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River Run? - San Joaquin May Go Dry
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Barring a deluge of biblical proportions water experts are anticipating the San Joaquin River at Vernalis could essentially be dry by July.

Forecasters working with the state believe that will be the case given current conditions including snow and rain from the storm now crossing California. That’s what South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields has been told.

At the same time Shields and other irrigation district managers have been told the state could press for curtailment of water rights as early as next week.

Anticipating such a move, the SSJID has issued letters to the Stockton East, Calaveras and Central San Joaquin water districts that they intend to go to court to enforce their senior adjudicated water rights to Stanislaus River water that dates back to 1853. The Bureau of Reclamation indicated earlier this week that they will deliver 55 percent of the three districts’ contracted water from New Melones.

Shields noted that New Melones doesn’t have the water to honor such a commitment given that the first 600,000 acre feet of Stanislaus River runoff legally belongs to the SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation District.

“We will protect our water rights at all costs,” Shields told the Manteca Rotary on Thursday during a gathering at Isadore’s.

Shields said the operating plan that the Bureau is pursuing would leave the New Melones Reservoir that has a capacity of 2.4 million acre feet with only 147,000 acre feet by Sept. 3.

Shields believes such a scenario would mean the Stanislaus River would stop flowing near Ripon by October if not sooner.

The SSJID board took steps Tuesday to keep the water level at Woodward Reservoir low for at least the rest of 2014. That will save the district 9,000 acre feet of water that would usually be lost through evaporation and seepage when the reservoir is operated at a higher level. That means, however, there will be no recreation uses at Woodward. It also will put 16 people involved with the Woodward concession out of work and cost Stanislaus County’s Parks and Recreation budget $2 million in income it generates each year from Woodward. Included in that is $168,000 that would have gone to help support the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department.

At the same meeting the board formally executed a contract for a “humanitarian transfer” of 9,000 acre feet of water to the water district that serves Sonora and much of Tuolumne County. The county had imposed a mandatory 50 percent water use reduction on its residents and had banned all outside watering. The county was left in dire shape after four months of crews fighting the Rim Fire by using water from Lyons Reservoir. State officials had calculated Tuolumne County would run of water by July.

County emergency officials were making contingency plans such as finding other beds for hospital patients after the Bureau refused to sell them water. They then asked the SSJID for help.

Tuolumne actually needs almost three times the amount of water SSJID is selling them at $200 an acre foot but water district officials have said they will make do with what they are buying.

Water experts had hoped that the recent storms would push the snowpack in the Sierra that provides two thirds of the state’s water supplies to at least 30 percent of normal. But on Thursday state water officials indicted the snowpack only got a boost to 24 percent of normal after ending January at 12 percent of normal.

The SSJID started its irrigation season on Monday.

Some have wondered why the SSJID didn’t delay it.

Shields said the reason is simple. The forecast for March calls for little chance of significant rain. At the same time, various SSJID soil moisture probes in Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon orchards show that there are traces of moisture only as deep as six inches. He added probes show it is “bone dry” down to five feet where tree roots extend.

Shields said it is critical that trees get water while buds are setting nuts.

It takes 30 inches of water during a growing season to deliver a healthy almond crop. Under water management strategies now in place, the SSJID plans to make full water deliveries to farmers as well as provide the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy with about the same amount of water they used last year. All three cities, though, have seen a spike in use since then due to growth.

By contrast other area water purveyors have told their almond growers they will only receive six inches in the Merced Irrigation District; 18 inches in the Modesto Irrigation District; 20 inches in the Turlock Irrigation District.

At the same time the State Water Project has said it will not deliver water for the first time ever to a million acres of farmland as well as to urban districts serving 25 million people. The Central Valley Water project operated by the federal government also indicated it will not be delivering contracted water to farmers.

California is now in its third dry year prompting the state to declare a drought emergency.