Irrigation officials discuss ‘dire’ drought

Sweet potato farmer Charlie Gorden believes California’s drought is nothing short of “a total world crisis.”

As the state enters its third consecutive dry year, Gorden said the use of words like “crisis,” “dire” and “dismal” are not hyperbole when it comes to describing the situation.

“Honestly, without a miracle March or miracle February, we’re really looking at drawing down on the aquifer, and I suspect that the cities will eventually start rationing and that could create a real disaster,” the 71-year-old Winton farmer said Tuesday.

Gorden was one of about 50 Merced County growers that gathered at a Merced County Irrigation District Board meeting on Tuesday to discuss the anticipated shortened growing season.

Board member Scott Koehn said he was disappointed with the turnout at Tuesday’s meeting.

“This isn’t just an (agricultural) issue,” he said. “We’re getting ready to experience real pain.”

In a prepared statement released Tuesday, MID General Manager John Sweigard called the challenges presented by this drought “unprecedented” and said farmers will likely receive only acre-inches of water this year, rather than acre-feet.

Water distribution is typically measured in “acre-feet,” which amounts to roughly 325,000 gallons of water. An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to cover one acre 1 foot deep.

Presently, Lake McClure, where the irrigation district draws most of its water, holds just 226,000 acre-feet of water, which is only 22 percent capacity. If the lake drops to 115,000 acre-feet – the so-called “dead pool” – all irrigation operations will stop, MID officials said.

Tuesday’s gathering was the first of a series of planned public meetings to discuss how the irrigation district water allocations for the growing season.

MID spokesman Mike Jensen said the meetings give farmers an opportunity to explain their needs to the board. “It doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to do everything that people want, but all the information and feedback helps with those decisions,” Jensen said.

Additional meetings are planned in February and March.

Board member Kevin Gonsalves said MID is working with every city in Merced County to come up with the most effective plan possible.

Additionally, the irrigation district is planning an “aggressive” public-outreach campaign and the board will consider an emergency drought declaration at its next meeting, according Bryan Kelly, MID’s deputy general manager of water resources.

“It’s dire,” Kelly said. “There isn’t going to be any optimism in our messaging.”