 billion rate hike before the California Public Utilities Commission - the largest ever asked by the electrical power provider - targeted to go in place on Jan. 1, 2011.