In Unprecedented Move, California Farmers With Guaranteed Rights Cut Water Use By 25%

In an attempt to frontrun even more draconian measures resulting from California's record drought, farmers in the state's Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta who have California's oldest water rights proposed to voluntarily cut their water use by 25% to avoid the risk of even harsher restrictions by the state later this summer should the water situation deteriorate further. State officials promptly accepted the offer, even if it is ultimately moot since there is no way to enforce it.

California had not restricted water use for growers with the oldest, most established water rights since the 1970s, and the first in memory for the San Joaquin, which runs from the Sierra Nevada to San Francisco Bay. 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.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta

Gino Celli took a water sample to check the salinity in an irrigation canal that runs through his fields near Stockton, Calif., this week. Mr. Celli has senior water rights and draws his irrigation water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The proposal was made by the so-called riparian water rights holders, who have the oldest and most secure access to California rivers. They proposed the unprecedented voluntary curtailment for one simple reason: "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."

As AP reports, this is the latest water emergency conservation step undertaken by the state: previously Governor Jerry Brown has ordered communities throughout the state to reduce water use by 25 percent. State water officials have encouraged water users to propose conservation measures, drawing the proposal from farmers.

California's governor has been criticized for leaving farmers out of tightening regulations that force communities throughout the state to cut back on their water use. But this is the second consecutive year that junior water-rights holders have received orders to stop pumping river water to irrigate their crops.

The escalation is likely to have a substantial impact on US food prices over the summer: farmers would either take less river water for irrigation or leave a quarter of their crops unplanted. If the state accepts the deal, Delta water managers say it may become a model for farmers throughout California, who also are facing curtailments.

And since it is unclear where local farmers can find substitute water, it is likely that suddenly the supply of California plantings is about to decline by at least a quarter, leading to a dramatic spike in foor prices heading into the second half of the year.

One concern is that it is impossible to predict how many farmers will participate, said attorney Jennifer Spaletta, who represents several Delta growers, but those who do would be able to plan their crops earlier in the season with more certainty.

In any event, on Friday state officials accepted the offer. Cited by the NYT, Felicia Marcus, the chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, said: “We’re in an unprecedented drought, and we have to exercise the state’s water rights in an unprecedented way. 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.’”


The biggest problem is that just like European reforms where everyone promises much and delivers nothing, so there is absolutely no way to enforce the California proposal: regulators lack enough sensors, meters and other technology to make sure water isn't illegally diverted. Water rights curtailments are instead enforced by an honor system, complaints and field investigations.

And since to many farmers a drop in production may well mean a fast track into insolvency, one can anticipate just how efficient a system based on self-regulation will be. For a quick answer look at the recidivist criminal banks on Wall Street which are also "self regulated."

In other words, this "historic" announcement is very much moot, especially when one considers that less than 30% of the junior rights farmers, those who have already been ordered to cut water use for the second year in a row, have told the board they are complying.

A brief Q&A on how this historic move came about courtesy of AP:


California is in its driest four-year stretch on record. Winter provided little rain and snow to replenish rivers and streams, meaning there is not enough water to meet the demands of farms, communities and wildlife. The State Water Resources Control Board is monitoring conditions in rivers and streams across the parched state and deciding who gets to divert water. Even those with long-standing legal rights to water are under scrutiny.


The rights allow holders such as cities, irrigation districts serving farms, and corporations to take water directly from rivers and streams. The first to claim the water are the last to have supplies curtailed. Users who obtained rights to divert water after 1914 are the first to be cut off to ensure there is water for senior water rights holders with claims dating to the Gold Rush. Landowners with property that touches waterways have riparian rights — the strongest of the senior water rights.


Thousands of farmers and others with more recent, junior water rights in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds have been ordered to stop diverting water for the second consecutive year. Less than 30 percent have told the board they are complying.


The board in the coming weeks plans to order those with claims to water in the San Joaquin River watershed dating before 1914 to stop pumping from rivers and streams. Riparian rights holders were scheduled to be curtailed by mid-June. Friday's order would be the first restriction on senior water rights holders since severe drought the late 1970s, and the first in memory for the San Joaquin, which runs from the Sierra Nevada to San Francisco Bay.


That's the challenge. Regulators lack enough sensors, meters and other technology to make sure water isn't illegally diverted. Water rights curtailments are instead enforced by an honor system, complaints and field investigations. Some curtailment orders are easily followed because there's no water to take from streams.


Senior water rights holders see their claims to water as ironclad after they paid top price for land with nearly guaranteed water in dry California. Some of their attorneys have threatened litigation, saying the water board has no authority over them. Other farmers with water rights in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are offering to voluntarily conserve 25 percent of their water in exchange for assurances that they won't face additional cuts in the middle of their growing season.


Thomas Howard, executive director of the State Water Board, says he'll announce by Friday whether to let riparian water rights holders take voluntary cuts to avoid curtailments. He says his decision hinges on whether the voluntary conservation would save enough water to reduce the strain on rivers and streams that are drying up. His decision would extend to waterfront property owners in the entire basin of the Sacramento River.