By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
High And Dry - Locals Start Storm Watch
Lack of substantial rainfall this winter has prompted South San Joaquin Irrigation District officials and area farmers to get proactive.

SSJID Board members were slated to consider an early irrigation at their regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 10, past press time for The Times, with SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields saying they wanted to have the system ready to go for an early irrigation if necessary.

"I've asked for authorization to go ahead and fill Woodward (Reservoir) in preparation," Shields said after completing the staff report on Friday morning. "I've instructed our maintenance crews to wrap up their work on the distribution system by the 13th so any time after that we would be able to put water in the system and make deliveries."

The dry weather also has farmers on the watch, said San Joaquin County Farm Bureau President Bruce Fry.

"Some people have started irrigating," Fry said of farmers with pumping systems of their own. "The orchards and vineyards need water, especially on young trees that don't have a root system, there needs to be some water."

While the farmers and ranchers don't want to be tapping their individual irrigation systems this early, Fry said to preserve the integrity of the crop, it is needed in some cases.

"It's good that a grower can irrigate on his own but the other problem is that it costs a lot of money to do it," he explained, which ultimately results in higher prices being passed on to consumers.

Fry said the bureau stays in touch with the various irrigation districts that service the San Joaquin County area and all are looking at potential early starts to the season. His Mohr-Fry Ranches is in the Woodbridge Irrigation District and the family operation includes wine grapes, cherries and dry beans.

"Farmers are weather junkies, my dad is for sure," Fry said, noting that they all tend to keep their eye on the forecasts and rainfall projections.

Shields said that is common practice at his office, too.

"Optimistically, there is a storm forecast for Jan. 18, it looks like a pretty good one, what we're seeing, with rain the 18th, 19th and 20th," Shields said. "As we get closer, we'll see if it brings enough moisture in with it."

Things aren't at the 'make or break' point yet in the water season, but Fry said it's teetering near that level.

"Farmers and ranchers are concerned, it affects everybody," he said.

But, he added, the farming and ranching community still has it better than ski resort operators.

"In my opinion, that's more risky than farming, if there's no snow...that's a tough game to play," Fry said. "Dealing with Mother Nature, that's just part of farming.

"There's always something new to deal with, it's different every year, every day, it keeps me on my toes."

Shields said from the irrigation district perspective, the precipitation since the start of the water year - Oct. 1, 2011 - has been historically low. The District is guaranteed 300,000 acre feet of water annually from New Melones and is supposed to have access to carry over water from wet years. However, the Bureau of Reclamation has the right to "spill" the conservation water and did just that this past water year due to high water levels in the reservoir. So, Shields said, there is no carryover water available and charging the system early would use some of the allotment of water for this season.

Utilizing an estimated 10,000 acre feet now to charge the system and allow for an early irrigation might be the only alternative to help make sure the crops don't suffer. But it would reduce water for use the rest of the irrigation season.

A lot will depend on the 'storm window' for the mid-January storm.

"If the storm forecast for the 18th either doesn't materialize or is too weak to add sufficient moisture to the soil, we can immediately bring water out of Woodward and start irrigation," Shields wrote in his staff report to the board in recommending charging up the system.

Meanwhile, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) conducted the year's first snow survey this past week, which also has state and local fire officials concerned about increased fire danger. The lack of precipitation across the state has led to one of the driest winters on record. According to DWR the statewide water content was measured at 19 percent of normal in the survey, with no measurable snow added in the past two months.

Officials said the drier than normal conditions, coupled with wind and low humidity, have increased the fire danger so far this winter. Last month, Cal Fire crews responded to an increased number of wildfires for a typical December.

"Fire activity in northern California during winter is very rare, where snow covered mountains and rain soaked hillsides typically keep the fire danger relatively low," said Chief Ken Pimlott, Cal Fire director. "We will be monitoring the rain levels over the next couple months, as it will be an indicator of the type of fire activity spring and summer will bring."