Irrigation water will start flowing through South San Joaquin Irrigation District canals March 9 unless there is significant rainfall between now and then.
The decision by the SSJID board this past week to set an irrigation start date with an asterisk underscores the precarious situation the Northern San Joaquin Valley water supply is in despite Sierra snowpack being 205 percent of historical average on Feb. 1.
SSJID General Manager Peter Reitkerk indicated forecasters expect rain to occur before March 9.
If it does, the board will meet again to assess whether the rainfall — if it occurs — is enough to sustain almond trees and other agricultural needs to potentially delay the irrigation season start for at least another week.
District canals will be ready to start operations March 1 thanks to the herculean effort of district crews in cleaning up and repairing storm damage.
Staff recommended the March 9 the irrigation season start date.
The reasoning behind the March 9 date is the district would be better able to manage water if there was a strong demand.
By more or all growers taking water, the district will be able to operate the first run of the season more efficiently. That means a minimal amount of water would end up flowing out of the system and into outlets to be returned to the San Joaquin River.
If there is less added to the snowpack and weather warms considerably that could put the state in a less than favorable position when April 1 rolls around. That is the date where water content measurements of snow are used to determine water deliveries for the coming months from the State Water Project as well as the Central Valley Project.
That means California could see a possible repeat of the winter of 2021-2022.
After an historic December that put the snowfall at 160 percent of average, the feast of water that many expected had turned to famine by April 1 when the snowpack was an anemic 38 percent of average. As a result, the drought — instead of being snapped — entered into its fourth year.
New Melones Reservoir — critical for the water needs of 220,000 urban users in Manteca, Lathrop and Tracy as well as 50,000 acres of irrigated farmland around Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon — was at 74 percent of its average storage for Feb. 14.
The 1,045,277 acre feet in storage was at 44 percent of the overall capacity of the 2.4 million acre foot reservoir.
The recommendations aimed at conserving water was based on the opportunity that late and heavy rains that have provided moisture for almonds. As such, a number of growers may not need water on March 1 especially if temperatures stay mild.
Almonds are the No. 1 crop in San Joaquin County.
The 2021 almond crop was valued at $453,764,000 out of the overall farm production of $3,193,234,000.
At the same time, bearing acreage increased from 104,400 acres in 2020 to 109,200 acres in 2021.
To put that in perspective, the acres currently planted in almonds in San Joaquin County cover an area more than 3½ times larger than the City of San Francisco.