Environment & Science

Gov. Brown signs first California groundwater rules

As much as 40 percent of California's water supply comes out of the ground in a given year.
As much as 40 percent of California's water supply comes out of the ground in a given year.
Chris Austin

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California will no longer be the last Western state with a pump-as-you-please approach to groundwater.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation on Tuesday overhauling the state's management of its groundwater supply, bringing it in line with other states that have long regulated their wells.

Groundwater makes up nearly 60 percent of the state's water use during dry years. But it is not monitored and managed the same way as water from reservoirs and rivers.

Supporters of the legislation say the worst drought in a generation inspired them to rethink property owners' unlimited rights to draw from wells, which has led to sinking land and billions of dollars in damage to aquifers, roads and canals.

"This is a big deal," Brown said at the signing ceremony in his office. "It has been known about for decades that underground water has to be managed in some way."

The package signed into law requires some local governments and water districts to begin managing their wells, and it authorizes state water agencies to intervene if necessary. It also allows for water metering and fines to monitor and enforce restrictions.

SB1168, SB1319 and AB1739 by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, passed in the final days of the legislative session over objections from Republican lawmakers and Central Valley Democrats.

The opposition was driven by agricultural interests that are increasingly dependent on pumping from wells as reservoirs dry up and government water allocations plunge in the drought. They say the legislation was rushed and punishes well-managed agencies while infringing on property rights.

"It is troubling that measures that will significantly impact the state's economy were rushed through at the last minute with little opportunity for public input," said Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare. "While there is legitimate concern about the over-drafting of some groundwater basins, this massive expansion of state authority will not solve the problem."

Unlike other states that treat groundwater as a shared resource, California property owners have been entitled to tap water beneath their land since the Gold Rush days.

Lawmakers supporting the groundwater overhaul say the existing system pits farmers against each other in a costly race to dig the deepest wells, resulting in depleted aquifers.

Brown cautioned that years of disagreements and arguments are ahead in regulating groundwater.

The new laws, which take effect in January, specifically target areas where groundwater basins are being depleted faster than they are being replenished. It gives local land planners two years to create a groundwater sustainability agency, which in turn has up to seven years to develop a plan for managing wells and pumping.

The state Water Resources Control Board would step in and develop plans for communities that fail to abide by these rules.

"It isn't all about laws and bills," Brown said. "It's about implementing the laws we have on the books."

Few Changes for Southern California

In Los Angeles in Orange Counties, appointed officials ensure that everyone with rights to take water out of the ground knows what comes in and what goes out.

“We have already had that in place in southern California, certainly in the basins that affect Los Angeles,” says Marty Adams, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Director of Water Operations. “All those basins are already regulated, they’re what’s called adjudicated, which is a judicial ruling that says, how much water each party gets to pump.”

In most of Southern California’s groundwater basins, there’ve been rules on the books for decades – even a century.

“Our management of the district’s groundwater goes all the way back to when the district was created in 1918,” says Jack Porrelli, legislative analyst with the Coachella Valley Water District. Like other desert districts, CVWD relies on significant groundwater pumping for its supplies.

“It’s our most precious resource, it’s one that we have to keep viable, and we have to make sure that it isn’t drawn down to unacceptable levels,” Porrelli said.

Coachella Valley has a groundwater management plan, last updated 4 years ago, so it’s not going to have to develop new oversight structures - the way northern and central California basins will.