They were crazy. They were reckless. They didn’t know what they were talking about. They’d put the community into debt and send everyone into bankruptcy.
Joshua Cowell and F.A. West got all that flack and more for their proposal for a $1.8 million bond that would cost $2.5 million to pay back.
The two visionaries had thought long and hard. They promised the so-called “reckless adventure” would work.
That was 106 years ago.
Today, that reckless venture has put the farmers of Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon in a better position to weather the drought than virtually every one of their counterparts elsewhere in California.
It also has given the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy — and soon Ripon and Escalon — critical cushion through surface water that many other cities in the Golden State lack.
The South San Joaquin Irrigation District has a rock solid history of not just doing the right thing but thinking beyond the moment for the benefit of future generations.
The decision to create Woodward Reservoir as in-district storage put the SSJID in a better position to deal with dry years than their partners in the Oakdale Irrigation District. It eventually allowed a carryover cushion that means Manteca, Tracy, and Lathrop will get 80 percent of the surface water they’ve been using this year. Compare that to the 17 cities projected to run out of water in four months, 44,000 water users in Calaveras County that may have their faucets run dry in 100 days, and the 25 million urban users plus 1 million acres of farmland this year that will not receive a drop of water they’d normally receive from the State Water Project.
In the early 1920s, when no farmer or those merchants and city residents who were heavily reliant on agricultural production for prosperity were concerned about droughts or future water supplies, the SSJID board was. The SSJID pushed for more water storage and proposed a bond issue to build the original Melones Dam. People thought they were nuts. There had been heavy rains and plenty of water. They voted the bond measure down.
Then the severe drought of 1925 hit. Sixty percent of the farms in the county went under. The SSJID-OID proposal was back on the ballot and passed by a wide margin.
That decision in 1925 coupled with water rights dating back to 1852 that the SSJID board had the wisdom and vision to go to the expense of adjudicating meant when the federal government decided it would build a reservoir on the Stanislaus River to inundate the original Melones Dam that they couldn’t ignore SSJID’s superior water rights.
The district is one of only six in California that hold adjudicated water rights prior to federal and state water laws going into effect. In California, holding adjudicated water rights is the equivalent of owning the Hope Diamond, winning the $500 million Mega Lottery, snagging The Publishers’ Clearinghouse’s $1 million a year for life sweepstakes, and winning the Irish Sweepstakes. Water is the real gold in California. And adjudicated water rights trump all others in the never-ending war between cities, farmers, and environmentalists to secure a larger share of the water pie.
There is one other man that every resident of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy should be thankful stepped up and delivered. That man is the late Nick DeGroot.
DeGroot understood if the SSJID didn’t utilize all of its water rights there was a real threat of them being jeopardized as the need arose throughout California despite their adjudicated status.
He pushed for using those water rights to help cities in the district and elsewhere in the county receive surface water. DeGroot’s colleagues on the SSJID board were adamant. It wouldn’t work. They argue there wasn’t enough water.
DeGroot persevered. The Dutch immigrant would lay in bed at night after working in his almond orchards and think.
He’d think about the future of not just his family and fellow farmers but of his neighbors in Manteca and other people he’d never met. DeGroot would take a pencil to paper to do some calculations. He’d do it again and again.
He pressed the issue when he was sure of himself. The SSJID needed to provide water to cities to protect farming in the district. It was an out-of-the-box thinking but DeGroot knew he was right.
Then the cities balked. They argued it was too expensive and not needed. They had groundwater. DeGroot schooled city leaders in water table trends, historic rainfall, salinity issues with ground water due to the region’s proximity to the Delta and the need to have supplies to take care of growth.
What was first thought impossible became a reality.
Today, water from the Nick DeGroot South County Surface Water Treatment Plant flows through taps in the three cities. And because it does, the water rights the SSJID holds to the critical lifeblood of a community’s economy and health are even stronger today.
We are not in as dire a situation this year for water like much of the rest of California thanks to men like DeGroot and Cowell. But if the weather pattern doesn’t change, that won’t be the case in 2015.
That’s why the SSJID is adamant that we all have to conserve as much as we can.
The SSJID has made the right call once again.
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.