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California Drought: Farmers Faced With Whether to Grow Crops or Sell Water

In drought-stricken California, where water is the most precious commodity, some of those who need it most are choosing to forego it.
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/ Source: NBC News

In drought-stricken California, where water has become a precious commodity, some of those who need it most are choosing to forego it.

Some rice farmers, whose livelihoods depend on hydrating their fields, may sell water instead of using it — and they could make $700 an acre-foot, more than they yield from their crops.

Charlie Mathews, a northern California rice farmer, will grow on his land. But his water district just struck a deal to sell some of its water to the Los Angeles area 400 miles south.

"If we don't find a way for people in the south to get water when they desperately need it, we're afraid they'll change our water rights. So if we don't sell it to them, they'll find a way to take it," Mathews said.

Some allocated water from his district may head to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which imports two-thirds of its water from central and northern California.

"Typically, what we saw in the past was when we bought the water from the farmers, it was somewhere around $250 to $300 an acre-foot. So this is two and a half times more than normal market rate for water this year,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager for the Metropolitan Water District.

That's because the drought — which now encompasses more than 98 percent of the state — has reached historic proportions. Earlier this week, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order to slash water use by 25 percent statewide as he stood in a barren area of the Sierra Nevada mountains that would typically have more than 66 inches of snow pack at this time of year.

"Today we are standing on dry grass where there should be five feet of snow. This historic drought demands unprecedented action," Brown said in a statement. "Therefore, I'm issuing an executive order mandating substantial water reductions across our state. As Californians, we must pull together and save water in every way possible."

Every spring, California's water authority measures winter storm runoff and sets water deliveries accordingly for customers. The allocations will be low this year, but Kightlinger feels asking northern reservoirs to sell water to his area will even out the distribution.

"That is water-rich territory, and here's the people-rich territory, and we're trying to match the two up," he said.

Others worry that that's a short-sighted solution that could eventually leave northern reservoirs even drier — and open up a water war.

"We have drought conditions here as well," said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquAlliance, a group dedicated to defending northern California waters. "Somehow there's this belief that they're not going to drain it, like there's so much water up here that they can't possibly destroy it."

With the drought so bad this year, northern California water districts may have to call off their deals anyway, if low snow pack and recent heat waves mean farmers don't get the water they need for their crops.

"There's 2,000 rice growers. There's 38 million other folks in California. We want to make sure we get along with the 38 million," Mathews, the farmer, said.