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MID predicts more ground water pumping

ATWATER — The irrigation water situation for farmers and growers has gone from dry to worse.

Not only will Merced Irrigation District customers receive less surface water than other years — 2.5 acre-feet instead of the usual 3 acre-feet per acre of property they own — but the district must increase its groundwater pumping.

Previously MID predicted it would have to pump 70,000 acre-feet of ground water from its wells to make up for the low level of Lake McClure. The reservoir, which the district uses to send surface water to its customers, is the sixth lowest its been in 41 years, according to Ted Selb, MID deputy general manager.

A critically dry March and April didn’t help. The Sierra snow pack, which feeds water into Lake McClure with its runoff, was at 65 percent of average in the Merced River watershed. Projected runoff for April-July is at 57 percent of average.

Now it looks as if the district will have to pull 100,000 acre-feet with its ground water pumps to make up for the reservoir supply shortfall, Selb announced at a meeting Monday evening at Buhach Colony High School. It was attended by MID representatives and more than 50 growers.

MID operates about 200 ground wells, which are only used in years like this to save water in Lake McClure, he said.

Some growers are worried about the harm increased pumping, which dips deep into underground aquifers to suck up water, will do to future resources.

“That water under our feet is ours and you guys are sucking it away from us,” said David Gonsalves, a Buhach-area grower.

The district said if anyone has any trouble with the MID pumps near their property, it will shut them off. But that didn’t entirely ease concerns. Charlie Gordon, a Winton almond grower, said he believes the aquifers will get depleted.

“I’m terribly concerned about the water,” said Bob Boesh, another Winton almond grower. “I don’t know if they need to do all this pumping.”

The district doesn’t want to pump from the ground, and it certainly doesn’t want to curtail water allotments by a half-acre-foot. But it’s facing an overall system loss of 30 percent and needs to prepare for a similar year in 2009, Selb said.

Other MID customers, like Winton grower Jack Friesen, said that while the situation is unfortunate, they believe the district is doing all it can given the dry circumstances.

Others are worried about its financial situation.

Andre Urquidez, the district’s financial director, explained that MID has money in its reserves to pay for this year’s increased pumping and process costs.

“But if years continue like this, we are moving into a year we can afford,” he added.

MID recently sent letters to growers requesting a commitment in advance to water they plan to purchase. But the board will consider billing customers for only the water they use, even if they commit for more, said Hicham Eltal, MID assistant general manager of water resources.

Because of the half-acre curtailment, the district will also allow some customers to shift their allotted water supplies to other parcels of land that need it most. That could be done by water reallocations — passing allotted water to other owned parcels; groundwater wheeling — pumping into the MID system and picking up water at another place; and the more complicated method of water exchange between in-district and out-of-district parcels.

Selb, Urquidez and Eltal made detailed presentations Monday to explain the water situation and options to growers. However, it may have been too detailed for the regular person to understand, attendees said.

“I don’t feel like my questions were answered,” Gordon said after the meeting. “I’m more confused.”