Groundwater Crisis

February 10, 2014

Modesto Irrigation District proposal would slash water for farms, hike rates

Because of minimal mountain snow, Modesto-area farmers this year would get half of last year’s amount of water under a proposal to be weighed Tuesday, and they would pay a lot more for it.

Because of minimal mountain snow, Modesto-area farmers this year would get half of last year’s amount of water under a proposal to be weighed this morning – and they would pay a lot more for it.

Modesto Irrigation District board members will consider raising water rates and adding an $11.91 “drought surcharge” for every acre growers intend to irrigate, while cutting the maximum available to 18 inches of water per acre.

If droughtlike conditions continue, the MID expects to end the irrigation season by Sept. 19 – about three weeks earlier than usual and far earlier than most growers would need to keep crops alive. That’s likely to force farmers into even more rigorous well pumping.

MID customers usually get about 42 inches per acre, but that was cut to 36 inches last year in what was then a second consecutive dry season. They paid $29.50 per acre for that 3-foot allocation, or $9.83 for each acre-foot received.

This year’s proposal would raise rates 10 percent, to $32.50 per acre, and the $11.91 drought surcharge would bring that to $44.41 per acre. Dividing that amount by 11/2, to reflect 18 inches of water for each acre, gives a net per acre-foot charge of $29.61, or roughly three times last year’s cost.

The Oakdale Irrigation District recently turned down a $400 per acre-foot offer from the Fresno-based Westlands Water District, and a water auction last week in Kern County attracted bids up to $1,350 per acre-foot.

All farmers would be asked to vote on higher rates, if proposed by the board, as required under Proposition 218. To kill the idea, more than half of the district’s 3,100 farmers would have to protest in writing, a tall order that almost never results in a proposed rate hike’s cancellation.

The $11.91 surcharge is meant to cover costs for increased groundwater pumping to augment canal water. Also, ditches will need more patrolling, and ditchtenders will be deployed more at night and on weekends, the report says. The surcharge would be dropped when the drought ends, spokeswoman Melissa Williams said.

The MID relies on Sierra Nevada snow melting into streams and being captured at Don Pedro Reservoir. So far, mountains to the east of Modesto have collected 12 percent of what’s normal for this time of year, and Don Pedro’s volume is way down. Statewide, the snowpack is averaging 10 percent of normal, and the range in Northern California holds only 4 percent of normal.

A month ago, MID officials warned that farmers might get as little as 15 to 20 inches of district water this year and began discussing possible reactions, including old-time rotation deliveries and transfers among farmers.

Staff won’t recommend transfers, a report says, because that “won’t save water and will likely create conflict gaming.” But individual farmers could shift allocations among plots controlled by a single customer; for example, someone could pinch a bit from almonds to rescue his stressed corn.

Irrigators would have to notify the district by May 1 if they intend to fallow land. If not, they would specify what they’re growing on each acre. If the district receives no word by May 1, officials would assume that a grower wants a full allotment, restricted though it may be.

Also, farmers would need to place delivery requests five days in advance, rather than three, enabling more efficiency by grouping neighboring requests.

Growers caught stealing water meant for others would be fined $300 for a first offense, and would get no more water this year if caught a second time.

The district’s 750 garden-head customers, or people who water yards and gardens with MID flows, would get 31/2 inches of water five times during the season, and the district would decide when.

If the board agrees with the concept of higher rates, the district would send information to customers and schedule grower meetings to explain the proposal, and the board would vote at its Feb. 25 meeting. That would open a period during which customers could submit written protests, and a final vote would be taken at a future board meeting.

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