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California’s new groundwater law takes shape.

California Aqueduct

California is about water. It always has been. says:

By now, at the tail end of year four of California’s drought, the story of the state’s groundwater woes has been widely chronicled. This year alone, farmers across the state lost nearly 9 million acre-feet of surface water from the state and federal water delivery networks, nearly half their usual supply.

They largely made up for the loss by sinking thousands of new wells and furiously pumping water from below. In the parched San Joaquin Valley, the effects of decades of unregulated groundwater pumping have become more pronounced in the drought. As in much of California, seasonal crops such as cotton and tomatoes have given way to vast orchards of walnuts, pistachios and almonds. These high-demand crops are lucrative, but can’t be fallowed in a drought, leading to more groundwater pumping when surface deliveries are cut.

In some areas, the land is sinking as aquifers are depleted. Portions of the Delta-Mendota Canal, which brings water to much of the San Joaquin Valley, have buckled. NASA researchers found a stretch near the California Aqueduct, the key highway of the State Water Project, that sank 8 inches in four months last year. A spot near Corcoran in Kings County, sank 13 inches in one recent eight-month period.

Saying such conditions posed a threat to the state’s long-term water supply, the Legislature last year passed legislation that imposes sweeping new regulations on groundwater extraction. The laws call for creation of new local agencies with broad powers to restrict pumping and impose penalties for overuse and failing to allow inspections.

State agencies, which include the Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board have the responsibility to oversee the local agencies, and, if necessary, to take over their functions.

The concept of setting limits on groundwater threatens a basic business model of California’s farm economy. In normal years, groundwater makes up 40% of all freshwater consumed in California. In drought years, that figure jumps to 60%. Legal challenges are almost inevitable. continues:

California’s new groundwater legislation affects 127 basins that regulators have deemed to be medium or high priority because of their importance to the state’s water supplies. The basin management agencies must be formed by 2017. The agencies overseeing the 21 basins that have been deemed critically overdrafted have until 2020 to set up long-term management plans. The rest have until 2022.

The legislation doesn’t specify the makeup of the basin management agencies, other than saying members should be local public officials. An existing entity, such as a water district or county board, could manage a basin, or they could be created from a combination of agencies. Their charge will be to ensure water use in their region is balanced – that what’s pumped out can be replenished over time.

A critical unanswered question is how this process will mesh with long-standing California laws that protect water and property rights.

-Bill at

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