SACRAMENTO (AP) — 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 California’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 the state’s hands-off approach to tapping 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 and regulated 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.
“While there is legitimate concern about the over-drafting of some groundwater basins, this massive expansion of state authority will not solve the problem,” said Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare.
Brown said in a signing message he would push for legislation next year to streamline resolutions in disputes over groundwater rights.
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, target areas where groundwater basins are being depleted faster than they are being replenished to be sustainable by 2040. It gives local land planners two years to create a groundwater sustainability agency, which in turn has up to five 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 actually implementing the laws we have on the books.”