Irrigation season ends with more in storage than expected

Existing power lines run along a Merced Irrigation District canal off Bailey Avenue in Merced.
Existing power lines run along a Merced Irrigation District canal off Bailey Avenue in Merced.

Some irrigation districts in the Northern San Joaquin Valley ended the season with more water than expected to carry over into 2016, but the drought still looms.

The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts stretched their Tuolumne River supply thanks to conservation efforts and more releases than projected from San Francisco’s system upstream. The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts trimmed their use of the Stanislaus River.

The Merced Irrigation District, on the other hand, had virtually no Merced River water to allot to its growers and has nothing in the bank for next year. And several West Side districts got a zero allotment from the federal Delta-Mendota Canal.

Farmers dealt with the shortage by boosting groundwater use, fallowing some of their lower-value crops and making a priority of higher-value almonds and other permanent plantings. Even in the orchards, some trees were stressed.

Joey Gonsalves, president of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, said some feed growers planted corn varieties with shorter growing seasons to trim the number of irrigations. The area also benefited from a summer without too many very hot days, said Gonsalves, who also is marketing director and seed coordinator at Stanislaus Farm Supply, based south of Ceres.

Farmers and others now hope that a projected El Niño, a warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean, will start to reverse the effects of the four-year drought this winter. Most reservoirs are way below their historical levels.

“Just pray for rain and hope it’s a different story next year,” Gonsalves said.

Irrigation cutbacks have ranged from modest to drastic in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. OID and SSJID had a larger supply than most, but nonetheless used less water than expected. They also approved a sale to south Valley farmers that has drawn criticism.

MID and TID provided about 40 percent of their accustomed amount. The boost from the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System helped, TID spokesman Calvin Curtin said, and the district took extra measures to prevent waste at Turlock Lake and along the canals. It also allowed transfers of water among farmers.

The Modesto district also had transfer programs and worked to prevent losses on the system.

“While the 2015/2016 winter season forecast appears to be bright, we continue to actively plan for a wide range of hydrologic conditions as we look forward to the 2016 irrigation season,” spokeswoman Melissa Williams said by email.

The Merced district, which has a smaller watershed and reservoir than those to the north, had only enough to provide half an inch of water in a single July delivery – just 2 percent of the supply in ample years. Lake McClure now sits below the diversion point, so what little water is there cannot be tapped, spokesman Mike Jensen said.

Many districts on the West Side had zero allocations from the federal Central Valley Project. The Central California Irrigation District has senior rights that should have allowed 75 percent of the contracted amount this year, but only 51 percent was available, General Manager Chris White said.

Many districts supplement river water with wells, which have held up in some areas but raised concerns about overdraft and land subsidence in others.

About El Niño: The National Weather Service now sees a 95 percent chance that a strong version of this phenomenon is on tap for winter. It warns, though, that it sometimes fails to produce above-average rain or the even more important Sierra Nevada snowpack.

John Holland: 209-578-2385