Agriculture

Merced Irrigation District begins irrigation deliveries

On Monday morning, eastern Merced County's canals were full of liquid that seems to be worth more than gold to local growers these days: water.

The Merced Irrigation District officially began its water year on Monday at 10 a.m. Although a storm passed through the Merced area Saturday night, Hicham Eltal, assistant general manager for water resources, said that some growers have been calling for water.

"We've been getting a few phone calls, not a lot yet," Eltal said.

This year is looking like another drought year, with Lake McClure at only 68 percent of normal, and only 38 percent capacity.

Eltal said the last year the reservoir was nearly full was 2006. And although 2007 and 2008 were drought years, Eltal believes this year may be even worse.

"It's pretty grim," he said. "It's not even as good as 2008 so far."

Growers have been allocated 2.5 acre-feet of water per acre on gross acreage, instead of per irrigated acreage as in the past. In other words, if a grower owns 100 acres, but only farms 80 acres, in the past he received 2.5 acre-feet of water per acre for the farmed 80 acres. Now that grower will receive 2.5 acre-feet of water per acre for the entire 100 acres, farmed or not. That was decided at the March board meeting because some growers may put the idle acreage back into production.

An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons of water, or a year's supply for an average family in the Valley.

Growers are paying $18.25 per acre-foot of water, but that may change. A protest ballot went out to growers earlier this year that would allow the MID board to raise rates.

Wil Hunter, one of the board members, said the protest ballot wasn't necessarily the way to go. "The way the election is set up, it's doomed to fail," Hunter said. If a grower doesn't want a hike in water rates, that grower must send the ballot back into the MID. If the ballot isn't sent in, it's considered a "yes" vote on raising water rates.

Eltal said if the board is allowed to raise water rates, they could raise them as much as $5 per acre-foot. But that can be spread out over years, Eltal added. Or the board could vote not to raise water rates at all.

Hunter said growers are worried that if a water rate hike isn't passed, the MID board will choose to sell water out of district. "There's a good chance that the board could do that," Hunter said.

Hunter said that 2.5 acre-feet per acre is about what it takes to keep a crop alive and thriving, and growers have learned to deal with less water by making their water delivery more efficient.

"Growers have been asked to do more with less, and we have responded every time," Hunter said. "Hopefully, we will get some more help from the weather."

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.

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