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California Farmers OK 25% Water Cut    05/23 08:43

   SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- California farmers who hold some of the state's 
strongest water rights avoided the threat of deep mandatory cuts when the state 
accepted their proposal to voluntarily reduce consumption by 25 percent amid 
one of the worst droughts on record.

   Officials hope the deal agreed upon on Friday will serve as a model for more 
such agreements with growers in the nation's top-producing farm state, where 
agriculture accounts for 80 percent of all water drawn from rivers, streams and 
the ground.

   "We're in a drought unprecedented in our time. That's calling upon us to 
take unprecedented action," Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state Water 
Resources Control Board, said in announcing the agreement.

   The rare concession from the farmers is the latest indication of the 
severity of the water shortage in California, which is suffering through its 
driest four years on record.

   California water law is built around preserving the rights of so-called 
senior rights holders --- farmers and others whose acreage abuts rivers and 
streams, or whose claims to water date back a century or more, as far back as 
Gold Rush days.

   The offer potentially could cover hundreds of farmers in the delta of the 
Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the heart of California's water system. 
About 25 percent of all California river water runs through the delta, 
according to the state's Department of Water Resources.

   Some of the farmers made the offer after state officials warned they were 
days away from ordering the first cuts in more than 30 years to the senior 
water rights holders' allotments.

   The state already has ordered cities and towns to cut their water use by 25 
percent, and it has curtailed water deliveries to many other farmers. But in 
recent weeks, many city dwellers and others have complained that agriculture 
should be made to share more of the sacrifice.

   Rudy Mussi, whose family farms about 4,000 acres in the delta southwest of 
Stockton, reacted with mixed emotions about state approval of the deal.

   "The 25 percent savings, that gives us certainty," Mussi said. "But at the 
same time I'm being asked to give up 25 percent of my paycheck."

   By itself, the delta farmers' offer would not go far enough to save 
shrinking waterways statewide. But if more farmers sign on across the state, 
California could save significant amounts of water, since the nearly 4,000 
senior water rights holders alone consume trillions of gallons a year.

   The agreement "is an illustration of creative practical approaches that 
water managers in the state of California are taking to help get us all through 
this devastating drought," said Michael George, state water master for the 

   California produces nearly half of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in 
the U.S., but agriculture experts say they would expect only modest immediate 
effects on food prices from any reduction in water for the senior water rights 
holders. Other regions would be able to make up the difference, economists say.

   Under the deal, delta farmers have until June 1 to lay out how they will use 
25 percent less water during the summer. That could include irrigating their 
crops less or leaving some of their land fallow.

   In exchange, the state gave assurances to the farmers it will not cut the 
remaining 75 percent of the water to which they are entitled.

   "When your back is up against the wall, I guess you'll do anything," said 
Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation and an almond 
grower in the Modesto area, outside of the delta. He said he is skeptical the 
deal will protect the farmers if the drought worsens.

   Senior water rights holders last saw their water cut in 1977, but that move 
applied only to dozens of people along a stretch of the Sacramento River.

   Ellen Hanak, a water policy expert at the Public Policy Institute of 
California think tank, said senior water rights holders don't necessarily face 
complete water cutoffs, as people with less venerable claims to water have 

   "It's important for people to realize that there are haircuts that are 
partial --- they don't necessarily mean shaving everything off," Hanak said.

   Any accord with delta farmers would probably rely largely on the honor 
system. California currently does not require monitoring or meters for superior 
rights holders.   


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