TID farmers could face sharp limits to water use

01/14/2014 6:03 PM

01/14/2014 8:51 PM

A third straight dry winter – and the prospect of Don Pedro Reservoir getting perilously low – has the Turlock Irrigation District looking at sharp cutbacks to farmers this year.

District leaders on Tuesday said the deliveries could be roughly half of what’s available in average and wet years if the weather does not change drastically in the next few months.

“Without a doubt, the hydrological condition is dire,” said Tou Her, assistant general manager for water resources, at the district board meeting.

Based on current conditions, the district plans to cap water deliveries at 22.5 vertical inches per acre over an irrigation season expected to run from mid-March to mid-October.

The district plans to use groundwater to supplement its main supply from the Tuolumne River. Her said this is a sustainable option because TID has replenished the aquifers in wet years.

TID is the largest irrigation district in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. It provides water to about 150,000 acres stretching from south Modesto to north Merced County and from the low Sierra Nevada foothills to the San Joaquin River.

TID, like the neighboring Modesto Irrigation District, does not plan to start up the canals for unusual midwinter deliveries. The districts did so two years ago to help dairy farmers growing feed crops and fruit and nut growers who like wet soil before the bloom, but the supplies just aren’t there this year.

Ceres-area almond grower Tim Sanders said he can get by without a winter delivery because the mostly cool winter has kept the ground moist. But he does not have a well to supplement the river water later in the year, and his sandy soil drains quickly. “It’s going to be a tough year, but it’s going to be a tough year for everybody else,” he said.

Parts of the western and southern San Joaquin Valley have it worse. Some there face the prospect of zero water from the federal Central Valley Project, forcing them to use wells, buy expensive water from other areas, or let annual fields lie fallow so trees and vines can get water.

Don Pedro, the largest reservoir in California that is owned by local water districts, filled in the very wet 2011 and helped MID and TID get through the next two dry years fairly well.

It stands at about half of its capacity of 2.03 million acre-feet, but not all of the water will be available: Some will be reserved for required releases into the lower Tuolumne to benefit fish. Some of the 2014 runoff will be captured upstream by the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System, which supplies much of the Bay Area. And some is the reservoir’s “dead pool” – water that lies below the outlets.

Her plans to ask the board to confirm the water allocation Feb. 25, after the bulk of the storm season is done.

Rain and snow to date are around 20 percent of average, and forecasts for this month do not show much promise, said Wes Monier, strategic issues and planning manager for TID. “It’s been surreal, if I could use that term,” he said.

Her said TID would increase its patrols against unauthorized water use, continue to allow farmers to transfer supplies among themselves, and bolster the canals with district and rented wells. Workers also will try to minimize spills out the ends of canals into other water bodies, he said.

Mike Reed, who grows almonds north of Turlock, said his well and transfers from other farmers could help him get by. “I’ll make it through,” he said. “I’m creative.”

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