For years, farmers along the south bank of the Mokelumne River east of Lodi could only watch as all that cold and frothy snowmelt washed past them toward the Delta and the ocean.  

The farmers had a legal right, on paper, to divert some. But they’ve never been able to take full advantage of it because their water delivery system is crumbling.

Instead, they’ve sucked up groundwater at unsustainable rates. The groundwater is now sinking about a foot each year, making it costlier to pump to the surface and depleting what is supposed to be a kind of reserve “savings account.”

On Feb. 26, the farmers will make a pivotal decision: whether or not to tax themselves about $14 million over 30 years to build a new delivery system. Thursday, the League of Women Voters, the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District and county officials will host a public meeting to explain all of this at 6 p.m. at Jackson Hall, on the Lodi Grape Festival grounds.

“This is so crucial for this area,” North San Joaquin board member Tom Flynn said. “We’ve got to get control of this groundwater situation.”

He acknowledges there are skeptics. The assessment could range between $10 and $80 per acre, which can quickly add up for farmers with dozens of acres of land. North San Joaquin landowners also have a track record of resisting new taxes or assessments related to water.

But Flynn and others argue that it’s time to move forward. New state regulations require groundwater use to reach sustainable levels by 2040; if locals fail to find a way, the state will do it for them.

On top of that, the state has threatened to take away the Mokelumne water right if it’s not eventually put to use. The district faces a 2025 deadline to show that it’s making progress.

“If we can’t deliver it the state has told us we’re going to lose it,” Flynn said.

The area in question includes about 20,000 acres of land east of Lodi and south of the river. If the landowners agree to assess themselves, the money will pay for a new pump station and a pressurized pipeline that allows for automated deliveries. The total tab: about $18 million, with various grants reducing that burden by about $4 million.

Only lands that are irrigated for commercial agriculture, parks and golf courses would pay the fee.

The project wouldn’t get rid of the region’s groundwater overdraft entirely, but combined with other pending projects should be able to reduce it by at least 50 percent, officials say. That is, within the North San Joaquin district alone; the deficit across east San Joaquin County as a whole is much larger.

The existing pipeline from the Mokelumne River was installed about 60 years ago, North San Joaquin board member Joe Valente said.

“It met the needs of growers at the time,” he said. “But it’s kind of like an older house. At some point you probably had to repaint it, had to remodel it. That’s what we’re doing now.”

 

Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or abreitler@recordnet.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/breitlerblog and on Twitter @alexbreitler.