ACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A group of California farmers, in a surprising turnaround, is volunteering to give up a fourth of its available water this year, sharing a resource all but guaranteed to them for more than a century.
A senior state official told The Associated Press Wednesday that he would decide whether to accept the offer by Friday. The concession by farmers in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river delta could be one of the most important yet forced by California's record four-year drought.
In exchange for taking 25 percent less river water for irrigation or leaving a quarter of their fields unplanted, the farmers want guarantees that the state won't restrict the remaining 75 percent of the water rights they've had for more than a century, even if the drought deepens and other users go dry.
The offer was made as these and other "senior water rights holders" face an imminent threat of being included in the mandatory cutbacks that apply to most other California water users.
Water Resources Control Board Director Tom Howard told the AP Wednesday that whatever he decides will apply to the entire basin of the Sacramento River, which supplies most of the surface water in the food-producing Central Valley and provides drinking water to homeowners across California.
If the drought persists, even those farmers with the strongest water rights would have to stop pumping at some point, Howard noted Wednesday. His decision hinges on whether a voluntary 25 percent cut would be enough replenish waterways that are vanishing, following a winter of below-average rainfall and record-low snows in the Sierra Nevada.
"Should we make an offer like that early, to give people clarity and regulatory certainty, or is there not enough water to really make a difference?" Howard asked. "We're just trying to make sure if the offer makes sense."
Delta water managers say it could become a model for farmers throughout California who are facing curtailments. It also could have an eventual impact on food prices, since agriculture uses 80 percent of the water drawn from the land in the state.
State officials had threatened to take action as early as this week against senior water rights, some dating to claims made during the Gold Rush era, long before industrialization in the 20th Century led to climate change. The rights give nearly 4,000 landowners the strongest claims in California to this precious and increasingly limited resource.
With California's drought showing no signs of easing, the state already has ordered mandatory, 25 percent cutbacks in water use by cities and towns, and greatly curtailed water available to other farmers and others whose rights are less than a century old, and therefore less iron-clad.
It is difficult to predict how many farmers elsewhere in California will participate, said attorney Jennifer Spaletta, who represents several Delta growers, but if the water board agrees to the deal, they could plan growing seasons with more certainty.
"From a business standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to do our part and to help in the emergency," Spaletta said. "At this point, obviously we're in an absolute drought emergency."
Gov. Jerry Brown has been criticized for sparing many farmers from the tightening regulations forcing cutbacks in communities throughout the state. This is the second straight year that thousands of "junior water-rights holders," whose claims were staked after 1914, have been ordered to stop pumping river water for irrigation.
The reduction farmers propose is reasonable because it matches what the governor has asked of all other Californians, Jonas Minton, former deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources, and now a water policy adviser for the Sacramento-based Planning and Conservation League environmental group.
"Overall, if agriculture in California reduces its use by 25 percent, the state will weather this bad weather," Minton said Wednesday. "It's heartening to see that some agricultural water users are willing to do their share."
The Delta proposal is being made by so-called riparian water rights holders, who have the oldest and most secure access to California rivers and streams. A coalition of these farmers is working out details with the State Water Resources Control Board, and Spaletta said officials have responded positively.
Legally, Delta farmers with the most senior water rights say the state can't stop them from irrigating their crops with river water, said John Herrick, manager of the South Delta Water Agency. He called their proposal a "safe harbor" for both sides, which he said would likely be adopted by other senior rights holders in the San Joaquin and Sacramento River watersheds.
Michael George, the board's Delta Water Master, said he personally believes the proposal "is a reasonable trade-off."
"Nobody benefits if uncertainty persists," George said.
California's 19th-century water rights laws gives heavy priority to those who staked the first claims on rivers, such as the city of San Francisco, whose then-mayor in 1902 famously tacked a claim to the Tuolumne River to an oak tree on the river's banks.
Minton said the system is long overdue for fundamental changes to accommodate a growing population vying for a shrinking amount of water. The drought also exposes California's need for better monitoring of water usage, but given the information available today, he said the proposal is as good as they come.
Terry Chea and Ellen Knickmeyer in San Francisco contributed to this report. Smith reported from Fresno.