Some California farmers who hold some of the state’s oldest water rights have been forced to turn them over. Several of these family water holdings near the San Joaquin River date back to the Gold Rush, but state regulators will institute mandatory cuts today to these farmers who have been historically spared from water restrictions.

There is a category of so-called “senior’ rights holders who are making a valiant effort to stave off those kinds of cuts. Farmers who hold long-standing claims to water because their land lies along the waterways of the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta have offered to voluntarily reduce their water use by one-quarter. State water officials said this week that they’ll make a decision which would yield on some of the state’s most defined water rights as they try to chart a path forward for a state locked in the worst drought in recorded history.

“For me, 25 percent is all I can handle,” said Gino Celli, who farms 5,000 acres of tomatoes, alfalfa and corn in the delta. “Anything more than that—man, I’m done.”

No one knows for sure if the farmers’ offer to relinquish 25 percent of their holdings would go far enough to save ever-drying waterways up and down the state; the past winter resulted in below-average rainfall and record-low snow levels in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Farmers reportedly use 80 percent of all water taken from the land in California, while the senior water-rights holders are said to consume trillions of gallons per year, although state officials don’t know exactly how much they use because of unreliable data collection. That’s because state regulators don’t have widespread remote sensors or meters to make sure water is not diverted. The cutbacks are basically done on the honor system or via complaints from persons who believe they’re being shortchanged by their neighbors.

Apparently, California’s water rights system is built around the claims staked in the late 19th century. Nearly 4,000 companies, farms and individuals are first in line to receive water because they made claims to water as far back as 1900 or have property touching a waterway.

“This is challenging,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state Water Resources Control Board. “It’s about figuring out how to make terrible choices in the most fair and equitable way possible.”

State regulators last ordered such farmers to stop pumping in 1977 during the last major drought. That order applied only to a few dozen farmers along a stretch of the Sacramento River, and the water control board has since gained new power to punish those who illegally take water, including penalties of up to $10,000 each day.

In reference to obtaining more water through desalination, construction of a pipeline is underway along the San Diego northern coastline at a projected cost of about $1 billion. It is being built by Poseidon Water, a private company. Another desalination plant is scheduled for Northern California’s Monterey County priced at just under $300 million. California has tried desalination plants before, and the results were reportedly not good. Santa Barbara had a plant built in the early 1990s—following a drought—but then it started raining again and the cost of production meant it wasn’t worth it. But they’re trying it again just up the coast—despite the possibility of an oil spill such as the one that happened this week and the famous disaster that took place in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1969.

Joshua Haggmark, Santa Barbara water resources manager, believes there won’t be a repeat of past failures. “It’s a little different this time. We’ll use about 40 percent less energy than before; the amount we pay right now for several sources of water is about the same as creating desalinated water.”

Haggmark says they estimate it will cost somewhere between $1,300 and $1,400 an acre foot to produce water. “Right now, we pay about $1,200 an acre foot for recycled water; this year we’ve been buying water, and we’ve been spending about $1,500 an acre foot to buy it.” The Metropolitan Water District estimated that an acre foot provides for the water needs of two average California families for one year.