“The worst” for irrigation districts in this area would be curtailment of water pumped from the San Joaquin and Old rivers. This possibility, while discussed in several past years, has never become a reality in the century-long history of irrigation in the Tracy area.
Banta Carbona, West Side and Byron Bethany irrigation districts have all relied on both river water and contracts for water from the Delta-Mendota Canal. This year, the allocation of water from the canal is expected to be zero, so the possible restrictions of river pumping could have a major impact.
Only the Naglee Burk Irrigation District northwest of Tracy relies solely on river water, but the district’s source, Old River, already has problems, reported Leonard Alegre, district manager.
“I have never seen the water level on Old River lower than it is today, and I’ve been here my entire life,” he said. “So far, our pumps have been able to function, and we could lower them somewhat, if we have to.”
The district has been providing irrigation water to some district growers — those with winter grain and alfalfa — during the winter months.
Alegre and other water managers are contacting district farmers in various ways to alert them about the possible consequences of the water crisis.
“Our board sent a letter advising land owners to conserve water by limiting the ‘tail water’ — runoff from irrigated fields into rivers — and to consider the shortage of water in deciding what crops to plant,” he said.
Naglee Burk rates, figured on a per-acre basis, remain $45 an acre.
Tuesday, growers in the Byron Bethany Irrigation District gathered at district headquarters on Bruns Road near Byron to hear reports on the drought and what it might mean.
“We are not fear-mongering or trying to give dire predictions, but we are attempting to give an accurate assessment of the situation,” said Seth Harris, the district’s assistant manager.
During the meeting, Tom Boardman, water-resources engineer with the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, reported that reservoirs holding Sierra runoff water are half as full as they normally are. If runoff conditions continue around 15 percent of normal, reservoir levels could fall even lower.
Districts with contracts for Delta-Mendota water, such as Byron Bethany and others in the Tracy area, can’t count on any water other than unused allocations from last year, he said.
Rick Gilmore, Byron Bethany Irrigation District manager, told growers that the southern part of the district is especially vulnerable. Unlike the northern part of the district — the Brentwood, Byron and Bethany areas, which have river-water rights — the former Plain View area depends solely on Delta-Mendota water and some wells.
“Several of our land owners with large wells have agreed to pump into the canal to provide transfer water, but that won’t be nearly enough,” Gilmore said.
Byron Bethany Irrigation District also supplies water for Mountain House and the Patterson Pass Business Park west of Tracy. Those water deliveries are regulated by “public health and safety” provisions set in state water policy.
Gilmore also warned that the expected reduction in power generation in Sierra dams because of low water levels would mean higher electricity costs for districts receiving that power. He advised growers to take out crop insurance.
Basic water rates in the northern end of the district are still $20 an acre-foot. Any increases would come next year after a mandated review process, Gilmore said.
At the West Side Irrigation District close to Tracy, Dave Kaiser, district general manager, reported that the board is preparing a contingency plan with formulas for water allocations in case the district’s water supplies are limited.
“The board will meet March 11 to approve the plan that will be distributed to water users,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to provide an orderly allocation of water.”
Kaiser said the board has sent letters to water customers advising them of the seriousness of the situation and of the need to select appropriate crops and manage water well after deliveries start April 1. A Jan. 28 letter also contained a basic water-rate increase from $30 to $32 per acre-foot. Per-acre rates apply to some users.
West Side is the only district in the Tracy area with post-1914 water rights. The district missed the cutoff date by a year when it was formed in 1915, the year it established water rights.
Kaiser said district board is watching flows in Old River closely. If extremely low flows cause greater salt water intrusion into the Delta, then that could trigger a decision by the state water board to start the first phase of curtailing pumping from the river.
Because WSID water rights are post-1914, it would be the first district in the area to feel the impact of pumping restrictions from rivers. Districts with pre-1914 rights would be impacted in a second curtailment phase.
Although the Banta Carbona Irrigation District south and southeast of town didn’t start delivering water until 1926, its organizers had established the district’s water rights before the 1914 deadline, reported Keith Robertson, a member of the board.
“The San Joaquin River has been our principal source of water, and the river level is low and quality poor,” he noted. “A Delta-Mendota Canal allocation unused by the district last year could provide at least some Delta-Mendota Canal water to augment the river water. How that will work, though, we don’t know.”
Robertson said the first real crunch for the district will come in April and May, when growers are planting crops and applying irrigation water to bring them along. To deal with the water shortage, basic water rates have been increased from $33 to $50 an acre-foot.
The district, like others in the Tracy area, has experienced a major growth in almond orchards in the past several years, and managing water for those young trees will be a challenge. As in other irrigation districts, there will be no double-cropping in Banta Carbona this year.
“We will be sending out a letter to our water customers updating the water situation,” Robertson said. “We want growers to pay attention to developments. Things can change in a hurry.”
• Contact Sam Matthews at 830-4234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.