MERCED -- Merced-area farmers and others throughout the valley are preparing to receive significantly less water this season with the Sierra snowpack well below average.
"What I've got to do is plan for the worst and hope for the best," said Merced rice farmer Frenchy Meissonnier. "I'll plant half of my fields. It's a big financial hit."
Coming off a dry winter last year, local irrigation district officials are expected to impose strict limits on this season's water deliveries.
"Barring anything big coming our way in the next two months, I'm sure they'll be a curtailment," said Merced Irrigation District board chairman Tim Pellissier.
The Turlock Irrigation District recently approved a 2.5 acre-foot per-acre limit on water deliveries. An acre-foot covers an acre, one-foot deep. The Modesto Irrigation District in April also will be considering a curtailment.
The Merced Irrigation District board will vote Tuesday on a 2.4 acre-foot per-acre water curtailment. Growers in El Nido, under an annexation contract, would receive half of that water allotment.
At the same time, many farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are expected to receive only 25 percent of requested water under the federal Central Valley Project.
To help farmers with the dry conditions, the Merced district will consider starting its irrigation season early, Pellissier said. "There's a lot of crops in the ground that need water. We're going to have to get pre-irrigation for row crops going."
The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts already have announced they will start their seasons early, with the first water deliveries expected next week.
This year, the northern and central Sierra experienced the driest January and February on record.
Because of several early storms, mountain snowpack has been holding at about 66 percent of average, according to the Department of Water Resources.
Meanwhile, snowpack in the central Sierra, which feeds the Merced River, ended last year at half of average, according to the water department.
"When you build these multiyear conditions, that really starts to worry the local entities," said Dave Rizzardo, a senior hydrologist for the water department's Snow Surveys Section. "You don't know what next year's going to bring, and you start to raise eyebrows."
Last year, the Merced district scrapped a plan to limit water use and went forward with a full allotment after several late season storms. The issue was contentious, with many farmers in El Nido calling the proposed curtailment unfair.
Now the water picture for many Merced farmers looks grim.
"We warned last year that dry years historically come in pairs, and that is what we are facing," said Merced's General Manager John Sweigard. "The district is going to do everything possible to work with our growers with the understanding that we have a limited supply of water this year."
El Nido farmer and former board member Gino Pedretti said he thinks this year's proposed curtailment -- which would give growers in his region 1.2-acre feet per acre -- is fair.
"When we're critically short, we get half," he said. "I have no problem with it at all. That's our agreement."
The reservoir at Lake McClure is at 453,200 acre-feet, according to MID officials. That's 85 percent of average, compared with 125 percent last year at this time.
The projected snowmelt into the Merced district reservoir recently fell to 310,000 acre-feet from an earlier projection of 370,000 acre-feet.
"Obviously we are discouraged by the decrease in projected water content," Sweigard said. "Things were bad a month ago and they are worse today."
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or email@example.com.