California could soon become the last state in the West to regulate water pulled from beneath the earth, with the Legislature on Friday advancing an unprecedented groundwater-management strategy.
The Legislature passed the three-bill package after lengthy debate about whether state government should oversee pumping from the water table. 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.
“Every single member on this floor recognizes that we’ve been overdrafting our groundwater not just in the last year, not just since the drought started, but for decades,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento. “Proponents know it, and opponents concede it. The question is not what will happen if we act, the question is what are the consequences if we fail to act?”
But critics from both parties said the legislation would upend more than a century of water law and create another layer of bureaucracy. They said the measures threatened to make a bad drought situation worse by restricting farmers and other property owners’ ability to pump water to help make up for sharp reductions in surface water.
Central Valley Assembly members whose districts encompass California’s sprawling farm belt stood in unison against the bill. Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, said any groundwater legislation should have the same level of backing as the revised water bond lawmakers recently put on the ballot with near-unanimous support.
“We need to put a measure off this floor that can have the same kind of consensus and support that the water bond did,” Gray said. “But we’ve chosen to move forward as a divided house, and I think that’s an extraordinary mistake on an issue of this magnitude.”
Dickinson’s measure, Assembly Bill 1739, had already cleared the Senate and emerged from the Assembly on Friday by a 44-29 tally. It moved in tandem with a related measure, Senate Bill 1168, that on Friday passed the Assembly 45-26 before the Senate sent it to Gov. Jerry Brown on a 24-10 vote.
The bills are structured so the governor must sign both for either to take effect, along with a third bill emerging out of negotiations this week between legislative leaders and the Governor’s Office.
The legislative package would compel water-basin managers in certain areas to craft groundwater plans guarding against overdrafts. The state would review the plans and reserve the power to step in if they are not prepared or enforced.
California can regulate water diverted from streams and reservoirs but currently lacks the authority for state-level oversight limiting how much water is pumped out of the ground. Landowners are generally free to extract any water that lies beneath their property.
As deliveries from surface sources have evaporated during a severe drought, farmers and others have turned to water from wells. Up to 65 percent of California’s water supply could flow from underground this year, according to a California Water Foundation report, up from an estimated 40 percent in regular years.
That increased use has drained aquifers at a rate scientists call unsustainable, in some places causing the San Joaquin Valley to sink measurably as a result. A California Department of Water Resources study found that, in about half of the thousands of wells surveyed, water levels had plummeted to their lowest point in a century.
California has historically resisted broad state-level controls over groundwater even as other Western states have adopted them. Deference to local property rights has trumped the desire for an expansive state role.
But with the drought straining water supplies and setting off a well-drilling frenzy, local water managers have begun accepting the notion that regional authority need not be absolute, according to Timothy Quinn of the Association of California Water Agencies. He called the bill a necessary remedy for what has been “a simmering crisis for half a century.”
“This bill is built around the notion that local agencies are in the best place to solve this problem – let’s give them the tools and the flexibility to solve this problem locally,” Quinn said, but “there is a backstop. If the locals don’t respond responsibly, then the state is allowed to step in. Local management should be focusing on long-term sustainability for their economy and their environment.”
Agricultural groups remained largely opposed to the groundwater package. A letter from a broad coalition of growers that included heavyweights like the California Farm Bureau Federation denounced Dickinson’s bill and said the measure “severely threatens existing water rights” and could spur litigation.
“We believe the legislation would result in a forced reduction in California’s agricultural economy and also the devaluation of land in large areas of the state,” the letter warned. “This in turn would directly and substantially impact property tax collections in many areas, and the services and programs that are dependent upon them.”
As the legislative session raced to its end-of-August conclusion, some of those interests worked to craft an alternative bill. Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, who authored the alternative, rejected the Democratic package as a hastily constructed solution to a complex issue.
“These bills in their current form will not help advance sustainable groundwater management,” Berryhill said during Wednesday’s Senate floor debate.
It was the second time in as many weeks lawmakers focused on momentous water-related legislation. They previously passed a new $7.5 billion bond that voters will approve or reject in November.
In addition to borrowing money for surface-storage projects and environmental stewardship, the bond would allocate $900 million for groundwater. Within that outlay, $100 million would go to regional management.