Modesto Irrigation District leaders hustling to get growers more water

By: Garth Stapley; The Modesto Bee

Nut farmers and other Modesto Irrigation District customers can wait to water crops as late as Oct. 3. That’s two weeks later than initially planned, giving trees a better chance of surviving the drought and being healthy enough to produce again next year.

The MID board also agreed Tuesday to accommodate another round of farmer-to-farmer water transfers with a Sept. 2 application deadline. And the district might offer to sell some extra water reserved in April by a few farmers who haven’t asked or paid for it since then.

Faced with a third consecutive dry winter, district officials in February said the irrigation season would end Sept. 19, several weeks earlier than usual, and capped deliveries at 24 inches per acre, down from 36 in a normal year.

But farmers, especially those raising almonds, have been pressing for later deliveries.

Citing University of California research, Ron Fisher said trees that don’t drink just after harvest can lose 74 percent of nuts the following year.

Some almond varieties, such as padre, mission, Monterey and Fritz, harvest later than Sept. 19, growers told the board.

“I’ve farmed almonds over 50 years and I’ve never got my harvest completed by Oct. 3,” said Cecil Hensley, a former board member. “There is no use having (water) next year if we don’t keep our trees alive.”

Farmers won’t get more than their fair share with the extension; Tuesday’s unanimous vote simply allows them to apply their allotment later in the year, explained board member Jake Wenger, who farms.

Board Chairman Nick Blom, also a grower, reminded people that they can rent district wells and canals after the regular season ends, for late-season irrigating.

“It’s not the purest snow water, but it’s water,” Blom said.

To augment deliveries, scores of farmers this year have taken advantage of new programs allowing them to buy or sell MID shares in fixed-price transfers managed by the district or open-market sales at any agreed-upon price.

The district has accommodated more than 100 open-market deals for farmers who submitted transfer requests by deadlines of June 1, July 1 and Friday. Tuesday’s 4-1 vote, with Larry Byrd dissenting, adds a fourth deadline of Sept. 2.

“This gives everyone a little more time and flexibility,” Modesto farmer Aaron Miller said.

Wenger initially suggested an Aug. 15 deadline. Attorneys Stacy Henderson and Bob Fores said their clients would appreciate more time and noted that MID General Manager Roger VanHoy had acknowledged that his staff has experienced no difficulty processing transfer requests.

In April, 26 farmers indicated interest in the district’s allocation return program, meaning they might want to sell a portion or all of their MID water shares, or buy water given up by others. The cost was $200 per acre-foot on either end.

The district set aside enough water to cover those potential deals, but a handful of farmers – fewer than a dozen, said civil engineering manager John Davids – did not sign contracts and have not paid for the extra water they initially said they might buy.

Davids did not know how much water remains in that pot, but said it represents a potential $300,000 loss. Board member John Mensinger said that’s “regrettable” and Wenger suggested selling the water to others in what VanHoy termed “something like a last call.”

“Let’s make it available. I think people would take us up on it,” Wenger said.

VanHoy said he will suggest rules for such deals at a future meeting.

The board next meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday at 1231 11th St., Modesto.


Merced Irrigation District Growers to Receive Increased Water Supply

Merced Irrigation District officials say growers in the district will receive additional surface water, after action taken Tuesday by MID’s board of directors.

The increased water supply is the direct result of regulatory relief MID received from the state after months of planning a multibenefit water management action for the Merced River, according to a press release from Mike Jensen, MID spokesman.

MID growers were most recently expecting 0.9 acre-feet of surface water supply this growing season. However, MID officials noted increased water supply would be available, and recommended increasing the allocation to 1.1 acre-feet of water per acre.

Class II growers will receive 0.55 acre-feet after Tuesday’s MID board action. Deliveries are expected to continue until Sept. 7, according to Jensen.

“This year still remains among the most challenging we have ever seen,” MID General Manager John Sweigard said in the release. “Nevertheless, we are extremely pleased there was some surface water supply relief for our growers.”

Additionally, the board voted to decrease the in-season agricultural water rate for growers from $100.67 per acre-foot to $75 per acre-foot. The new rate is retroactive and applicable to all surface-water use for the 2014 irrigation season.

The reduction in the 2014 water rates comes after MID growers recently approved a rate increase to $100 per acre-foot, ensuring the financial health of MID during the drought crisis. Since that time, MID implemented the multibenefit water management action for the Merced River after months of planning and receiving final approvals from the state.

It involved obtaining 25,000 additional acre-feet of water from Lake McClure for growers, and providing 5,000 acre-feet of water for a critical-year spring fish-flow in the Merced River. The spring fish-flow water was transferred to other water users after it served its environmental purpose in the river system. MID received $5 million in revenue to help the district recover lost revenue associated with the drought.

In addition to the surface water supply from Lake McClure, MID is again implementing its Supplemental Water Supply Pool Program. Growers have already elected to receive additional water that is made available from conjunctive groundwater pumping. The district expects to provide approximately 28,000 acre-feet of water through the program this year, the release said.

MID began deliveries April 21.

Facing a third dry year with unprecedented drought conditions, the board of directors earlier this year enacted penalties for any water theft this season. For a first offense, a grower will be fined $1,000 and be charged $500 for each acre-foot used. For a second offense, the grower would receive the same fines and penalties while losing access to MID water this year.