On April 1, standing in a barren mountain field that should have been covered in five feet of snow, California Governor Jerry Brown announced the state’s first-ever statewide mandatory water cuts, requiring local water supply agencies to curtail water use by 25 percent relative to their 2013 levels. Agriculture, despite using 80 percent of the state’s developed water supply, wasn’t mentioned in the statewide restrictions.
But Brown didn’t let farmers off completely, warning that he was considering large-scale water cuts that would have a deep impact on the industry should the state’s historic, four-year drought continue. Now, it seems, those cuts are imminent, as state water officials announced Wednesday that farmers with senior water rights would soon be subject water restrictions — the first cuts to senior water-rights holders in decades.
“The very fact that we’re beginning to have a conversation about water rights is an indication of how serious the drought is,” Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, told ThinkProgress. “It’s really an unusual move. I would not have guessed a year ago that we would start to have this conversation.”
Rights to water in California have historically been decided on a first-come, first-served basis, meaning those with senior water rights have been present on their land since the Gold Rush. The first round of mandatory restrictions — expected to come on Friday — will impact holders of century-old water rights in the watershed of the San Joaquin River, which stretches through the Central Valley from the Sierra Nevada to the San Francisco Bay and serves as the primary source of water for farmers in the region. Under the impending cuts, it’s expected that some of those farmers would be forced to cease all pumping from the river.
To avoid mandatory cuts, a second group of farmers — senior water rights holders from the Sacramento and San Joaquin River delta — have offered to voluntary curb their water use by 25 percent, in exchange for a promise from the state that they would not be subject to further cuts even if the drought were to worsen. According to the Associated Press, state officials promised a decision on the farmers’ offer by Friday, though it’s unclear if those voluntary levels would be enough to benefit California’s increasingly-depleted waterways.
“If those numbers work from the perspective of what’s available, that makes good business sense, because for farmers…you have to make certain planting decisions and you want to know how much water you’re going to have available over the rest of the growing season,” Ellen Hanak, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, told ThinkProgress. “What they’re proposing reflects a desire to figure that out in advance.”
Should mandatory cuts come from the state, farmers are expected to immediately challenge them in court.
The last time senior water rights holders were forced to cut back on their water use was in 1977, during the state’s last major drought. Those restrictions applied to only a dozen or so districts along the Sacramento River — Friday’s restrictions, according to the state Water Resources Control Board Director Tom Howard, would be more extensive, affecting farmers throughout the entire basin of the Sacramento River.
Despite their exclusion from statewide cuts issued in April, California’s farmers haven’t been immune to water restrictions throughout the current drought, which is now stretching into its fourth year. Already, those who receive water from the State Water Project have taken an 80 percent cut in their water allocations, while farmers without senior rights who depend on the federal Central Valley Project haven’t received any water. On May 1, farmers in the Sacramento River watershed with water rights granted after 1914 were told to stop diverting water to their lands.
It’s difficult to quantify the success of those cuts, however, because state officials lack widespread remote sensors or meters to ensure that farmers are complying, instead relying on complaints and the honor system to enforce the restrictions. Since most water diversions are from large sources, however, Hanak doesn’t believe enforcement will be an issue borne out of Friday’s restrictions. “I think people will comply, by and large,” she said.
The curtailment of surface water might send some farmers in search of groundwater, an alternative to surface water that has come under increasing scrutiny as the drought has intensified. Groundwater comes from underground aquifers that have filled with rainwater and snow melt over thousands of years, acting as a sort of insurance policy for years when surface water levels are lower than usual. In California, groundwater can be tapped on a first-come, first-served basis, and as surface water becomes more scarce, farmers have been drilling deeper and deeper into the ground to access underground stores of water.
“In places where farmers have access to groundwater, they’ll be able to make that up somewhat,” Hanak said, noting that last year, when wide restrictions were placed on surface water, farmers made up about 75 percent of those losses via groundwater. In areas like the Sacramento Valley, where groundwater tends to replenish relatively quickly, turning to groundwater can offer a short-term solution.
But some worry that simply shifting water use from surface water to groundwater won’t address the root of California’s water problems. Groundwater takes years to replenish, and depleting it now could lead to shortages in the long-term. “If all we’re doing is shifting water use from surface water to unsustainable groundwater use, it’s going to make our problems worse in the long run,” Gleick said.
To compensate for a reduction in available water, Hanak expects farmers to prioritize high-value crops over low-value ones, diverting their limited resources to things like almonds or pistachios while letting low-value crops like alfalfa or rice dry up. For years, farmers with senior water rights haven’t had to make those kinds of decisions — but Gleick thinks that, starting with Friday’s restrictions, that’s about to change.
“It’s going to force some farmers to rethink what they’re growing, and how they’re growing it, in terms of crop type and irrigation technology,” Gleick said. “We’ve known for a long time that the most senior water rights holders are typically less efficient in their water use, and are more likely to be growing low-value, water intensive crops, because they haven’t had the pressure of water cutbacks. I think that’s going to change. I think it has to change.”