The Turlock Irrigation District may spend $2 million to prepare an Integrated Water Resources Plan, which would examine all aspects of TID irrigation water delivery in order to draft a new set of policies governing district operations.
After the document is completed, TID could need to spend millions more to implement its suggestions.
“This is monumental big stuff,” said TID Board Chairman Michael Frantz. “We're talking about tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars, and changing the way we operate as a business.”
TID will likely be forced to change the way it delivers water to customers regardless of a new plan, as state and federal regulators are expected to take some portion of district water to address environmental concerns. New state legislation requiring more water-efficient agricultural operations could further reduce available surface water.
“With a decrease in surface water it's going to drive us, and our farmers, and our growers, to pumping,” said TID Assistant General Manager of Water Resources Tou Her. “And the groundwater is already overstressed.”
Those groundwater levels are dropping dangerously low due to a surge in eastside farmers who rely solely on pumping to water crops. A movement toward drip and microsprinkler irrigation worsens the problem, putting less water back into aquifers.
The TID system relies on the conjunctive use of both surface water, from Don Pedro Reservoir, and groundwater, pumped to supplement surface water in dry years. But TID's current operation plans don't look at the two uses at the same time.
Enter the Integrated Water Resources Plan – a unified document first considered by TID in 2000. At that time, work on the plan was stopped due to a lack of support from board members.
So instead, TID has addressed water issues by piecemeal. A canal modernization plan was drafted in 2005, a water supply plan in 2010. Yet as the documents do not review the myriad issues facing TID their solutions could be penny wise and pound foolish.
“All these plans cannot be narrowly focused,” Her said. “It's got to be more comprehensive.”
The Merced Irrigation District prepared an integrated water plan in 1995, at a cost of $1.3 million. The Oakdale Irrigation District drafted a $2 million plan in 2005. The OID plan suggested innovative solutions to conjunctive use, like not repairing cracked canals, allowing the seepage to refill aquifers.
TID would likely hire an outside consultant, experienced in drafting such plans, to prepare the document in a one- to two-year process. Those consultants have the independent perspective and expertise needed to prepare a solid plan, Her said, but some board members questioned whether the money would be better spent on additional TID staff.
“I'm opposed to wasting money… but if a consultant will get us where we need to be, I'm not opposed to a consultant either,” TID Board Member Joe Alamo said.
As the TID plan is still in its earliest stages, it remains unclear if the district will move forward with the proposal – or who might pay for the plan. District staff floated the possibility of asking cities to shoulder some of the $1 to $2 million cost, as Turlock and other municipalities will likely rely on TID as a source of drinking water in the future.
“There's a lot of cost involved with this,” Alamo said. “It may work, but there's a lot of cost.”
TID directors will hold a workshop to discuss the fate of a potential Integrated Water Resources Plan next month. But time is of the essence, said Wayne Zipser, Executive Manager of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau.
With the state planning a massive water take and the county preparing a sweeping set of groundwater regulations, TID may have few options if it takes too long to move forward.
“However you do this plan, you better do it quick,” Zipser said. “Or it's going to be done for you.”