Merced Irrigation District hopes to cut deal for more water

Irrigation district officials on Tuesday formally requested more water from state authorities as part of a complex proposal that would extend the drought-shortened growing season, help migrating fish and possibly provide the cash-strapped district with an extra $5 million.

After Tuesday’s vote by the Merced Irrigation District board of directors, irrigation officials will pursue a request with the state Water Resources Control Board to relax the so-called minimum pool requirement at Lake McClure.

The plan would allow the district to use an additional 30,000 acre-feet of water that would not be available in a nondrought year. 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.

MID General Manager John Sweigard said he hopes to have an answer from the state as soon as possible. “We think they’ll grant it,” he said. “We’re expecting to hear from them by the end of the week or early next week.”

But parts or all of the deal still could fall through, district officials said.

If approved, the deal would allow MID to use up to 25,000 acre-feet of water for Merced County growers. The relief for farmers would be minor but could extend a truncated growing season in from early August to Sept. 1, Sweigard said.

Another major piece of the proposal would include the use of about 5,000 acre-feet of water for a “spring pulse flow” to help young out-migrating salmon move down the Merced River. The state Fish and Wildlife Department would support the minimum pool reduction “in exchange” for the pulse flow, according to the staff report.

Sweigard said if that part of the deal falls through, MID has promised to provide Fish and Wildlife 10,000 acre-feet of water for pulse flow in future nondrought years.

Additionally, once the pulse-flow water has been pushed through the river, MID could sell the outgoing 5,000 acre-feet to another water district, netting as much as $5 million. That money would be used to slash MID’s projected $10.6 million deficit nearly in half, board Vice President Dave Long said.

Deputy General Manager Hicham Eltal told the board that, if MID can’t sell the 5,000 acre-feet of water, the district would keep it for growers.

About 30 people attended Tuesday’s meeting and most growers appeared to support the proposal. Ray Veldhuis, owner of RV Dairy, said he would “totally support this aggressive plan.”

“There was an initial scare because there’s a water sale involved in a drought year,” Veldhuis said. “But when you look at the plan overall, it benefits fish, the environment and the growers.”

Taking additional water out of the lake this year, could leave the district with even less water next year if the state doesn’t pull out of the drought. However, farmers interviewed Tuesday said 30,000 acre-feet eases some pressure this year and wouldn’t make a significant difference next year, should the drought continue.

“If we don’t get any rain next year, all bets are off and none of it will matter anyway,” farmer Bob Weimer said.

The MID board approved the plan on a 4-1 vote, with Director Kevin Gonsalves opposing the deal. Gonsalves did not raise any questions or make any comments before voting.

In a short telephone interview after the meeting, Gonsalves said he favors lowering Lake McClure’s minimum pool, but opposes selling any water out of the district. When asked why he did not raise the issue during Tuesday’s public meeting, Gonsalves said he was “disappointed with turnout at the meeting.”

The proposal comes before a critical vote later this week that could raise water rates for MID growers from $23.25 per acre-foot to as much $100.67 per acre-foot. A public protest hearing on the proposal is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at the Merced Civic Center, 678 W. 18th St.

District officials have said they won’t know how the proposed water deal could affect the potential price of irrigation water until it has been finalized.