As the effects of the drought intensify, the California legislature has responded by finally tightening its control over the state’s groundwater reserves. On September 16, the Governor signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, a package of three closely related bills.
While this move is historic—California was previously the only western state without groundwater regulation—the framework is weaker than is found in other western states.
“Unregulated groundwater extraction has been depleting our streams and rivers for too long,” said Konrad Fisher, Executive Director of Klamath Riverkeeper. “This legislation alone will not protect ecosystems from excessive groundwater extraction, but it is a historic step in the right direction.”
“Now it’s the responsibility of local groundwater managers to protect ecosystems and surface water right holders from excessive groundwater withdrawals,” Fisher said.
While small pockets of groundwater are common everywhere, most of the major groundwater basins lie in the Central Valley, and are significant sources of the water needed to grow crops. In wet years, groundwater basins recharge, but under the drought conditions of the past few years, the demand for groundwater is outstripping the recharge rate. As a result, the water levels of these underground aquifers is dropping. In many areas, wells have needed to be deepened. If the groundwater elevation drops too far, the overlying land can subside, and in some areas, salt water can intrude into the aquifer.
Many communities, farms, and industries get part of their water from surface sources, such as rivers and lakes, and part of it from wells. As surface water vanishes, water districts increase their withdrawal from wells, thus exacerbating the problem.
The state has been dealing with this problem for years, encouraging local water districts to study, map and plan their underground water reserves, and to create water management plans. But this has always been voluntary, and some water districts have chosen not to undertake this effort. And up until now, there has been little incentive to keep water districts from overdrafting the groundwater supply.
With the new legislation, this will change. All significant groundwater basins will have to be managed for sustainability, a term that was absent in previous legislation. The Department of Water Resources will map out each of the significant groundwater basins, and with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, will prioritize the importance of the basin both for the environment and for human endeavors such as agriculture and industry.
Groundwater basins rated as high- and medium- priority must be governed by a new set of local regulatory agencies, which will create plans for managing the groundwater sustainably. A groundwater management agency can be an existing water district, a city, a county, or a new group.
The most significant change in this legislation is linking groundwater planning with the General Plans that each city and county are required to make. When adopting or making substantial revisions to a General Plan, the entity is required to consider the groundwater management plan, and to change chapters of the General Plan that might result in a conflict with the groundwater plan. Also, the newly formed groundwater management agencies will have the right to comment on any proposed significant changes to General Plans.
Sustainable management of low- and very low-priority groundwater basins is not required by the new legislation, but communities that want loans or grants from the Department of Water Resources cannot get them unless they have such a plan in place.
The pace of this action, however, is leisurely—agencies have until January 2020 to come up with their plans, with another 20 years allowed to stop serious groundwater overdrafts. Therefore, the potential for irreversible groundwater depletion still remains, underscoring the imperative that communities urge their governments to take strong local action.