Precious water starts heading down canals in Northern San Joaquin Valley

jholland@modbee.comMarch 2, 2014 

Today, irrigation canals will start flowing toward Oakdale, Escalon and Ripon. In the weeks to come, the Merced, Turlock and Modesto areas will follow.

In most years, the canals are strong with water that gets the crops through the heat of summer, much like blood carrying oxygen to a marathon runner’s muscles. This year, in many parts of the Northern San Joaquin Valley, they will struggle to the finish line.

California is in the third year of a drought, made worse in 2014 by reduced reservoir levels and especially low rain and snow totals.

The effects on farmers vary. Irrigation limits will be modest in some areas, thanks to stored water and senior rights. In others places, short river supplies could force farmers to fallow some of their annual cropland and pump groundwater that also could be stressed. In still other areas, farmers simply won’t grow a crop.

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District expects adequate water this year but is keeping the prospect of a dry 2015 in mind. “We’re not in any kind of a panic mode,” spokeswoman Troylene Vallow said. “At this point, we are not implementing any limits.”

The Merced Irrigation District is in far worse shape. Its usable storage in McClure Reservoir could run out this summer, so the district plans an increase, perhaps tenfold, in groundwater use.

“The lake saw 5,500 acre-feet of inflow from October to December,” spokesman Mike Jensen said. “The historic average is approximately 66,000 acre-feet for that time of year. In 1976-77, our driest year on record, we received 6,400 acre-feet for October to December.”

On the West Side, the state and federal water systems plan to provide zero water to most farmers. Some have access to other surface water or to wells.

The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts face difficulty but not disaster, with a little less than half of their accustomed deliveries.

The storms of recent days have slightly boosted rain and snow totals, which are running about a third of average for the north Valley and its central Sierra Nevada watershed. But three years of drought have reduced moisture in the root zones of orchards, SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields said, and it would take a very large amount of rain to delay the start of irrigation.

The reduced supplies threaten to break a winning streak for north Valley agriculture. Gross farm income in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties totaled a record $9.43 billion in 2012, based on the most recent reports from agricultural commissioners.

The figure does not account for income to people who supply the farmers with goods and services or who process, haul and sell the bounty – a ripple effect that reaches into the tens of billions of dollars.

This year is almost certain to bring reduced harvests of almonds, walnuts, peaches, tomatoes, livestock feed and many other crops. The prices per pound or ton will likely rise, easing some of the overall economic hit. But therein lies a dilemma: Farmers could be more eager than ever to pump from wells, or evade the river water limits, so they can cash in.

At a TID board meeting last month, chairman and almond grower Ron Macedo urged his fellow farmers to take care with the short supplies.

“We are all in this together,” he said. “The better the district comes out of this, the better we will be going forward.”

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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