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California farmers offer ‘water compromise’ to help fight historic drought

A group of farmers in California are making an unprecedented offer to help the state fight a record-breaking drought. They've agreed to give up a quarter of their water this season. Dale Kasler from the Sacramento Bee joins Hari Sreenivasan from Sacramento.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    A group of farmers in California are making an unprecedented offer to help the state fight a record-breaking drought.They've agreed to give up a quarter of their water this season.

    Joining me now is Sacramento Bee reporter Dale Kasler with more on the crisis.

    So, why strike such a deal and who are the players involved?

  • DALE KASLER, THE SACRAMENTO BEE:

    Well, Hari, it's a group of farmers in the Delta Region, which is an agricultural region southwest of Sacramento. They were faced with severe water cuts.

    As you know, in the fourth year of drought, the state has been cutting water use in the cities and suburbs and among many of the farmers.

    And now, they are going after the farmers with — with the so-called senior water rights, water rights that were thought to be untouchable, and they came to these farmers and they struck a deal.

    The growers believe that the state didn't necessarily have the legal right to take any of their water, but rather than fight it out, they agreed to a compromise.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    So, what's their incentive in going this?

    Giving up either a quarter of their land or letting some of their fields go fallow or a decrease in their consumption by a quarter?

  • KASLER:

    Well, their incentive is if they don't cut a deal, they could get dinged even worse.

    It is not exactly sure but the state is serious about cutting back water deliveries, and who knows how much water he could end up losing if they don't make a deal.

    This is a voluntary program, the individual farmers can either opt in or opt out. And those who opt out, who knows how much of a cut they could be facing?

  • SREENIVASAN:

    So, if it's voluntary, how does the state enforce these cuts?

  • KASLER:

    Spot checks. They're going to get satellite imagery to see if people are fallowing fields like they say they will.

    And the state also believes there will be a certain amount of peer pressure that if your neighbor said he was going to fallow his field and not divert water out of the — out of the rivers, that they think that people will go along.

    They believe they'll get a lot of cooperation on this.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    So, what's the possible impact of this deal?

    You mentioned that this was a group of farmers. How much water does their consumption represent of all the farmers in California?

  • KASLER:

    Well, in the grand scheme of things, not a lot.

    These farmers in the Delta Region represent, oh, something less than 10 percent of all the irrigated farmland in California, and they are talking about giving up 25 percent of their water.

    So, as you can see, it's not as if California solves this water problem with a stroke of a pen.

    Nevertheless, this is very important because it is a compromise, and water and compromise don't often go together in California.

    You have to understand, even if in a normal year, a wet year, there is litigation over water in California.

    It's such a precious commodity. There is always a tug-of-war going on over water supplies.

    There are entire law firms in Sacramento and elsewhere that are solely devoted to litigating water law cases.

    So, the fact that a significant group of farmers have stepped up and offered a compromise solution is a pretty big deal in and of itself and the state officials are hoping that this leads to further compromise around the state as the water regulators start to go after these senior water rights holders around the state.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Dale Kasler of The Sacramento Bee — thanks so much.

  • KASLER:

    Thank you.

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