Governor Brown Sign’s Historic Groundwater Legislation

Trio of bills may put California on the path to groundwater sustainability

California is in the midst of one of its worst droughts in centuries, yet until yesterday, it was also the only western state without a statewide water management plan. That changed on Tuesday, when Governor Brown signed into law three bills that call for extensive oversight of the state’s groundwater resources, thus enacting the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Effect of the drought on Uvas ReservoirPhoto by Don DeBoldWater levels are low in the Uvas Reservoir, as shown in this March 2014 photo.

The three-bill legislative package to improve groundwater sustainability was passed by the state senate and assembly in August at a time when the drought was raising serious questions about California’s ability to sustain adequate groundwater levels.

Water rights have long been considered property rights in California, leaving landowners with full discretion about how much groundwater they pumped from the land. Due to this, some water basins have suffered from overdraft, with more water being pumped out than could be replaced through natural processes. The closest the state has previously come to regulating groundwater is to encourage local agencies to adopt their own groundwater plans.

Taken together, the bills — AB 1739 (sponsored by Assemblymember Dickinson, D-Sacramento), AB 1319, and SB 1168 (both sponsored by Senator Fran Pavley, D-Angoura Hills) — will work off of the existing local management structure while also laying out a comprehensive statewide water management scheme. “We have to learn how to manage wisely water, energy, land and our investments,” Governor Brown stated in a press release regarding the legislation. “That’s why this is important.”

SB 1168 directs local agencies to develop sustainable groundwater management plans. These plans must contain measurable objectives to achieve groundwater sustainability within 20 years. The bill also classifies state water basins as either low-, medium- or high- risk based on risk of overdraft. Low-risk basins are monitored, but otherwise generally left alone. Medium- and high-risk basins trigger action at the state level to improve basin sustainability.

AB 1739 dovetails with SB 1168, providing for state intervention and interim management when local agencies aren’t satisfying management requirements.  In a signing message, Governor Brown emphasized that the State’s primary role will be to provide guidance and technical support to local authorities, rather than to intervene.

“I think this truly is a landmark achievement for the legislature and the state,” says Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, who sponsored the AB 1739. “We’re facing a water future in which we’ll have to make a number of adjustments to ensure that there is enough water for future generations.”

While Dickinson acknowledges a certain arbitrariness in the legislation’s goals to achieve water sustainability in 20 years, he felt that the two-decade timeframe balanced the goals of the legislation with what was physically and politically possible. “In the more over-drafted basins, we’ve been over-drafting for years or decades, so the idea of doing it quickly is not feasible,” he says. “But it can’t be too long a period. We have to get on a course to sustainability. A twenty year period seemed reasonable from both directions.”

The agricultural lobby, which has proved to be a formidable opponent to past groundwater legislation, opposed AB 1739 and SB 1168.  “This measure will have huge long-term economic impacts on farms, the State and local economies and county tax roles, with a very real potential to devalue land and impact farms and businesses’ viability and in turn impact jobs,” the California Farm Bureau Federation wrote in its opposition statement to AB 1739. “We believe groundwater must be managed locally/regionally and that overlying property rights are protected to avoid a taking.”

But the bills also had many supporters. “This will help California prepare for future water challenges, especially as global warming makes longer and more severe droughts more likely in the coming decades,” said Juliet Christian-Smith, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists who specializes in Western water issues, referring to Governor Brown’s signature of the two bills. “Improved groundwater management will help the state adapt and provide reliable water resources in dry years.” 

The third bill, SB 1319, attempts to mitigate the concerns raised by agricultural interests by extending the time for compliance and delaying state intervention when groundwater extraction depletes connected surface waters.

Ultimately this legislation is an acknowledgement of the need to bring groundwater management up from the local level, where short-term financial considerations often dominate. The trio of bills represent an important step towards putting California on a path towards sustainable groundwater management. 

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