SSJID caps water deliveries for first time

For the first time ever, drought has forced the South San Joaquin Irrigation District to cap water deliveries.

Its board voted 5-0 Tuesday for a 36-inch limit for farmers who irrigate about 55,000 acres around Escalon, Ripon and Manteca with water from the Stanislaus River.

The allotment is far better than in many areas – the Merced Irrigation District and parts of the West Side expect zero river water this year – but it still could mean challenges for SSJID growers accustomed to plenty.

“To my knowledge, we have never had an inch limit, so this is new business for us,” General Manager Jeff Shields said.

About half of the farmers use more than 36 inches in a typical year, he said, but many have wells to supplement the river supply.

The water will be delivered over an irrigation season that starts Sunday and will end Sept. 30.

Just to the south, the Modesto Irrigation District might cap water from the Tuolumne River at 16 inches. The Turlock Irrigation District, another Tuolumne user, is looking at roughly the same.

SSJID and the neighboring Oakdale Irrigation District have fared relatively well during the four-year drought because of strong Stanislaus River rights and conservation efforts. But the shortage of rain and snow has sharply reduced New Melones Reservoir, the main storage, and a dry 2016 would make things even worse.

Both districts were founded in 1909. Shields said SSJID ran out of river water twice – in 1977 and 1991 – but it allowed farmers to use the canals to deliver well water they were transferring.

Shields said the groundwater under the district is in good shape, but it could drop this year for two reasons: Farmers will increase their pumping to make up for reduced river water, and they will do less flood irrigation, which helps recharge the aquifer.

SSJID will allow farmers to transfer their allotments to others in the district. Someone with access to groundwater, for example, can let river water go to someone who cannot pump.

The district also supplies treated water to the cities of Manteca, Lathrop and Tracy. Shields said they will be asked to continue the voluntary conservation that cut consumption by about 20 percent last year.

SSJID board President Bob Holmes, a dairy farmer in the Escalon area, said drip and other water-conserving irrigation techniques will help many growers get through. He also said the transfers will help.

“We will be able to get through it together,” Holmes said. “Next year is kind of up in the air for everyone.”

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.