Calif. farmers share water usage

Fenit Nirappil
Associated Press

Sacramento, Calif. — A group of California farmers, in a surprising turnaround, is volunteering to give up a fourth of its available water this year, sharing a resource all but guaranteed to them for more than a century.

A senior water official told the Associated Press Wednesday that he would decide whether to accept the offer by Friday. The concession by farmers in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river delta could be one of the most important yet forced by California’s record four-year drought.

In exchange for taking 25 percent less river water for irrigation or leaving a quarter of their fields unplanted, the farmers want guarantees that the state won’t restrict the remaining 75 percent of the water they’ve had rights to for more than a century, even if the drought deepens and other users go dry.

The offer was made as these and other “senior water rights holders” face an imminent threat of being included in the mandatory cutbacks that apply to most other California water users.

Water Resources Control Board Director Tom Howard told the AP Wednesday that whatever he decides will apply beyond the river delta to the entire basin of the Sacramento River, which supplies most of the surface water in the food-producing Central Valley and provides drinking water to homeowners across California.

“Should we make an offer like that early, to give people clarity and regulatory certainty, or is there not enough water to really make a difference?” Howard asked. “We’re just trying to make sure if the offer makes sense.”

The decision on the offer would apply only to those who have rights to water because their property runs alongside a particular river or stream, Howard said. However, it is unclear whether a 25-percent cut to those rights holders would be enough to protect waterways that are drying up around much of the state, following a winter of below-average rainfall and record-low snows in the Sierra Nevada.

Delta water managers say it could become a model for farmers throughout California who are facing curtailments. It also could have an eventual impact on food prices, since California farmers use 80 percent of the water drawn from the land.

State officials had threatened to take action as early as this week against senior water rights, some dating to claims made during the Gold Rush era, long before industrialization in the 20th Century led to climate change. The rights give nearly 4,000 landowners the strongest claims in California to this precious and increasingly limited resource.

Water officials say cuts to Californians whose claims to water date back before World War I, and are among the strongest claims because they are oldest, also are still likely, and would be across the board.

With California’s drought showing no signs of easing, the state already has ordered mandatory, 25 percent cutbacks in water use by cities and towns, and greatly curtailed water available to other farmers and others whose rights are less than a century old, and therefore less iron-clad.

It is difficult to predict how many farmers elsewhere in California will participate, said attorney Jennifer Spaletta, who represents several Delta growers.