Farm groups will monitor new laws on groundwater


Issue Date: September 24, 2014
By Dave Kranz

With a package of new statewide groundwater laws due to take effect Jan. 1, agricultural and water organizations say they will closely monitor their implementation.

Gov. Brown signed three bills last week that will be known collectively as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The bills provide a broad new regulatory framework for managing groundwater.

The California Farm Bureau Federation and other farm organizations had asked the governor to veto the bills, describing them as hastily written and overbroad. Opponents said the laws will mandate a costly new regulatory system that will result in greater uncertainty for farmers and ranchers.

Now that the governor has signed the bills, CFBF President Paul Wenger said Farm Bureau will turn its focus to their implementation.

"We will be watching this process carefully to make sure state and local agencies respect water rights, property rights and privacy rights, as the bills require," Wenger said.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires medium- and high-priority basins in critical overdraft to be covered by groundwater management plans within five years; other medium- and high-priority basins will have seven years. The act does not require plans for low- or very low-priority basins, although plans would be allowed in those basins.

If local areas fail to comply with the act's requirements, the State Water Resources Control Board may step in to establish groundwater management plans, and can charge fees to cover the costs of its intervention.

"The act does provide for local control of groundwater, which is consistent with Farm Bureau policy," CFBF Administrator Rich Matteis said.

But, he said, the law still contains a number of issues that could be troubling for farmers and ranchers as it is implemented.

"It will be essential for farmers and ranchers to stay informed and engaged as the groundwater laws are implemented," Matteis said. "The groundwater management plans and their impacts will be heavily influenced by those who participate."

Specifically, the three bills signed by the governor will do the following:

  • Assembly Bill 1739, by Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, requires local management of groundwater basins to achieve "sustainable yield" during a 20-to-30-year period. It requires the state Department of Water Resources to provide technical assistance to local "groundwater sustainability agencies" as they develop and implement plans.

    AB 1739 also gives the local agencies authority to charge fees to cover the cost of their programs. It grants enforcement powers to the local agencies, including civil penalties of up to $500 per acre-foot of water pumped in excess of the amount authorized, and penalties of up to $1,000 for violation of any rule, regulation, ordinance or resolution. Local agencies could also charge $100 for each day a person fails to comply, within 30 days of being notified.

    The bill requires DWR to evaluate groundwater-sustainability plans developed by local agencies, and requires DWR to adopt regulations for evaluating local plans by June 1, 2016. It also grants authority for the state to intervene if DWR—in consultation with the state water board—determines a local plan to be inadequately written or implemented.
     
  • Senate Bill 1168, by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, establishes minimum standards for sustainable groundwater management and provides local agencies with authority, plus technical and financial assistance, to manage groundwater sustainably.

    SB 1168 also establishes the boundaries of groundwater basins, establishes the process through which a local entity can become the groundwater sustainability agency for its basin, defines a local agency's powers and authorities, develops criteria required in a sustainability plan and outlines which basins will be required to implement plans.
     
  • SB 1319, also by Pavley, provides that the state water board may not intervene and establish a plan for a basin due to surface water depletion caused by groundwater extraction prior to Jan. 1, 2025. It also requires the water board to exclude from probationary status any portion of a basin that complies with groundwater management requirements.

    Although Farm Bureau and most farm organizations continued to oppose the legislation, they were able to achieve a number of amendments to "remove a few of the most dangerous elements from the legislation," according to CFBF Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley.

"One key amendment we were able to secure includes language aimed at protecting existing groundwater rights," Merkley said.

But none of the amendments overrode agricultural groups' concerns that the new laws, as Wenger put it, "may come to be seen as 'historic' for all the wrong reasons."

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at dkranz@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.