Water Question: What are farmers required to do immediately to reduce water use?

Published: Monday, Apr. 14, 2014 - 12:00 am

Q: What are the authorities asking and/or requiring farmers and agricultural interests to do immediately to reduce their water use, and by how much? Will there be significant penalties for non-compliance? – Jim Purvis, Gold River

A: Farms represent a very different regulatory environment than urban areas. In short, farms are not officially required to do anything to conserve water.

“Farmers, as far as required conservation, I’m not aware of anything in particular,” said Mike Henry, assistant executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.

When former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a major water conservation bill in 2009, it required urban areas to reduce water use 20 percent by 2020 or risk losing access to state grants for water projects. No similar requirement was imposed on farms or irrigation districts. This year, additional drought-specific conservation orders have been imposed on urban residents, but not farmers.

That is not to say, however, that farmers aren’t doing their part in the drought. Indeed, many farms and irrigation districts have been told to expect zero water deliveries from the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. In part, this is to ensure there is adequate water to serve urban areas. Other irrigation districts, depending on location and water rights, will get 40 percent or 50 percent allocations.

“It’s a forced conservation on their supply,” Henry said.

Many farmers expecting a zero water allocation will still grow crops. They’ll do it by pumping their own groundwater wells and buying water from willing sellers. Some will be able to tap into so-called “carryover” water supplies stored in reservoirs last year as a reserve. Some farmers have their own right to pump water from a nearby stream.

There is no conservation requirement on these water supplies. Farmers can apply it whenever they want, and use it to grow whatever crops they want. The only conservation force, Henry said, is economics: Whatever water they have, it must be used sensibly to grow a crop that will at least cover their expenses. If that formula doesn’t pencil out, they’ll use less water, grow a different crop, or grow none at all.

Submit your question for The Sacramento Bee’s water team.

Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.

Read more articles by Matt Weiser

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