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SSJID Pulls Plug On Water Deal Amid Drought Concerns
The San Joaquin River continues to drop as it heads toward the Airport Way bridge south of Manteca. Photo By Dennis Wyatt

No one in Sacramento has declared it, but based on more detailed snowpack data distributed last week it is clear California is in a drought.

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District received word Friday that their share of the runoff from the Stanislaus River watershed will be 20,000 to 40,000 acre feet of water less than previously estimated.

“It is a bleak water outlook,” noted SSJID General Manager Peter Rietkerk.

It now means SSJID might not receive more than 225,000 acre feet for this year.

That compares to 249,000 acre feet in 2020.

The 1988 agreement that allowed the federal government to flood the Melones Dam that SSJID built with Oakdale Irrigation District in 1925 guarantees the first 600,000 acre feet that flows into New Melones each year. That means 300,000 acre feet for each district.

This year, based on hydrology data, the inflow this water year could be as low as 470,000 acre feet.

This will be one of the lowest snowpack yields in terms of water in recorded history.

Last year was a peak use for water consumption for SSJID.

Rietkerk said the district has directed staff to look at all operating procedures to minimize water use.

“We hope to be able to get by this year without cutting back deliveries to cities and farmers,” Rietkerk said.

That said Rietkerk said it is imperative that users — whether they are residential or farmers — need to use water prudently. Besides providing irrigation water to 52,000 acres SSJID delivers drinking water to Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy.

All three cities also rely on groundwater with Tracy taking some water from the State Water Project. Increased pumping from aquifers will increase power costs for cities plus it will further stress groundwater sources.

He added that the district has a good chance of getting through this year without water cutbacks if operational changes can be made to save water and customers use water wisely. Rietkerk believes changes the district has made since the last drought to reduce water use will end up being crucial to helping the district get through this year.

The lower water projection made the district’s proposal to release up to 100,000 acre feet to boost the spring pulse flow for threatened fish in the Stanislaus River and then sell that water to west side farmers that are without state water this year impossible to do.

A letter received from the federal Interior and Commerce departments April 8 also rendered the possibility of the pulse flow release moot as they killed the idea of the water release based on their current interpretation of the 1988 agreement that led to New Melones being built.

Rietkerk said the SSJID disagrees with the federal government’s position but it doesn’t matter with the current situation as the district lacks the water to boost the fish flow and sell it to Delta-Mendota Water Authority.

“We may not have enough water for what we need in district,” he said.

The new water outlook will likely dominate SSJID board talks that include a proposed water sale to the South Delta Water Agency of 266 acre feet of water at $150 per acre foot.

Rietkerk said the board will have to decide whether they can still do the deal. The amount is considerably less than what the pulse flow water transfer would have used.

As of April 6, 92.65 percent of California is in some form of drought whether it is moderate, severe, extreme or exceptional based on the United States Department of Agriculture Drought Monitor.

All of San Joaquin, Merced, and Stanislaus counties are in moderate drought as is the Stanislaus River watershed.

Parts of the Merced and Tuolumne watersheds are starting to slip from moderate drought into severe drought.