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Governor signs first California groundwater rules
drought report pic
Over-pumping can compress soil and rocks, making them more compact and permanently reducing the underground water storage capacity. - photo by Photo Contributed

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Tuesday that will require the first-ever rules for pumping groundwater in California. Why lawmakers and the governor acted, and what the new laws mean:


It's the water that accumulates below the earth's surface, filling empty spaces and cracks in the rock. Farmers and agencies can tap it by drilling wells. It's an especially valuable source of water during times of drought, providing 60 percent of the state's supply as reservoirs, rivers and other sources dry up. Some farmers even turn to dowsers, or water witches, to guide them to the underwater reserves. About 30 million Californians rely on groundwater for some portion of their drinking water supply, according to state figures.


Some areas are being pumped faster than they can be replenished with rain, snowmelt and irrigation runoff. And as California faces the third year of a serious drought, farmers have been in an expensive race to drill the deepest wells. Over-pumping can compress soil and rocks, making them more compact and permanently reducing the underground water storage capacity. That also leads to sinking land, or subsidence, which can damage roads, canals and other structures.


Not very closely. Under California's Gold Rush-era water rights system, many landowners are entitled to pump as much as they please on their property. Other states treat groundwater as a shared resource regulated and monitored by state agencies. Some local agencies in California have sustainable plans for managing groundwater, but no statewide standards currently exist.


The legislation signed Tuesday maintains a local approach with state oversight. It requires agencies in fast-depleting basins to draw up sustainability plans and allows for water meters and fines for monitoring and enforcement. It does not go as far as other Western states by granting state agencies the power to authorize or prohibit groundwater withdrawals, but the California Water Resources Control Board can now intervene if locals fail to act or come up with inadequate solutions.


The state water department identifies 127 groundwater basins and sub-basins that are high or medium priority for monitoring, mostly concentrated along the agriculture-heavy Central Valley and some areas surrounding Los Angeles. That's only a quarter of all California groundwater basins, but they account for almost 96 percent of California's groundwater pumping.


First, local land planners have until 2017 to choose or establish a groundwater sustainability agency. Those agencies then have until 2020 or 2022, depending on how dire their situation is, to draw up sustainability plans. Those plans should put groundwater basins on a path to sustainability by 2040.


"Not only is this a slap in the face to rural California communities whose basic water needs lose out year after year in favor of environmental concerns; it will bring much uncertainty to many mountain area folks who have relied on wells for generations as their main source of drinking water. Giving bureaucrats the keys to the tap is a dangerous precedent that I fear we will regret for years to come."

Senator Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto)

 “California is a large state and our water basins are diverse and used in very different ways. We cannot have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach where Sacramento dictates how groundwater is used. Over the past few decades we have seen the state mismanage our precious surface storage and now they will oversee groundwater.”

Senator Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) 

“The urgent need to find a solution to the state’s groundwater crisis is recognized by everyone from agricultural producers and university scientists to environmental advocates and newspaper writers. Unfortunately, in the haste to address this crisis, the measure which the Legislature passed fails to recognize the substantial harm it imposes on communities and businesses which rely on a stable and reliable supply of surface and groundwater. Unlike the coalition of bipartisan support which passed the water bond just a few short weeks ago, this groundwater measure ostracizes some of the most groundwater dependent regions in our state.

Not one of my San Joaquin Valley colleagues saw fit to support this legislation, and arguably the San Joaquin Valley is one of the areas of the state most dependent upon groundwater.  In the rush to get something done, Sacramento just left the Valley in the dust."

Assemblymember Adam Gray (D-Merced)

"This is the biggest bill to pass the California state legislature since water rights were first established in 1913. They’re bad bills. They’re bad for families; they’re bad for farmers;  they’re bad for businesses; they’re bad for entire communities."

Assemblymember Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto)