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State threatens to cut off SSJID water to protect fish
Woodward Reservoir could look like this by August if the state has its way. This photo was taken during the 2009 drought. - photo by HIME ROMERO

A water war is about to erupt on the Stanislaus River.

It’s all because the State of California — which may stop all diversions from the Stanislaus River starting June 5 to protect fish — has told the South San Joaquin Irrigation District that it may overrule historic water rights.

If that were to happen it means Ripon, Escalon and Manteca farmers would run out of irrigation water by mid-August.  The cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy may no longer have any surface water by then as well.

But the SSJID is prepared to go to court to assert its superior water rights. SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields has characterized the state’s proposed move as “illegal” as far as it pertains to the district.

“There is 150 years of water rights law in California based on the rule ‘first in time, first in right’,” Shields noted in a text. “Those laws exist to create order in times like this. The State Water Board and Bureau will likely try to skirt the rule of law but for the Stanislaus the law is clear.”

Shields noted that in any case, before the State Water Board can stop SSJID diversions they must first stop all water deliveries to Stockton East Water District, Central Water District and to all South County Delta diverters that have not made annual riparian filings dating to 1914.

“Our water rights are senior and adjudicated,” Shields noted. “The only rights ahead of ours are those riparian diverters that have reported their diversions annual since 1914. The Bureau of Reclamation is responsible for fish releases. That is clear from the federal court (Wagner case) decision a couple of years ago. The judge said in no uncertain terms that the Bureau can’t use SSJID’s water to meet their environmental obligations.”

The surprise development surfaced Tuesday during the SSJID board meeting. If the state prevails in a legal battle that is expected to ensure, it would have devastating results for almond growers and others trying to bring crops to market this fall. It also would create a severe water shortage in the three cities that rely heavily on surface water to augment well water.

Should the worst case scenario happen, Woodward Reservoir — with a 36,000-acre-foot capacity — would literally be bone dry by mid-August. That’s because a typical irrigation run consumes 10,000 acre feet. There would be three runs in June, July and August. Based on urban consumption, the remaining 6,000 acre feet would be gone by then as well.

Woodward Reservoir is an off-line storage facility. Unlike New Melones Reservoir and other reservoirs it does not have natural inflow.

Halting diversions has never been done before.

The State Water Board informed the SSJID that they may, come June, issue a decree that would halt the agency’s ability to divert water from the Stanislaus River in order to maintain flows downstream to protect fish.

Shields said there is no legal way the state can force that scenario. He added the SSJID is “prepared to litigate if (the state) allows anyone junior to our water rights to get water.”

Whether the move is legal  – SSJID is one of only a handful of entities in California that have pre-1914 adjudicated water rights – will likely be determined in court if the state moves forward and tries to stop SSJID diversions. In the meantime, the SSJID is planning for the worst case scenario. 

According to SSJID Finance and Administration Manager Bere Lindley the district has already begun to raise the water level at Woodward Reservoir above the minimum “bodily contact” levels that they had agreed to meet for a portion of time during the summer months. 

The move isn’t being made with recreation in mind. If the state were to step in and try to block diversions and start a legal battle between the two entities, the district wants to make sure that they had enough water stored at Woodward to provide irrigation water to farmers throughout the hot, dry summer months. 

That means filling it to the brim.

“We’ve never faced anything like this before,” general counselor Steve Emrick said. “That was the thought – increasing the water level just in case – because we felt that it was the safest thing that we could do.”

In December of 1914 the State of California changed sections of its civil code to include the Water Commission Act. Since SSJID had already acquired their rights for water diversion off of the Stanislaus River, they carried over those rights. This move helped the district solidify its standing after a legal judgment upheld those rights in 1929, allowing SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation District to divert 1,816.6 cubic feet per second from the river from March 1 through October 1. They also own pre-1914 rights to water at Old Melones, Beardsley, Tulloch, and Donnells Reservoirs. 

An agreement with the United States Department of the Interior guarantees the district the first 600,000 acre-feet of water that flows into New Melones Reservoir every year to split with the Oakdale Irrigation District. 

That agreement was made in exchange for the Bureau being able to flood the original Melones Dam the two districts built in order to erect the New Melones Dam. Current projections forecast a 90 percent chance that the district will see 227,000 acre-feet flow in this year and a 50 percent chance that it’ll hit 355,000 acre-feet mark. The probability of reaching the full allotment amount, according to the projections, is less than 10 percent. 

Depending on the inflow, the district could use up to 57,000 acre-feet from its conservation account – a 77,000 acre-feet bank that accumulates whenever the annual Melones allotment is not used. That number dips considerably as the amount of water flows in, and erases completely at the 355,000 acre-foot mark.

Woodward Reservoir is currently at the 206-foot mark and is expected to reach the 210-foot mark – the reservoir’s capacity – soon.