History of South San Joaquin Irrigation District

A group of Mormon settlers were the first to attempt to bring irrigation to San Joaquin County. Arriving in 1846, they settled along the Stanislaus River and built a perfectly graded ditch, which was still visible in 1910. Although the Mormon settlement didn’t last long, their irrigation ditch foreshadowed how irrigation could profit the South San Joaquin.

Nearing the end of the 1800s, it was necessary to bring a reliable irrigation method to the southern portion of San Joaquin County. In hopes of doing so, several irrigation companies formed and sold bonds throughout the West. However, many plans failed and multiple companies proved to be in fact fraudulent.

In 1886, Wright Cowell, a resident and landowner in the area, sought to establish a water system by purchasing water rights along the Stanislaus River—a dream which was realized with the formation of the San Joaquin Land & Water Company in 1889. However, this company was soon disbanded when farmers refused to purchase water and the principal parties disagreed on countless issues.

Soon after the previous attempt, H.W. Cowell and N.S. Harrold formed the Stanislaus and San Joaquin Water Company in 1895, with a system of ditches along the Stanislaus River from Knights Ferry to Manteca called the “Tulloch System,” spanning 47 miles in all. In doing so, they distributed water to some 3,000 acres of land in Manteca and Oakdale, allowing farmers to see high yields and flourishing dairy farms, as well as introducing new crops to the area including alfalfa.

California passed the Wright Irrigation Law in hopes of preventing the formation of fraudulent companies. The law stated that irrigation districts could form under the same status as municipal water districts with the approval of a County Board of Supervisors. Realizing the potential growth and prosperity an established irrigation district could bring to the valley, P.E. Lunstrom, F.A. West and Joshua Cowell petitioned for the formation of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District (SSJID) in March of 1909. The Board of Supervisors approved the petition for a public election, which won by a vote of 396 to 67 on May 11, 1909. The five Board members who were elected to run SSJID under the bond issue of $1,875,000 were C. M. Carlson, Fred H. Kincaid, Benjamin A. Goodwin, Walter Jones Woodward and C.T. Wiggin. SSJID split the Tulloch system, plants and water rights with the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID), which was formed around the same time.

In conjunction with OID, SSJID constructed a dam two and a half miles above Knights Ferry named after SSJID Board President Benjamin A. Goodwin, which was completed in December 1913. It is a beautiful, double-arch concrete dam with a buttress rock ledge rising from the stream. At the dedication on April 6, 1913, an event which attracted over 4,000 people, Governor Hiram Johnson opened the headgates and presented the dedicatory address. The first farmer to receive water was E.N. Pierce, who was the secretary of the District at the time. Actual irrigation began in the spring of 1914.

After the completion of Goodwin Dam, construction began on nearly 300 miles of ditches, tunnels and flumes necessary to distribute water to farms within the district. Among the structures built was the Hilt Sag Flume suspended sixty-eight feet in the air and stretching 2,000 feet across a sag located six miles south of Knight’s Ferry. The Hilt Sag wooden flume was damaged by a fire in 1917 and replaced with a concrete structure, which the District used until 1993, when it was replaced with an earthquake-safe underground siphon.

SSJID encountered a shortage of water in 1915 due to little rain and snow in the previous winter. To minimize the damage to the water-starved crops if faced with similar shortages in the future, SSJID constructed the Woodward Reservoir near Oakdale. The reservoir named after one of the founding Board members, Walter Jones Woodward, was completed in 1916. This increased SSJID’s storage capacity by 36,000 acre feet. Water from Woodward Reservoir flowed into the Main Supply Canal, which became operational in 1913, and passed southwest towards OID for six miles before finally reaching San Joaquin County at the eastern border of SSJID. In 1923, SSJID lined nearly all of its canals with cement to help prevent seepage and relieve the drainage problem, resulting in 48 percent savings of water previously lost between Woodward Reservoir and the District.

