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Irrigation District Explores Remaking Entire Water System

MODESTO BEE: The $325 million plan would save water through more precise irrigation; cost to be covered by outside water buyers.

Written by John Holland Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

MANTECA — Experts ran rough numbers Tuesday on costs and benefits of remaking the delivery system for the South San Joaquin Irrigation District.

They said the project, which would conserve about a quarter of the Stanislaus River supply, would make sense if the saved water were sold to outside buyers for an average of at least $350 per acre-foot.

That is far more than SSJID farmers are paying this year, but not unusual in the water market that has emerged in parts of California hit hard by drought.

The project involves “pressurizing” a system that has relied on gravity for the past century to get water to farmers around Ripon, Manteca and Escalon. Water from the main canal would go into six small reservoirs around the district, then would be pumped into pipelines serving surrounding farmers who use drip lines or micro sprinklers to reduce consumption.

These improvements would cut down on water that evaporates, seeps into the ground or flows out the ends of canals. They have been in place since 2012 on about 3,800 acres in the southwest part of the district, which is looking at expanding them to all 56,000 acres.

Consultants briefed the SSJID board Tuesday on the initial estimates for the project, expected to cost about $325 million to plan and build and $8 million a year to operate. Directors will consider whether to move on to detailed design at a future meeting.

The project could require that district farmers pay at least $42 per acre-foot, said Duncan MacEwan, an economist with ERA Economics in Davis. This year, most are paying $24 per acre, plus $3 for each acre-foot applied to that land. Customers in the area already pressurized pay more.

In return for the higher rates, farmers would get a state-of-the-art system that allows them to turn on the supply as needed via smartphone or other high-tech means. They also could reduce their reliance on groundwater, which is expensive to pump and, in some places, high in salts that can damage crops.

The project would conserve up to 73,110 acre-feet of water per year, consultants said. SSJID has rights to 300,000 acre-feet in years with ample rain and snow.

The conserved water could be attractive even at a high price to, for example, the Westlands Water District, a supplier west of Fresno that has had drastic cutbacks in its federal irrigation allotments. Another option is a nearby supplier, such as the Stockton East Water District.

MacEwan said $350 per acre-foot “is a plausible price, and we think the project is in the realm of economic and financial feasibility.”

The SSJID would finance the project over 30 years. It also is weighing the idea against the cost of maintaining the current system, which has many components more than 60 years old.

Board member Dale Kuil said he was concerned that the saved water, rather than being sold to another district, would be taken by the state to increase flows on the Stanislaus River and downstream.

“(Farmers) are worried about losing the water they are saving,” he said.

Board President Bob Holmes said that by exploring a pressurized system, “we are trying to position ourselves to grow our crops with whatever water is available.”

This article originally appeared in the Modesto Bee on Sept. 8, 2015. To see more stories in the Bee’s ongoing coverage of the California drought, go to: http://www.modbee.com/news/state/california/water-and-drought/.

Top image: The Stanislaus River is the source of water for the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, which plans a $325 million project to pressurize its delivery system to conserve water. ( Andy Alfaro, Modesto Bee)

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