DAVIS - If California hopes to reach Gov. Jerry Brown's mandate of cutting water use by 25 percent, the state's farmers will probably not be major contributors.
Last year, California agriculture lost $2.2 billion from a third year of drought conditions, and the industry expects to lose at least that much this year.
In 2014, farmer's state and federal water allocations were slashed to between five and 10 percent. This year it stands at zero.
At the same time, farmers have become more efficient at using water. In the last 20 years, many have used government grants and new technology to improve water efficiency to about 78 percent statewide. They've moved to drip irrigation systems, soil moisture monitors and other improvements, learning to be even more miserly with water.
"In the last 20 years, they've been increasing their efficiency between 10 and 12 percent," said UC Davis professor Dr. Samuel Sandoval, who specializes in water resources.
However, finding new efficiencies in water use is getting more difficult.
According to Sandoval, as farmers saved water, many moved to plant more acreage or move into higher value crops like almonds, walnuts and fruit crops that also need more water, often decreasing their flexibility to rotate crops when water is scarce.
"This is complicated, because the silver bullets are gone," Sandoval said.
To make up for the loss of government water allocations, farmers are now pulling about 60 percent of their water from aquifers, compared to 30 percent before the drought. That's putting new pressure on aquifers and spurred Brown to put in place California's new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which should make a major difference in helping restore aquifers in the years ahead.
According to Sandoval, even if the drought were to end tomorrow, it would take many farmers several years to recover from the damage they've suffered.
For now, Sandoval says, major water savings in California will have to come mostly from urban users, especially through conservation in yards and homes.