San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation

By Craig W. Anderson

The North San Joaquin Water Conservation District recently received the good news that grants totaling $6 million will allow farmers east of Lodi to use Mokelumne River water that's been unavailable even during the drought. The grant dollars will also help repair and replace an aging infrastructure.

"I've been on the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District [NSJWCD] board for six years and have served as president for four years," said Joe Valente, past SJFB president, and current president of NSJWCD, "and we're making progress. These board members constantly attend various water use and management meetings. They also have a very positive attitude."

He credited NSJWCD's general counsel Jennifer Spaletta with guidance concerning assorted issues and pursuing grants to accomplish important and necessary renovations and new conveyance construction. "Jennifer's taken an active role and her creative thinking's been key to our continued success," Valente said. "She's provided a lot of guidance."

For her part, Spaletta said, "There is a lot going on with the district and we're working on upgrading our infrastructure which was built in the 60s. The district has the water rights to 20,000 acre feet of water from the Mokelumne River per year but it's only been available to us six of 10 years due to drought."

Groundwater and grants

Because of the drought and an absence of effective conveyance, growers began relying on groundwater instead of using surface sources and the state water board issued an ultimatum, said Spaletta. "The water board said if you don't use the 20,000 acre feet you'll lose your right to it."

The district applied for grants and, with Spaletta's assistance, the revived district will receive grants totaling $6 million: $4 million from the Department of Water Resources for district projects and $2 million for landowners to install irrigation systems which will allow them to toggle from ground water to surface water and back again as necessary. Thus the goal of using 20,000 acre feet will be fulfilled.

Also, a $1.75 million settlement from the East Bay Municipal Utility District [EBMUD] over disputed water rights will go toward building a new pump station and installing concrete pipe to those Lodi area farmers needing water to irrigate about 6,000 acres. Preliminary studies have been done regarding modernizing the system to deliver pressurized water to be used for drip irrigation.

Without the money to bring NSJWCD up to speed, farmers were forced to rely primarily on groundwater to irrigate their crops; however, with the decline in groundwater over the years, using river water would aid in maintaining groundwater levels and keep the region in compliance with state regulations.

With improved pumping and pipes, growers "will be able to use surface water that's available to them in the future," Spaletta said.

Banking water

A groundwater banking program has also been started with the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District partnering with EBMUD, the Woodbridge Water District and Stockton East Water District which allows NSJWCD farmers to take 1,000 acre feet of EBMUD water from the Mokelumne River thus reducing groundwater usage. The surface water used by NSJWCD represents a 1,000 acre foot credit, 500 credited to the water districts and 500 credited to EBMUD; both entities can withdraw and use water from the bank.

"This in lieu banking project will replace surface water to EBMUD," Valente said. "All entities participating in the program are on board with it. This is getting water to our growers while keeping the water situation balanced."

Payment proposal

The $1.75 million from the EBMUD settlement will provide the funds for the new pumping station and will help defray the cost of replacing miles of aged concrete pipeline with an up-to-date pressurized system of water delivery.

However, the total cost of the project is greater than the available funds and, said Spaletta, "We're putting together a proposal to ask landowners if they're willing to pay the difference between the grant dollars and the total costs."

She added that "the biggest win in all of this is taking 6,000 acres off groundwater and onto river water." Of course, the ability of growers to change from one to the other is likewise an advantage the district's growers haven't had in the past. The water use from both sources will be monitored. 

Realization of burgeoning success

"Everyone here realizes the benefits of this program and others we're working on," Valente said. "They know we need to use surface water when it's available and the banking project allows this." NSJWCD is also dealing with issues, as are all water districts, of groundwater regulations and permitting situations.

"Our goal is to package programs important to the district that are affordable to landowners and consistent with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act," Spaletta said. "With the new law passed in 2014, groundwater basins have to be managed efficiently."

Part-time manager

The idea of the board has always been "getting our growers water," Valente said. "And we now have a part-time manager, John Podesta, who's doing the necessary legwork, has engineering skills and a very positive attitude which means he's on the same page as the board."

Credit the board of directors

Spaletta said landowners now understand the value of the district, the regulations they must deal with and how they and the district fit into to the state water board's overall program. "The NSJWCD board of directors – Joe Valente, President; Tom Flinn, Vice President; Hugh Scanlon, Treasurer; David Simpson, Secretary; Marden Wilber, Director – continue to work very hard. They're all volunteers and they've really stepped up; they've not been afraid to try new things. What they've accomplished as a group of volunteers is very impressive."