Article by Jennifer Medina
May 22, 2015
LOS ANGELES — Ever since the Gold Rush, California farmers have staked their claim to water and ferociously protected their rights to use it to irrigate the crops that have made the state the greengrocer for the nation.
But on Friday, in a sign of how the record-setting drought is shaking up established ways here, state officials accepted an offer from farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to give up a quarter of their water this season, either by leaving part of their land unplanted or finding other ways to reduce their water use. In return, the state has assured them that it will not seek further reductions for the growing season.
The deal is an important concession from a relatively small number of growers that officials hope will prompt similar agreements throughout the state’s agricultural industry, which uses 80 percent of the water consumed in the state in a normal year.
“We’re in an unprecedented drought, and we have to exercise the state’s water rights in an unprecedented way,” said Felicia Marcus, the chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board. “This is a breakthrough in what has long been a rhetorical battle. It’s a significant turning point to have people say, ‘We know this is complicated. We want to do something early in good faith that is a pragmatic solution for everyone.’ ”
In the weeks since Gov. Jerry Brown announced across-the-board cutbacks for urban water systems, the state’s farmers have become something of a scapegoat. Residents who are expected to time their showers and let their lawns turn brown have angrily accused the agricultural industry of not doing enough to curb its use of water, although many growers have faced substantial cuts for the last two years.
Farmers up and down the state feel besieged, and they have fought back with public relations campaigns to emphasize their conservation efforts and explain how their produce feeds much of the country.
While the deal made on Friday is unlikely to have a pronounced effect on food prices or the water supply, the concession by the farmers in the delta — who collectively own about 10 percent of the state’s agricultural land — was a pre-emptive effort to limit potentially steeper cuts. Under the agreement, farmers who want to take part will have until June 1 to submit a plan to the state for how they intend to achieve the cutbacks.
The deal applies only to delta farmers who own property next to a river or stream and have rights to divert water to be used there, or what are known as riparian rights. If farmers with such rights do not participate in the program they could face even deeper cuts later this year, officials said.
“There’s going to be a great deal of peer pressure to do the right thing,” said Michael George, the delta water master, who is responsible for administering water rights in the region and helped put together the deal.
The state has not moved to restrict water use for growers with the oldest, most established water rights since the 1970s, but it seems inevitable that those growers will be limited this year. For many farmers, a fear that the worst is yet to come convinced them that they would be better off giving up water before they began planting for the season.
“There is a threat that the state might try the unthinkable and tell us that we cannot use any of the water,” said Dennis Gardemeyer, a delta farmer who helped spur the deal. “I and almost everyone in the delta think that will result in all manner of lawsuits and they will not prevail, but there’s always that threat.”
Mr. Gardemeyer, who owns land that has been used for farming in the central part of the delta for roughly a century, said that he began thinking about making the state an offer late last year, after hearing repeated talk of draconian cuts.
“You have people in the state who haven’t a clue of what it’s really like in the delta — we’re not the ogres we’ve been portrayed to be,” he said, citing water conservation efforts that the region has long used. “We need to start to educate people and make everyone understand we’re doing everything we can to provide water for the rest of the state that’s in dire need.”
Mr. Gardemeyer said he expected many of the delta’s roughly 4,000 farmers to sign on to the proposal, largely by forgoing crops like corn that require a lot of water but relatively little labor.
Because the delta farmers represent only around 5 percent of the state’s growers, it is unlikely that this deal will have a big effect on the overall water supply, said Jonas Minton, a former deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources, who is now a private water policy adviser.
“California’s water rights system does not work well with this little water,” Mr. Minton said. “The question is really whether other elements of agriculture, in particular the large corporate farms, will follow suit. If agriculture as a whole came anywhere close to matching the kinds of urban cuts that have been implemented, we would have sufficient water for this year and next.”
State officials say they cannot predict how many of the eligible farmers will submit plans to curtail their water use, but there has been significant early interest from growers in the region, particularly those who grow row crops like tomatoes, potatoes and asparagus, which can be uprooted and replanted. The agreement covers the coming growing season, from June until the end of September, which officials said is the peak season of stress on the water system.
The state’s complex system of water laws was established in the 19th century, and those with the earliest claims have the strongest legal entitlement to surface water.
Farmers in the state with so-called junior water rights, whose claims to water came after 1914, have already faced deep cuts or even elimination of their surface water allotment, and many are instead relying on pumping water from the ground. Hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland have also been fallowed throughout the state.
With snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which is usually an essential source of water in the summer as it melts, at record lows, the drought shows no sign of abating. The impact is rippling through the West Coast: On Friday, the governor of Oregon, Kate Brown, extended the state’s drought emergency to eight more counties — bringing the total to 15 — and said that severe water shortages were a near certainty. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington declared a statewide drought emergency last week.
California officials have said that each day of cooler weather and moisture allows them to postpone demanding further cuts, but they minced no words on Friday.
“There’s no assurance of supply for anybody,” said Mr. George, the delta water master.