For a state that has 840 miles of sweet Pacific Ocean coastline, it might seem ironic that California is hurting for water. But years of drought and unregulated groundwater use have devastated groundwater aquifers, forcing the California legislature to finally step in with what some farmers in California’s Central Valley are calling “draconian” regulation.
The Central Valley of California is a major producer of produce in the US, growing more than 300 different crops. It is 450 miles long and produces nearly a third of the Nation’s produce. However, this production comes at a price to the water supplies, especially during drought years when nearly 60% of the water used for farming in California comes from groundwater. As a result of the drought, well over 400,000 acres have been fallowed, 14,500 jobs have been lost, and there has been at least $738 million in gross farm revenue reductions. Overall, the effect on the Central Valley agriculture industry is estimated to be $1.7 billion. Municipal wells are going dry around the edges of the Central Valley and land is subsiding more than 30 feet in some areas. Hundreds of domestic wells, if not thousands, have gone dry during the drought.
On September 16, 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed three bills into law designed to address the state’s groundwater issues: SB1168, AB1739, and SB1319. Together, these bills are designed to put some teeth into existing laws that allow local agencies to implement groundwater management plans. Local governments have until 2017 to form groundwater sustainability agencies, which can impose fees and implement strict controls on groundwater use, including well metering and reporting, through the voluntary adoption of groundwater sustainability plans. The groundwater sustainability agencies may also acquire water to augment supplies or to store surface water in the ground for future use.
The legislation also requires the California Department of Water Resources to categorize groundwater basins in the state as high/medium/low/very low priority. Groundwater sustainability agencies for basins that are designated as medium or high priority are required to create groundwater sustainability plans. Currently there are 127 groundwater basins and sub-basins that are designated as high or medium priority in the Central Valley primarily. Failure of a groundwater sustainability agency in one of these high or medium priority basins to adopt a sufficient sustainability plan could result in placement of the basin on “probation,” which essentially opens the door for the state to supersede local control of the aquifer. For basins that are given the probationary status, the State Water Resources Control Board may step in and implement an “interim plan” when the local agency has failed to address problems that led to the probationary status, and has the authority to enforce the terms of the interim plan.
The legislation will go into effect January 1, 2015. Agriculture groups and property rights advocates are already lining up to challenge the legislation.