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Will SSJID help rescue 44,000 of its neighbors?
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South San Joaquin Irrigation District may come to the rescue of 44,000 people in Tuolumne County expected to run out of water in less than 80 days.

The SSJID board on Tuesday will consider an “emergency humanitarian transfer” of 2,400 acre feet of water. The Tuolumne Utility District’s predicament isn’t the result of poor planning. It’s primary source of water — Lyons Reservoir — was severely depleted by state aircraft ferrying water to fight the disastrous Rim Fire last fall.

Compounding the problem is the state’s refusal to reimburse the TUD for the water as it was used in an emergency. With severely reduced water sales, the TUD lacks funds to buy water. That’s where the Mi-Wok Indian tribe is stepping up to the plate. The tribe, which operates the Chicken Ranch Rancheria, has indicated they will cover the $480,000 cost of the water if the county is unable to come up with the money upfront.

SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields is proposing the water be sold at $200 an acre foot. The current spot market rate for water transfers is running between $400 and $1,350 per acre foot. Earlier this week, Harris Ranch in Coalinga topped 50 bidders to secure 12,000 acre feet of water from the Buena Vista Water Storage District. They submitted the high bid of $1,350 per acre or $405,000 for 300 acre feet of water to edge out other farm operations and water districts desperate for water. Paramount Farming submitted a bid of $1,100 per acre foot or $11 million to buy 10,000 acre feet of water.

“I do not believe it is appropriate to seek market prices for water that is going to support and protect our own watershed,” Shields said.

Without the water transfer, the TUD would be forced to truck in water or try to find a drilling company that could drop a well within the next 30 days. Both options are considered substantially more expensive.

The water requested is equivalent to 25 percent of one SSJID irrigation run for farmers in Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon.

“I understand this is not a good time to be proposing a water sale while at the same time we are calling on our growers and citizens to curtail and conserve water,” Shields noted.  “However, SSJID will have water to assure every grower will have sufficient water to purchase a healthy crop and out citizens will have sufficient high quality water to meet their necessary health and safety needs.”

The area in Tuolumne County expected to run out of water by mid-May includes 44,000 residents, businesses, the regional hospital, the CDF fire control center, local schools, churches and some agricultural operations. It also would stop salvage operations of burnt timber and force a saw mill to close costing dozens of jobs.

Shields noted SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation District jointly own the Tri-Dam Project. They have 22 employees and their families that live  in the impacted area. Those families rely in the regional hospital, schools, and CDF for fire protection.

The water would be pumped from New Melones Reservoir. However, due to how water is distributed within Tuolumne County it would still mean water would have to be secured in another manner for some of the 44,000 residents due to the physical layout of the distribution system. 

The original request was for 3,000 acre feet. However, Tuolumne County Office of Emergency Services personnel has indicated they could survive the current crisis with as little as 2,400 square feet.

A request last month for OID to sell water to Wetlands Water District for large corporate farmers at $400 an acre foot was beaten back by irate growers in the OID territory. The SSJID management passed on the Westlands request noting it was conserving water for its growers and citizens’ needs.

The smaller amount asked for by Tuolumne County is being done for humanitarian reasons as it will address health and safety issues.

The SSJID has been spending $1 million annually to help farmers that use irrigation water from the district to implement conservation measures. That is in addition to $14 million invested in a state-of-the-art closed delivery system in Division 9 west of Ripon and south of Manteca for farm irrigation.

Conservation is expected to get the cities of Manteca, Lathropo, and Tracy through this year as well as provide the water farmers need. The issue for SSJID is making sure they can save as much water as possible this year in the event 2015 is also a drought year,

The current storm is expected to have minimal impact on the precipitation deficit.

The snowpack was at 12 percent of normal at the start of the month. Water experts have said even if there are several heavy snow storms, the usual snow melt will mean most of the water from the Sierra snow will be absorbed in the ground before it reaches reservoirs that are currently at historic lows.

“This is serious,” Shields said of the drought. “We’ve been blessed with securing and adjudicating water rights and being able to invest in the facilities needed over the years to secure a good source of water. That’s not the case for the upper end of the water shed we rely on. There is a moral obligation in a crisis to do what you can to help.”