Ag Today September 8, 2017

‘Shot in the arm’ for water district

By Alex Breitler, Stockton Record

A water-starved agricultural area in north San Joaquin County finally got some good news recently with the proposed awarding of $4 million in state and federal grants.

The money will allow farmers on about 6,000 acres east of Lodi to finally take advantage of a water right on the Mokelumne River that they haven’t been able to use even during last year’s floods because their crumbling infrastructure is half a century old.

Instead, farmers south of the river have relied mostly on groundwater to grow their crops. But groundwater levels have declined over time. Bringing river water into the area could help correct that decline and help the region comply with state regulations that eventually will require more sustainable use of groundwater, which should be managed as a kind of emergency savings account.

“They’ll be able to use surface water that is available to them in the future. It’s a big shot in the arm,” said attorney Jennifer Spaletta, who represents North San Joaquin.

This is not the only effort underway in the area. The water district also is launching a groundwater banking program with the rival East Bay Municipal Utility District, which exports Mokelumne River water to the Bay Area. That pilot program is revolutionary in San Joaquin County, which guards its water supply carefully. It allows for a small amount of East Bay MUD water to be taken from the river and used by local farmers, who then use less groundwater as a result. A share of that unused groundwater can then be withdrawn and sent to the Bay Area.

As part of a larger settlement over water right disputes, East Bay MUD is also paying for the new pumping station to feed the water district’s aging distribution system. This latest batch of funding will take that one step further by providing some of the money required to replace seven miles of cracked concrete pipeline with a new and more efficient pressurized system.

The $4 million won’t be enough to build the whole system, Spaletta said.

“We’re in the process now of putting together a proposal for landowners to see if they’re willing to pay for the balance,” she said.

Of the new funding, $1 million is coming from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. State officials, meanwhile, have proposed another $3 million for North San Joaquin from the voter-approved Proposition 1 water bond.

While the grants are intended to improve efficiency, Spaletta said that taking 6,000 acres of farmland off groundwater and onto river water is “the bigger win.”