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TID sets historic-low irrigation cap
Starting the irrigation season on March 27, local growers serviced by TID will see a 20-inch cap water allotment. - photo by Journal file photo

The growing severity of California’s drought has resulted in one of the lowest water allotments for irrigation purposes in Turlock Irrigation District's history.  Starting the irrigation season on March 27, local growers serviced by TID will see a 20-inch cap water allotment, with little to no carryover in the Don Pedro Reservoir for 2015 – an unprecedented decision by TID staff.

Along with setting the 2014 irrigation season rates and schedule on Tuesday morning, the TID Board of Directors officially declared the district in a drought state of condition.

Several factors led district staff to recommend the board proclaim TID as being in a state of drought condition, such as the district currently being in the driest three year consecutive period on record. Additionally, the full natural flow of TID’s primary source of water, the Tuolumne River, is presently at less than 10 percent of its historical average, while the district’s hydroelectric generation capabilities have seen negative impacts due to extremely dry conditions.

According to Assistant General Manager of Water Resources Tou Her, had the district opted to keep six inches of carryover water within the Don Pedro Reservoir for the subsequent year, TID irrigation customers would have been restricted to a 14-inch cap – an amount that Her says growers could not survive on.

“It would be ideal if we could make sure that we had enough carryover to get through the drought if it lasted a couple more years,” said Her. “If it comes out that our projections are accurate, then we would have very little or zero carryover for next year. This is unprecedented for the district. But we heard a lot from our customers that they need the water now, and to leave six inches for carryover would have meant to reduce to a 14-inch cap, which would have significantly harmed everyone.”

With the district projecting to release 423,275 acre feet of water, or 22.6 inches, to irrigation customers this season, the Don Pedro Reservoir would be left with just under 42,000 acre feet, or 2.2 inches, in carryover storage, after the 95,000 acre feet of the district’s environmental obligations were taken out. Although TID staff had initially projected there to be zero carryover storage following this season’s irrigation releases, with only enough to meet state requirements, the now-projected remaining 2.2 inches would be far too miniscule to rely on for the 2015 irrigation season. And as TID spokesperson Calvin Curtin pointed out, the projected 2.2 inches of remaining water is not yet in the reservoir, and would only be carried over if the district’s conservative estimates of precipitation come to pass. Should the forecasted precipitation for the remaining water year not occur, the district would have zero carryover.

“The bottom line is that even with projected two inches of carryover, it hasn’t changed significantly at all,” said Her.  “There’s a lot of uncertainties with these projections, because that’s exactly what they are – projections. There are just a lot of unknowns moving forward.”

In light of the many unknown factors that may face the district throughout the irrigation season, which is currently set to run until Oct. 8, the board has left room for flexibility, including the ability to shorten or extend the irrigation season as necessary. Although the district’s current schedule of March 27 to Oct. 8 is a shorter irrigation season than seen in normal or wet years, Her says it is still within the range of what the district has set in the past.

“The board may adjust the season if necessary, either shorter or longer, but if we did that, it would be based on what we feel is appropriate for those changing conditions,” said Her.

Additionally, the district is keeping with its traditional practice of allowing customers to go over the 20-inch cap to complete their final irrigation, if necessary, for a maximum of four additional inches. Although the initial resolution stated that the four additional inches, if used, would be billed in whichever tier on the Dry Year Rate Schedule the water fell under, Director Rob Santos requested that the district look into creating a separate tier that would see a higher rate for the additional water.

According to Her, district staff had originally opposed creating a separate tier with higher costs for the additional four inches of water, as they recognized that the upcoming season would already be difficult for many growers. By placing it under a higher cost tier, the additional four inches could create a financial burden on customers attempting to finish their last irrigation of the season. Additionally, as per state requirements, adding a new tier to the existing Dry Year Rate Schedule would have to go through the state’s mandatory Prop 218 process, which normally takes a few months.

“It’s not about income though,” said Santos, arguing that a higher cost for the additional water would result in less water usage. “It’s about conservationism.”

To allow the district time to consider adding a new tier, while determining the legality of setting the possible new rate retroactively after the irrigation season had started, the board members decided to amend the current resolution, noting that four additional inches would be available to farmers during their final irrigation, at a cost to be determined at a later time.

“We recognize that with less water available, the district is going to get less revenue, and so the extra water being charged at a different tier, a conservation tier, could help the district offset their losses,” said Her.

In addition to creating a conservation tier and decreasing the allotments for the upcoming irrigation season, the district is taking several other measures to get through the drought’s difficult conditions, including: reducing surface water releases from Don Pedro, minimizing spills, reducing the length of the irrigation season, and decreasing garden head parcel deliveries to every four weeks. The district will also be increasing security efforts along canals to ensure that water is being used both efficiently and fairly.

“It’s going to be a tough year for everyone, and you guys are going to come up with as many creative ideas as possible to just get through it,” said TID President Ron Macedo to the group of farmers at the meeting. “The district is going to continue doing its best job to conserve, and to police the irrigation rules. We know it’s not an exact science, but we’re asking all of our customers, not only the farmers, but everyone in TID to use water efficiently.”

TID will begin accepting water orders from irrigation customers on March 26.