Merced Irrigation District seals deal with state for more irrigation water

Merced Irrigation District officials this week closed a complicated deal to increase the water supply for drought-plagued farmers.
Merced Irrigation District officials this week closed a complicated deal to increase the water supply for drought-plagued farmers. Merced Sun-Star file

Irrigation officials this week closed a complicated deal with state agencies to increase the water supply for drought-plagued farmers. The deal could also help authorities cut the price of irrigation water in Merced County.

The State Water Resources Control Board approved the deal granting Merced County farmers more water, said Mike Jensen, Merced Irrigation District spokesman.

MID board President Tim Pellissier and Vice President Dave Long said the deal was the best news Merced County farmers have had in the last two years.

“I think it’s a really big win-win situation for everyone involved: the growers, the environment and Merced County,” Long said.

MID General Manager John Sweigard agreed, calling the deal “a package with multiple victories.”

The deal allows MID to take an additional 30,000 acre-feet of water out of Lake McClure. Irrigation water is measured per acre-foot, which is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land a foot deep, or about 325,900 gallons.

Normally, the district is forced to stop diverting water when the lake reaches a level of 115,000 acre-feet, commonly referred to as the “minimum pool.” The new deal allows the district to reduce the lake level down to 85,000 acre-feet this year, MID officials said in a news release.

Merced County growers will get another 25,000 acre-feet. The water is expected to extend the shortened irrigation season by as much as a month, officials said. “And remember, 25,000 acre-feet is 25 percent of all the water we have this year, so it’s really significant,” Long said.

During typical years, 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.

The other 5,000 acre-feet will be used as a “spring pulse flow” down the Merced River, which will assist out-migrating salmon. That was a critical piece of the deal for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. MID will be able to sell that outgoing water, netting a total profit of $5 million for the district.

That money could help the district cut a recently approved water rate hike for farmers, officials said. But not all the directors have supported the deal.

Directors Kevin Gonsalves and Billy Pimentel voted against the rate hike last month, despite voter approval, saying the hike would hurt smaller growers. Gonsalves was especially critical of the deal with the state, saying he wanted all 30,000 acre-feet to go to farmers. He did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.

Merced County farmers last week approved raising the water rate from $20.25 per acre-foot to $100.67. Farmers backed the price hike to help the district close a projected budget shortfall of more than $10 million. With the new revenue cutting the deficit in half, directors have said they want to cut the price for farmers.

Pimentel said Wednesday water rates should also be cut in half, to about $50 per acre-foot. He said he backs the deal “but with reservations.”

“My reservations are I just don’t trust the government,” he said, and that he wanted “to be sure we get the 25,000 acre-feet for ourselves.”

Pellissier and Long declined to commit to specifics before seeing final numbers from MID staff, but both said they would cut the rate. Director Scott Koehn has said he would be eager to support cutting growers’ water rates.

It’s unclear when MID’s board could consider a new water rate, but the directors interviewed Wednesday said they hoped to formally discuss the issue very soon.