It wasn't quite a Mississippi River boat captain calling out "mark twain!" for safe water in the 19th century.
But the Merced Irrigation District's most recent mission means just as much to area farmers and ranchers as the frontier boat captain's assurance that he could sail on down Old Man River.
Take Jerrid Fletcher and Jeff Keller, for instance. They leaned into a small corrugated shelter Monday afternoon, calibrating instruments used to control MID's canals.
The two MID engineers had been crisscrossing much of the eastern part of the county, checking the district's mobile control system, through which the district's canals and water flows are regulated. They are part of the frenzied efforts that have been under way since Friday as the district prepares for the irrigation season.
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Nearby, a large pool of brown water was filling up at the head of the Livingston Canal, just south of Santa Fe Drive between Merced and Atwater. A rush of water filled the artificial basin and let controlled flows through two checks nearby to clean out debris from the system. The process will be repeated on each leg of the canal until the system is filled with water later this week.
Water has been flowing from the Merced River through much of MID's canal system since Friday, but Monday was the season's official opening. That was the day the district's 22,000 customers started making their orders for water. The district has four days to get Monday's water orders to each customer. "It takes a week to fill the system," said Hicham Eltal, the district's deputy manager.
The opening of the irrigation season is a lot more complicated than just opening floodgates. The 800-mile operation serving more than 150,000 acres of farmland must shift from flood control, which is what the district uses its canals for in the rainy season, to water delivery.
First, ditch tenders fan out across the district, cutting weeds and cleaning out canals. Once water does start flowing or "charging up" the system, each leg of the journey must be flushed with a first burst of water and then finally filled.
Once the canals have been soaked, MID people wait to see if there are any breaches. "The beginning of the season is when we do a lot of fixing," said Eltal.
The system may be filling, but a big storm could force the district back into its flood-control mode. "The weather is always unpredictable," said Eltal.
By season's end in the autumn, the district plans to take roughly 450,000 acre-feet from the river and send it to the county's farmers. (An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, roughly equivalent to the amount of water a Valley family uses in a year.)
The wet year has not only made it so growers can buy as much water as they want, said Eltal, it also makes it so the district can reduce the volume of groundwater it pumps. This year the district will pump about 13,000 acre-feet instead of the 26,000 it pumped in 2009 and 100,000 acre-feet from 2008.
Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or firstname.lastname@example.org.