Groundwater Crisis

March 25, 2014

Modesto Irrigation District farmers promised more water

Modesto-area farmers were buoyed Tuesday to learn that they should receive 24 inches of irrigation water per acre this summer, a welcome jump from the dismal prediction a few weeks ago of only 18 inches.

Modesto-area farmers were buoyed Tuesday to learn that they should receive 24 inches of irrigation water per acre this summer, a welcome jump from the dismal prediction a few weeks ago of only 18 inches.

That’s getting close to the amount needed by many to produce crops or keep trees alive, reckoned by some at 27 to 30 inches.

“That’s going to help a lot of people,” said Modesto farmer Bruce Oosterkamp, reflecting the thanks of many to the Modesto Irrigation District board during a lengthy debate over ways to increase water deliveries even more.

The discussion exposed a division between board members over the novel ideas of allowing growers to sell each other water on the open market or to take a fixed payment from the district in exchange for not receiving water this year. The board approved both last month, but the former continues to chap the hides of board members on the losing end of that 3-2 vote.

Jake Wenger and Larry Byrd said such transfers favor wealthy growers at the expense of those struggling to survive, and might not be necessary if rains come and the district continues coming up with creative ways to provide more water for everyone.

“I’m excited and eager to see what the next six weeks brings,” said Wenger, noting a very different mood from dire drought predictions six weeks ago.

“Everyone counts. I don’t care if you’re a 10-acre farmer or a 500-acre farmer; we’re all the same,” Byrd said.

But board members John Mensinger, Paul Campbell and Nick Blom said they see no compelling reason to reverse the landmark decision favoring the open-market approach.

“We set a direction and we need to be consistent,” Mensinger said. “A lot of folks are making plans based on the decisions we’ve made,” he added, predicting legal challenges if the board were to cancel internal sales now counted on by many to feed thirsty crops.

Mensinger finally agreed to reconsider in a few weeks, to placate Wenger and Byrd, but the board could not agree on an acceptable date to revisit the issue and it was left in limbo.

Base allocations could increase from the previous 18 inches per acre, general manager Roger VanHoy recommended, because:

• The MID dropped a plan to retain in mountain reservoirs enough for everyone to get 3 inches next year in case the three-year drought hangs on. Widespread agricultural catastrophe would not be avoided with that small amount, while an extra 3 inches could make a big difference to growers this year, officials say.
• The district tends to waste less when it has less. Since 1972, the district has “spilled” an average of 34,000 acre-feet each year of unclaimed water in canals that flows to the San Joaquin River, but has managed to cut that to 30,000 acre-feet in dry years and spilled only 10,000 acre-feet in the critically dry summer of 1976.
• Forecasts show rain in coming days and perhaps weeks.

Farmers hoping to participate in transfers must provide notice to the district by April 1, and submit specific information on crop type and acreage by May 1.

Modesto farmer Ron Fisher spoke of a letter signed by 130 MID customers requesting that the May 1 deadline be changed to provide growers with much needed flexibility throughout the summer.

“A lot of decisions in farming need to be made on a daily and weekly basis,” Fisher said.

The letter also asked that the district change transfer restrictions on land that did not receive irrigation water last year, noting that owners paid “facilities and maintenance” or standby fees precisely to preserve access to water in the future.

“The decision is arbitrary. You’re denying growers the ability to exercise water rights,” said Craig Julsgard.

Ward Mefford of Waterford asked that the district not exclude parcels of less than 10 acres from transfers, saying it would be unfair to deny small growers. Byrd said most produce merchants at Modesto’s farmers markets survive on such small plots, and some other leaders agreed, but the board took no formal action on that request or changing deadlines.

Wenger showed little patience for VanHoy’s reluctance to predict how much water might be realized from the relatively new suggestion of paying farmers to pump groundwater from private wells into district canals.

VanHoy appeared flustered at shifting demands, saying his staff is overwhelmed at trying to implement unprecedented policy changes. Accepting water from private wells is fairly easy, he said, but the district has no reliable method of measuring such water if farmers wish to retrieve it for use on downstream fields or to sell or otherwise transfer to other growers.

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