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The vote that changed Manteca
SSJID formed 100 years ago today to deliver water, prosperity
Water brought from the Sierra by the South San Joaquin Irrigation District flows alongside a grape vineyard near East Louise Avenue. - photo by HIME ROMERO
Manteca was anything but a prosperous bustling community back in early 1909.

Area farmers were struggling to produce dry land farm corps. Wheat and water melon yields were strong at first but with each successive year the sandy plains produced less and less.

The Manteca town site had just a handful of homes with a couple of stores. It was a mere wide spot on the road and a rail stop for fledgling dairies.

There had been several previous attempts to bring water from the Stanislaus River to Manteca via private ventures but none got very far off the ground either due to squabbles or farmers refusing to spend money to buy water convinced it wouldn’t be that beneficial.

The first system to actually bring water to the South County was established by the San Joaquin Water Company formed by H.W. Cowell and N.S. Harrold. They put in a series of ditches covering 47 miles from the Stanislaus near Knights Ferry to the center of Manteca in 1895.

The main conveyance – the Tulloch Ditch – was completed in 1905 and provided water to just 3,000 acres.

Its impact was much bigger and set the stage for the formation of the SSJID as farmers saw how much higher the yields were from neighbors who had irrigated water. Alfalfa started to be grown and a major dairy industry grew up overnight to supply the growing market in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The support that irrigation had at that point prompted F.A. West and Joshua Cowell to petition the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors in March of 1909 for the formation of the SSJID.

The formation of the SSJID on May 11, 1909 on a 396 to 67 vote literally gave life to Manteca as well as the cities of Escalon and Ripon. Voters also embraced a $1,875,000 bond issue and elected to the board C.M. Carlson, Fred H. Kincaid, B.A. Goodwin, W.J. Woodward and C.T. Wiggin.

District formation
triggers boom in
real estate sales
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 first water released on Aug. 13, 1913 by the SSJID was on the E.N. Pierce Ranch on the southeast corner of Austin Road and East Highway 120 less than a quarter of a mile from the present-day SSJID headquarters.

The first full year of irrigation in 1914 had water delivered at a rate of 35 minutes per acre about 30 days apart.

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).

Farmland triples while
production per acre jumps
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 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.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, e-mail