That is the term of art used in Sacramento to signify a bill has been approved by the governor and is now the law of the state. On September 16, 2014, the governor’s signature on three bills created Chapters 346, 347 and 348 of the Statutes of 2014, establishing a state regulatory regime for groundwater.
Just like that, California joined the other western states, all of which have statewide regulation of groundwater on their books.
There are very good reasons to be concerned about the new California groundwater management laws. Unlike the water infrastructure bond, which was passed with 114 votes in favor and just two in opposition, the groundwater bills were passed over significant opposition from legislators of both parties.
Western Growers and virtually every other agriculture industry organization in the state opposed the legislation. This is not to say we advocated for the status quo in California’s approach to managing its groundwater resources. Early in the year, WG was approached to serve on a steering committee convened by the California Water Foundation (CWF) to examine ideas for state groundwater management and help inform the foundation’s staff as they developed recommendations to the Governor and Legislature. After consulting several members of WG’s board of directors, we participated in this process because we recognized that the combination of historic drought and long-term overdraft of groundwater basins had created immense momentum for legislation, and because, in the words of one grower, “What we’re doing now is crazy.”
Ultimately, the Foundation and the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) released reports recommending state legislation to require local water agencies to form regional groundwater management entities, develop management plans (with state technical assistance) charting a pathway to basin sustainability and implement the plans using new authorities such as well monitoring and limitation of extractions to prevent critical overdraft.
The policy constructs of both the CWF and ACWA reports also included triggers for intervention by the State Water Resources Control Board where local water agencies fail to fulfill their obligations. This is one of the most heartburn-inducing provisions of the legislation. While there is a certain logic to the idea that local agencies might not act without the motivation of avoiding state water board intervention, we worry the legislation does too little to prevent the agency from intervening prematurely.
Other areas of concern include definitions that are vague and unnecessary, provisions connecting groundwater pumping to ecosystem effects in surface waters and, of course, the cost to water users as local agencies undertake the new mandates.
The bills advanced through the Legislature as “works in progress.” This is another Sacramento term of art. Legislators with misgivings about voting in favor of an obviously half-baked bill in committee are given airy assurances by the bill’s author and sponsors that they will keep working with the opposition to get it right “as the bill moves forward.” This is almost always a signal that serious policy defects will be swept aside because to do otherwise might result in the bill’s rejection. Perish the thought.
Nonetheless, the agriculture industry coalition was able to secure several critical amendments that hopefully better restrict that state water board from intervening and reduce cost exposure. Proposition 1, the water infrastructure bond, also includes $100 million to help local agencies develop groundwater management plans.
Moving forward, WG will work with the Brown Administration to examine basin adjudications and ways to streamline that process, which may require additional legislation. We will also push to have the use of surface water to recharge groundwater defined as a beneficial use under state law (a concept proposed by the Brown Administration but left out of the legislation), and we will seek ways to further limit state intervention into local matters.
We also will continue to press for restoration of surface water flows to basins experiencing groundwater stress. It is simply not acceptable to insist that our communities manage groundwater “sustainably” while federal and state environmental policies cut off the only water supply that can recharge our groundwater basins.
What matters most now, however, is for local water managers and their governing boards to move aggressively to form basin-wide or sub basin-wide groundwater management agencies, and begin developing management plans, as provided by the legislation. Local water agencies have the authority and the mandate to act in a way that allows them to control their own destiny.
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