Drought declaration tells two stories
by Michael Langley
Jan 31, 2014 | 5070 views | 0 0 comments | 28 28 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Drought grips California
John Thoming discusses the water delivery situation at one of his almond orchards south east of Tracy on Wednesday. Thoming said the young trees, planted in late January, are watered by hand from a nearby irrigation canal.  Glenn Moore/Tracy Press
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When Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency Jan. 17, he only confirmed what Tracy area farmers and water experts already know: 2014 is developing into a critically dry year.

The declaration detailed 20 mandates designed to cut California’s water consumption by at least 20 percent.

Tuesday, the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors followed suit and declared a local drought emergency, and the federal Bureau of Reclamation is warning people who use that water system to expect potentially permanent losses of water rights.

The drought is affecting locals in different ways — in the city, people will likely see no change beyond decreased water quality and a call for voluntary conservation, according to Steve Bayley, city water and wastewater specialist.

“The city is in good shape in the aspect that we have a diversified supply,” he said. “We have sources from the Sierras. We have sources from the Delta-Mendota Canal. We have groundwater and we have stored water.”

The city of Tracy typically uses about 19,000 acre-feet of water a year. The city has an annual entitlement with the South San Joaquin Irrigation District for about 13,000 acre-feet and has access to 20,000 acre-feet more through multiple contracts with the Bureau of Reclamation.

Bayley expects to get about 10,500 acre-feet from SSJID and no more than 5,000 from the Bureau of Reclamation.

“We have eight wells, so that’s what we anticipate using to meet the demand this year,” he said. “This year we will have to return to using the groundwater, and it might represent as much as 30 percent of the water supply.”

The groundwater under Tracy is hard water and has not been used since 2005, when the city signed the contract with SSJID, because residents were unhappy with the quality.

“It has a taste and an odor to it. It leaves spots on your dishes, spots on your shower. It makes lousy ice cubes,” Bayley said.

Even with the drought conditions expected this year, the water specialist hopes to limit the well-water effect on people.

“I hope to run those wells mostly between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. to correspond with the irrigation cycle, so most of it ends up on people’s lawns. That would be the ideal situation,” Bayley said.

Farmers that surround Tracy and Mountain House face a far different prospect. John Thoming has farmed about 700 acres south of town with his brother and late father since he graduated from Tracy High School in 1959. The Thomings had to build three wells to contend with a severe drought that gripped California in 1976 and ’77 and were able to weather a less severe dry spell in 1991 and ’92.

This year may threaten his family’s livelihood.

“One more year or a couple more years of this dry weather, then we’re really in trouble, because we don’t have any water to start out with,” Thoming said.

Thoming and his relatives

farm almond, walnut and apricot orchards in the Banta-Carbona Irrigation District and Del Puerto Water District. The latter is fed directly from the Delta-Mendota Canal and the federal water system operated by the Bureau of Reclamation.

“We take a direct draw out of (the Delta-Mendota Canal),” Thoming said. “Last year it was 20 percent (of normal), and this year they’re saying zero.”

Thoming says he might not even get a credit for the 60 acre-feet he paid for last year.

A letter from Anthea Hansen, acting general manager of the Del Puerto Water District, paints a potentially bleak picture about permanent loss of water rights.

The letter sent to Del Puerto customers reads in part: “All other supply types are currently available for delivery until February 28, 2014, at which time they may be at risk, either temporarily or permanently, depending upon the USBR’s action.”

Thoming said farmers have practiced water conservation for years.

“We transformed in the ’70s to all sprinklers. First we used solid-set sprinklers, which used a lot of water, and now we went to a micro-mist-type sprinkler on all our orchards that conserves a lot of water,” he said.

He hopes that will serve his family well this year.

“Our biggest concern now is trying to make a crop on the trees that are in production,” Thoming said. “You notice how low the river is. If it gets really low, Banta-Carbona won’t even be able to get much water.”

Though the situation looks a bit better in town, Bayley, the city water specialist, isn’t taking the situation lightly.

“This drought certainly qualifies as close to an emergency in my mind for the water supply,” he said. “We may have restrictions on which days can be watered. We currently prohibit — but now will look for — water waste, when you have water running down the gutter when it shouldn’t be.”

Bayley said the city will inform the community, probably in June or July, when to expect changes in their water.

“2015 could be difficult if it’s two dry years in a row,” Bayley said, though he added that in his experience, it’s pretty easy to convince Tracy residents to conserve.

Representatives of Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, which serves Mountain House, did not wish to comment about drought plans.

• Contact Michael Ellis Langley at mlangley@tracypress.com or 830-4231.

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