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March 10, 2014

Rains push back irrigation season for Valley districts

While not curing a three-year drought, recent rains are allowing irrigation districts to delay the start of irrigation season in hopes of having a bit more water in the fall.

While not curing a three-year drought, recent rains are allowing irrigation districts to delay the start of irrigation season in hopes of having a bit more water in the fall.

The Modesto Irrigation District board this morning will review a plan to begin delivering water March 30, three weeks later than initially thought. The Oakdale Irrigation District likely will postpone its season’s start to Monday, and the South San Joaquin Irrigation District board today will consider doing the same.

The Turlock Irrigation District remains on track to begin deliveries March 27 but might opt next week to push that back a week, water resources analyst Herb Smart said Monday.

Farmers have told MID staff that, given a choice, they would extend the end of the irrigation season rather than take the water now, civil engineering manager John Davids said.

The welcome rain has helped moisten parched soil. Just as important to farmers, the wet weather has added to the snowpack in the mountains to the east, the districts’ most important water source via rivers during dry summer months.

A month ago, California’s Sierra Nevada range had only 10 percent of the snow it usually gets. Since then, it’s grown to 30 percent of normal – not enough for celebration, but way better than 10 percent. And the snowpack in the range’s central portion, feeding reservoirs relied on by local districts, is in a little better shape at 35 percent of normal than are areas farther to the north (20 percent) and south (3 percent).

More to the point for farmers, the 183,863 acre-feet of water reserved for MID customers in reservoirs is about 3,000 acre-feet more than a month ago. That’s a good sign, but still depressingly less than last year’s supply of 340,584 acre-feet.

MID has warned growers to expect as little as 18 inches of water this year per acre, compared with 36 inches last year and the historical allotment of 42 inches. TID customers should get 20 inches this year, while the Merced Irrigation District could run out of its Lake McClure storage this year.

All districts intend to supplement surface supplies with groundwater pumped from wells, and many farmers also will pump with private wells.

The MID board two weeks ago decided to allow customers to buy and sell their district allotments without restriction. As an option, growers can sell their allotments back to MID for $400 an acre-foot, creating a pool for transfers to be managed by the district.

OID and SSJID initially intended to start their seasons March 3, then moved that to this week and now are looking at further delays. They both draw from the Stanislaus River and have better supplies for 2014 than most of the San Joaquin Valley.

The SSJID board will consider the matter at 9 a.m. today at the district office, 11011 E. Highway 120, Manteca. OID staff could make a decision today.

The MID board doesn’t dictate the season’s start, but Davids will brief the board on conditions in his standing water supply report.

MID has set in motion a 10 percent rate increase and a temporary drought surcharge of $11.91 per acre, both of which customers can protest. Details will be presented at landowner meetings scheduled for tonight in Modesto at the MID office, 1231 11th St., and Wednesday in Waterford at the Community Center, 540 C St. Both start at 7 p.m.

The meetings also will feature updates on threats from state and federal water agencies to reduce reservoir water needed by farmers in the summer to help fish migrate in the spring.

With potential for more rain in coming weeks, this season’s total of 5.1 inches in downtown Modesto compares with last year’s 9.97 inches and is far less than the average of 12.19 inches. The wettest winter in the MID’s database, 1983, brought more than 26 inches.

Modesto usually gets less than 2 inches of rain in March and less than 1 inch in April.

Mountain stations to the east show 13.1 inches this season – a little more than the driest years on record at this time of year, but less than one third the level in 1983.

The weather forecast shows a clear sky this week with high temperatures in the 80s by Sunday.

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