MID growers could have to get by on 16 inches of water

The drought could limit irrigation for Modesto-area farmers to 16 inches of water per acre this year – a little more than a third the normal amount and far less than needed for most crops.

If Mother Nature doesn’t start dumping snow like crazy in the mountains, and no forecast suggests she will, farmers will have to fallow fields, pump lots more groundwater or buy extra through the Modesto Irrigation District’s transfer programs to keep nut trees and other plants alive. Many crops require 30 to 36 inches of water to get by.

Meanwhile, farmers anxious about proposed changes to irrigation rules are invited to Tuesday morning’s MID board meeting, where leaders will vote on unpopular changes including unprecedented access for ditchtenders to private property and fines and public shaming for misusing water.

A tentative April 26 start date for the irrigation season will be mentioned in a water supply report, along with the 16-inch allotment, but both are subject to changing conditions like late winter weather.

Another important vote on raising water prices up to 40 percent is scheduled for March 24. And the board has yet to decide whether to impose a drought surcharge this year; last year’s $11.91-per-acre surcharge was about the same as raising prices 40 percent.

The surcharge last year raised $860,000, but that didn’t cover the district’s added expense of $1.15 million to pay electricity for groundwater pumping, plus extra staffing costs for canal patrols and to hire an armed guard to confront suspected thievery.

Normal winter weather puts enough water in foothills reservoirs for MID customers to draw 42 inches of water per acre. After a third dry winter last year, MID customers were restricted to 24 inches – but that amount looks good compared to this year’s potential 16-inch allotment.

MID’s Don Pedro and Modesto reservoirs hold only 75 percent the amount captured as of this time last year, dry as it was. And the district faces a substantial additional cut in its long-term water supply from environmental policies advanced by state and federal officials favoring better habitat for fish.

Last year, MID leaders came up with novel ways to help growers cope with drought, including farmer-to-farmer sales on the open market and district-managed transfers among farmers for a fixed price, although neither attracted wide participation. The board is expected to decide soon whether to continue those transfer programs this summer.

Those innovations combined with heavy March rains to boost last year’s delivery estimate from an initial 18 inches to 24. But no such weather pattern is expected this year.

The MID board meeting starts at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the chamber at 1231 11th St., Modesto. For more information, go to http://bit.ly/1ENkPn8.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.