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Delta farmers volunteer to give up some of their rights to water




A farmer walks on the banks of a flooded rice field on May 8, 2015 in Biggs, California. As California enters its fourth year of severe drought, a lack of water has rice farmers are cutting back on their annual plantings which has left many crop dusting and seed planting operations with half of the work as normal.
A farmer walks on the banks of a flooded rice field on May 8, 2015 in Biggs, California. As California enters its fourth year of severe drought, a lack of water has rice farmers are cutting back on their annual plantings which has left many crop dusting and seed planting operations with half of the work as normal.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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A group of farmers in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River delta are volunteering to give up 25 percent of their water usage or leave a quarter of their land unplanted, in exchange for guaranteed and unrestricted access to the other 75 percent they have rights to.

These farmers are in the unique position of having senior or riparian rights to their water. In other words, they have the longest standing rights to water usage — some going back to the late 19th century — Gold Rush times. In fact, about 4,000 landowners have these kind of rights. But, there are about 80,000 farmers in California, and the majority of those farmers buy water from a water district. The water district holds the water rights.

Most of the water districts in this state don't have senior or riparian water rights, like the Delta farmers do. In fact, the growers across this state are very diverse. They grow different crops, in different places, and have different water arrangements. Also, part of the challenge for the current state of California’s water regulation, or lack thereof, is that there’s no infrastructure in place to accurately measure, verify and therefore manage our water. Right now the data for water usage by farmers is merely estimated. Just last year, California started requiring management of groundwater — the last state to do so.

Might other senior water rights holders follow the example the Delta farmers are setting? Will water districts be willing to cut their water sales by 25 percent? What about junior rights water holders who have had claim since 1914?

Guests:

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.

Chris Scheuring, an environmental attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

David Guy, Northern California Water Association.