Manteca, Calif. - Sustainability

For more than 100 years, growers in the South San Joaquin Irrigation District (SSJID), which is headquartered in Manteca, Calif., have relied on gravity-based canals and pipelines for flood watering of their walnut and almond trees and their grape vines. While the inefficient practice originally met their needs, the Central Valley California growers today are looking for more reliable and efficient systems to sustain their crops.

When growers tried more efficient pressurized on-farm irrigation systems, the existing gravity system could not provide reliable supplies while the practice ran into groundwater salinity issues. Frustrated, they were forced to settle for outdated gravity systems.

That’s when the SSJID Board of Directors partnered with the Stantec engineering firm to develop a $14 million pilot project that has created a network of pressured pipelines with automated water delivery. The network virtually eliminates water waste and provides growers with individualized and automated irrigation access.

“This could change how irrigation is done in the state of California,” says Jeff Shields, the district’s general manager. “No question that it can do that.”
For its innovative approach to meeting the challenge of irrigation at a time of severe drought, SSJID has been chosen as a Crown Community for Sustainability.

While officials were initially concerned that growers would resist the new technology, virtually all of the 75 growers on 3,000 acres have turned from their own diesel pumps to the pressurized pipes system, which has greatly reduced air pollution. SSJID estimates that the new system has demonstrated a 30 percent reduction in on-farm water use per irrigated acre and a 30 percent increase in crop yields. As one benefit, they can now schedule their irrigation online. “They can get water when they want it rather than when we say it is available,” Shields says. “It makes all of the difference.”

The project was funded by SSJID through the sale of hydroelectric power and the sale of transfer rights of water that was conserved through the project, along with several federal grants. With the current success, the SSJID is working to evaluate the feasibility of extending pressurized service to the remaining 55,000 acres in the district.

“We’ve recognized ways of irrigating that we’ve never seriously considered,” Shields says. “It’s a new way to approach how to produce more crops with less water.”