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James Irrigation District was formed in 1920, though its history traces back to the 19th century when Jefferson G. James established the 72,000-acre James Ranch and constructed a number of canals to irrigate the land originally deeded to him in 1855. James Ranch was later sold to the San Joaquin Valley Farmlands Company, which by 1918 was farming the land and taking significant steps to improve irrigation with a goal of subdividing the area and selling parcels to settlers.

James Irrigation District was established by a vote of the landowners in the region to facilitate the subdivision of the land and provide the new subdivisions with a permanent water source. James ID acquired the water rights that had been established by its predecessors, and the San Joaquin Valley Farmlands Company also deeded the District with the perpetual right to pump groundwater from beneath the land east of the Fresno Slough Bypass.

In 1921, following the formation of James ID, numerous shallow wells were drilled on land east of the Fresno Slough Bypass, and the McMullin Grade Canal and the Lassen Avenue Canal were simultaneously built by the San Joaquin Valley Farm Lands Company to transport that water to lands west of the Bypass in James ID.

Over time, more and more of the land that had been used for grazing was converted to cropland as water reliability and distribution systems improved, and the San Joaquin Valley Farm Lands holdings were sold to individuals.

In the middle of the 20th century, the United States Bureau of Reclamation Central Valley Project constructed a number of dams, canals, and reservoirs that impacted the natural flows on the Kings and San Joaquin Rivers, which also impacted the water supply for James ID. In 1963, the District contracted with USBR for roughly 35,000 annual acre feet of supplemental water to be delivered through the Delta-Mendota Canal, roughly 10,000 acre-feet of which is in exchange for water rights the District owned on the San Joaquin River prior to the construction of USBR facilities. The District also established a separate contract for Kings River water.

Today, James ID maintains both the groundwater and surface water rights that it has established dating back to its predecessor organizations, and is investing heavily in sustainability and conservation efforts to make the most of these resources. This includes significant investments in groundwater recharge basins to store water in wet years and address the requirements in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the use of well monitoring technologies to track pumping and water flows, sustainable irrigation practices, and solar investments to transition to sustainable energy sources.