SSJID boosts water allotment to 40 inches

Farmers in the South San Joaquin Irrigation District will get at least 40 inches of water this year, thanks to a 5-0 vote by its board Tuesday.

The allotment is up from 36 inches last year, the first time ever that SSJID capped deliveries to the farmland around Escalon, Ripon and Manteca.

The increase reflects the improved rain and snow this year, compared with four straight years of drought, but New Melones Reservoir still is at a fifth of its capacity.

“March is looking great,” General Manager Peter Rietkerk said. “We still have a deficit to overcome.”

The district supplies about 50,000 acres from the Stanislaus River and also treats water for homes and businesses in Manteca, Tracy and Lathrop. The cities have had the same reductions from the 2013 volume as farmers – 20 percent last year, 16 percent this year.

The board tentatively set a March 25 start to the irrigation season but could decide at its March 22 meeting to delay it. Spring storms would add to the supply and also could postpone the need to water crops.

March is looking great. We still have a deficit to overcome.

Peter Rietkerk, SSJID general manager

The 40 inches, measured vertically over a season that will run through September, is enough to sustain most crops without need for groundwater pumping.

The storm season has had wild swings, as shown in monthly figures for the central Sierra Nevada from the California Department of Water Resources. Precipitation was 142 percent of average in December and 133 percent in January. February brought just 20 percent of its average amount, but March already is up to 70 percent.

SSJID had avoided the stress suffered by many other suppliers during the drought, but the dropping level at New Melones prompted the 36-inch cap last year. To the south, the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts got by on about half that amount, and the Merced Irrigation District had almost nothing. Several districts on the West Side also had zero allotments from the federal Delta-Mendota Canal.

The Oakdale Irrigation District, partner with SSJID on several reservoirs in the Stanislaus watershed, also has fared relatively well during the drought. Both face uncertainty, however, because New Melones, their main storage, is a federal project that also provides for downstream fishery flows and distant irrigators.

Rietkerk said SSJID plans to meet soon with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on this year’s fish-release plans.

John Holland: 209-578-2385