New groundwater laws to have ripple effect on agriculture (w/video)

Gov. Jerry Brown signed historic groundwater legislation Tuesday, imposing new rules in the Golden State that could limit how much water commercial and residential users are allowed to pump from underground aquifers - a move decades in the works, spurred this year by California’s drought.

The new laws, which take effect in January, will require local government officials to ensure use of groundwater basins is sustainable, protecting underground reserves and averting other environmental damage. The regulations could have a ripple effect on thousands of farmers and ranchers across the North Coast.

Brown, who sought state action on groundwater during his first run as governor more than 30 years ago - during another prolonged drought - characterized the new move as a necessary step to save the state’s groundwater reserves from depletion.

“This is a big deal,” Brown said at the signing ceremony Tuesday. “It has been known about for decades that underground water has to be managed and regulated in some way.”

California has long been the only western state to allow property owners to pump as they please, and proponents of the legislation said that hands-off approach has led to overuse of wells, causing sinking land and billions of dollars in damage to aquifers, roads and canals.

“Wells are going dry. People are quarreling over whose water it is underground. We have a system deficit - water is being overdrafted without having the chance to be restored or renewed,” said Lester Snow, director for the nonprofit California Water Foundation, an advocacy firm created to drive sustainable groundwater management. “The drought has created an opportunity to discuss groundwater management when previously no one wanted to talk about it.”

Groups representing the state’s powerful agricultural industry, including the California Farm Bureau, opposed the legislation. The farming sector has been hit by $1.5 billion in losses in the drought, with Central Valley farmers forced do without government water allocations and hundreds of North Coast growers ordered to curtail diversions from the Russian and Eel rivers. Increasingly, growers in the region and across the state have turned to wells as arid conditions sap surface supplies for irrigation.

Farming groups said the legislation Brown signed Tuesday was rushed and punishes well-managed agencies while infringing on property rights.

“This is crisis-driven legislation,” said Tito Sasaki, president of the 3,000-member Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “It’s going to have a tremendous effect on our economy, and in the end, it will not solve our problems with the water supply.”

Brown said the state has listened to farm groups.

“We’ve made some concessions, we’ve taken into account concerns that farmers throughout California have,” Brown said. “We’ve gone as far as we thought was appropriate.”

The state will require local governments to designate within two years an agency to prepare plans that ensure groundwater supplies are not depleted. If goals aren’t met, the state could intervene.

Sonoma County, which has pushed use of recycled water for farmers and encouraged voluntary cuts in pumping in at least one basin - in Sonoma Valley - may be well positioned to deal with the new orders. The county’s overseeing agency could be the Board of Supervisors, a new authority or the Sonoma County Water Agency, though agency officials were quick to point out that they are not a regulatory body.

Still, farmers, ranchers and county officials are worried the mandatory rules could strip them of local control and undermine work that has enabled scientific studies of aquifer levels in three main basins: in Sonoma Valley, the Santa Rosa Plain, and most recently, an assessment now underway in Petaluma.

“The plan we’ve constructed and developed has really worked,” said Grant Davis, general manager of the county Water Agency. “We’ve done it with a group of environmentalists and agricultural groups, with businesses, rural communities and cities at the table.”

To preserve ground and surface supplies, the county has also been expanding its storage and delivery of recycled water for growers and ranchers.

The recycled water allows Ray Mulas, a third-generation farmer on the outskirts of Sonoma to run his dairy and vineyard operation without tapping his wells. The operation needs 2 to 3 million gallons a day.

“I have two big wells, so I could pump a lot of water out of the ground, but I don’t,” said Mulas, who has 1,600 dairy cows and pinot noir and chardonnay vineyards. “It’s about responsibility. I have a lot of neighbors I’d piss off if I just pumped all day.”

The Mulas farm is just one stop along 12 miles of underground pipes that transport recycled water from a treatment plant in Sonoma Valley to dozens of other homeowners and businesses who have voluntarily cut their use of groundwater, turning instead to recycled water.

But the valley’s aquifer is still threatened by over-pumping, illustrating perhaps the limits of a county’s voluntary efforts.

Nearly half of the water used - by agriculture, business and residents - is drawn from underground supplies, and two parts of the area have sunk below sea level, allowing salt water to seep into underground reserves.

“That’s bad,” Davis said. “What we’re worried about is the depletion of groundwater, but also the salinity that would migrate up from the south, and we’re seeing evidence of that.”

Of the roughly 40,000 wells in Sonoma County, Water Agency officials said voluntary monitoring is done on about 140. New state rules would change that, putting all wells under some kind of scrutiny.

Agriculture, which uses more than 60 percent of all water in California - nearly four times as much as urban uses and three times what stays in the environment or flows to ocean - is likely to be impacted most.

Farming representatives say it could affect the economic viability for many of the nearly 3,600 farm properties that cover more than half of the land in Sonoma County.

“This is no longer voluntary, it’s a completely new game with fees and penalties,” said Sasaki, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau president. “We are very disturbed about that development, we feel it’s been rushed.”

Proponents of the new laws said, however, that counties must act now, before the state’s drought grows more severe and puts additional strain on underground water supplies.

“This is critical,” said Jane Nielson, co-founder of the Sonoma County Water Coalition, including environmental and community groups. “There isn’t a lot of trust when it comes to the challenges faced by agriculture and rural residents, but everybody has to understand that we sink or swim together.”

This report contains information from the Associated Press. You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or On Twitter @ahartreports.

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