Some growers fear worse year outside Merced Irrigation District

Growers in MID sphere of influence may have to rely solely on groundwater.

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comMarch 23, 2012 

It's a dry year for people in the Merced Irrigation District. But for those just outside the district, it's even worse.

There are roughly 40,000 acres of farmland hooked up to MID canals that are not technically part of the district. Most years, the district sells a limited amount of water to these "sphere of influence" farms at a price negotiated each year.

Last year, sphere of influence growers were able to buy water at $42 an acre-foot. This year, these farmers might have to rely solely on groundwater, a topic of increasing concern.

"You've got areas in this area and throughout the Valley where the groundwater conditions are getting so bad that I'm not sure how much of this acreage is going to be continued to be farmed," said Kole Upton, a sphere-of-influence almond farmer in Le Grand. "We just don't know how deep the aquifer is."

Concerns over groundwater levels are nothing new for Upton and other farmers in his situation. Talk of well-water levels dropping drastically in a relatively short period of time is regular banter in his circle.

"Groundwater here 20, 30 years ago was like 70, 80 feet deep," he said. "And now you're down, depending on where you are, anywhere from 225 to 500 feet."

MID deal not looking good

In 2007, about 50 growers in the area started a sphere-of-influence group to try to collectively buy additional water from the MID. Upton is now the president of the group.

Last year, they were able to secure a contract with the MID for an additional 4,000 acre-feet at $100 an acre-foot. However, the season was so wet the sphere-of-influence farmers used a fraction of the water they were allotted.

Now they're hoping the MID will extend last year's offer through this season. The SOI group has even offered a nonrefundable $35 an acre-foot deposit. But without another major storm or two, the deal doesn't seem likely.

"We certainly want to work with SOI people," said Tim Pellissier, the MID board member who represents Division 1. "It's politically the right thing to do. As long as there's enough water to go around."

While the volume of water the sphere-of-influence group wants to buy seems relatively small, the MID is being conservative as it prepares for a worst-case scenario going into 2013.

"Even small numbers are important going into the second year of potentially a tenuous weather situation," said John Sweigard, MID general manager. "We're very concerned about a second drought year. Every drop is pretty important right now."

The MID board is expected to make a decision on the sphere-of-influence group's request sometime in April. If the transfer were granted, growers would most likely receive water between April and May.

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

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