California Farmers Gulp Most Of State's Water, But Say They've Cut Back : The Salt Farms in California use as much as four times the water consumed by cities and towns. Now farmers are on defense after the governor decided to mostly exempt them from new, sweeping water cutbacks.

California Farmers Gulp Most Of State's Water, But Say They've Cut Back

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We begin this hour with two fights over water in this country. In a moment, an Iowa lawsuit about nitrates from farms in drinking water. First, we go to California where the drought is putting the amount of water used by farmers into sharp focus. Each year, farms there use as much as four times the water consumed by cities and towns, yet they're mostly exempt from the state's sweeping water cutbacks. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: When Governor Brown announced the largest mandatory water restrictions in California history, standing in a snowless field in the Sierra Nevada, he gave hardly a mention to farms, which didn't go unnoticed by reporters.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Governor, what's the plan to deal with...

SIEGLER: Brown shot back that farmers are already making sacrifices. After all, this is the second straight year that most will get no federal or state irrigation water due to the paltry Sierra Nevada snowpack.

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JERRY BROWN: Agriculture has already suffered major cutbacks. A lot of people are letting their land go fallow. Trees are dying, so farmers have been hit very hard.

DAVE PUGLIA: Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley have been the only ones to have their water actually completely cut off.

SIEGLER: Dave Puglia is a senior vice president with the Western Growers Association.

PUGLIA: Zero percent allocations of water is the ultimate forest conservation. I don't know how you can ask farmers to conserve more than zero.

SIEGLER: In good years, farmers tap relatively cheap subsidized water flowing in canals from the wet north down to the arid south. It's what turned the dry, flat plain of the San Joaquin Valley into one of the world's most important food growing regions. Farming wouldn't even be possible in this Mediterranean climate without imported water. Puglia says the drought and water rationing is putting the farm economy in peril.

PUGLIA: We've seen in the citrus belt, on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, thousands of acres of citrus ripped out, thousands of acres of almonds ripped out of the San Joaquin Valley. So it's happening.

SIEGLER: Agriculture is still a small part of California's $2 trillion economy. It's only about 2 percent of the state's GDP. And with the people in cities now being asked to cut their water use by 25 percent, there are renewed questions about the viability of growing water intensive crops like almonds or alfalfa here. And some of these goods are still being exported to Asia, even amid this historic drought. But the industry is quick to point out that California now produces the bulk of the country's fresh food supply - lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes and yes, nuts. And for people like Dan Macon, it comes down to the question of what is the best use of limited water?

DAN MACON: Lawns don't feed people, but farms do, and we have to have some hard discussions about what types of water use we're doing.

SIEGLER: Macon raises sheep near Auburn, Calif. His operation is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It's not too far down the mountain from where Governor Brown announced his water rationing plan last week. Macon says the governor's staunch support of agriculture is encouraging.

MACON: We are all - all trying to find ways that we can do more to make limited water stretch further.

SIEGLER: Macon is pretty much wholly dependent on rainfall that greens up pastures for his sheep. To cope lately, he's planted experimental drought-tolerant grasses. He's also reduced his flock size by 60 percent and taken on a full-time job off the farm just to get by.

MACON: It's scary. It really does feel like we've crossed some sort of threshold this year. It's really, really a scary year. This year is actually worse than last year in my mind.

SIEGLER: Macon says the drought may just be hitting home in urban California. But for farmers and ranchers, this is the fourth bad year. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

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