The California Legislature has approved three measures that make up a package of groundwater regulation legislation. AB 1739 (Dickinson, D-Sacramento), SB 1168 (Pavley, D-Agoura Hills) and SB 1319 (Pavley) all passed with small margins as members from both parties objected to the complex content of the bills as well as the rush to pass them.
Central Valley legislators of both parties, while supporting responsible groundwater management, spoke in opposition to the measures sighting the fact that these measures have divided the Assembly due to provisions that will negatively affect farmers as well as farmworkers. Assemblymember Adam Gray (D-Merced) said, “Unlike the coalition of bipartisan support which passed the water bond just a few short weeks ago, this groundwater measure ostracizes some of the most groundwater- dependent regions in our state. Not one of my San Joaquin Valley colleagues saw fit to support this legislation, and arguably the San Joaquin Valley is the area of the state most dependent upon groundwater. In the rush to get something done, Sacramento just left the Valley in the dust.” The vote count can be found here.
Although the authors held several hearings and meetings for the past several months, the actual language of these bills was not available for public review until the first week of August. Western Growers staff along with a large coalition of agricultural representatives, worked feverishly with the authors and the administration to try to secure amendments that would make the bills more reasonable. Very few were accepted.
Together, these bills could mar long-established principles of groundwater allocation established by the California Supreme Court and could have significant impacts on adjudications in the future. Of further concern, they could also change the allocation of groundwater for environmental and habitat purposes. The bills mandate the basins are balanced to "sustainable yield" which is newly defined. They also included language that mandates surface water and groundwater connectivity be considered while managing the basin. These were major issues for agriculture. We fought hard to keep the common law requirement of "safe yield" which has developed over years of litigation as well as remove surface water connectivity. After much negotiation with the administration, the issue of connectivity to surface water streams was greatly minimized.
The bills give broad new fee authority to the State Water Resources Control Board, as well as to local governments and water districts for plan development and implementation. All high and medium value basins must develop groundwater plans with state mandated requirements to be developed by the Department of Water Resources within two years. Agriculture wanted to focus this requirement on only basins in a "condition of long term overdraft" and provide an additional year for compliance. The plans must be implemented within five years. If DWR determines either the plan is inadequate or not properly implemented the State Water Resources Control Board steps in and has the power to place a plan over the basin. Agriculture successfully fought for DWR roles versus the State Water Board, additional due process and more specific manners in which the water board must relinquish control of the basin. We also were successful in striking DWR fee authority from the bills.
Agriculture may have been able to address even more issues but for the premature support of the bills by the Association of Calif. Water Agencies and many of its members who successfully advocated for expanded fee authority and more control over the groundwater property right before any of the major issues had been resolved.
These bills now head to the Governor, who is expected to approve them
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