Merced Irrigation District working on water deal with state

Irrigation officials will consider a potential deal with state water officials that could give Merced growers a little more water for their crops this year and help the irrigation district partially close a projected $10 million budget gap.

The Merced Irrigation District has been negotiating to lower the so-called minimum pool requirement at Lake McClure, which would give farmers more water – about 15,000 to 25,000 acre-feet, depending on runoff – for the drought-plagued growing season. An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to cover an acre of land a foot deep, or about 325,900 gallons.

Relief for farmers would be minor, but officials said that in a year when farmers will receive the smallest water allocation in living memory, every little bit helps.

Typically, the district sells about 300,000 acre-feet of water to Merced growers. But according to a report released in March, under present drought conditions the district anticipates having only about 98,000 acre-feet of water to sell its growers.

“I think the growers I’ve talked to are just focused on trying to get through this very difficult year,” board Director Scott Koehn said.

MID General Manager John Sweigard said components of the proposal are being ironed out, and acknowledged that parts and possibly all of the deal could fall through.

A significant piece of the deal would include using about 5,000 acre-feet of water for a “spring pulse flow” through the Merced River to help migrating salmon and trout, which is the part of the deal most desired by the state Fish and Wildlife Department, Sweigard said.

“Without the pulse flow, the fish would likely not get out and would probably die,” Sweigard said.

The district could ultimately sell that outgoing water after it’s gone to the San Luis Water District and Santa Clara Valley Water District for about $5 million.

Those funds would ease the district’s projected $10.6 million deficit this year, though it remains too soon to speculate on whether it would affect water rates this year for growers, officials said.

“There are a lot of things still up in the air,” Sweigard said.

A protest hearing is scheduled for Friday regarding a vote to increase the MID water rates from $23.25 an acre-foot to a maximum of more than $100 per acre-foot. District officials won’t know what the rate will be until after Friday’s meeting, and the MID board must vote on the deal with the state during its regular board meeting on Tuesday.

Koehn said he’s happy MID staff has been working on the potential deal because it could possibly give the district and the growers “a few more options.” “The potential downside of (the deal) would be if we don’t get enough rain again next year,” Koehn said.

In another drought year, the district would be short another 30,000 acre-feet of water at the lake. “But, I do think most of the farmers just want to get through this year,” he said.

The Board of Directors meets Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the Civic Center in Merced; 678 W. Main St.