Water deal: Farmers object to Merced Irrigation District's sale plan

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comMarch 23, 2012 

Local farmers are calling on the Merced Irrigation District board of directors to stop an out-of-district sale and send the water their way.

The MID board voted on March 6 to move forward with a roughly 15,000-acre-foot water transfer to the San Luis Water District that's been shaping up since late last year.

The board first approved negotiations with the SLWD on Dec. 20. At that time, the deal was for a 30,000-acre-foot transfer at $85 an acre-foot over five years.

Sometime over the winter, MID and SLWD officials agreed to change the deal to a 15,000-acre-foot transfer that would happen this year.

But some local farmers say the MID board should hold off on transferring that water and take care of them first.

Most vocal have been farmers in El Nido who are facing a stricter water curtailment than the rest of the district. While most MID farmers expect to receive at least 4 acre-feet of water per acre per account this year, El Nido growers -- who were officially annexed into the district in 2004 -- have been capped at 2 acre-feet.

"Hopefully, we get more rain and they give everyone a full allotment," said Gino Pedretti III, a farmer in El Nido. "But if we don't, I hope they don't sell the water out of district. We're part of MID. They're not taking care of their own growers first."

However, Tim Pellissier, the MID board member who represents Division 1, said that the transfer is a "good deal because the district can use the money. Also it's a deal we started working on last year when there was plenty of water. When we finalized the deal it looked like there would be plenty of water for this year also."

Pellissier added that if the MID kept the 15,000 acre-feet, after conveyance losses from evaporation and other factors, it would only translate into roughly an inch more per acre-foot for the MID's growers.

"We're talking about a very small amount of water for a pretty good return," he said.

Wil Hunter, MID vice president for Division 5, voted against the original deal. However, he said he only abstained from the latest board decision to move the deal forward, describing himself as ambivalent.

"I'm of the belief that the water could have stayed here in the district," he said. "But I don't think the board made the wrong decision. It's economic decision."

John Sweigard, MID general manager, said the district will make $2.6 million dollars on the deal.

"That's a lot of money," he said. "If we don't do transfers, I can guarantee that the price of water will double in a short period of time. And I can guarantee we will continue to have droughts and will continue to be water supply challenged in those years."

As it stands now, the SLWD could start receiving water as early as Sept. 1 at the price of $176 an acre-foot.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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