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Agriculture is 80 percent of water use in California. Why aren’t farmers being forced to cut back?

Sprinklers water the grass at Gleneagles Golf Course on April 2, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Significant cuts in use will be imposed on cemeteries, golf courses and facilities with large landscapes. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, California Gov. Jerry Brown took the unprecedented step of forcing urban water agencies to reduce their water use by 25 percent. Cities and towns are now prohibited from using more than three-quarters the amount of water they used in 2013. This will save an estimated 1.5 million acre-feet, or nearly 500 billion gallons of water, between now and February.

But what about farmers? In 2010, irrigated agriculture consumed four times as much water as urban users. The state could easily save the same amount of water if it required farms to increase water efficiency by about 5 percent.

But it’s not.

Of course, California is a huge farming state. If the Midwest is the nation’s breadbasket, California is our sprinkler garden. It produces two-thirds of our fruits and nuts. California makes more money off agriculture than any other state in the nation. In 2013, farmers sold almost $50 billion of food.

All of which sounds staggering until you realize that California is a $2 trillion economy. As many have pointed out, all the calls for urban water conservation seem puzzling. Is it worth squeezing the cities when farms consume 80 percent of the water that people use in California, while they generate only 2 percent of its economic activity?

Take a look at these charts from the state water plan:

Brown made the point on Wednesday that agriculture has borne the brunt of California’s drought, which is in its fourth year. There’s truth to this. Economists estimate that in 2014, the drought cost farmers about $2.2 billion through lost crops and increased water costs. They believe that the impact of the drought on the agricultural sector eliminated 17,100 jobs from the state economy.

Some have suffered much more than others. “The fact is that not all farmers are created equal in terms of their water supplies,” said Nancy Vogel, spokesperson for the California Department of Water Resources. “Some are largely unaffected by the droughts and others are suffering and scrambling because they have precarious access to water.”

California has a complex system of water rights, which evolved from a system of first dibs instituted by its early settlers. In the Western states, where surface water can be scarce, early miners and farmers would dig channels to divert water from far-away streams. Often, the streams weren’t even on their property.

[The strange history of water rights in the West]

The custom was this: If you dug a diversion — say, to irrigate a field — you were entitled to whatever water you carried off. You established a right to that water. It would be illegal for someone to go upstream of you and divert all the water onto her property. In the West, the people who got there first get their water first.

During droughts, the state water board starts to cut off people with more junior water rights. The board issues notices telling them to stop drawing water in order more senior rights holders to drink their fill. This happened last summer, and the board has already issued a warning for people to expect curtailments again this year.

Many of the senior water rights, established over a century ago, are held by farmers. This helps enable the industry to thrive. But many farmers don’t have the luxury of a near certain water supply. They have to figure out where they will get their water from, and the only certainty there is that it will cost them dearly.

The government is the largest water supplier. California’s State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project store rain and runoff in reservoirs instead of letting it flow away. These systems sell to both farmers and towns, who buy water delivery contracts. But in dry years, these contracts, too, dry up.

So farmers drill wells if they can, or buy water from wholesalers or elsewhere on the private market. If that gets too expensive, they let their fields go fallow. Over 400,000 acres, about 6 percent of cropland, was left unused because of the drought last year. The same or more is expected to lie fallow this year.

From the perspective of many farmers, they have already been forced to use less water—and they look upon the big-pocketed cities with frustration. City water agencies tend to be better equipped to ensure that their water portfolios are lush. If their delivery contracts fall through, they can afford to drill deeper wells, or buy water off of people with senior water rights.

That’s what cities like L.A. are doing — the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California plans to spend $71 million buying water rights from farmers upstate, bidding the prices way up in the process. Other cities are spending millions to open water desalination plants.

In recent decades, farmers and cities have both made strides in reducing their water use. Already, the agricultural industry has embraced techniques like drip irrigation. Farmers are using about the same amount of water as they did in 1960s, but they have doubled the amount of money they get.

The argument for focusing urban conservation may come down to practical concerns. It takes time and investment to make farms more efficient, and the state has already put money into encouraging farmers to buy efficiency upgrades. During drought emergencies, water use can be curtailed faster by simply telling people not to water their lawns.

Besides, the cities are growing. Unless wasteful practices (like grass lawns) can be untaught now, urban users will start to consume more and more of the state’s water. This is the motive for the governor’s initiative to convert 50 million square feet of lawn into desert landscape. California’s conservation order is more than a drought-year quick fix; it’s an investment in the state’s future — which will always include agriculture, but increasingly looks like an urban destiny too.