Ag customer surge concerns Modesto Irrigation District

09/10/2013 6:24 PM

09/11/2013 6:05 AM

What used to be an encouraging sign of more business for water agencies – people signing up to buy electricity – is starting to scare the Modesto Irrigation District.

That’s because the MID also worries about water supply. And those recently asking for scads more power, district leaders fear, are using it to pump – and maybe deplete – groundwater.

Growers of 18 million new almond trees on the county’s east side, most of which don’t have access to canal water, have put in industrial pumps with a combined capacity of 1,000 horsepower to keep those trees healthy, just in the MID’s service area. In the past few weeks, the MID has received requests for electrical service to power additional pumps with a combined 4,000 horsepower.

“That’s huge,” Tom Kimball, assistant general manager for transmission and distribution, told MID board members at a meeting this morning.

Farm wells typically use pumps with 100 horsepower or less. Recent requests would power pumps of 250 to 400 horsepower.

Vance Kennedy of Modesto, a retired hydrologist, has repeatedly warned that if the east side aquifer is sucked dry, the ground could compact and refuse to soak in water again, perhaps for centuries. This would leave “a permanent wasteland,” he said Tuesday morning. He asked if customers should be left holding the bag for millionaire nut investors, for power lines that could be worthless in as little as a few years, if that dirt becomes worthless.

California lawmakers have not adopted pumping rules familiar to most other states. Twenty-eight of California’s 58 counties have some sort of regulations, but Stanislaus is not among them.

County leaders expect to debate an ordinance in three weeks, but it deals with mining and exporting well water – not the more immediate threat of depletion by overpumping to keep nut trees alive. Made worse by a pair of successive dry winters, increased pumping already has caused several private wells to go dry in the Denair area, part of the larger Turlock Irrigation District, forcing owners to spend $10,000 or more on new wells.

Both districts supplement their main supply of mountain snowmelt via the Tuolumne River with water from their own wells, and the TID also rents private wells next to its canals.

The county’s proposed rules should not affect the MID or the TID, as water agencies practicing sound water management would be exempt, said Walter Ward, assistant general manager for water operations.

But he’s convinced that county leaders eventually will address the groundwater overdraft threat.

“I really do believe they intend to take it to the next level,” Ward said.

They’d better, Kennedy said, likening the threat to “a busload of people headed for a cliff in the fog, on automatic pilot” and blaming “human greed and a lack of state laws.”

Another potential threat looming even larger is state water officials’ proposal to strengthen fish by forcing water districts to release more river water earlier each spring. Who can say, Ward asked, whether that extra water would get sucked into aquifers emptied by overpumping, rather than helping salmon?

MID board member Larry Byrd asked how the district could prevent ratepayers from getting stuck with the bill for power lines and other equipment needed to serve the onslaught of huge almond wells.

Kimball said the district can have growers pay costs for installing and removing the equipment if it’s used less than three years. After that period of time, it’s considered permanent and the customer is reimbursed, he said.

In other news, the MID board:

•  Decided that farmers’ last day for receiving water this season will be Oct. 24, about a week later than the historic average but a week sooner than in some recent years. The season’s end has crept ever later as the climate has changed.

The board’s attorney, Joy Warren, noted that no public notice had been given regarding such a decision as required by state open meeting laws, so the board informally gave staff direction rather than taking a vote.

•  Voted 5-0 to continue cloud seeding for the next three winters, in partnership with the TID. The Turlock district will pay $204,500; the MID, which irrigates fewer acres, pays 31.5 percent.

The districts have paid forecasters and pilots to disperse silver iodide in storm clouds since 1990. The practice doesn’t make it rain or snow, but such weather becomes wetter with cloud seeding, the district says. Although effectiveness is questioned by some experts, cloud seeding boosted runoff from 2 percent to 7 percent in years past for the MID and the TID, a report says. Selling more electricity created when the extra water powers turbines “more than covers the annual cost,” the document says.

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