The cost of irrigation water in the Modesto Irrigation District will rise 5.9 percent, rather than the proposed 9.8 percent, the district board decided Tuesday.
The board voted 4-1 for the smaller hike, which will take effect with the start of irrigation season in the coming weeks.
The board also voted unanimously to increase the amount of water available at the lowest rate tier, after hearing that the supply outlook had improved.
"I feel it looks like a good water year," Director Cecil Hensley said. "We could go back to normal."
Under the new rates, farmers will pay $27 per acre for the base allotment of Tuolumne River water, up from $25.50 last year but down from the $28 proposed by the district staff.
That allotment will be 3½ acre-feet of water this year, up from the 3 acre-feet proposed by the staff. An acre-foot is enough to cover an acre 1 foot deep.
The board in early June will consider how much river water to provide at the second-highest rate tier. The staff had proposed half an acre-foot at a cost of $7.
Directors decided to wait so they could see where the rain and snow totals end up. Growers likely will not need the extra water before June.
The MID also could provide water from district-owned wells, where available, for $20 an acre-foot.
Hensley dissented on the rate vote, preferring a $26 charge for the base allotment.
Under state law, the rate increase could have been blocked by protests from a majority of the roughly 2,800 landowners in the district.
Only 55 of them filed protests before Tuesday's public hearing, said Walter Ward, assistant general manager for water operations.
Larry Byrd, a cattle rancher near Waterford, was the only customer to speak at the hearing. He said the proposed base allotment of 3 acre-feet would have made feed production difficult.
"There is no way we can cover the clover with 36 inches here," he said.
The board raised the allotment after hearing that the Tuolumne is projected to run at 96 percent of average, up from an earlier estimate of 89 percent, during the peak snowmelt from April through June.
MID irrigation rates have risen about 10 percent a year since 1998 as part of an effort to close the gap between income and the cost of providing the water.
The difference is made up with income from the MID's much larger electricity operation. District officials note, however, that power customers benefit from the water system because of the cheap hydroelectric generation on the Tuolumne.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.