If you want to make a dent in California’s perpetual water crisis you need to take a little trip.
Drive down Union Road toward the Stanislaus River. Once you get past the bumper crop of new homes you’ll find yourself in the heart of Division 9 of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and plenty of almond orchards.
These aren’t your ordinary almond trees. They need anywhere from 20 to 40 percent less water than your typical almond orchard yet they often produce more nuts per tree. They do so while reducing air pollution, fighting saltwater intrusion in the groundwater, and lowering production costs by farmers. There’s even an app farmers can use to make it all work.
Division 9 is proof of what a pressurized irrigation system can deliver.
The farming area west of Ripon and south of Manteca that runs all the way to the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers is using 12,500 acre feet less of surface water annually than it did before the pressurized system was installed.
Based on Manteca’s per capita daily water consumption, 12,500 acre feet of water is enough to meet the annual water needs of 79,500 people.
In addition the need to pump groundwater to supplement SSJID water has been eliminated resulting in even less water use to help push back saltwater intrusion.
So why isn’t the SSJID going full speed ahead? The short answer is because the State of California is making it impossible for them to do so.
It takes a lot of money to pressurize irrigation systems. The tab would be significantly north of $150 million to do the entire SSJID system.
The SSJID does have a way of paying for the system by selling the water they save through long-term contracts. But the state made that a dicey proposition when at the height of the recent drought officials made a pronouncement that they believe they had the legal right to seize any water that an irrigation district didn’t use if they were going to sell water to another agency outside of their district.
The threat is clear. If the district borrows money to put in place additional pressurized delivery systems in other divisions they wouldn’t be able to rely on income from selling the water they save to pay for the high cost of installing pressurized systems.
Westlands Water District with more than 700 large farming operations in 2015 saw the price they paid for water transfers soar from $140 to $1,100 an acre foot.
Given the wild fluctuations in water prices driven by high demand and scarce sellers during dry spells when it comes to water transfers, a district like Wetlands might find it wise to lock into a 10-year contract to buy water at $200 an acre foot. That would provide SSJID with steady income of $2.5 million a year to pay off the cost of pressurizing another division assuming there would be a replicate savings of 12,500 acre feet of water a year.
The cost of producing a new acre foot of water from new storage had been pegged at between $340 and $1,070 per acre foot. The figure for creating a new acre foot of water from recycled water has a price tag of between $300 and $1,300 an acre foot.
It would clearly pencil out. And if the savings were as strong in other divisions, SSJID likely could save at least 75,000 acre feet of water or enough to meet the annual water needs of Long Beach, California’s seventh largest city with a population of 474,400.
And it could be done at less expense and with less environmental impact than creating new water storage or building water recycling components for wastewater treatment plants.
This should be an easy thing to accomplish given the SSJID’s superior historic water rights.
But if the state threatens to seize water that isn’t used with an irrigation district every time California hits a dry spell, you’d be crazy to invest in pressurized delivery given the state could essentially seize revenue needed to pay off such a system.
It also underscores a much larger problem that has been created by the disjointed, contradictory and often reactionary water polices coming out of Sacramento as well as the state’s willingness to undermine more than 150 years of California water right laws.
The state has created an atmosphere where water agencies holding water rights find themselves in situations where pursuing best practices for water conservation may not be in their best interest if doing so emboldens the state to arbitrarily seize water that they have legal right to as conferred to them under California law.
To their credit, the SSJID walks the tight rope of developing cutting edge water conservation strategies with participating district farmers as well as projects such as the Division 9 pressurization while at the same time striving to protect their front-of-the-line rights to 300,000 acre feet of water annually on the Stanislaus River watershed.
That effort ranges from investing heavily in scientific research — something the state hasn’t done — to find the most effective way to help threatened fish on the Stanislaus River to their willingness to go toe-to-toe with any effort to commander water legally secured, paid for, and developed by property owners within the district.
A legislative remedy needs to re-enforce adjudicated water rights by basically instructing state agencies to not interfere with long-term water transfers aimed at funding efforts to conserve water.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.