Turlock Irrigation District braces for another tight water year

The Turlock Irrigation District could cap water deliveries at about 40 percent of the customary amount even if the rest of winter brings average rain and snow.

The district staff on Tuesday night provided an initial look at the supply for 2015, which is looking to be a fourth straight year of drought.

“The hydrological situation for 2015 is not shaping up very well for us,” said Tou Her, assistant general manager for water resources, at a meeting with farmers.

Her said he expects to recommend that the board cap deliveries at 18 inches per acre over the irrigation season, far less than the 48 inches typically available in average or wet years. It would be a “soft cap,” he said, meaning farmers could go over 18 inches to finish their last irrigation in early fall.

“It’s tough,” said Phil Stine, who grows almonds and walnuts near Waterford and has land in TID and the Modesto Irrigation District. “It’s almost impossible. We have some backup wells that we would have to use.”

Stine, former owner of Waterford Irrigation Supply, said measures such as drip lines and microsprinklers have helped stretch the supply.

MID, which like the Turlock district draws from the Tuolumne River, has not projected its 2015 water allotment.

TID had a soft cap of 20 inches last year. Supplies were better in 2012 and 2013, even with the drought, thanks to storage in Don Pedro Reservoir of the heavy runoff from 2010 and 2011.

Her said the snowpack feeding Don Pedro stands at just 23 percent of average, and total precipitation is at 58 percent. The latter figure includes warm storms in December that provided more rain than snow.

Don Pedro stood at 59 percent of average storage for the date Wednesday, according to the California Department of Water Resources. Some of that water is reserved for fish in the lower river and not available to farmers.

TID’s initial 2015 projection includes groundwater from its own wells and from those rented from customers. Farmers also can use their own wells directly.

The National Weather Service forecasts a chance of showers Tuesday, which would be the first in this exceedingly dry January. The agency’s Climate Prediction Center projects a stronger likelihood for above-average storms from February through April.

Late storms could have the dual benefit of adding to the snowpack while delaying the start of irrigation season, as happened last year.

“We’re just hoping for more rain,” said TID board president Ron Macedo. “That’s the bottom line.”

The district serves about 149,000 acres in an area from south Modesto to north Merced County and from the lower Sierra Nevada foothills to the San Joaquin River.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.