March 18, 2014

Merced farmers to receive smallest water allocation in decades

Most drought-plagued Merced Irrigation District farmers will receive just six inches of water per acre during this year’s truncated irrigation season.

Most drought-plagued Merced Irrigation District farmers will receive just 6 inches of water per acre during this year’s truncated irrigation season.

“People are used to having 3-plus acre-feet per acre over a seven-month season, so this is quite a cutback,” MID General Manager John Sweigard said Tuesday.

Irrigation water is measured per acre-foot, which is the amount of water required to cover an acre of land 1 foot deep, or about 325,900 gallons.

Farmers with the Class II designation in the consolidated El Nido district will receive 3 inches of water per acre, Sweigard said.

The MID board of directors Tuesday voted to begin delivering water to farmers April 21. The district will begin accepting orders April 14.

Officials said the irrigation season would end sometime after the second week of August, though the exact date depends on when Lake McClure reaches its minimum pool and the district runs out of water to deliver.

In addition to the surface water allocation from Lake McClure, the district will implement its Supplemental Water Supply Pool Program. Growers can elect to receive additional water available from banked groundwater pumping. The district expects to provide about 28,000 acr- feet through the program this year, spokesman Mike Jensen said in a news release.

In a typical year, the district sells about 300,000 acre-feet of water to Merced growers. But according to a report released earlier this month, under present drought conditions the district anticipates having only about 98,000 acre-feet of water to sell to farmers.

Farmers like Merced’s Derreck Benson expected bad news on Tuesday, but hearing he would receive only about 6 inches of water per acre was tough to swallow. Benson grows cotton, alfalfa, corn and almonds.

“We’ll have to fallow about 25 percent of our acres; we have no choice,” Benson said Tuesday. “We’ll adjust and do the best we can.”

On Tuesday, the MID board also established a new penalty structure for water theft. First-time offenders will be fined $1,000 and an additional $500 per acre-foot stolen, Sweigard explained.

“A second offense will have the same penalties and the person will also lose all access to MID water,” he said.

Merced County has received just 3.67 inches of rainfall since July 1, 2013. Typically during that time, the county collects about 9.63 inches, according to the National Weather Service in Hanford.

MID board President Tim Pellissier said this year is the worst irrigation season he’s seen, calling it unprecedented and “a whole new ballgame.” Pellissier said During the 1977 drought, he said, Merced farmers received about 18 inches of water per acre, three times this year’s allocation.

“This year’s bad enough, and if we don’t have a wet year next year, we’re really going to be in real trouble,” Pellissier said. “This (agriculture) has always been the foundation of this community, the backbone. Without water, we’re nothing in this community. It affects the whole economy.”

Tuesday’s allocation news came as farmers are voting by mail whether to increase district water rates from $20.25 per acre-foot to $100.67 per acre-foot.

Farmers supporting the increase have said it is necessary to help the district maintain its bond covenants and preserve the district. Detractors have said MID should lay off more employees and find other ways to cut spending. Ballots were mailed earlier this month. A protest hearing is scheduled for April 18.

A meeting for growers to discuss drought and water supply is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Friday at Yosemite Hall at the Merced County Fairgrounds.

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