By DENNIS WYATT
Farmers in Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon are racking up water savings surpassing the majority of California’s cities in an effort to conserve water.
Water use by farmers in the South San Joaquin Irrigation District service territory is down more than 31 percent from 2013 consumption levels. As of Monday, farmers had used 77,581 acre feet so far this irrigation season compared to 112,510 acre feet at the same time in 2013. Gov. Jerry Brown called for an overall reduction of water use statewide by 25 percent to help the state weather the fourth year of severe drought. Cities have varying goals based on their 2013 per capital water consumption. The City of Manteca’s target is 32 percent over 2013 levels. Manteca water use was actually down 37 percent in June. The SSJID savings surpass every Southern California city.
What makes the SSJID cutback rare, however, is the fact the water reduction is happening without leaving massive tracts of farmland fallow, ripping out orchards, or switching to a strategy to simply keep vines and trees alive instead of bringing a crop to market. While there are not 300 acres out of 54,000 acres that were intentionally fallowed this season so farmers could divert water on that land to other crops it isn’t that large nor is it an usual amount.
“The resulting savings of more than 31% shows the concern agriculture has for the drought and the need to conserve water in the event there is yet another dry year in 2016,” SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields noted.
The SSJID savings are the direct result of an aggressive water conservation program investment made by the district with more than $20 million using the proceeds from Tri-Dam Project power sales that the district also plan to harness to reduce power costs to the cities of Manteca, Ripon, an d Escalon by 15 percent once they obtain the distribution system from PG&E.
The SSJID’s pressurized irrigation demonstration project covering 3,000 acres of Division 9 west of Ripon and south of Manteca allowing drip irrigation continues to produce huge conservation savings. The average orchard only requires 28 inches of water compared to an industry standard of 44 inches. At the same time the district is now able to divert several thousand acre feet of spill water into the Division 9 Basin which is put back into the pressurized system as opposed to being lost to the drains as was the case historically.
Farmers are also enjoying a drop in power costs associated with pumping, increased yields, a reduction in chemical and fertilizer use, and reduced soil salinity.
The district would like to convert the entire SSJID system to pressurized delivery but a state rule regarding “saved water” that the district would need to sell to finance such an expensive undertaking may ultimately torpedo efforts to do so.
The savings reflect the multi-million dollar investments SSJID made in an aggressive three year On-Farm Conservation Program between 2012 and 2014. Many farms converted from flood to drip systems while others built recirculation basis on their farms to capture runoff for recirculation.
“Our Irrigation Division employees have been vigilant in applying water conservatively and avoiding spills and floods,” Shields said. “And, our growers have been great partners during this difficult time. We all look forward to a successful year in spite of four years of drought. The investments our farmers made in purchasing water rights and building dams and conveyance in the early and mid-1900s as well as our 1988 Agreement for storage at New Melones with the Bureau of Reclamation has produced a very resilient system that will get us through this historic dry period with minimal impact to the groundwater basin and without crop loss.”
Meanwhile groundwater within the SSJID territory dropped an average of 1.89 feet from spring 2014 to spring 2015. It is a sign that growers are not simply substituting surface water from groundwater but are in fact becoming much more efficient with their irrigation practices. Many wells in the Northern San Joaquin Valley are reporting drops in excess of 10 feet. There are also growers within the SSJID territory that do to take irrigation water and rely 100 percent on ground water for their crops.
Shields said based on conservation efforts the district will be able to meet 100 percent of the reduced water delivery it promised for this year plus have a carryover into the 2016 water.
Shields emphasized having water on hand for the start of the 2016 year is critical not only if the drought continues but even if a normal year happens to materialize on the Stanislaus River watershed.
An average year produces 1.1 million acre feet of water on the Stanislaus watershed. Commitment for Stanislaus River water for cities, farmers, and fish needs is just over a million acre feet.
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