California wants to buy out farmers to save water

Some lawmakers in the US state of California want to use taxpayer money to buy out farmers.

A proposal in the state Senate would cost up to $1.5 billion for their “superior water rights.” This would allow farmers to take as much water as needed from the state’s rivers and streams to grow their crops. If state officials had these rights, they could leave water in the rivers to help endangered salmon and other fish.

Severe drought in California

California has faced a severe water shortage for most of the past 20 years. Lawmakers want to take a closer look at the state’s complex water system to see how it could be tweaked to ensure a continuous supply during particularly dry spells. A separate state proposal would pay farmers to grow fewer crops to save water.

Currently, approximately 98% of the state is experiencing severe drought conditions. California’s summer months rarely produce significant rainfall. Many areas have started restricting water use for homeowners. And farmers have seen their water supply from the two main state-owned water systems reduced or, in some cases, completely cut off.

Legally, all water in California is government property. But farmers have “water rights” that allow them to abstract water for agriculture. Farmers used these rights to turn California’s Central Valley into a major agricultural center. The region provides much of the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables.

Buy water rights from farmers

California now has a record budget surplus of nearly $100 billion. The $1.5 billion proposal to purchase superior water rights would involve either buying the land associated with the rights or buying just the right itself. Lawmakers could also require the water to be used for fish and other animals and plants.

The proposal is part of budget negotiations between lawmakers and Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration that are expected to be completed by the end of this month.

Regulators measure water by “acre-foot”. An acre foot is defined as enough water to cover 1 acre, or 0.4 hectares of land at a depth of 30 centimeters. This is the same quantity as 1.2 million liters.

The $1.5 billion would be enough to purchase about 200,000 acre feet of water. This amount is based on an average price of $7,500 per acre foot, says Tom Birmingham. He is the supervisor of the Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water district in the United States.

FILE – People fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Elk Slough River Delta near Courtland, Calif., Tuesday, March 24, 2020. A proposal in the California State Senate seeks to conserve more water in the rivers and California creeks to benefit endangered fish species. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

Climate change demands quick action

Right now, the only way to get more water flowing into rivers and streams is to get state and federal regulators to change the rules. They can do this by demanding that more water remain in rivers and streams. But that means less water for farmers. These rule changes often result in lawsuits that can take 10 years or more to reach a decision, Lester Snow said. He is a former Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency and Regional Director of the US Bureau of Reclamation.

“We need a way to act much faster. And I think to acquire water rights for this purpose are one way to achieve this,” he said. “With climate change, we just don’t have that kind of weather.”

For this to work, farmers would have to voluntarily sell their water rights. Tom Birmingham says that shouldn’t be a problem. Many farmers try to sell their water rights to the Westlands Water District every year, he said.

Birmingham added: “For many farmers… their children just aren’t interested in continuing to farm.”

I am Ashley Thompson.

Adam Beam reported this story for The Associated Press. Jonathan Evans adapted this story for Learning English.

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words in this story

to acquire – v. obtain, especially by effort

regulator – nm one who governs or directs according to rule or law

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