In an debate between conservatively planning for the years to come and helping farmers in need today, a clear and present need for water won out on Tuesday.
Despite a dearth of water in Turlock Irrigation District reservoirs, growers will receive four additional acre-inches of irrigation water this year following a 3-2 Board of Directors decision.
Directors Joe Alamo, Rob Santos, and Ron Macedo voted in favor of providing additional water, while Charles Fernandes and Micheal Frantz were opposed.
The concept of offering additional water was brought forward by Alamo following an extremely hot, dry, and windy spring. The unseasonable weather forced some row-crop farmers to use more irrigation water than in normal years.
“A number of irrigators called me and said they're going to be running out of water by mid-summer when they're trying to finish their crop,” Alamo said
Only three farmers spoke at Tuesday’s TID Board of Directors meeting. All three lobbied for increasing the available water this year, despite potential water supply shortfalls in the years to come.
“Year two doesn't matter to me,” said Luke Miller, a local veterinarian and grower. “If I can't make it through year one-and-a-half, I'm done.”
The additional irrigation water will bring the total cap to 34 acre-inches, still well below the 48 acre-inches available in an average year. The 34 acre-inch cap is the third lowest on record since TID expanded Don Pedro Reservoir in 1971.
“That's a pretty conservative number,” Alamo said.
If average rainfall comes next year, giving growers additional water this year would make, essentially, no difference in future allocations. The extra water amounts to roughly 30,000 acre-feet, or 2 acre-inches of carryover water per parcel.
But following two consecutive critically dry years, even 30,000 acre-feet of carryover water could make a huge difference. Only 68.3 percent of normal precipitation has fallen thus far. Snow sensors indicate snowpack is at 11.9 percent of average.
Even providing an originally-adopted 30 acre-inch cap would drain Don Pedro Reservoir below TID staff's minimum recommended carryover level.
“What you're forecasting is at least a 70 foot drop in lake elevation in the next several months,” Frantz said. “You have to go back to the late (1980s) to see a fall that steep, and we're bottoming out lower.”
Should 2014 be dry as well, growers could face an irrigation cap below 22 inches next year. That's not enough to maintain most trees, and could result in the deaths of entire orchards.
“Then we have a serious, serious problem that we're not going to be able to address,” Fernandes said.
Don Pedro Reservoir could be absolutely emptied by 2017 should consecutive dry years continue to occur, with multiple 20 inch allocations during that time.
The outlook is worsened by irrigation water usage which is well above projections for this year. Approximately 32,000 acre-feet more water has been used than expected.
“I anticipated we'd be above projections, but not this far above of projections,” said TID Water Distribution Department Manager Mike Kavarian. “We'll catch up, but I don't know if we'll catch up 32,000 acre feet”
One possible source of additional water exists, potentially mitigating the extra water usage caused by increasing the 2013 cap.
According to Frantz, Modesto Irrigation District directors have expressed interest in selling water to TID.
“It's not in the bag. It's not done. We're waiting to hear from them,” Frantz said.
The cost of water and quantity for sale have not been determined. But because the the MID service area has become more developed, MID has more water available per agricultural parcel than TID.
MID made headlines last year with a proposed water sale to San Francisco. The MID board eventually vetoed that sale, following public outcry.
With or without MID's water, TID will take actions to conserve as much water as possible despite the increased cap.
Irrigators will be asked to conserve, with notifications reminding them of the critically dry year. Spills will be limited to the extent that it may create inconveniences for end-of-lateral irrigators.
District policies intended to deter water theft will also be reviewed in the coming weeks. Harsher penalties are likely to be adopted.
And the district will plan for future dry years, working to site new groundwater pumps in the region. As many as 20 new TID pumps could be installed.
“That's the answer,” Santos said. “We can't make it rain, but we can pump more water.”
However, even groundwater pumping has its limit. Should TID and other groundwater users – like the City of Turlock – pump too much, the basin can essentially run dry.
Even with new pumps the 2014 irrigation allotment could be the smallest on record, should the coming year be dry. Directors said that growers should begin planning now for the very real possibility of a record low allotment in 2014.
“We've got a dry year this year, and if next year is dry we're going to be in deep doo-doo,” Santos said.