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Rain brings irrigation windfall for growers
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Growers in the Turlock Irrigation District service area will receive even more irrigation water this year than district directors once thought possible, thanks to continuing rainfall.

TID directors voted unanimously Tuesday to increase the 2012 irrigation allotment from 24 inches to 30 inches, and to increase the cap from 30 inches to 40 inches. The first foot of water beyond the cap will cost farmers $15 per acre, with water beyond that – available only to growers who rent pumps to TID – available at $20 per acre.

The adopted figures see a cap four inches higher than discussed a week ago, and an allotment six inches higher.

TID forecasts between 1 million and 1.4 million acre-feet of available water for irrigation, well up from the 890,000 acre-feet forecasted at the close of February. The figures inspired TID Director Ron Macedo to ask staff if extra irrigation water could be made available.

“I’m thinking, maybe there’s a chance for a little bit more,” Macedo said. “… I think we can go to 40 inches.”

Macedo reasoned that, even if additional 2012 irrigation water led to less water available in 2013, at least growers could prepare. This year, growers have already made investments in crops and land which could go to waste.

Directors and staff were conservative early in the season, as precipitation levels neared all-time lows. Traditionally rainy November and January were near bone-dry.

But March brought a surge of rainfall, marking the first month this year to beat its 50-year average. Initial April figures look promising as well, with 2.4 inches of rain in the upper watershed last week. That rainfall should generate about 70,000 acre-feet of water, bringing precipitation levels near April’s 50-year average.

“It's a little too early to tell exactly what we're going to get from last week's precipitation, but obviously it's pretty good news,” said Debbie Liebersbach, TID water planning department manager.

Even with the rain, total watershed precipitation for the year stood at just 64.8 percent of average as of April 15.

But the late rainfall has led farmers to use less irrigation water in the opening days of the season, with the district using about 10,000 acre-feet less water than planned through this point. Added to the extra rainfall, an anticipated 80,000 acre-feet of water in Don Pedro Reservoir as Cherry Reservoir is emptied, and about 120,000 acre-feet of pumped groundwater, the district should be able to carry over roughly 25 inches of irrigation water for 2013.

That much storage should carry the district through 2013 with little issue, but if 2013 is dry as well then TID could exit the season with Don Pedro Reservoir below the crucial 700 foot elevation level.  That translates into a potential 2014 allotment of just 18 inches, with lower-than-average allotments for years afterward.

Irrigation allotments in the district’s near future hinge on an average-or-better water year in 2013, said TID analyst Jason Carkeet.

“It really picks things up and puts us in a better shape,” Carkeet said. “If it’s dry next year, that’s what really gets us to the 700 level.”