California drafts groundwater rules

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is on the verge of regulating its groundwater supply for the first time, as the worst drought in a generation pushed state leaders to overhaul the state’s longstanding “pump-as-you-please” policy.

The state Assembly on Friday voted 44-27 to send the bill, AB1739, to Gov. Jerry Brown, whose administration has been involved in shaping the legislation. Two companion bills were sent to the Senate and were expected to win approval later in the day.

The legislative package by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, would require some local governments to develop groundwater-management plans and allows the state to intervene if necessary. The issue is critical as the state deals with its third year of drought, which has forced farmers to fallow fields and led to widespread unemployment in the Central Valley.

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. The pumping has been so great in recent years that wells are running dry and the land is falling as water-drained soil is compressed. That in turn has led to billions of dollars in damage to roads, aqueducts, canals and pipelines, supporters say.

“The state cannot manage water in California until we manage groundwater,” said Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego. “You cannot have reliability with no plan to manage groundwater.”

But agricultural interests that are increasingly dependent on tapping wells have opposed the legislation. Republican lawmakers and Central Valley Democrats said the package was being rushed and called for more time to debate the issues.

“The proposed law changes 150 years of established water law and creates another layer of bureaucracy and costs,” said Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber. “We should work until we find a consensus and regional bipartisan support.”

Supporters say that while the bill would be the first statewide mandate for groundwater regulations, the rules would be drawn locally rather than by disconnected bureaucrats.

The bill targets areas where groundwater basins are in danger of being over-drafted, or drawn from more quickly than water is replenished. 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. Those plans can include installing meters and charging fees to curb excessive use.

The state Department of Water Resources would step in and develop plans for communities that don’t abide by these rules.

Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, called the proposed changes “too much” and “too fast,” noting parts of his Central Valley district that have had no water allocated to them, resulting in farm workers losing their jobs. He and other opponents say hastily drawn rules could aggravate problems by limiting access to an essential water source.

Before the floor vote, Dickinson objected to the idea that legislators rushed to develop the groundwater-management overhaul.

“This has been a subject of discussion for literally decades,” he said, noting the state’s latest drought has been seen as a window of opportunity for reform. “If not now, then when?”

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