MID directors OK early start to season, water delivery limit

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comMarch 5, 2013 

— The Merced Irrigation District board of directors approved a package Tuesday designed to deal with the ongoing water shortage.

Included in the sweeping motion is an early start to the irrigation season, a limit on water deliveries and a new program that will allow growers to buy additional groundwater.

"Staff and the board want to have a good spirit of cooperation and help our growers get through this difficult year," said MID General Manager John Sweigard.

"I was happy that we had a lot of growers today (at the MID board meeting) to talk to the board and staff," he added. "It was a very good public discussion, and I think it went well, under the circumstances that we're facing."

Merced-area almond farmer Joe Scoto said he's happy with the board's decisions, especially the early start for the season. "They need to start the season right away," he said. "We've got permanent crops to irrigate."

Meanwhile, MID Director Kevin Gonzalves -- the only board member to vote against the motion -- said he was concerned growers didn't have "ample time" to review the issues.

"There were some things that were not on the agenda that the growers did not have time to review," he said. "There were some growers that weren't here to be able to listen to the meeting."

Water curtailment

The board approved a water curtailment of 2.4 acre-feet per acre for Class 1, or primary, users. Growers in El Nido get half of the allotment, under an annexation agreement. An acre-foot of water covers an acre of land, one foot deep.

The irrigation season will start Monday, with water orders now open for placement. The in-district rate this year is $23.25 per acre-foot, up from $18.25 last year. The rate increase was approved in 2008.

At the same time, the MID has rolled out a new program in which Class 1 growers can buy supplemental groundwater at $73.25 an acre-foot. A $25 an acre-foot deposit must be paid in advance.

If growers do not use the full amount of surface water and groundwater requested, they still will be charged a pro-rated amount for each.

"There's no physical way to deliver you surface water and then groundwater. It's all blended," said Bryan Kelly, MID director of regulatory affairs.

"We're really pumping that water so we need to charge it out at the proportional rate," he added. "Once you cancel or reduce your (groundwater purchase), then beginning of the next month that will come into play."

In response to questions about adjusting water usage throughout the year, MID Director Scott Koehn said the district was doing its best to be fair with the members.

"All the district's trying to do is recover costs, nothing beyond that," he said "So as accurate and close as we can be to just truing up what your actual usage was is the only intent."

The district said it has about 64,000 acre-feet of groundwater to sell. The first deadline for orders is Tuesday. If all the water in the supplemental groundwater pool has not been requested, a second deadline will be set.

If more groundwater is requested than is available, the amount allotted to each farmer will be reduced and allocated proportionally based on acreage.

MID officials said the preliminary numbers suggest the season could likely end by Oct. 15. However, there will be a more accurate assessment made in June.

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

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