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California Cuts Farmers’ Share of Scant Water

LOS ANGELES — Farmers with rights to California water dating back more than a century will face sharp cutbacks, the first reduction in their water use since 1977, state officials announced Friday. The officials said that rights dating to 1903 would be restricted, and that such restrictions would grow as the summer months go on, with the state facing a prolonged drought that shows few signs of easing.

“Demand in our key rivers systems are outstripping supply,” said Caren Trgovcich, the State Water Resources Control Board’s chief deputy director. “Other cuts may be imminent.”

It is too early to know the practical impact of the cuts, which prohibit farmers from taking surface water. State officials have warned of such curtailments for months, and many farmers and agricultural water districts prepared for them by increasing their reserves or digging new wells for groundwater.

Still, the dramatic move is a sign of how dire the drought has become, as the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range — which normally supplies water to the state through the summer months, as it melts — is at a historic low. Only once before in the state’s history have the most senior water rights been curtailed. But now, with the drought persisting into a fourth year, state officials say that more reductions for so-called senior water rights holders are nearly certain, and the need for additional cuts will be evaluated weekly.

The reductions announced Friday apply to more than 100 water right holders in the San Joaquin and Sacramento watersheds and delta whose claims to water came after 1903. While the cuts will fall primarily on farmers, some will affect small city and municipal agencies, as well as state agencies that supply water for agricultural and environmental use. Water can still be used for hydropower production, as long as the water is returned to rivers.

The restrictions could cause the widespread fallowing of cropland in areas that have so far been largely exempt from cutbacks. The impact is likely to be felt far more broadly than it was in the 1970s, because the state now has more authority to impose cuts and a greater ability to measure how water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is used.

“It’s going to be a different story for each of them and a struggle for each of them,” said Tom Howard, the executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, referring to the senior water rights holders. “Some are going to have to stop irrigating crops, and there are others who have storage or wells they can fall back on.”

But the situation could deteriorate further, Mr. Howard said. “By the time this year ends, it might be much more broad-based and deeper,” he said.

While officials have said for months that water for the senior rights holders — those at the front of the line — would be curtailed, they had repeatedly put off such a decision amid the cooler and wetter weather of the last several weeks.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown received repeated and intense criticism after he issued mandatory cuts on urban water use but exempted farmers. In a normal year, agriculture uses about 80 percent of the water consumed in the state. Farmers in the Central Valley have had their surface water allotment diminished or erased for the last several years, and instead have relied on water pumped from the ground.

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