California regulators Friday accepted a historic offer from a group of farmers holding some of the state's strongest water rights to voluntarily reduce their water use by one-quarter to stave off deeper, mandatory cutbacks amid one of the worst droughts on record.
Officials hope the deal will serve as a model for more such agreements with growers in the nation's top-producing farm state, where agriculture accounts for 80 percent of all water drawn from rivers, streams and the ground.
"We're in a drought unprecedented in our time. That's calling upon us to take unprecedented action," Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state Water Resources Control Board, said in announcing the agreement.
The rare concession from the farmers is the latest indication of the severity of the water shortage in California, which is suffering through its driest four years on record.
California water law is built around preserving the rights of the so-called senior rights holders — farmers and others whose acreage abuts rivers and streams, or whose claims to water date back a century or more, as far back as Gold Rush days.
The offer potentially could cover hundreds of farmers in the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the heart of California's water system. Some of the farmers made the offer after state officials warned they were days away from ordering the first cuts in more than 30 years to the senior water rights holders' allotments.
The state already has ordered cities and towns to cut their water use by 25 percent, and it has curtailed water deliveries to many other farmers. But in recent weeks, many city dwellers and others have complained that agriculture should be made to share more of the sacrifice.
By itself, the delta farmers' offer would not go far enough to save shrinking waterways statewide. But if more farmers sign on across the state, California could save significant amounts of water, since the nearly 4,000 senior water rights holders alone consume trillions of gallons a year.
The agreement "is an illustration of creative practical approaches that water managers in the state of California are taking to help get us all through this devastating drought," said Michael George, state water master for the Delta.
While California produces nearly half of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the U.S., agriculture experts say they would expect only modest immediate effects on food prices from any reduction in water for the senior water rights holders. Other regions would be able to make up the difference, economists say.
Under the deal, delta farmers have until June 1 to lay out how they will use 25 percent less water during the dry summer. That could include irrigating their crops less or leaving some of their land fallow.
In exchange, the state gave assurances to the farmers it will not cut the remaining 75 percent of the water to which they are entitled.
"When your back is up against the wall, I guess you'll do anything," said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation and an almond grower in the Modesto-area, outside of the Delta. He said he is skeptical the deal will protect the farmers if the drought worsens.
Senior water rights holders last saw their water cut back in 1977, but that move applied only to dozens of people along a stretch of the Sacramento River.
Any accord with the Delta farmers would probably rely largely on the honor system. California currently does not require monitoring or meters for superior rights holders.
Regulators with the state Water Resources Control Board promised a decision on the proposal by a group of farmers along the delta of the Sacramento-San Joaquin rivers, a rare concession by holders of some of California's strongest water rights.
For the first time since a 1977 drought, California regulators are warning of coming curtailments for such senior water-rights holders whose claims date back a century or more.
Earlier in the current drought, the state mandated 25 percent conservation by cities and towns and curtailed water deliveries to many farmers and communities with less solid claims to water.
The most arid winter on record for the Sierra Nevada snowpack means there will be little runoff this summer to feed California's rivers, reservoirs and irrigation canals. As of Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor rated 94 percent of California in severe drought or worse.
About 350 farmers turned out Thursday at a farmers' grange near Stockton to talk over the delta farmers' bid to stave off deeper cuts.
"That doesn't necessarily mean they'll all participate'' in the proposed voluntary cutbacks, said Michael George, the state's water master for the delta. Based on the farmers' comments, George said, he believed many will.
If the deal offered by farmers goes forward, delta farmers would have until June 1 to lay out how they will use 25 percent less water during what typically is a rain-free four months until September.
The delta is the heart of the water system in California, with miles of rivers interlacing fecund farmland. Its water is critical to wildlife and farmers in the country's most productive agriculture state.
Agriculture experts, however, say they would expect only modest immediate effects on food prices from any reduction in water to the senior water-rights holders. Other regions will be able to make up the difference if California moves away from low-profit crops, economists say.
State officials initially said they would also announce the first cuts of the four-year drought to senior rights holders on Friday. Water regulators said Thursday, however, that the announcement involving farmers and others in the watershed of the San Joaquin River would be delayed until at least next week.
It is unclear whether the delta farmers' offer would go far enough to save drying, warming waterways statewide.
Farmers use 80 percent of all water taken from the land in California. Senior water-rights holders alone consume trillions of gallons of water a year. The state doesn't know exactly how much they use because of unreliable data collection.
The 1977 cutback order for senior rights holders applied only to dozens of people along a stretch of the Sacramento River.
Although thousands of junior water rights holders have had their water curtailed this year, Gov. Jerry Brown has come under criticism for sparing farmers with senior water rights from the mandatory cutbacks. Increasing amounts of the state's irrigation water goes to specialty crops such as almonds, whose growers are expanding production despite the drought.