Calif. governor OKs bills to regulate groundwater amid drought

Reuters — California Governor Jerry Brown signed a package of bills on Tuesday to regulate California’s stressed groundwater supplies amid a drought that is expected to cost the state US$2.2 billion in lost crops, jobs and other damages, with no end in sight.

The bills will allow the state to take over management of underground aquifers and water accessed via wells, and aim to tighten oversight of water at a time when groundwater levels are shrinking in the third year of a catastrophic drought.

“We have to learn to manage wisely water, energy, land and our investments,” Brown said as he signed the bills despite opposition from some farm and agricultural industry groups. “That’s why this is important.”

Farmers in California’s agricultural heartland rely on water from wells to irrigate their crops when the state cuts back on supplies from streams and the fragile San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta.

About a million Californians rely on private wells for drinking water, many of which have gone dry as groundwater levels have receded. But while California uses more groundwater than many other states, it lacks the oversight common elsewhere.

Recent studies have shown groundwater levels receding throughout the Southwest, prompting concern among environmentalists and others that usage needs to be better regulated.

The bills Brown signed will require that hard-hit groundwater basins adopt sustainability plans by January 2020, although high and medium priority basins not considered subject to critical overdraft will have an additional two years.

All groundwater plans must achieve sustainability within 20 years of adoption, and local agencies managing them must report to the state Department of Water Resources every five years.

The bills also outline enforcement mechanisms, and the regulations are expected to cost the state roughly US$5.5 million in annual costs by the 2017-18 fiscal year. Some costs would be offset by fees.

Some agricultural companies and farm groups had argued against the bills, which they called hastily written, saying they would impose rigid guidelines on farmers while failing to address needs of agricultural water users in the Central Valley.

“While there is legitimate concern about the over-drafting of some groundwater basins, this massive expansion of state authority will not solve the problem,” said Connie Conway, the Republican minority leader in the state assembly.

In November, California voters will vote on Proposition 1, the US$7.6 billion “water bond” intended to improve water supplies in the state.

— Aaron Mendelson reports for Reuters and is based at Oakland, Calif.

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