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State edict: Dont save water
SSJID stops effort for major conservation effort
This is a photo of Fallen Leaf Lake at 6,000 feet in the Lake Tahoe Basin taken at the end of January showing snowless shores. - photo by Photo Contributed

An edict from Sacramento bureaucrats amid a severe drought crisis is prompting the South San Joaquin Irrigation District to suspend efforts to save enough water a year to meet all of the annual needs of a city the size of Tracy.

The SSJID board is putting plans on hold to pressurize the district’s main canal between Woodward Reservoir and the Van Groningen Road reservoir near Escalon in a bid to save 26,000 acre feet of water a year. That’s roughly 10 percent of the water the district currently uses for all urban and farm uses.

“The state is basically telling us not to conserve water,” noted SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields.

The bureaucratic edict that is prompting the SSJID to stop work on a major water conservation undertaking  comes at a time when projections based on current conditions and weather patterns call for the 2.4 million acre-foot New Melones  Reservoir to run dry this summer. The Bureau of Reclamation is likely not to have even the minimal amount of water needed to keep the Stanislaus River flowing.

The SSJID decision follows a California Department of Water Resources warning to Oakdale Irrigation District — SSJID’s partner in the Tri Dam Project on the Stanislaus River — that a proposal that district is pursing to have farmland go fallow and sell water to severely drought-ravaged farm regions elsewhere in the state will not fly.

OID was offering farmers that didn’t plant pasture or field crops and left their land fallow in 2015 85 percent of the money the district can generate by selling the saved water to other agencies in worse shape. The district would keep 15 percent of the proceeds from the sale of water farmers save by not planting crops. Water prices are soaring past $400 an acre foot as farmers are desperate to simply save orchards and vineyards.

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State essentially says it  would seize conserved water from districts

Based on the DWR’s so-called “white paper” — rules the agency devised that do not carry the weight of law as they were never passed by the legislature or signed by the governor —such a deal would not constitute a beneficial use of water. As such, that water must be forfeited to the state.

Why that matters to SSJID is simple. The irrigation district needs to rely on water sales to finance the state-of-the-art pressurized system that has a significant price tag.

A similar system put in place south of Manteca and west of Ripon in the SSJID’s Division 9 cost in excess of $15 million. It has been lauded by state, national, and international water experts and officials as a significant improvement in conserving water and enhancing farm production.

Based on the DWR edict issued to Oakdale, the water such a system would save would not constitute a beneficial use and would belong to the state regardless of SSJID’s senior water rights.

Shields said SSJID could not afford to go through with the project in light of the state saying they will seize conserved water instead of allowing it to be sold.

Currently a $750,000 engineering study is underway with the Stantec Davis Engineering firm scheduled to provide a progress report at a March 25 workshop. Unless there is clarification from the DWR that allows SSJID to use the sale of water saved from the pressurization project to finance the effort it will be dropped.

Shields added legislative relief could also prompt the district to keep moving forward.

Engineers have estimated such a pressurized system that SSJID proposed would save 26,400 acre feet of water a year.

The DWR in 2011 indicated an average Californian uses 360 gallons of water a day. An acre-foot translates into 325,851 gallons. Given how Tracy — a city of 84,000 — has reduced water use in 2014 that would be enough water saved to meet their needs for a year and then some.

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Even more savingsif all farmers were switched to system like Division 9’s

The 26,400 acre feet of water doesn’t include savings that could occur if the entire delivery system for the 72,000 acres in the district is switched to a pressurized system such as has happened in Division 9 south of Manteca and west of Ripon.

The initial study indicated a gravity flow pressurized system without the need for energy to run pumps is feasible. The 130-foot drop from Woodward Reservoir to the district’s main reservoir within its service boundaries is enough to deliver 50 to 55 pound pressure. That will allow the operation of drip irrigation that can save additional water when orchards and vineyards — the primary use of farmland in the SSJID territory — are irrigated.

By having water flowing from Woodward Reservoir in an enclosed pressurized system it would not be subject to evaporation loss and would “stay clean.” That means the district would avoid the need to add chemicals as they do now with the open system.

Once the pressurized system was in place, all farmers in the Division 9 area that could access the system stopped underground pumping and ending a big drain on the aquifer.

Shields has noted the cost drops significantly for farmers as they are not paying massive PG&E power bills to run pumps. It brings the use and cost of water down significantly.

At the same time pressurized drip systems allow fertilizers and other crop maintenance to be delivered with the water further reducing costs and increasing the efficiency of applications.

The Division 9 pressurized system is controlled by ditch tenders and farmers through the use of apps on smartphones or tablets.