Gino Celli climbs out of an irrigation canal that is covered in dried salt on a field he farms near Stockton, Calif. California, grappling with drought, exacted the broadest water cuts on record
Gino Celli climbs out of an irrigation canal that is covered in dried salt on a field he farms near Stockton, Calif. California, grappling with drought, exacted the broadest water cuts on record AP Photo - Rich Pedroncelli

Californian farmers forced to turn off taps

FARMERS with rights to California water dating back more than a century face sharp cutbacks, the first reduction in their water use since 1977.

State officials said rights dating to 1903 would be restricted, and that such restrictions would grow as the summer goes on, with the state facing a prolonged drought that shows few signs of easing.

"Demand in our key river systems is outstripping supply," said Caren Trgovcich, the State Water Resources Control Board's chief deputy director. "Other cuts may be imminent."

The cuts prohibit farmers from taking surface water.

Officials have warned of such cuts for months.

Many farmers and agricultural water districts prepared by increasing their reserves or digging new wells.

The move is a sign of how dire the four-year drought has become, as snow 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.

The reductions, announced yesterday, apply to more than 100 water right holders in the San Joaquin and Sacramento area.

Although 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 it is returned to rivers.

Jonas Minton, an adviser at the private Planning and Conservation League environmental group, said droughts of this scale are not unprecedented in California.

What is different, he said, is that the state has grown to a population of 38 million and has vast acres of farmland to irrigate.

He said state bureaucrats or environmentalists can't be blamed.

"Today's curtailments are not being done by choice," Minton said. "They're a reaction to the reality of the shrinking water supply."

In April, Californians lodged 22,000 water-wasting complaints that resulted in 838 penalties issued. The state reduced overall water use by 13.5 per cent.

It's evidence that reporting efforts might be working, and led to photos of celebrity homes' lush lawns being posted on Twitter by "drought shamers".

Ever since the #DroughtShaming hashtag started making the rounds early last month, concerned citizens have dutifully uploaded TMZ photos of any celebrity home with a lawn, affixed the appropriate hashtag, and broadcasted their passionate messages of conservation to the world.

Tony Corcoran alone estimates he's put up on YouTube more than 100 videos of water-wasters, complete with addresses. Dan Estes has built a free app, DroughtShame, that records the time and place where people see waste.

Corcoran is one of several people who spend their spare time canvassing Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and elsewhere, looking for people wasting water.

Others are snapping smartphone photos of them and sending them directly to authorities.

Corcoran, a restaurant group administrator who kept his New York attitude when he came to laid-back Los Angeles a short while ago, is unrepentant.

"The whole point is to get people to change, not to shame," Corcoran said.

With California in the fourth year of a drought with no end in sight, the governor has ordered everyone to use 25 per cent less water, and drought shamers say the easiest way to accomplish that is to quit watering the lawn.

Or at least be careful about it and not let water spill into the street.

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