MERCED — Heading into a likely bone-dry growing season, irrigation officials are offering a new program for farmers who are willing to pay for extra water.
Farmers have placed orders for only about half of the available supply, but irrigation officials said the pilot program has been "extremely successful" and will continue into the future.
"It's still open," said Merced Irrigation District General Manager John Sweigard. "If more people inquire, we'll do everything we can to meet their needs."
After the driest January and February on record, it was no surprise when the MID and many other water providers around the state issued strict limits on how much water farmers could order this season.
In march, the MID issued a cap on water deliveries of 2.4 acre-feet per acre. Growers in El Nido get half of that allotment, under an annexation agreement. An acre-foot of water covers an acre of land one foot deep.
At the same time, the district rolled out its new supplemental-groundwater program to help farmers get through the tough season, making an additional 60,000 acre-feet of water available.
To pay for the cost of pumping the groundwater, the supplemental water is $73.25 an acre-foot. The standard rate is $23.25 an acre-foot.
Merced-area farmer Joe Scotto said he signed up for an extra acre-foot of water per acre under the program.
"It was necessary," he said. "I'm farming my full acreage. Other people are moving things around. They're not farming certain crops."
Farmers are using the program, but are limiting their orders because of the cost, Scotto said.
"The individuals that I talked to bought a little bit," he said. "There's a lot of wells around, and you can run your own private well way cheaper. But if you don't have a well, you have no choice."
Tom Roduner, a rice farmer outside of Merced, said he bought 4.5 acre-feet.
"It's kind of hard to grow rice on 2.4 feet. I wanted to be able to grow a decent size crop. Rice is not a crop that you can rotate in and out every year."
Many people were happy to have the option, Roduner said. "I haven't talked to anybody that didn't buy up. Depending on their crop, they didn't buy up to the same level that I did. But there's a lot of crops out there that need a certain amount of water."
There are still 30,000 acre-feet of supplemental water available, according to MID officials. In-district growers can sign up for more groundwater at any time by calling (209) 722-2720.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at(209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.