Historic Groundwater Bills Win Nod
Like it or not – and many in the San Joaquin Valley apparently don’t – laws regulating groundwater extraction and use are probably headed for reality.
California’s two legislative houses ignored unanimous opposition from Central Valley farm-belt lawmakers August 29 to approve a three-bill groundwater regulatory package that one report termed an end to “the wild West of groundwater law.”
In most of California, including the aquifers that are heavily used to sustain Friant Division agriculture in times and places that surface water is not available, groundwater has never been regulated by the state. At the WATERLINE’s press time, the measures were awaiting action by Governor Brown.
The package would enact the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. It would give broad regulatory authority to local agencies, particularly in areas (such as much of the southern San Joaquin Valley) plagued by groundwater overdraft.
Local agencies would have two years to create a “groundwater sustainability agency,” which in turn would be given up to five years to develop well use and pumping regulations. Meters could be ordered installed. Excessive use could result in fees being charged.
If local agencies fail to act to the satisfaction of the state, its Water Resources Control Board assumes local jurisdiction and develops rules and regulations.
Assembly members, by a 45-27 vote, approved AB 1739 by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-SACRAMENTO) for concurrence on Senate amendments. Then the Assembly approved SB 1168 by Senator Fran Pavley (D-AGOURA HILLS) and SB 1319, also by Pavley, by votes of 45-26 and 48-25. Senators later provided a pair of 24-10 votes to concur with Assembly amendments on SB 1168 and SB 1319.
Republicans and valley Democrats opposed the bill but ran into strong support from both houses’ leadership. “The state cannot manage water in California until we manage groundwater,” said Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-SAN DIEGO). “You cannot have reliability with no plan to manage groundwater.”
Assemblyman Henry T. Perea (D-FRESNO) disagreed. He said the new legislative approach was “too much” and “too fast.” Perea pointed out that large areas within the San Joaquin Valley this year have no surface water allocations. That includes all of the Friant Division, with the exception of a few districts with entitlements to surface water from other sources.
The Friant Division was in fact conceived and designed seven decades ago to conjunctively use a combination of surface water and groundwater to achieve overall water supply reliability and stability whether a water year was wet or dry. With no Central Valley Project water allocated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, groundwater has been the only source available to many Friant growers this year.
Lawmakers who opposed the groundwater package asserted that the new measures were too hastily drawn and would worsen problems by limiting access to an essential water source. Republicans asked Brown to veto the bills.
“The proposed law changes 150 years of established water law and creates another layer of bureaucracy and costs,” said Assemblyman Brian Dahle (R-BIEBER).
George Soares, a Friant Water Authority legislative advocate in Sacramento, said that the package of bills “takes groundwater way beyond where there has ever been any law or court cases. It will be a critical issue affecting water – forever.” He said the measures are fraught with uncertainty. As an example, Soares said, “No one knows what [groundwater] sustainability means.”
Since California’s reliance upon and use of groundwater is immense and complex, there have been estimates that annual administrative costs could reach $1 billion.