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Editorial: Stop the delays; pass groundwater regulation

Bills to create a system for managing groundwater are being undermined before they come up for final votes as early as today in the Senate and Assembly.

Senate Bill 1168 by Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, and Assembly Bill 1739 by Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, have been through a process beginning early this year that engages various water users and organizations.

Their legislation would establish a framework to assess, manage and protect groundwater through local agencies. The agencies would be able to monitor groundwater levels and quality, and limit exports and the amount of water extracted.

But on Friday, a week before the legislative session ends, Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, seized on an inactive bill dealing with junk dealers and recyclers, removed all language and inserted weak and deceptive verbiage purporting to manage groundwater.

Berryhill is using the controversial gut-and-amend method of legislating, trying to jam a measure through the process in the final days of a legislative session to get his way, or foil efforts by other legislators.

According to a bill analysis, Berryhill’s bill “introduces new and sometimes confusing definitions, reinserts some language that was previously rejected during the stakeholder process that was used to develop SB 1168 and AB 1739, and omits many of the refinements that were subsequently developed in that stakeholder process.”

Berryhill’s bill has the potential to interfere with surface water rights. It also would limit the requirement for groundwater management plans, and define “chronic lowering of groundwater levels as ‘responsible management’ as long as they are caused by drought.”

There has been a tenuous agreement among some water agencies and some farmers that the time has come for a statewide assessment of groundwater and regulations to protect a resource that has become critical this year, the third year of severe drought.

Farmers have relied heavily on groundwater for the state’s $45 billion agriculture business.

In most years, groundwater accounts for about one-third of the state’s water supply. This year, more than 60 percent of water for agriculture is pumped from the ground. Wells have gone dry, deeper wells have been drilled, and land subsidence has brought recognition that groundwater regulation is needed.

California does not have a statewide system to monitor groundwater, the only state that allows people to pump groundwater to the detriment of others. Some farm interests say the state is moving too fast to formulate a plan to manage groundwater. But more than 50 years ago, an Assembly report cited the problem of over-pumping groundwater as critical.

Lawmakers should see the gut-and-amend bill for what it is: an attempt to thwart a reasonable plan. For half a century California has recognized the need for groundwater management. Lawmakers ought to end the delays and approve SB 1168 and AB 1739.