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Editorial: Half century later, California Legislature must regulate groundwater

Now that the governor and legislators have put together a water bond, they must confront the groundwater crisis.

In the third year of severe drought, groundwater has been critical, providing 60 percent of the water for the state’s $45 billion agriculture industry.

Californians have been depleting groundwater for 50 years, probably longer, by pumping more water than nature can replenish. The Legislature has delayed managing this vital resource for just as long.

In the early 1960s, an Assembly committee noted that groundwater problems in the San Joaquin Valley would get worse. In the late 1970s, a review of California water management cited four areas that needed to be modernized, one of which was groundwater management.

The Assembly committee in 1962 decided against legislation to manage groundwater but said the Legislature should take action if the situation got worse.

The 1978 report, commissioned by Gov. Jerry Brown, said the groundwater situation had become critical and that “comprehensive management has not been undertaken in many overdrafted areas of the state.” No one acted.

On Wednesday, legislators by near-unanimous votes approved a $7.5 billion water bond for the November ballot that could effectively deal with many of the issues plaguing the state, including cleaning polluted groundwater. Lawmakers should not lose their momentum.

On Thursday, Senate and Assembly appropriations committees approved bills to add protections by beginning to require that groundwater be managed.

Senate Bill 1168 by Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, and Assembly Bill 1739 by Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, would require local water agencies to come up with management plans by 2020. The agencies would have the ability to monitor groundwater levels, and require records of how much water is pumped and when new wells are drilled.

Some farmers recognize the need to protect California’s groundwater basins. But other farming interests say the state is moving too fast with the legislation.

In 1962, more than five decades ago, groundwater depletion was recognized as a serious problem. In 1978, nearly four decades ago, the groundwater situation was called critical.

Today, Central Valley land is subsiding and wells are going dry. There is no need for another study. The Legislature needs to act now to protect and manage the groundwater, finally.