Our View: South San Joaquin Irrigation District works to sell water to Tuolumne County

02/08/2014 6:00 PM

02/08/2014 6:58 PM

Jeff Shields says he’s going to sleep well tonight. Thanks to him, and the people who live in the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, about 44,000 Tuolumne County residents should sleep a little better, too.

Shields, the general manager of SSJID, and members of his board were moved by reporting in Wednesday’s Modesto Bee about the water crisis in Tuolumne County. Last fall’s unprecedented Rim fire had helped drain the county’s main reservoirs – Lyons and Pinecrest Lake. Without any appreciable rain or snow during our 53-day midwinter dry spell, those reservoirs had not been replenished. The parts of the mountain county that should have been covered in snow were bone dry until this week.

Tuesday, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency, ordering residents to reduce water use by 50 percent. County officials said their reservoirs would be empty in 80 days and the declaration spoke of “an imminent threat of disaster” and “widespread harm” to everyone and everything living in the county.

Tuolumne County has few sources of water. The water that flows down the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers belongs to the valley’s irrigation districts. When Lyons and Pinecrest go dry, there is nowhere else to turn. A water consultant who works in both Tuolumne and Stanislaus counties had reached out to Oakdale Irrigation District for help, but was turned down. When SSJID was initially contacted, the district also declined, as did the Bureau of Land Management, which operates New Melones Reservoir.

All three agencies feared there wouldn’t be enough water for growers and environmental requirements if the drought continues, so they declined to help.

That made the impact of this historic drought very real to the residents of Sonora, Jamestown, Columbia and most other Tuolumne communities. But many of the people who live in those towns have friends and relatives who live in our valley.

Some even have a boss who lives in Manteca. And once he understood the severity of the situation, he realized he had to act.

As reported in Saturday’s Bee, Shields will ask the SSJID board to approve an emergency transfer of 2,400 acre-feet of water to Tuolumne County at Tuesday’s board meeting. His district will take only $200 per acre-foot – far less than its actual value if offered for sale. That is only about 15 percent of what the county normally uses, but it’s enough to stave off disaster.

In part, the move is born out of concern for staff. SSJID and OID jointly operate the Tri-Dam Project, which has 22 employees who live in Tuolumne County.

“If one of them had to go to the hospital, and that hospital was closed for lack of water, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night,” said Shields.

“We’ve got senior rights to that water; it’s our water,” he continued. “But that is our watershed. ... When that community is in crisis, it seems to me that along with those rights comes a moral obligation to help.”

By Wednesday morning, when The Bee published its story about the crisis, Shields was reconsidering. Soon, he got a call from a board member, asking, “What are we going to do to help those folks up in Tuolumne?” Upon hanging up, another board member stood in his doorway and said, “Jeff, we gotta help those folks up in our watershed.”

Thursday night, Shields spoke at a Farm Bureau dinner filled with his growers. He told them there was enough water for their crops and to help the folks up the hill. Everyone will have to conserve, but no one will go without, he promised. “The overwhelming response in the audience was ‘yes, absolutely.’

“I feel really good about our community,” said Shields.

So Shields got in touch with the consultant who works with both Turlock Irrigation District and the Rancheria Band of the Me-Wuk tribe (owners of Chicken Ranch Casino) and offered 2,400 acre-feet at $200 per acre-foot. The cost – $480,000 – will be covered by the tribe.

There are still some possible hurdles.

First, both the state Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Land Management (which operates New Melones Reservoir, where the water to be transferred is stored) will have to approve the transfer. “I trust the state of California and the federal government won’t try to interfere,” said Shields.

And he knows that with so many people nervous about a continued drought, he might come under fire for selling any water.

“I fully expect to be criticized by somebody,” he said. “But I’m doing what I think is right. ... If all hell breaks loose, I’ll go to sleep tomorrow night knowing that what I did was what I believe is the right thing to do.”

We applaud the generosity of everyone at SSJID, from the general manager to the board to the growers.

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