Farmers depending on irrigation water from the Merced Irrigation District heard better-than-expected news Thursday about the future of their water supplies.
Proposals from federal officials over the amount of water set aside for fish on the Merced River were significantly scaled back, freeing up more irrigation water for growers.
However, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s conditions for relicensing New Exchequer Dam still will provide less water for farmers than has been available historically.
About 100 growers and community members gathered Thursday at the Merced County Fairgrounds for a meeting with MID officials outlining the new conditions.
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New Exchequer’s license expired in 2014, and the relicensing process has been underway since 2008. Every aspect of the irrigation district’s most critical operations rely on New Exchequer and water from Lake McClure. MID hopes the commission will relicense the dam for 50 years.
FERC officials backed down from initial proposals to send larger flows down the Merced River, which would benefit fish populations, after Merced-area farmers and political leaders criticized the plan during a public meeting in April and in letters submitted to the agency.
“The final (report) represents an improvement over the previous draft proposal, thanks in large part to the support of our community,” said John Sweigard, general manager for MID. “However, it still presents us with many difficult challenges to our water supply as we move forward.”
Those challenges include taking more water from farmers during critically dry years and using that water to help fish populations. Additionally, the district will be required to develop plans to protect other wildlife, including several species of frogs, turtles and bald eagles, among others.
While many of the new requirements could make life tougher for growers, MID officials said many aspects of the final report were, by and large, “wins” for farmers.
FERC agreed to allow MID to measure water levels in Lake McClure their own way, which MID officials believe will help them provide to farmers the maximum amount of water possible each year.
Despite the improvements in FERC’s report, area water officials also were quick to point out the debate over irrigation water in Merced County is far from over.
Uncertainty still looms over how much water MID will be required to put down the river since the State Water Resources Control Board still plans to make a decision on its Bay-Delta Plan, which aims to protect salmon traveling to the ocean.
The state agency originally proposed unimpaired flows down the river, demands MID officials strongly opposed and said were unheard of in other reservoir operations.
“What they’re proposing would be disastrous for our district,” said Bryan Kelly, MID’s deputy general manager for water resources. “Hopefully unimpaired flows never become part of our district operations. Our district will do everything in our power to fight it.”
Kelly said coordination between the state board and FERC will determine MID’s future.
Until the state makes any decisions, local growers and agencies remain apprehensive about the future of Merced farming.
“Time will tell how much water is actually received because the state still has to make a decision on impaired flows,” said Breanne Ramos, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau.
For MID, the licensing process still is years away from being complete. Until then, MID will work on putting plans into place to comply with FERC’s conditions.
Said Kelly: “Everything we do is under the microscope when we get a new license.”
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477