This morning we had an early start, leaving the hotel at 7:45 to head to the headquarters of TIC (Turlock Irrigation District). The company is a publicly owned business and was the first irrigation district in California when it was formed in 1887 by a group of forward thinking farmers who realised how important a sustainable water supply was for agriculture in the area, the company now has over 500 employees. TIC has a government licence allowing them 64% of the water rights of the Tuolumne River which it uses to fill massive manmade lakes created by building dams in the mountains to catch rain water and snow melt in the winter then distribute to farmers through a 250mile network of concrete lined canals.
We were then driven to see the largest of the lakes (Don Pedro) and were blown away by the sheer scale. Don Pedro dam is 580 feet high and the lake has a surface area of just over 10,000acres holding a staggering 2,030,000 acre feet of water (2,503,964,400cubic meters!)
TIC has a board of 5 elected directors who decide annually how much water they have collected and then notify farmers in January what their allocation will be for the coming summer. Every farmer is given the same amount of water per acre, its then up to them how they use it and when. The water is transported to the farms by canal then in most cases used for flood irrigation of farmland, without this water supply production just wouldn’t be possible.
This summer the area received less than an inch of rain between May and November, but through the TIC they were all given an allowance of 48 inches per acre allowing them to grow high value crops such as Almonds and also forage crops for the many dairies in the area. Each farmer is charged $60/acre annually whether they use their allowance or not, then charged $2 per acre foot used up to 48 inches, if they go above 48inches they are then charged $15/acre foot. The water rights stay with the property rather than the owner so it has meant that any properties with these water rights are now worth significantly more money. Irrigated land in this area is worth roughly $35,000/acre, while unirrigated land in more likely to be $5-8,000/acre
Currently there are 150,000acres irrigated by TIC, and interestingly despite this year being one of the driest summers in memory their farmers benefited from a constant and reliable source throughout while many other farmers who rely on wells or boreholes ran dry. TIC does work with farmers to ensure water is used as efficiently as possible. The favoured approach is flood irrigation as it also helps to replenish groundwater levels rather than trickle or sprinkler irrigation which is also costly to set up.
The system is totally gravity fed and no pumps at all are required until it gets to the end user, the farmer is responsible for maintaining his own infrastructure.
To avoid huge peaks and troughs in supply the farmers must state their preferred time to receive water then TIC puts together a program telling the farmers when they are allowed to extract from the canal network and for how long
It was also interesting to hear how the increased voice of the environmentalists is having a big impact on TIC, firstly they said building any scheme of this scale simply wouldn’t be possible now as it would be seen to be causing far too much damage to the environment. TIC are also facing a battle to hold on to their 64% water rights from the river as various environmental groups want more water released downstream to help the native Spelt fish population which has seen a reduction in numbers the past few years. If this was to happen the extra water released would just be wasted as it would flow down the river, past all the highly productive farmland and into the ocean. However TIC are fighting this very strongly with a team of scientists and experts who claim other measures such as controlling predatory species would be a more sustainable approach.
But the key environmental point TIC were keen to stress is the fact that the supply of water they offer means that farmers don’t then need to rely on groundwater supply which is becoming a real issue in California as Groundwater levels are now dangerously low.
TIC also utilise their dams by installing hydroelectric schemes to produce enough power for 101,857 residential and business customers, this brings in an additional $257,495,000 of revenue annually which helps with reinvestment and maintenance of their canals and dams while still maintaining competitively priced water to the farmer owners of the company.
The size and scale of the projects were truly impressive to see and it really drove home to us just how reliant the agriculture industry of California is on a reliable water source. California is one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world, but it certainly wouldn’t have achieved this without schemes such as TIC. Definitely one of the best visits so far!