Water districts wary of state changes
by Sam Matthews
Jul 18, 2014 | 3252 views | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Low level
A marker at the bridge over Grant Line Canal at Tracy Boulevard shows the declining water level, seen Friday.  Glenn Moore/Tracy Press
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Fallowed farmland in several Tracy area irrigation districts provides visible evidence of the impact of state-imposed water restrictions caused by this year’s severe drought.

But in several other districts, it’s mostly business as usual.

The difference: Districts with pre-1914 and riparian water rights have not felt the pinch of restrictions in pumping from the rivers, while those without those rights in all or part of their districts are being hit hard.

Districts showing major acreage left fallow because of the drought are the West Side Irrigation District and portions of the Byron Bethany Irrigation District.

The Naglee-Burk and Banta Carbona irrigation districts and Pescadero Reclamation District all have pre-1914 water rights, as does a portion of the Byron Bethany Irrigation District. So far, those areas have escaped pumping restrictions.

The West Side Irrigation District, located around Tracy, isn’t as fortunate. The district was organized in 1915, a year too late to qualify for pre-1914 protection.

Of the district’s 5,542 irrigable acres, 1,431 acres (25 percent) have been left fallow and another 1,931 acres (35 percent) have been “abandoned” — either not double-cropped or left all or mostly unharvested. Sudan grass and some alfalfa fields fall into this last category, reported Dave Kaiser, West Side general manager.

“Farmers in our district are materially damaged by pumping restrictions,” Kaiser said. “Our growers know the situation is dire and have responded in a responsible manner in their cropping decisions and use of a limited supply of water.”

He reported that he notified growers on June 13 that the State Water Resources Control Board had ordered the district to stop pumping irrigation water from the Old River.

Kaiser said that two factors had kept at least some water in the district’s ditches. One is a unique agreement worked out between West Side Irrigation District and the city of Tracy, allowing West Side to purchase treated city wastewater that flows into Old River upstream from the irrigation district’s pumps. The purchased city water averages 27 acre-feet a day, according to the city.

In order to finance that purchase and other drought-related costs, an emergency basic water rate of $200 per acre-foot is being charged to West Side growers, Kaiser said.

The other mitigating factor is agricultural runoff water from two tile-drainage systems that flow into the district’s intake canal on the south side of Old River.

Kaiser said the quality of the water from the river and the tile-drainage systems was good.

At the Byron Bethany Irrigation District, the land in the Byron and Bethany areas northwest of Tracy has pre-1914 water rights, but more than 3,000 acres of the district’s 30,000 acres have been left fallow in those areas by growers who decided not to risk running short of water for row crops.

The town of Mountain House, which is served by Byron Bethany, has already instituted Stage 3 Water Shortage Emergency measures. The Mountain House Community Services District has mandated that residents cut their water use by 20 percent from this same time last year.

The CSD now mandates that residents with odd-numbered houses can water landscaping only on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Even-numbered houses can water on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The district has announced that it could levy fines of up to $100 for violators.

The district’s southern area, comprising the former Plain View Water District west and south of Tracy, normally relies solely on Delta-Mendota Canal water, but that source has a zero allocation this year. To provide a limited supply of water to the area, Byron Bethany is relying on an unused Delta-Mendota Canal allocation from last year and groundwater pumps, reported Rick Gilmore, the district general manager.

“We are delivering only 30 percent of normal to growers in the old Plain View area,” he said.

Roughly 2,500 acres of the 4,560 acres in that area of the district have been fallowed, he said.

“We have been able to sustain permanent crops (trees and vines), but there are a number of unplanted fields,” Gilmore said.

The district has been able to meet the water needs of Mountain House and its industrial customers, including the Safeway and Costco distribution centers and Musco Olive Co., all west of Tracy, he said.

At Naglee-Burk Irrigation District northwest of Tracy, the pre-1914 water rights are keeping the pumps providing Old River water to district farmland running, reported Bob Mehlhaff, district general counsel.

“We have a few fields that are not being double-cropped as usual, but for the most part, we’re in good shape,” he said.

The same is holding true for the Banta Carbona Irrigation District, located mostly southeast of Tracy, said Jim McLeod, the district board president.

“So far, we have been able to provide our growers with the water they need, and there have been only a few fields left fallow,” he said.

McLeod said the San Joaquin River flows at the district intake canal had been adequate to facilitate pumping.

“We believe groundwater is flowing into the river to maintain the level and quality,” he said, adding:

“So far, we’re all right, but we are keeping our fingers crossed.”

At Pescadero Reclamation 2058 District near Banta, river pumping is continuing as usual, but there is concern among growers about any possible future water-pumping restrictions that could be imposed by the state water board.

• Contact Sam Matthews at shm@tracypress.com or 830-4234.

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