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Sacramento discouraging significant water conservation
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Imagine South San Joaquin Irrigation District being able to reduce water use by 60,000 or so acre feet annually. That’s enough water based on Manteca’s current per capita use of 150 gallons a day to meet the needs of 357,099 Californians for a year or a city the size of Bakersfield.
Now imagine SSJID farmers being able to significantly increase crop production, reduce fertilizer costs, and eliminate pumping to save electricity and improve air quality.
That means more food for more people as well as a more vibrant regional economy.
All of that and more is possible.
But given the state’s sometimes lawless, sometimes threatening, sometimes reckless, sometimes impulsive, and sometimes myopic approach to water law the deploying of proven technology to increase water availability is way too risky.
The SSJID board has been exploring repeating the much-lauded Division 9 success story south of Manteca and west of Ripon districtwide. That would put the entire SSJID system under pressurized water delivery. It would eliminate canal seepage. It would eliminate evaporation. It would make flood irrigation and sprinklers — not the most effective way to irrigate by far — passé. In its place would be drip irrigation lines with the ability to put water directly where it is needed. It also would allow farmers to use their drip lines to fertilize trees and vines that constitute two thirds of the SSJID farmland.
There are two issues, however. One involves groundwater recharge and whether a significant reduction of flood irrigation would impact the aquifer that others draw on. On the northeast corner of Ripon, for example, when an orchard was removed for conversion into housing neighbors who had fairly shallow wells noticed their water level dropping significantly. That’s because the adjacent land was no longer being flood irrigated.
The City of Ripon draws water from a much deeper aquifer. Whether Ripon per se would be impacted if flood irrigation was rolled back has yet to be determined. But if supplemental ground water pumping by farmers can be scaled back and Ripon connecting with the Nick DeGroot Surface Water Treatment Plant occurs, a move by SSJID to a pressurized system may negate any concern.
The one issue that is a lot more complicated is the state’s proclaiming during the drought that water rights law is fluid if they so deem. The state at one point insisted that any water that an irrigation district doesn’t use — essentially water that they conserve — would belong to the state to distribute as they saw fit regardless of water rights and nearly 170 years of California law.
I didn’t follow through with the threat because cooler heads prevailed at the state in working out a water deal that released more water for fish pulse flows in conjunction with an SSJID-OID water sale to districts down the valley.
Why the threat that is hanging over water districts’ heads matters when it comes to pressurized systems is simple. They cost money. Lots and lots of money. When all is said and done the bill could exceed $200 million.
Water transfer sales have helped finance the Division 9 improvements. It is essentially water that Division 9 is now saving on an annual basis thanks to the pressurized system.
If a state bureaucracy can declare the equivalent of martial law and seize property — which is what the legally adjudicated water rights SSJID and OID not only secured but paid to develop on their own are  — then the ability of district like SSJID to make investments to reduce water use by making the delivery of it more efficient goes out the window. It is simply too expensive to do without having a source of revenue to pay off loans.
Outside of respecting established law that bureaucrats in Sacramento have made clear they don’t respect, the only way the state could provide the certainty SSJID would need is to pass legislation or a constitutional amendment spelling out that bureaucrats have no legal authority to commandeer legally adjudicated water rights even in an extreme emergency without negotiations that assure that not only is the water paid for at prevailing market rates but any economic losses have to be covered if they take water that an agency needs to meet established needs.
Granted, that is what adjudicated water rights are supposed to do. But when you hear bureaucrats with key state water agencies talking as if the state has a right to seize the water legally belonging to one district and not pay for it because they deem it is needed elsewhere it is clear they are operating as if they are part of a juntas.
To put this in perspective, it would be like the state deciding the assets that Wal-Mart owns and develops are fair game for seizure without market compensation for the express purpose of turning them over to competitors that aren’t fairing as well.
The bottom line is even more chilling.
The state has created a climate where it ultimately will not be in the best interests of districts such as the SSJID to step up conservation if the reward for such actions is the seizure of legally secured water rights that are at the front of the line.
If California’s leadership really wants to develop more water they need to respect the laws they put in place. Besides, if the state develops a dam using their water rights they sell the water to end users. It is no different than what SSJID and other districts are doing.