Merced Irrigation District farmers approve plan to increase water rates by $80 per acre-foot

A two-month debate on irrigation water rates ended Friday with Merced County farmers showing major support for a dramatic fee hike.

Farmers voted 4,313 to 776 to increase water rates from $20.25 per acre-foot to $100.67 per acre-foot. Irrigation water is measured per acre-foot, which is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land a foot deep, about 325,900 gallons.

MID officials said increasing fees was necessary to help the district cover a projected $10.6 million budget shortfall. Drought-related financial troubles caused the district to look for ways to cover the deficit and meet its bond covenants. In a typical year, MID sells about 300,000 acre-feet of water. Three consecutive years of drought conditions left the district with less than 100,000 acre-feet of water for this growing season.

Farmers will receive just 6 inches of water per acre during this year’s shortened four-month season. Typically they receive more than 3 feet per acre over a seven-month season, authorities have said.

“This year’s just a very sad situation for all the growers,” MID Board President Tim Pellissier said. “So this (vote) is a very big thing for the district.”

Following the tabulation of the public ballots, the MID Board of Directors voted 3-2 to adopt the new water rate. Directors Billy Pimentel and Kevin Gonsalves opposed the rate hike. Both men said they voted against the increase out of concern for growers, many of whom have been forced to fallow land and sell off livestock.

“If you look at the numbers, not everybody supported the increase and I’m very concerned about how this will affect these smaller growers,” Gonsalves said.

Pellissier voted in favor of the hike along with Vice President Dave Long and Director Scott Koehn. All three noted that farmers voted “overwhelmingly in favor” of the hike.

All three said they would vote to decrease the fee as soon as possible, which may come as soon as next month.

MID has been negotiating a complex water deal with state authorities that would provide the district with an additional 15,000 to 25,000 acre-feet of water. Another component of the deal would allow the district to use 5,000 acre-feet of water as a “spring pulse flow,” to assist out-migrating salmon moving down the Merced River. Once that water passes through, it is possible MID could sell the outgoing water to other districts for as much as $5 million.

That deal remains in the works and district officials hope to have an answer from state authorities some time next week.

“Nobody wants to raise rates, but this is an emergency year and an emergency action,” Koehn said. “If additional revenue comes in from whatever source, I’ll be the first to look at lowering the rate this season.”

Pellissier and Long also said they were eager to find a way to cut the fees for farmers as soon as possible.

“The growers have said they’ll support the district and we’ll absolutely do our very best to support them,” Pellissier said.

A second proposed fee hike was shot down by Merced County farmers on Friday. The so-called “stand-by” fee is an assessment paid by farmers per acre of land to maintain water-delivery infrastructure. Officials proposed raising the fee from $24 per acre of land to $34 per acre, but farmers rejected it. A final vote count was not available Friday.

Growers such as Kevin Sorensen and Dan DeWees said the MID “needs to learn to live within its budget.”

Sorensen said the water-rate hike was “more justifiable,” but he still opposed it and he was “totally opposed” to the stand-by fee increase. He said he was glad farmers voted down the stand-by fee hike.

“I think that’s a victory for the farmers at this point,” Sorensen said. “There are a lot of farmers upset over the way things are going right now.”

Growers John Borba and Bob Weimer were two of the farmers who supported the proposed fee increases.

“We need to look at the big picture,” Borba said. “We need to be able to pay our bills so we can move forward.”