California Accepts Farmers' Offer to Cut Water Use by 25 Percent

California Accepts Farmers' Offer to Cut Water Use by 25 Percent in Exchange for Protection from Deeper Cuts
An aerial view, taken in 2009, of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in California. Robert Durrell/Reuters

California government employees announced Friday that the state would accept a proposal made by some farmers earlier this week to voluntarily cut their water use by 25 percent during the upcoming peak growing season. Farmers who opt into the voluntary program would be protected from potentially deeper cuts during the period, which runs from June 1 to September 30.

The farmers involved irrigate in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta region and hold "riparian" water rights, meaning they draw water directly from the flowing river delta to irrigate land on its banks.

These riparian rights are different from other water rights in the state. While most other farmers get their water from aqueducts and from the state and federal water projects which allocate water based on a longstanding priority system of "senior" and "junior" water rights, riparian rights holders have rights to divert a specific proportion of the river's natural flow to irrigate their crops. In other words, when the flow decreases, as in times of drought, the state restricts their access to water proportionally to the new, lower volume.

Now, farmers holding this type of right in the Delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet, will have the option to participate in a voluntary program that stipulates they either reduce the volume of water they divert by 25 percent, or otherwise leave 25 percent of the land they irrigate fallow for this growing season. The plan was initially proposed by a group of farmers on Thursday to preempt mandatory water restrictions planned for the state.

"The announcement today is definitely unusual, but we are in unusual times," Felicia Marcus, the chair of the California State Water Board, told reporters during a conference call Friday afternoon. "We appreciated the creative approach offered to us last week by some Delta farmers holding riparian rights, so we decided to give it a shot."

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta Map
The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and its source rivers. English Wikipedia user Decumanus

There are roughly 6.9 million acres of irrigated farmland in California. Of these, roughly 600,000 acres lie in the Delta, or under 10 percent of the total irrigated land in California. An estimated 1,500 to 2,000 individual Delta water diversions are claimed under riparian water rights, and of these, about half are eligible to volunteer for the new program, Michael George, the State Water Board Delta Watermaster, explained on Friday. But each of those diversions correspond to a different volume of water, and the state employees declined to estimate how much water could be saved by the program until participants start signing up for it. "There was a meeting in the South Delta yesterday where this program was explained to about 500 people, all farmers in the Delta. There's a good deal of interest in it but we don't want to hazard to guess," George said.

How will the state enforce compliance with the program among those who volunteer? "Our approach is essentially trust but verify," George said. For farmers who choose to go the route of leaving 25 percent of their land fallow, the state will analyze satellite images that are taken every sixteen days. "It's very easy to verify if land is left fallow." But for farmers who choose to reduce their water diversion by 25 percent, enforcement is hazier. "Every diversion is required to file statements of diversion and use. Those statements are connected to specific land and at the end of the program they will tell us how the implementation actually went. In the interim we will do spot-checks to make sure that the progress is on track," George said.

"But having met with a large group of Delta rights owners… I can tell you that there is a strong ethic and interest within the Delta to make sure that there's no cheating here."

On September 30, the program will end and "everybody reverts to the circumstances of their rights and the hydrology, but by that time the critical stress on the system starts to be reduced," as peak growing season will be past, George said.

Those who choose not to participate in the program will risk the possibility of further cuts as the state heads into summer. If, for example, the flow in the river Delta reaches levels that would correspond to a 30 percent water cut for riparian rights holders, farmers who didn't opt in will have to abide that cut. "We'll implement the water rights system the way it's supposed to be for everyone else. But those who step up and take the voluntary deal will just be insulated from further cuts," Marcus said.

Meanwhile, California officials say they will likely announce mandatory cuts for senior water rights holders sometime next week. The antiquated senior and junior rights system, roughly predicated on a policy of "first in time, first in right," allocated water according to whomever was first to make "beneficial use" of a certain volume of water from a stream or lake. Then, that person was granted a right to continue using that volume of water indefinitely. These rights began being doled out in the mid-1800s, with the advent of the Gold Rush, and the older a person's right is, the more senior it is. In other words, if a senior water right holder and a junior water right holder draw their water from the same source, and the senior holder is unable to draw as much water as it has the right to, a water rights commissioner can order the junior rights holder to stop drawing water.

Now, in the sixteenth year of the unprecedented drought, many junior rights holders have recently been ordered to stop drawing water completely. The state is now preparing to tell some senior rights holders to follow suit.