California Water Restrictions Largely Avoid Farms

The state's first-ever limits on water use mostly leave the state's massive agricultural sector alone.

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In response to a historic drought affecting nearly all of California, Gov. Jerry Brown last week announced the state's first-ever limits on water use.

Although the restrictions mostly target homeowners and businesses — and leave the state's massive agricultural sector alone — farmers are still likely to feel some impact.

The executive order announced April 1 requires the state's water resources board to curtail water use by the state's 400 local water authorities by 25 percent. Those agencies, which serve 90 percent of California residents, would be charged with crafting specific restrictions and checking for compliance.

Brown largely called on Californians to change their habits in response to the drought, potentially including landscape alterations and a rebate program for more efficient appliances. Cemeteries, golf courses and corporate campuses, meanwhile, would need to pull back on watering their lawns.

"People should realize we are in a new era," Brown said during the announcement of the new requirements. "The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past."

The 25 percent cut, in general, would not apply to agriculture. But the state's irrigation districts would be required to create drought management plans and eliminate wasteful water practices. In addition, large farms would need to provide reports on their water use to the state.

Some environmental groups criticized Brown over the agriculture provisions and lamented the sector's political influence in California, where its economic impact exceeded $46 billion in 2013.

The governor, however, argued California farmers are already suffering due to the drought conditions. Thousands of acres have been abandoned, while some farmers replaced water-intensive crops with trees that require less water. Economists added that the dairy cattle herd is likely to shrink and thousands of layoffs could be forthcoming.

Brown also remarked that farmers are producing massive amounts of the nation's food supply rather than taking too long in the shower. The state accounts for nearly 70 percent of commercially available fruits and nuts in the U.S.

In the near term, state officials don't expect the restrictions to substantially impact farming costs or food prices.

But the drought shows few signs of abating, and farming consumes about 80 percent of the state's water. Should stricter conservation measures be required in the future, California officials may have nowhere else to turn.