By JEFF SHIELDS
South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager
& STEVE KNELL
Oakdale Irrigation District General Manager
A few weeks ago, Senator Feinstein made news by calling for significant measures to address California’s dire water supply situation, including the construction of more storage and perhaps even modifications to the Endangered Species Act. These measures, even if approved, will take years to come to fruition. Indeed, Senator Feinstein lamented that despite authorization for feasibility studies regarding new storage provided over a decade ago, some of the feasibility studies themselves won’t be done until 2016. In the meantime, New Melones Reservoir sits more than half empty at a time when SSJID and OID have water that can be stored for future use by agriculture and to meet environmental needs.
Introduced last week by Congressman Jeff Denham, H.R. 2554 requires the Secretary of Interior to offer the Oakdale and South San Joaquin Irrigation Districts a contract enabling them to store up to 100,000 acre-feet of their superior Stanislaus River water rights in New Melones reservoir. By having storage at New Melones, the Districts will be able to carry water over from year to year if they do not use their full allotment. This ability will make the supply for their own landowners and customers more reliable and certain in any multi-year drought cycle. It will also facilitate the creation of a supplemental supply which can be used, transferred or exchanged for the benefit of water short agricultural users in the Central Valley or to meet environmental needs.
Thanks to a rigorous, decade long effort, the Districts have upgraded their delivery and conveyance systems, eliminating waste and recapturing previously applied water. At the same time, on-farm improvements such a drip irrigation and laser-leveled fields have enabled the Districts’ landowners to improve yields using less water. The result of these efforts is that in many years the Districts have ample water for their needs and can carry over surpluses to help others who don’t have senior water rights. With the ability to store water in New Melones, the Districts will be able to retain any excess supply, and make it available for use in their service areas in drought years or make it available to support agriculture or environmental needs in critical dry years. If H.R. 2554 passes quickly enough, the Districts could perhaps store water this winter that could be made available in the 2014 irrigation season.
Despite its size, New Melones is underutilized and in most years has storage space available. The Districts are willing to pay the federal government for the use of the available space, which will immediately create a reliable, flexible water supply, without costly, contentious and multi-year construction of new facilities.
We agree with Senator Feinstein that long term solutions are needed, and long overdue. In the interim, we need to maximize the use of the existing facilities and supplies. H.R. 2554 does both. This is good for the Districts, agriculture, the environment and the State.