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TID reluctantly passes irrigation rate increases
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Most growers in the Turlock Irrigation District will pay more for irrigation water, and will be billed based on usage starting in 2013.

On Tuesday, the TID Board of Directors begrudgingly adopted a new irrigation water rate structure by a 4-1 vote. Director Rob Santos cast the lone vote in opposition, though many directors opposed the state-required change to the TID rate structure.

“As of now, reluctantly, we’re going to have to comply with the law,” Director Ron Macedo said. “But I’m not giving up the fight.”

The new rate structure was driven by state legislation, which mandates all irrigation districts adopt volumetric pricing by July.

TID’s previous rate structure did not meet the state mandate, as growers paid a flat fee for a water allotment regardless of how much water was actually used.

“Over half of our customers are using less water than the allotment, which means we’re really not charging volumetrically,” explained TID Director of Water Resources Steve Boyd.

While researching the new volumetric pricing regulations, TID staff realized that current irrigation rates do not cover the district’s costs of providing water. For the past two years, revenues have fallen nearly $1 million short of costs; in some dry years, the gap grows as wide as $2 million due to additional costs related to pumping groundwater to supplement limited rainfall and snowmelt.

To close that gap, rates will rise. Even with the rate increase, TID’s revenue from water sales will fall about $300,000 short of actual costs to provide water.

The new rate structure requires growers to pay a fixed fee of $23 per acre in normal years, with no water included. Water will cost $2 per acre-foot for the first two acre-feet. The next two acre feet of water will cost $3 each, followed by an acre-foot available at $15. Any remaining water will be charged at $20 per acre-foot.

In wet years, a grower who uses 36 inches of water will pay $4 more per acre. Growers who use 48 inches will pay an additional $7 per acre.

Prices will rise higher in dry years, corresponding to higher pumping costs. The average TID customer already pays about $300 more in a dry year, as allotments are set lower and growers must purchase additional water to nurture crops.

The dry year schedule 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 be charged at $3 per acre-foot, with another acre-foot at $15. Additional water will be charged at $20 per acre-foot.

TID directors will be tasked with determining whether a year is “wet” or “dry,” and will retain the authority to set a maximum amount of available water.

The new rate structure will be implemented in 2013, though details on billing remain to be fleshed out. Growers will likely pay their fixed cost before the irrigation season, with a bill for per-acre-foot water usage coming in late fall.

Additional costs could arise for 20 percent of TID growers, whose irrigation gates are not compatible with flow-measuring equipment. The district has until 2015 to improve those gates to higher measuring standards, and improvements may come at property owners’ expense.

Until those gates can be upgraded, the district will “err on the side of the farmer” during a grace period, staff said.

“We're trying to comply with the state law with a system that was built 120 years ago,” said TID Board Chairman Michael Frantz. “... There's no right or wrong answer, it's just going to take some time to work through it.”

Those with specific questions on how the rate changes will affect their operations are invited to contact the district.

Though the district says the rate increase was necessary, the rise was not welcomed by local farmer Eddie Mendes, who serves on the Merced County Farm Bureau.

“Every year we're getting a rate increase and it just keeps happening and keeps happening, and I wonder when it's going to stop,” Mendes said.

The rate increase was first proposed in March, and growers were notified of the plan in April. Five workshops were held, information was published in local papers, and notices were mailed to every TID landowner.

In total, 21 parcels, comprising 608 acres and less than 1 percent of the district’s landmass, opposed the increase.

Ceres Almond Farmer Tim Sanders didn’t oppose the rate increase, noting the ongoing challenges the district faces as urban areas attempt to secure more drinking water for their populations. But Sanders didn’t like how the state forced the volumetric pricing change on the district.

“We've got a system that has worked well for 125 years,” Sanders said. “It seems odd we have to change it because of a mandate of someone who probably wants our water in the long run.”

Sanders noted that the district and its farmers have been good stewards of the water, and are recharging local aquifers through flood irrigation, creating drinking water for nearby cities.

“I wish that the state and feds would leave us alone to do what we're doing, because we're doing a good job,” Sanders said.