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Farmers concerned over water forecasts

What looked like a promising water year turned to disappointment and concern for those who depend on snowpack runoff and reservoir storage — particularly local farmers and growers.

Although winter storms built up the Sierra snowpack to levels higher than last year, it wasn’t enough to recover from a dry 2007, said Frank Gehrke, snow surveys coordinator from the California Department of Water Resources.

This translates to less irrigation water for farmers and growers, who are experiencing a half acre-foot curtailment from the Merced Irrigation District. “It’s going to be a tough year, no doubt about that,” said Garith Krause, MID general manager.

The April 1 snowpack report — the most important indicator of the upcoming water year — put the Central Sierra snowpack at 87 percent of average. Surveys taken around the Merced River runoff basin had the snowpack at 94 percent of average, Gehrke said: “To recover from the deficit last year, we need better than average.”

And an unusually dry March only made the situation worse. It was the driest March in 36 years, said Ted Selb, MID deputy general manager. The district reported zero rain during the month.

“Storms went around us this year,” he said Tuesday at the MID board meeting, well attended by concerned farmers and growers from the Merced area.

A wetter April is about a 50 percent possibility, Selb reported: “But it would take significant storms to turn things around.”Water managers can give a general prediction of how much water will runoff the snowpack as it melts in April through July. MID depends on runoff from the Sierra to the Merced River and into an already low Lake McClure to send surface irrigation water to its customers.

Selb said Tuesday that 66 percent of average runoff is expected into Lake McClure.

MID had already decided in mid-March to act conservatively with its surface water irrigation allotments — sending customers 2.5 acre-feet of water for each acre they own instead of the usual 3 acre-feet. (One acre-foot, according to U.S. consumption rates, it enough to meet the industrial and municipal needs of four people for a year).

MID also decided to start the irrigation season Friday — one week early. But a steady stream of customers appeared at Tuesday’s meeting to complain of long waits and low water flows. “When am I going to get my water?” asked Dan Dewees, a Merced grower. “I’m strictly pasture and we’ve got a lot of acres to irrigate. ...We got some serious problems.”

Other customers asked for more clarity from MID, complaining that they couldn’t get the answers and assistance they needed from staff and ditch tenders. The board apologized and explained who should be responding to which concerns. “We need to be more public about what we are doing,” agreed Suzy Hultgren, board member.

Selb said the district is now ramping up water flows to meet the demand.

MID is walking a tightrope between trying to conserve its water supplies for next year — in case 2009 is another critically dry year — and supplying its customers with the water they need, he explained.

“We’re here to work with you,” Krause said before the district presented ways it plans to manage the upcoming dry year.Hicham Eltal, assistant MID general manager, asked the board to consider allowing growers to shift water supplies around to other parcels of land that need it most. This could be done by water reallocations — passing allotted water to other owned parcels; ground water wheeling — pumping into the MID system and picking up water at another place; and the more complicated method of water exchange.

This water movement is only allowed in years when growers get 2.5 acre-feet of water.The board agreed to this plan on a temporary basis, leaving it up to review and possible change within the next couple of meetings.

Diana Westmoreland Pedrozo, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau, said she believed MID is dealing with the situation the best it can. “All we can do is pray for more water,” she said. “Better yet, next year we need to talk about how to better manage our water.”

The agriculture industry has to deal with so many unknowns, she added.“It think it was kind of an emotional roller coaster,” Gehrke said. “We started January with a gloomy outlook. Then January and February came and strong and built a good snowpack. ... March turned around on us.”