The board of the Turlock Irrigation District voted 5-0 Tuesday to cut water deliveries to about half of what its farmers usually get.
Directors set a cap of 20 inches of water over the 2014 irrigation season in an effort to keep at least some carryover in Don Pedro Reservoir for 2015. Farmers could get up to 4 extra inches to complete their final round of watering, at a higher price that will be considered later.
“We recognize that it will be a very tough year for everyone,” said Tou Her, assistant general manager for water resources at TID.
The outlook is not as bad as in much of the Central Valley, where the main federal and state systems project zero water for most farmers this year. It nonetheless will be a challenge for TID, which usually has a steady supply from Don Pedro.
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“This water situation is extremely tight,” said Mike Reed, who grows almonds just north of Turlock and is a certified crop adviser for Stanislaus Farm Supply. “It’s a trickle-down effect,” he added, noting what farmers spend on fuel, fertilizer, and other goods and services.
Reed said he used groundwater to keep his soil moist in winter but could have trouble providing enough water to get through the growing season.
The 20-inch allotment includes water from the Tuolumne River, the main source, and groundwater from wells TID owns or rents. Individual farmers also could use their own wells, although concerns have been raised about overdrawn aquifers.
The board also eased the process for transferring water among farms. This could allow, for example, fallowing of an annual crop so an orchard has enough water.
The irrigation season is tentatively scheduled to run from March 27 to Oct. 8, a few weeks shorter than usual. TID serves about 150,000 acres from south Modesto to north Merced County and from the lower Sierra Nevada foothills to the San Joaquin River.
Don Pedro, at 2.03 million acre-feet, is the largest locally owned reservoir in California. That has given TID and its partner, the Modesto Irrigation District, somewhat greater control over their fates than the users of the state and federal systems.
But they can’t control the weather. Rain and snow have been only about a third of average in the Tuolumne watershed this year, and Don Pedro has been drawn down because of below-average storms the previous two years.
The districts have to reserve some water to release for lower-river fish this year and next. And some of the meager runoff from upstream will be diverted by the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System, which serves much of the Bay Area.
The Turlock board allowed the extra 4 inches for the sake of farmers who could hit the 20-inch cap in the midst of their final irrigation. The higher price for this water cannot be set until the district carries out a state-required process, and it would not go through if a majority of landowners protested.
Despite the flexibility with the 20-inch cap, TID officials said farmers should strive to conserve so some water is left for 2015.
“People need to realize it’s not only the urgency we have today, but what could possibly be in store for next year,” board member Charles Fernandes said.