There was a thin white filigree around the leaves on Bob Broccini's almond trees.
"I saw it early last year," said Broccini. "By the end of the season, by September, they actually dried up and looked like they were burnt."
It was salt leaching into the leaves from the groundwater he was pumping into his Ripon orchard.
This year, the leaves are solid green. That's because Broccini has shut off his groundwater pumps and instead showers his orchards with fresh water from the South San Joaquin Irrigation District's Woodward Reservoir.
Earlier this month, the SSJID unveiled an irrigation system that allows growers to order water on their mobile phones or iPads and have it reach sprinklers and drip systems with enough pressure to work.
To make it possible, the SSJID dug a basin the size of two football fields at the southern edge of the district. Water from Woodward flows in through existing laterals, then is pumped under pressure through 19 miles of PVC pipe into the systems that nourish trees and vines on 3,800 acres around Ripon.
"You won't find this anywhere else in the country," said SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields as he showed the project to 100 guests last week. "The bar has been raised on every irrigation district in the country."
This puts the SSJID leaps and bounds ahead of the Modesto Irrigation District, whose controversial improvement project does not include this kind of sophisticated system.
For around 75 growers, water ordered from the SSJID will be delivered on demand, something the district could never offer in the past and still can't for the majority of its growers.
"After 100 years, we've gone from just delivering water to giving it to the growers exactly when they need it," said SSJID spokeswoman Troylene Sayler.
Some consider it long overdue. At 109 years old, the SSJID is a slightly younger cousin of the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts. It exists to provide water for farmers in Ripon, Manteca, Escalon and Lathrop. The SSJID and the adjacent Oakdale Irrigation District have first dibs on 600,000 acre-feet from the Stanislaus River.
Like many other districts, the SSJID has been slow to build improvements, relying on the gift of gravity to feed its canals and ditches. A couple of generations ago, that was fine. But now, most area farmers have eschewed field crops for high-value trees and vines.
Farmers of the past relied on flood irrigation, but today's farmers grow far different crops, need water in precise increments and at exactly the right time. Flood irrigation can't provide that.
So to take control of their irrigation needs, farmers have used diesel and electric pumps to bring groundwater to the surface. With it has come the salt.
For decades, salt incursion has been creeping across the valley. Salt dries plants, diminishes yields and can kill trees and vines. Water flowing from the Sierra doesn't have that salt. But the district couldn't deliver it when it was needed. This system changes that equation.
Seven months ago, the SSJID began moving 400 truckloads of dirt a day to build its basin. Then it laid 19 miles of heavy-gauge PVC pipe and installed state-of-the-art pumps. Next, it set up field telemetry units for each of 56 turnouts (where water leaves the pressurized pipe to go to a field).
Farmers tied in for $2,500 a huge break on the actual $25,000 cost as an enticement to take a risk on new technology.
The project cost $14 million, with $13 million coming from the sale of power generated by the Tri-Dam project, which the SSJID owns with OID. The other $1 million came from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Convenience is only one benefit. Some growers will reduce water use (and costs) by up to 30 percent. And using better water through better systems can increase yields.
Finally, the air around the the fields will improve as growers abandon those diesel pumps.
As in most large investments, its mother was necessity.
"This project wasn't built because we were just looking for something to do," said Shields.
Starting in July the state will require irrigation districts to charge growers for the volume of water used instead of annual per-acre fees. To do that, districts have to have a much better way of measuring how much growers are using. That's where the field telemetry units come in.
Still, the project covers only about 8 percent of the district's 45,000 acres.
So when can farmers in Escalon, Manteca and Lathrop expect the same kind of system?
"It costs a lot of money," said Broccini, who also farms outside the project area. "A lot of our facilities were put in 100 years ago. The district never anticipated the change in the crops from back then to what we grow now and the change from flood to drip to sprinklers to micro-sprinklers. I'm sure (the district) wants to do more and I'm sure they will. It's just a matter of time."
Shields said the system will be expanded to other growers, but was vague on when.
"We will get there," he said, then promised: "We won't be irrigating in 10 years the way we were irrigating 10 years ago."
For some growers, that change has already arrived.
Dunbar is director of integrated operations for The Bee and has covered water issues for years. Contact him at (209) 578-2325 or firstname.lastname@example.org.