The board of the Modesto Irrigation District balked Tuesday at paying private well owners to pump water into canals, but it did approve another plan for stretching the tight supply.
Directors voted 4-0, with Nick Blom absent, to allow well owners to pump into nearby canals in exchange for an extra water allocation from the MID system, supplied mainly by the Tuolumne River.
The idea is to keep as much as possible in Don Pedro Reservoir in case 2015 brings a fourth year of drought.
The transfers have to be at least 25 acre-feet, and the credit cannot be carried over to next year. Also, the pumping must be in a location that benefits the overall supply. A well near the end of a canal might not be as useful as one upstream.
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The staff had proposed paying $200 per acre-foot for the well water, the same rate it is paying in another program in which farmers give up their canal allocations for this year. But the idea of paying to pump did not sit well for board members at a time when concerns about San Joaquin Valley aquifers are at the forefront.
Director Jake Wenger said groundwater in the district is in fairly good shape, but the cash payments could give the impression the district was overtaxing it.
The drought has prompted MID to cap deliveries at about 40 percent of the accustomed amount, but the district now has three ways of buffering the impact.
In one program, 14 farmers representing 1,300 acres are getting the $200 per acre-foot for giving up canal water. It will be sold to other farmers at the same price.
Another program allows farmers to arrange water transfers among themselves, at whatever price they negotiate. As of a June 1 deadline, people with 101 contracts have signed up for this option, with other deadlines coming July 1 and Aug. 1.
The $200 rate in the first option is nearly 20 times what MID farmers paid for water last year, but such high prices are common this year as Valley farmers scramble for supplies. The federal Central Valley Project plans to deliver no water to many of its farmers in the region, forcing them to tap wells, buy water from elsewhere or fallow fields.
Tuesday’s meeting came three weeks before the end of a rainfall year that is among the worst on record. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which in better years can last well into summer, stands at zero up and down the range, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
“It’s goose eggs across the board,” said John Davids, civil engineering manager for MID. Runoff is still trickling down streams in the watershed, he said, but the district will have to rely almost entirely on Don Pedro and the much smaller Modesto Reservoir.