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MID drought strategy pondered

The Modesto Irrigation District board is expected Tuesday to reject Modesto City Hall’s restated claim that MID should pay the final $9 million in cost overruns from the botched expansion of a water treatment plant near Waterford.
The Modesto Irrigation District board is expected Tuesday to reject Modesto City Hall’s restated claim that MID should pay the final $9 million in cost overruns from the botched expansion of a water treatment plant near Waterford. Modesto Bee file

That rain we just had? Don’t let it fool you.

Farms still are facing severe drought because the mountain snowpack on which they rely to feed thirsty crops in the summer is relatively small, for a fourth straight year. The weekend’s storm dropped 0.90 inches of rain on Modesto, bringing the seasonal total to 10.55 inches. But that’s well short of the average of 12.15 inches, though there are five months left in the season.

Modesto Irrigation District leaders Tuesday morning could revive last year’s drought-combating measures, which enjoyed only marginal success, for the coming season. They include a costly per-acre drought surcharge, open-market water sales between farmers, district-managed transfers between growers at a fixed price and the district buying groundwater from private pumps.

The MID board Tuesday morning also will continue discussing a historical inequity in rates that has electricity customers subsidizing farmers’ water prices. Also, a proposed series of raises for district workers amounting to 8 percent over three years will come up for a vote.

The MID board had hoped that innovative drought-coping ideas would not be needed this year, but drenching December rains gave way to the driest January on record. The district’s reservoirs now hold 69 percent of what they did at this point last year, which was the start of a third consecutive dry season.

Last year’s strategies helped some farmers, but board members in the fall acknowledged that relatively few participated and publicly wondered if they were worth the trouble.

The most popular innovation – allowing farmers to sell shares of irrigation water on the open market – resulted in 194 transfers involving 3,300 acre-feet of water. The numbers represent only 12.5 percent of MID’s 3,100 grower accounts – some farms have multiple accounts – for an average transfer of only 17 acre-feet.

In addition to open-market deals, MID growers could forgo water deliveries in exchange for $200 an acre-foot, but only 15 customers agreed – less than 0.5 percent of MID accounts. An additional 28, or 0.9 percent, bought extra water at the same price. And only three (0.1 percent) helped the district augment its supply by pumping into canals from private wells.

Although water is considered a public resource, the district has refused to identify participants.

The board last month began an unrelated process that is expected to raise irrigation rates when a final vote is taken in a few weeks.

Also, the board is expected to revise its irrigating rules at a Feb. 24 meeting, and will discuss multiple issues at grower meetings scheduled for March 3 and 4.

Tuesday’s cost-of-service workshop is meant to explore the true costs and benefits of MID’s core services: water and power. Two weeks ago, most board members did not seem keen to split accounting for those services after 92 years of combining them.

The proposed 8 percent wage increases through 2017 were negotiated with labor unions representing the district’s 410 workers. If approved, they would raise labor costs by $1.1 million annually. In 2013, more than one-third of the MID workforce was paid more than $100,000.

Also, the board will consider charging $200 per pump when farmers rent district pumps before or after the irrigation season, rather than the current $35. Before last year’s season, farmers fed crops nearly 7,000 acre-feet of groundwater with rented pumps.

Tuesday’s board meeting will start at 9 a.m. in the chamber at 1231 11th St., Modesto. For details, see www.mid.org/about/board/agenda/150210_attmnt.pdf.

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

RAIN GAUGE

▪ 0.90 inches in latest storm

▪ 10.55 inches season total

▪ 12.15 inches season average

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