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.