TID Approves Historically Low Irrigation Water Cap

David Fransen

Growers served by the Turlock Irrigation District will receive a maximum of 30 inches of water per acre this year, unless rain starts falling fast.

The historically low cap – tied with 1988 for the lowest TID irrigation water cap on record, should it not be increased – comes as new forecasts show no rain until mid-March.

“Every time we turn the corner, it looks like it's getting worse,” said TID Water Distribution Department Manager Mike Kavarian.

Directors initially approved a 30-inch cap a year ago, but later raised the limit to 40 inches following strong March and April rainfall. Directors may again revise the 2013 cap upwards, but forecasts project no rain until mid-March at the soonest.

“If it rains, we'll bump it in ratio to what falls out of the sky,” TID Director Micheal Frantz said.

The 30-inch cap was set by Turlock Irrigation District Directors Tuesday morning as part of approving the 2013 irrigation season, which will run from March 7 to Oct. 9. Staff considered an earlier start date to address dry conditions for growers, but would have had to end the season earlier, harming many growers with late-season crops.

The adopted cap is lower than the 36-inch cap initially proposed by TID staff. Kavarian suggested the lower cap after new forecasts pushed projection curves down to dangerously low levels.

Even the adopted, 30-inch cap worried directors initially, given the low water level of TID's Don Pedro Reservoir following back-to-back dry water years.

Should dry conditions continue, TID would only carry over about 22 inches of water in storage for next year. That storage could be wiped out completely with another dry year.

“It concerns me that we're going to look at not having any water two years out,” Frantz said.

In total, only seven-tenths of an inch of rain has fallen in February; the month averages 6.19 inches of precipitation. Coupled with an exceptionally dry January – 1.02 inches of rain fell, when 6.53 inches are normal – Don Pedro could reach 25-year lows next year.

To date, only 18.83 inches of precipitation have been recorded in the 2012-2013 water year – 75.5 percent of average for this date. No rain is forecast for the next 16 days, further lowering irrigation water availability.

“I'm concerned that we're being premature in coming out with numbers that are this generous,” Frantz said of the 30-inch cap. “I want to have as generous an allotment as we can, but I also want to be prudent.”

In 1988, the last time the District delivered a maximum of 30 inches of water to customers, only 12 inches of that water came from TID's Don Pedro Reservoir. The remainder came from pumping more than 250,000 acre-feet of groundwater.

Now, as the water table has lowered, TID only expects to pump about 120,000 acre-feet of water. And state fish flow requirements force the district to send more water down the river than in 1988, lowering the available water.

Despite the new challenges Kavarian assured directors that TID would be able to deliver 30 inches of water to each grower.

“I think I can safely say that 30 inches is the least we will provide to customers this season,” Kavarian said. “… At least they can plan from there.”

As always, pump customers will receive an additional 12 inches of available irrigation water.

TID could see less irrigation water usage per parcel this year, as 2013 marks the first year of a state-mandated shift to volumetric billing. Whereas in past years growers paid a flat fee for a set allotment, then charges for water used over that allotment, now growers must pay the exact cost for each inch of water used. Some growers may opt to use less water, saving money.

TID Directors adopted the dry volumetric pricing schedule on Tuesday, which will see an initial fixed cost of $26 per acre, with one acre-foot of water available for $2. The next 18 inches of water will cost $3 per acre-foot, with another acre-foot for $15. Additional water will be charged at $20 per acre-foot. Should rain fall, directors would consider moving to the less expensive wet year rate schedule.

Water orders may be placed by calling 883-8456, starting March 6.

Farmers can learn more about the upcoming irrigation season at one of four remaining growers meetings this month.

Growers meetings will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Chatom School 7201 Clayton Rd., 7 p.m. Thursday at the Hughson Community Center, 3307 Fourth St., 7 p.m. March 5 on the Turlock Irrigation District board room, 333 E. Canal Dr., and at 7 p.m. March 7 at the Westport Fire Station, 5160 S. Carpenter Rd.

An update on state laws and upcoming legislation will also be provided at growers meetings.

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