SSJID and OID joined forces again in the late 1930s, as they made plans to build the Tri-Dam Project. Planning began as the two agencies combined with PG&E and the San Francisco Electric Company in an agreement to construct the Melones Reservoir, while PG&E would build a power plant and pay $1.25 per acre foot, an amount which would be sufficient to pay off the interests on the bonds in forty years. The Melones Reservoir held 110,000 acre feet and could irrigate 144,000 acres of land in both districts. Years later, the Federal government took over Melones and greatly increased its capacity.  The water storage facility is now known as New Melones Reservoir and allows SSJID and OID first rights to a combined 600,000 acre feet of water.

In 1955, the Tri-Dam organization formed jointly between OID and SSJID. Tri-Dam had two functions: to increase water storage to meet irrigation obligations and to add hydropower production at a low cost and substantial benefit. The Tri-Dam facilities of Donnells Reservoir, Beardsley Reservoir, and Lake Tulloch became operational in just two years. The Tri-Dam Project was dedicated at the Beardsley Dam & Power House on June 15, 1957. In the 1980s,  mini-hydropower plants were built at the various sites. Today, these are maintained and operated by the Turlock Irrigation District. The Tri-Dam system was built to hold 230,000 acre feet of water and to make possible the capability of generating 81,000 kilowatts of electricity with its spinning turbines, a basic method for power generation. To cover the overall expenditures of the debt service for hundreds of millions in bonds to build the three dams, SSJID and OID entered in to a contract with PG&E for fifty years, which expired in 2004.

In April 1989, SSJID went online with a SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system and automation technology to operate the Main Distribution Canal. The District constructed the small VanGroningen Reservoir east of Carrollton Road in Ripon in 1992, and later, a larger control room nearby in 1996. In 1999, the District was divided into nine divisions consisting of 57,000 acres irrigated for 3,000 customers. In 2003, the District completed the Northwest Project, a portion of the System Improvements for Distribution Efficiency Project (S.I.D.E), which consisted of a main interceptor pipeline, a reservoir near the “R” canal, connections to the “R” canal, and pumps and screens on the existing laterals.

The South County Water Supply Project, a collaborative effort between SSJID and the cities of Manteca, Escalon, Lathrop and Tracy, completed the state-of-the-art Nick C. DeGroot Water Treatment Plant in Oakdale at the foot of Woodward Reservoir in the summer of 2005. The plant’s membrane technology allows SSJID to provide low-cost domestic drinking water to the cities of Tracy, Lathrop and Manteca. The future expansion of the Water Supply Program will deliver water to Escalon as well.

In 2005, after the previous electrical contracts expired, SSJID and OID renegotiated the rates for the sale of hydropower to PG&E and began reaping greater benefits. On June 7, 2005, the Board of Directors unanimously voted to proceed with the attempt to purchase PG&E’s distribution network within its service area and provide electrical service to Manteca, Escalon, and Ripon. Benefits of SSJID entering the retail electric business for our customers would include an immediate 15% rate reduction, improved customer service, reliable electrical service, and local, democratic control. In 2006, SSJID offered PG&E $79.6 million for the retail electric facilities, an offer which was not accepted. SSJID is still in pursuit of this goal today. In November of 2014, SSJID successfully won approval from the San Joaquin Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCo) to have the right to provide retail electric service in its territory in a hard fought battle against PG&E. Currently the District is looking forward to a possible October 2017 Superior Court hearing after the SSJID board voted to proceed with eminent domain court action. This phase of the effort may possibly take several years with the “Right to Take” being the first half of the trial and the “Valuation” being the last half. The Valuation phase will determine what the price of PG&E’s distribution system will cost. At that time, SSJID’s board will hold a public hearing to determine if it can still offer a 15% discount if it pays the court’s valuation.

In 2009, SSJID completed construction of the 1.4 megawatt Robert O. Schulz Solar Farm on a site adjacent to the Nick C. DeGroot Water Treatment Plant. The site was built in two phases by Conergy. The electricity generated is used to power the Water Treatment Plant, reducing the District’s electric bill by an estimated $400,000 a year.  The District passes along a 15% discount to the cities who benefit from the plant.

Also in 2009, South San Joaquin Irrigation District celebrated 100 years of reliable service in which its customers’ needs come first. Our goal remains the same today as it was in 1909: “It is the desire and intention to carry on the business of the District in a businesslike and economical manner . . . to secure the greatest good to the greatest number.” (SSJID Rules and Regulations 1919).