Joe Petersen, the new president of the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District, has a big job ahead of him.
In about six months’ time, he’s got to face the State Water Resources Control Board and persuade them his district has a right to a consistent water supply. At the same time, Petersen has to persuade the community that the district is organized and focused enough to manage the distribution of 20,000 acre-feet of Mokelumne River water.
He recently answered questions on the challenges his district faces. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
Q: What’s the main problem with getting more growers to use surface water?
A: Hurdle No. 1 was we don’t have firm water supply. On a year when we don’t get any rainfall, we’re going to have to get water somehow. We get water on the whim of East Bay MUD, about six or seven years out of 10.
The second hurdle is that farmers can’t pay for both a deep well pump and a system to pump out of the river.
If two growers have a well, but only one has access to the river, is it fair to make the one using surface water pay for both systems? Somehow the other guy has to help him, because everybody benefits.
Every citizen in the city of Lodi, when they turn on their shower, when they take their child to a soccer field that’s been irrigated, when they get their car washed, they’re taking water from every farmer, every citizen in the area.
We’re pulling more out than is naturally occurring, so we’re mining groundwater while 20,000 acre-feet is going straight out of the river.
We need to find a mechanism that will pay for an efficient system. We need to have the community come alongside of us and realize ... we all need to share in the cost of that efficient system, both the farmer, the one-acre parcel owner and the city dweller.
We need the state to see that Lodi has this beautiful river ... Since we’re connected to that river, we should have a right to it over EBMUD.
Q: What is that efficient system?
A: It could be set up so the system is pressurized, so they wouldn’t need a pump. Every farmer dreams of having a Blue Valve. It’s a blue valve, out in the field, under astronomical pressure — 75 psi — and you put your filter station right there. When you want water you open up the blue valve and you’re ready to go. No power, no nothing.
Much easier for a grower to tap into that system. Hey, get me a Blue Valve and I’d be happy to use surface water versus groundwater. I’d be willing to pay more.
Farmers are very reasonable. Make it the same cost to pump out of the ground or pump district water and they’ll pick district water every time, because they understand the long-term benefits for everybody.
Q: What needs to be done?
A: The groundwater charge in 2006-2009 paid for three self-cleaning fish screens. As soon as you’re out of those fish screens, you’re in an antiquated system. It’s been there since 1950, it’s ancient. We need to go to a variable-speed pump system. They only pump what the demand is. Right now, we have a 40-horsepower system or we have a 100-horsepower system. When you kick the switch on, the lights dim.
We need to get into the 21st century, basically.
The main issue lately has been the repairs; over 20 percent of last year’s budget went to pipeline repairs. Not an efficient system, not a reliable system, [but] farmers have to rely on it. It’s getting the pump system up to speed, and then a new pipeline in the existing right of ways.
That’s what I want to shoot for. This next year, I want to go to the state [water resources board] and say, “Look, this is what we need to create a balance in our district. This is what we want. This is our dream of getting it done. We need money.”
Q: How do you plan to recover from the Bryan Pilkington era?
A: It’s going to take a long time. There was a lot of misinformation that people believed in and it was very easy to believe because it was good for them. We need to re-educate the public that we’re all in this together. That we’re all drinking out of the same groundwater aquifer, and we’re all going to have to share in the cost of protecting that.
And the big negative I think everybody needs to see is that if we don’t locally do it, there will come a day when the big boys come and do it; either Sacramento or the feds. And believe me, you’d much rather have me or somebody you see at the grocery store and who also has to pay the bill, and is here to make decisions on where we’re going.
You have to pay for local control. And we’re not going to be big. We’re going to run on a shoestring and we’re going to run hard and we’re going to run fast.
It’s going to be a slow, painful re-education process; it’s going to be focused on some primary goals and showing some successes in the next six months.
Q: Does that include the Tracy Lake project?
A: Tracy Lake does not bring money into the district. It was a “break even” [situation] at best. We had to have something to show the state that we’re reasonable, that we’re creating ways to use the water. The state is very forthright in saying that if you don’t use your water, you lose your water.
Q: How are you going to bring money into district coffers?
A: Grants. Partnerships, with Woodbridge Irrigation District and other local water districts. Partnering with the city of Lodi. The short term, temporary sale of water.
We’ve got a beautiful resource; let’s sell it for two or three years until we have that efficient system built. If there’s going to be any kind of water sale outside of our boundary, it’s going to be two or three years, tops.
Q: About the water treatment plant. Over 16 million acre-feet are used in California. The treatment plant works with 6,000. What purpose is that serving?
A: You’re taking pressure off of the groundwater, and we need to wean ourselves from groundwater. It’s not about today. That treatment plant is not about today. If you look at just today, that plant is stupid.
Right now, we’re all fat and happy, and when we turn the faucet on the water better be there or somebody’s getting a phone call.
That’s great today, but you got to think about five years from now, 10 years from now. The state of California is not prepared for a five-year drought. We would be in trouble. We would not like the consequences. It will get ugly.
Drawing out of the ground is not sustainable ... If we have a natural resource flowing right through our backyard, we need to get it out of the river and into the farmland.
Q: Meetings seem a little disorganized. What’s happening?
A: That will end. The board will be much more involved in what’s going to be on the agenda ... Continuity and organization of board meetings will improve under my leadership. I’m confident of that.
A very large rat entered the district; he did a lot of firing without any kind of a game plan on how we were going to go forward ... We have no history. We don’t know what file is what in the office. Phones aren’t being answered.
We’re cleaning up a rat’s mess that was not necessary.
All I can say is that was a sad time, for the district and the community. We lost a lot of ground. It’s going to take a lot of work to get out of the hole.
Q: What about meeting minutes and financial statements?
A: From here on out, every meeting you’ll have minutes and you’ll have financial statements at every regular meeting. In my opinion, we will be very open. I’m going to hold the board very accountable and that our minutes and financial statements will be on the website.
Q: What’s your plan for this year?
A: Plan? Get organized. I want to meet with the state board, just to talk to them, find out what they want from us.
The structure of the board is going to change. I really want to board to focus on goals in the next meetings. Set two or three priorities and go after those.
Then I’ve got the meeting with the board about the water right. And we’ve got to get rid of these 19 or so protest petitions from the Pilkington era.
Q: What are those petitions regarding?
A: They are against the extension of our water right. In my opinion it’s kind of embarrassing. Someone typed these up and walked around and said, “Hey, do you want to choose this one, or do you want to choose this one?” People were asked to sign something that had half-truths. We need to go to those people and say, “Hey, you’re hurting our ability to pull water out of the river.”
The top goal is to get rid of some of these protests. They’re false or misinformed protests.
Next goal is getting the community behind the need to use Mokelumne River water ... I can’t do anything about it if the community doesn’t think we need it.
Q: How do you plan to convince them?
A: By continuing to meet with people, talk to people and answer questions.
Q: Why is this district worth fighting for?
A: Local control is huge. And 20,000 acre-feet of water is a lot of water. And I don’t want to be a third-world country. That’s why I’m doing this. I’ve been to third-world countries and seen the issues with lack of planning for water and I don’t want that to be Lodi.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.