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SSJID & Manteca: A history of prosperity
South San Joaquin Irrigation District Board Chairman John Holbrook, left, accepts a life membership plaque on behalf of SSJID from Manteca Museum Executive Director Evelyn Prouty as SSJID’s Troylene Saylor looks on. - photo by DENNIS WYATT
Evelyn Prouty makes sure that people understand if it wasn’t for the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and its economic stewardship, Manteca as it is known today wouldn’t exist.

Prouty is executive director of the Manteca Historical Society that operates the Manteca Museum. On Tuesday, she presented the SSJID board with a lifetime membership in exchange for a one-time investment of $5,000.

“We make it clear to museum visitors that Manteca wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the SSJID bringing irrigation water,” Prouty said.

The formation of the SSJID some 102 years ago did more than just bring needed water to convert 70,000 acres into productive farmland.

It literally gave life to Manteca as well as the cities of Escalon and Ripon. At the dawn of the 20th century Manteca had several lots divided but only three or four homes. That all changed after May 11, 1909 when voters by a 396 to 67 margin embraced the formation of the SSJID as well as a $1,875,000 bond issue.

The site selected for the first dam was 2.5 miles above Knights Ferry on the Stanislaus. The 400-foot high Goodwin Dam was completed in December 1912.

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, 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.

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 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).

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.