Valley’s irrigation supplies range from near-normal to dismal

Irrigation Season Starting in Stanislaus County

Stanislaus County Farmer Daniel Bays talk about the irrigation situation in the central valley while outside of Westley California on April 1, 2016. (John Westberg/
Up Next
Stanislaus County Farmer Daniel Bays talk about the irrigation situation in the central valley while outside of Westley California on April 1, 2016. (John Westberg/

The 2016 irrigation season is rolling out on these warm April days with close-to-normal supplies in parts of the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

In other parts, the drought of the past few years has not eased much, and farmers face another year of scraping by.

El Niño, an ocean-warming phenomenon that sometimes brings heavy storms to California, did just that on several occasions over the winter. It just didn’t happen often enough, or in all of the places needing relief.

“El Niño has really not pulled us out of the drought by any means,” said Walt Ward, water resources manager for Stanislaus County, at a meeting Wednesday. “It’s better than where we were, but we still have a long way to go.”

Here’s a rundown for the main irrigation districts in the region:

▪  The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts, which share reservoirs on the Stanislaus River, are in relatively good shape. SSJID farmers can use up to 40 vertical inches of water over a season that will run through September, up from 36 inches last year and an ample amount for most crops. OID delivered up to 44 inches last year and will let growers use whatever is reasonable for their crop needs in 2016.

▪  The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts each set a 36-inch allotment from the Tuolumne River. That is doubled from last year but still short of the 48 inches in years of ample rain and snow.

▪  The Merced Irrigation District delivered virtually zero water in 2015. This year, it will provide up to 48 inches for most farmers and 24 inches for those in a newer service area south of Merced.

▪  On the West Side, there is pain and plenty for districts getting water from the federal Central Valley Project. It announced Friday that it will provide just 5 percent of the contracted amount to some customers while allotting 100 percent to four districts with senior water rights.

Daniel Bays, part of the third generation of a farming family near Westley, is among those with low surface water supplies. Some comes from the Del Puerto Water District, which is getting 5 percent of its federal contract. The rest is from the Patterson and West Stanislaus irrigation districts, which are doing better but still short of what it takes to grow crops.

Bays said he will have to rely once again on groundwater to sustain the 2,000 or so acres of apricots, almonds, walnuts, tomatoes, lima beans and cantaloupes.

“A lot of our wells go down 400 or 500 feet, so that’s a long way to lift that water up,” he said. Bays, like many farmers, uses drip lines and microsprinklers in place of the less-efficient flood and furrow irrigation of old.

Bays serves on the Stanislaus County Water Advisory Committee, which held the meeting where Ward spoke about the irrigation season outlook.

Ward said overall precipitation was 111 percent of average this winter in the central Sierra Nevada, the main watershed for the north Valley, but the snowpack fell a little short. Reservoirs have risen but are still low for this time of year.

We’re farmers. That’s what we do – survive and keep going.

Daniel Bays, grower near Westley

The upshot, Ward said: “Groundwater is going to remain a very important supply source to everybody.”

The committee’s main task is a 2014 state law that requires local entities to draft plans for making groundwater use sustainable over the next quarter-century. That could happen through a combination of reduced water use and recharge of aquifers with stormwater, well-timed flood irrigation and other efforts.

The allotments announced Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation were based in part on end-of-winter storage in federal reservoirs and measurements of snowpacks that will melt mainly through July.

The numbers are stronger for the Sacramento Valley than for the southern part of the system, including New Melones Reservoir. It will provide water to OID and SSJID, which have senior rights, but not much to federal contractors. San Luis Reservoir, shared by the federal system and State Water Project, also is at less than average.

“While we are on track for a near-average precipitation season this year, the ongoing and residual impacts of the multiyear drought continue,” said David Murillo, director of the bureau’s Mid-Pacific Region, in a news release.

The districts getting just 5 percent allotments suffer not just from drought, but from pumping limits aimed at protecting fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Despite this, four districts are getting 100 percent of their contracted water because of rights to the San Joaquin River that predate the federal system. The largest is the Central California Irrigation District, which serves about 143,000 acres between Crows Landing and Mendota.

Del Puerto, which covers about 45,000 acres from Vernalis to Santa Nella, has a long-term plan for meeting a third of its demand with non-federal water. It is arranging to take the highly treated effluent from sewage treatment plants in Modesto and Turlock, perhaps by 2018.

Bays said irrigation districts have helped also by allowing farmers to use canals to transfer groundwater among themselves, as long as it is not too tainted by boron, selenium and other naturally occurring substances. His family also has fallowed about 200 acres with annual crops or with trees near the end of their productive life.

“We’re farmers,” Bays said. “That’s what we do – survive and keep going.”

John Holland: 209-578-2385

By the numbers

(as of Friday)

41: Percent of average storage in New Melones Reservoir on Stanislaus River for this time of year

83: Percent of average storage in Don Pedro Reservoir on Tuolumne River

60: Percent of average storage in Lake McClure on Merced River

57: Percent of average storage in San Luis Reservoir, west of Los Banos

Source: California Department of Water Resources