News Feature | September 3, 2014

California Lawmakers Approve Sweeping Groundwater Overhaul

By Sara Jerome
@sarmje

californiagroundwaterreg
Located where the Pinto Fault allows groundwater to reach the surface, the Oasis of Mara sustains a dense gathering of life in the arid desert.

A package of water bills approved by the California legislature last week represent a major regulatory shift for a state plagued by drought and outdated water policies.

The measures, which give local agencies authority over groundwater pumping, reflect "the most significant changes to state water law in half a century," the San Jose Mercury News reported.

The three-bill package (AB-1739, SB-1168, SB-1319) would "allow the state to take over management of underground aquifers and water accessed via wells, aim to tighten oversight of water at a time when groundwater levels are shrinking in the third year of a catastrophic drought," Reuters reported

That's a shift from California's "longstanding 'pump-as-you-please' groundwater policy," the Associated Press reported. "Groundwater accounts for 60 percent of the state's water use during drought years, yet it is not as regulated and closely managed as water from reservoirs, rivers and streams." 

Relying too heavily on groundwater "means that land sinks, old wells go dry, and saltwater invades coastal aquifers," the New York Times reported

Getting the legislation to the governor's desk was not easy. "Lawmakers argued over the long-term fate of California’s water supply as a severe drought puts water scarcity at the forefront of public consciousness," the Sacramento Bee reported

In the debate over groundwater pumping, some of the factions break down along geographic lines. "Many Central Valley lawmakers opposed the legislation, arguing it would impose overly rigid guidelines on farmers and wouldn’t address the needs of water users in the Central Valley. Opponents also said the legislation was hastily written and could lead to costly litigation," Reuters reported. 

 “I shudder to think that the state will enforce stringent water-removal limits,” Marvin Meyers, a Central Valley almond grower, told the New York Times. “For the government to tell us how we do it is frightening.”

Supporters of the legislation framed the changes as commonsense and long overdue.

"Mark Twain famously said, 'Whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting over.' Certainly we have had our fair share of fights over water," said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, per the Mercury News. "But every single member on this floor recognizes we've been over-drafting groundwater in this state -- not just this year, not just since the drought started, but for decades."

For more on policy and politics, check out Water Online's Regulations & Legislation Solution Center

Image credit: "Oasis of Mara; Twentynine Palms, CA," Joshua Tree National Park © 2014, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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