California state water officials announced Friday that they have accepted a historic proposal by farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to voluntarily curtail their water or land use in an attempt to stave off mandatory cuts later in the growing season.
Farmers with the some of the oldest water rights will have the option of voluntarily reducing their water usage by 25 percent, or leaving a quarter of their land unplanted. In exchange, the state has promised not to seek further reductions throughout this year’s growing season. Water rights holders who choose not to participate in voluntary curtailments may still face mandatory cuts later in the growing season if the drought — which is now stretching into its fourth year — doesn’t improve.
“This proposal helps Delta growers manage the risk of potentially deeper curtailment, while ensuring significant water conservation efforts in this fourth year of drought,” State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus said in a press statement. “It allows participating growers to share in the sacrifice that people throughout the state are facing because of the severe drought, while protecting their economic well-being by giving them some certainty regarding exercise of the State Water Board’s enforcement discretion at the beginning of the planting season.”
The voluntary agreement only applies to riparian rights holders, or those whose property includes access to a river or stream that is then diverted for water use on that property. Riparian rights have never before been subject to restrictions.
Officials had previously warned that mandatory water cuts for the state’s most senior water rights holders were on the way, prompting farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to propose voluntary cuts. The voluntary agreement is just the latest in a series of state-mandated curtailments and restrictions. Last month, some 9,000 junior water rights holders — those whose claims to the water started after 1914 — were told to stop pumping water from rivers and streams in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins.
Because the curtailments are voluntary, it is unclear how many farmers will participate, or if it will be enough to avoid mandatory restrictions for senior water rights holders, who have claims to water dating back before 1914. Farmers in the Delta own less than 10 percent of California’s agricultural land, though several other proposals for voluntary curtailments are currently being considered by the State Water Resources Control Board.