Doomsday scenarios were bantered about at Tuesday's Turlock Irrigation District Board of Directors meeting, with the economic repercussions of this season's failed crops pitted against the impact of having no water at all for future irrigation years.
In an effort to balance the immediate needs of farmers with prudent drought planning, the TID directors voted to increase the cap on irrigation water from 30 inches to 34 inches. The increase is still 14 inches below a "normal" year water allotment and the third lowest cap on record since the construction of the new Don Pedro Reservoir.
"I'd rather release the water right now and plan for next year," TID Board Vice President Ron Macedo said.
The move to increase the cap was not unanimous, with TID Board President Michael Frantz and Director Charles Fernandes both voting against the immediate action. Both Frantz and Fernandes preferred waiting to see if a request to purchase water from the Modesto Irrigation District would come through, leaving more reserves in Don Pedro for a potentially dry season next year.
"I'm concerned that if we increase water 4 or 6 inches, we'll be under 24 inches next year; and then we have a serious, serious problem next year," said Fernandes.
Dry and windy winter and spring conditions created an increased need for early season irrigation water, in a year where growers are facing a historically low irrigation cap.
"With the 30 inch cap, people will run out of water in June and July," said TID Water Distribution Manager Mike Kavarian.
As of Tuesday, the watershed has seen only 50 percent of average rainfall; snow area coverage is "pretty sparse" according to TID Water Resources Analyst Jason Carkeet; and the district is predicting a 70 foot drop in elevation at Don Pedro by October. If that drop happens, it will be the lowest Don Pedro has been since the 1980s.
Farmers and growers present at Tuesday's board meeting spoke in favor of increasing the irrigation cap for this year and gambling on a wet season next year.
"I don't think anyone of us [dairy farmers] could not grow corn for a year and still be in business," said local veterinarian Luke Miller.
Buying water from neighboring irrigation districts was just one option discussed at Tuesday's board meeting. Increasing the number of groundwater pumps by 25 to 30 could also make up the 30,000 acre feet of water needed to fill this season's predicted shortfall and leave enough reserves for at least a 24 inch cap for next season, said Kavarian.
The resolution adopted by the board of directors included staff direction to study the feasibility of putting in as many new wells as possible to prepare for possible future drought conditions.
"We can't make it rain, but we can pump more water," said Director Rob Santos.
Along with the need for more groundwater pumps, the board also directed staff to prepare a report on possible new penalties for irrigation water theft. As of now, growers caught opening gates during unscheduled times are charged for the excess water. But, as the board noted, some growers will gladly pay the fees for stealing water to make their crop.