MID leaders: Water for farmers unlikely this month

gstapley@modbee.comJanuary 14, 2014 


    The Modesto Irrigation District board tentatively canceled its Jan. 28 meeting and is not expected to meet until Feb. 11 at 9 a.m. in the board chamber at 1231 11th St., Modesto. Staff hopes to launch live online streaming at that time, allowing people to observe meetings on computers and other devices.

Modesto-area farmers are not likely to get a shot of irrigation this month to help drought-stressed crops, and could get far less than they’re used to this summer if Mother Nature doesn’t start cooperating, Modesto Irrigation District leaders said Tuesday.

Potential strategies for a severe lack of rain and snow include an early start to an anemic irrigation season, more middle-of-the-night deliveries and the rare step of allowing neighbors to buy and sell their shares of water among one another, the MID board said.

“We’re looking at a possible disaster,” board member John Mensinger said, “and we need to change the way we do business. We have to change our practices and think outside the box.”

Farmers could get as little as 15 to 20 inches of MID water this year, General Manager Roger VanHoy said, if the rest of this winter mimics last year’s, with virtually no wet weather after December. The district delivers 42 inches in a normal year, cut to 36 when mountain snowpack dwindled in early 2013.

VanHoy emphasized that it’s much too early in the winter for dire predictions. His staff will update directors in each board meeting and will bring options to formally consider, he said.

This year’s snowpack is 18 percent of normal, down from 30 percent of normal as measured in December, said John Davids, the district’s civil engineering manager. Downtown Modesto temperatures this year have been 8 to 10 degrees warmer than last January, he said.

More importantly, MID has stored in reservoirs only 56 percent of the amount held at this time last year. That was the second dry winter in a row, and this could be a third.

“There is definitely fear, but there shouldn’t be panic,” said Tom Orvis of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, calling growers “eternal optimists.” He and others said many farmers will rely more on groundwater pumps to augment MID’s surface water, flowing from the mountains via the Tuolumne River and canals.

Farmers on Tuesday were renting 15 of MID’s pumps, and the district has more available.

“Groundwater seems to be a real big issue,” but MID has sunk wells specifically for use in time of drought, said board Chairman Nick Blom. Fearful of a surge of almond growers draining aquifers and leaving people high and dry, some have called for a moratorium on drilling, an idea to be debated by a committee being formed by Stanislaus County leaders.

Crops stressed by dry weather – and facing possible catastrophe if another deep freeze hits – could get some relief with a rare winter delivery, such as was provided in 1981, 1987, 1991, 2000 and 2012. Those preseason rounds lasted an average of 20 days, providing growers with an average total of 7,982 acre-feet while costing the district more than 15,000 acre-feet.

Such emergency deliveries are wasteful because the water that ends up on farms must be “pushed” by other water that can’t be used and that flows out to the river. The MID board wants to conserve every drop this year.

“We’re going to need that water more in August than in January,” said board member Larry Byrd. Other directors said farmers with whom they’ve spoken generally agree with that reasoning.

Former board member Cecil Hensley, speaking from the audience, said flood irrigators could save a lot by returning to old-time rotations. That demands much more coordination with MID ditch tenders and neighbors and would require periodic watering at odd hours, but is more efficient than allowing farmers to call in delivery orders at their convenience, Hensley said.

Some districts provide a farmer with greater flexibility by permitting transfers from one parcel to another – allowing the farmer to pinch a bit of water from almonds to rescue his stressed corn, for example. Mensinger said MID should go further and consider the extraordinary idea of farmers selling to one another.

Some questioned whether that would create water savings. He said it might, because a water seller sufficiently compensated might fallow his or her land, leaving more water for others.

All five board members on Tuesday wore neckties, an outward signal of an internal commitment to a new professionalism. Before Mensinger, Jake Wenger and Paul Campbell were elected in November, Blom usually was the only director wearing a tie to board meetings.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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