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
"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