Modesto Irrigation District leaders discuss delaying filling canals, revisiting water sales among farmers

03/11/2014 7:16 PM

03/11/2014 7:21 PM

A recent series of storms should provide farmers with a bit more water this summer and enable yet another delay to the start of the irrigation season, Modesto Irrigation District leaders said Tuesday.

Also, some board members want to revisit the idea of farmers selling to one another their shares of MID water.

The district additionally may look into having landowners with private wells pump groundwater into nearby canals, perhaps in exchange for water or power credits, a common practice in the Turlock Irrigation District. Modesto farmer Bruce Oosterkamp said he would do that with no hope of getting rich on the deal; “I want to help my neighbors out, and fellow farmers,” he said.

The discussion uncovered as well the district’s use of new software to manage internal water transfers among properties controlled by individual farmers. A longtime grower asked about the “master account” tracking system, saying he discovered by accident that he has a master account. Some board members, who also farm and were equally surprised, wanted to know if they, too, have master accounts.

MID officials a month ago served notice that growers might get as little as 18 inches of water per acre this year because of the drought. February rain has pushed that estimate to 20 inches, and leaders wanting to extend irrigating further into the fall asked Tuesday that canals begin filling April 6, four weeks later than initially planned.

The good news does not mean the drought has ended, and 20 inches won’t rescue crops without additional water bought from others or pumped from private wells. Modesto grower Aaron Miller, for example, said his orchards need about 52 inches.

Board member Jake Wenger has not given up trying to persuade the board that the open-market approach could harm small farmers who won’t be able to match bids from wealthier buyers. “Our No. 1 focus isn’t to create options; it’s to deliver as much water as possible to as many growers as possible,” he said.

Two weeks ago, Wenger spearheaded the concept of landowners putting unused water in a pool that would be offered at $276 an acre-foot, with transfers managed by the district. The board agreed, but Wenger predicted the concept would not get much traction if sellers can fetch more money on the open market.

Former board member Cecil Hensley also condemned the open-market approach, saying MID water “belongs to the people and should not be put up to the highest bidder. Just because you’ve got deep pockets (doesn’t mean you should) be able to buy that water.”

Modesto’s Emerson Drake said, “You’re allowing growers to sell something that doesn’t belong to them.”

“The water belongs to the land, not the people,” contended Modesto farmer Dave Wheeler, whose grandfather was a board member in the district’s developing years, several decades ago. “We landowners have the most at stake.”

Board member Larry Byrd, who with Wenger was outvoted two weeks ago in the board’s landmark open-market decision, told the story of an owner who decided to remove trees, fallow land and sell water. He offered it to a thirsty neighbor at the same price as the MID pool, but the neighbor could not afford it so the fallowing farmer pulled back the offer, knowing he could get a much higher price elsewhere.

Board chairman Nick Blom said he’s heard stories of farmers hoping to reap as much as $1,000 an acre-foot.

Byrd’s story was meant to cast doubt on farmers helping one another out of the goodness of their hearts. But board member John Mensinger saw another moral, saying the water for sale would not be wasted but claimed by someone else needing it to produce a crop.

Officials predicted lively landowner meetings Tuesday and tonight, where farmers are to learn details about the drought, a proposed water rate hike, and threats by state and federal agencies to reduce farmers’ river allocations in favor of fish. Also, growers will be asked to review the district’s new master accounts tracking system, meant to facilitate transfers between properties farmed by the same operation.

Wenger questioned the system’s worth if no one knows about it.

“I have multiple properties,” said Byrd, who ranches on the Valley’s east side and who worked several decades for the district before his election to the board. “In 43 years (with MID), I have never heard that (master accounts) term, and that’s bothersome for me. There is so much confusion.”

MID General Manager Roger VanHoy said the staff has not figured out how to contact growers who don’t show up to the two landowner meetings. Everyone is supposed to declare what crops they’re watering and the acreage, and whether they want to join the transfer programs, by May 1.

MID’s final landowner meeting will start at 7 tonight in the Waterford Community Center, 540 C St.

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