New groundwater management regulations passed by California legislature

September 10, 2014

The ongoing drought in the western United States has attracted increasing amounts attention from environmental experts and government officials. One of the main challenges has been getting private property owners to consider the impact that withdrawals from their wells have on the larger groundwater system.

Lawmakers in California recently passed three bills that address the situation by placing new controls on private withdrawals and establishing oversight at the local and state levels. The state also recently approved a $7.5 billion bond that would fund various water management projects.

The New York Times published an article examining the proposed groundwater rules and the broader environmental challenges facing California and other southwestern states as a result of both the drought and the growing demand driven by population growth and urbanization.

California Water Foundation executive director Lester Snow, who previously served as head of the state's Water Resources Department, told the Times that allowing private landowners to conduct unrestricted drilling is "the equivalent of deficit spending." Water resources need to be budgeted in the same way as financial resources, balancing the pace of withdrawals against expected deposits and changes in the size of reserves.

"If we don't deal with this properly, you're going to see local economies crash," said Kings River Conservation District general manager David Orth. Without a coordinated, long-term plan for managing water supplies, Orth said there will eventually be "an uncontrolled market adjustment" that drives many farmers out of business.

A wide range of other water-dependent operations would be affected in this scenario, including manufacturing and oil production, both of which are key parts of the California and U.S. economies.

To avoid this outcome, the legislature has proposed a regulatory system that would require water management authorities in certain at-risk areas to create and implement sustainable water management plans. The state government would assume control in cases where local officials failed to maintain compliance.

The Sacramento Bee points out that other states in the region have already implemented comparable restrictions, but California voters and lawmakers have resisted statewide regulations out of a desire to preserve property rights. This is an especially salient concern for farmers. Agricultural groups and lawmakers representing the so-called farm belt remain opposed to the new groundwater regulations.

A letter signed by the California Farm Bureau Federation and other industry stakeholders warned that limiting withdrawals from private wells would have dire consequences, including a decline in agricultural production, the devaluation of arable land and a proportionate drop in revenue from property taxes. Opponents of the groundwater regulations attempted to push an alternative plan during the final days of the legislative session, but failed to gain traction.

Assuming the bills passed by the legislature are signed into law by Governor Brown, a variety of public and private-sector stakeholders will need to adjust to the new system. In this situation, companies may require assistance from experienced environmental consultants.