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Drought-stricken California approves voluntary water cuts by farmers

Workers weed a cantaloupe field on April 23, 2015 in Firebaugh, California.

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California water regulators on Friday accepted a historic offer by farmers to make a 25 percent voluntary water cut to avoid deeper mandatory losses during the drought.

Officials with the state Water Resources Control Board made the announcement involving farmers in the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers who hold some of California's strongest water rights.

The several hundred farmers made the offer after state officials warned they were days away from ordering some of the first cuts in more than 30 years to the senior water rights holders.

California water law is built around preserving the water claims of those rights holders. The threat of state cuts is a sign of the worsening impacts of the four-year drought.

The state already has mandated 25 percent conservation by cities and towns and curtailed water deliveries to many farmers and communities.

"This proposal helps Delta growers manage the risk of potentially deeper curtailment, while ensuring significant water conservation efforts in this fourth year of drought," Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus told CBS affiliate KOVR in Sacramento.

"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," Marcus said.

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.

Under the deal, 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. It supplies water to 25 million California residents and vast regions of farmland that produces nearly half of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the U.S.

It is unclear whether the delta farmers' offer would go far enough to save drying, warming waterways statewide.

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 states will be able to make up the difference if California moves away from low-profit crops, economists say.

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.

Farmers told KOVR there were times this year the San Joaquin River got so low, they could see the bottom. They say they aren't surprised senior water rights holders are now being asked to conserve.

Paul Marchini said he was looking forward to his wheat drying out so he can harvest. He only irrigates twice a year. He says the he and his neighbors haven't had a problem in the four-year drought.

"We're in the Delta," Marchini said. "So, we've never had a situation where we've had a lack of water."

Farmers said they would rather lose the water than have to use saltwater to irrigate their crops, potentially ruining the soil for future growing seasons.

"We're dealing with a higher salt level," Marchini said. "Without the freshwater coming from the mountains, we don't have a way to dilute the salt that comes in from the ocean."

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 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.