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California regulators approve farmers' plan to reduce water usage by 25 percent

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The state hasn't restricted water for delta farmers since the 1970s

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Water regulators in California this week approved a deal set forth by farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta who voluntarily agreed to cut their water usage this upcoming season. The deal only applies to delta farmers who own land near a river or stream and have rights to channel water to that land, The New York Times reports. Farmers with established water rights like this have not faced state-mandated restrictions since the 1970s.

The farmers agreed to cut their water usage by a quarter in the June to September growing season. The move was preemptive — an effort to avoid more severe cuts later in the season. Because the agreement was made with just a small number of farmers, it's unlikely to affect the state's water supply in a significant way, the Times reports. But regulators are hoping the agreement will persuade other farmers across the state to take similar action.

Regulators hope for a chain reaction

"We’re in an unprecedented drought, and we have to exercise the state’s water rights in an unprecedented way," Felicia Marcus, the chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, told the Times.

California has been in a severe drought for several years, with Governor Jerry Brown declaring a State of Emergency in 2014. Last year, water storage in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins measured "11 trillion gallons below normal seasonal levels." This past April, the governor issued statewide water restrictions for the first time in California's history. The delta farmers, because of their strong water rights, were originally immune to the cuts, AP reports.

California's agricultural industry is responsible for 80 percent of the state's water consumption every year, according to the Times. Delta farmers who agree to the deal can choose to reduce water usage by 25 percent under their riparian rights (diverting water to farmland from a stream or river) or they can fallow 25 percent of their land, which means that land won't be seeded. Regulators have agreed not to impose further restrictions on farmers under this deal through September.

Farmers who want to participate must submit a plan to the state by June 1st outlining how they plan to reduce water usage. The State Water Board will conduct checks on the farmland throughout the season.