Drought leads to flood of bills on water issues


Issue Date: April 22, 2015
By Kate Campbell

With dozens of water-related bills moving through the Legislature, policy experts say they're working hard to keep ahead of the tide. The bills range from efforts to make the groundwater basin-adjudication process more efficient, to changing definitions of what constitutes beneficial use, to making well logs public.

"We're tracking a horde of water-related bills, prompted mostly by the drought," said Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation director of water resources. "There are a dozen bills related to groundwater and many others that target various water issues, probably several dozen bills in all."

A large number of groundwater bills came before the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee last week. One measure, Assembly Bill 1390, authored by Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, focuses on making adjudication of groundwater rights more efficient. The bill passed the committee on a 16-0 vote. This is a Farm Bureau-sponsored measure that will be heard next in the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

"This measure will make our groundwater-rights adjudication system more efficient while working with the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act," Merkley said. "At this point, AB 1390 has 16 co-authors from both parties and both houses of the Legislature."

The bill is focused on procedural matters rather than modifying water law or local groundwater planning under the new SGMA, Merkley said.

Key provisions of the measure include clarifying court procedures to help reduce the time and money required to go through adjudication, he said, adding that doesn't mean groundwater adjudications will be fast and simple, "but that the process will be more efficient than it is now."

Merkley said AB 1390 makes it easier to ascertain groundwater rights, so that farmers large and small can save both time and money.

The bill encourages early water rights settlement and avoiding undue disruption of local groundwater planning efforts. It also aims to provide a preliminary hearing to ensure a comprehensive adjudication of groundwater rights is appropriate, and requires clear rules on proper notice to all overlying landowners in a basin.

Other groundwater-related bills working their way through the Legislature include:

  • AB 453 by Frank Bigelow, R-O'Neals, would allow an existing groundwater management plan to be amended until a Groundwater Sustainability Plan is adopted under the SGMA. It passed on a vote of 14-0 and subsequently was passed later in the week by the full Assembly 78-1. The measure will be heard next in the Senate. Farm Bureau supports it.
  • AB 454, also by Bigelow, adds one year to each of the deadlines for forming a management agency under the SGMA and adopting a plan. It narrowly passed 8-7 and will next be heard in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
  • AB 647 by Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, changes the legal definition of what constitutes a beneficial use of water to include water that is stored in the ground, even if no further purpose is identified. It passed out of committee 10-1 and will be heard next in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
  • AB 938 by Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, clarifies that "a combination of local agencies" can also establish a Groundwater Sustainability Agency. It was approved on consent. Farm Bureau supports this measure.
  • AB 939, also by Salas, extends the time period during which data for setting fees under the SGMA will be publicly available from 10 days to 20. It was approved on consent. Farm Bureau supports.
  • AB 1242 by Adam Gray, D-Merced, requires the State Water Resources Control Board to implement mitigation measures for effects to groundwater basins that occur when local entities opt to pump more groundwater in response to state action. It was approved 8-4. Farm Bureau supports.

Another groundwater bill that passed out of committee was Senate Bill 226 by Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, that would make additional changes to the SGMA. It passed the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee on a 6-2 vote.

One troublesome aspect of the bill, Merkley said, would give authority to the Department of Water Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife to intervene in future adjudications, if they claim an interest on behalf of the environment.

In addition to groundwater legislation, a number of bills under consideration address surface water supplies, others target small water storage projects and some were prompted by abuses of the California Environmental Quality Act.

"It's not ideal that there are so many bills addressing the same issues at once," Merkley said, "but folks in Sacramento often use a crisis to push their agendas."

SB 20, also by Pavley, would make well-construction reports available to the public, including reports about altered, abandoned or destroyed wells. It was approved along party lines by the Senate Environmental Quality Committee on a 5-2 vote.

Identical measures by Pavley have failed in recent years.

Well logs already must be submitted to the Department of Water Resources and made available to appropriate public agencies, Merkley said. For example, groundwater-management agencies already have access to the data and use it to manage local groundwater. SB 20 will next be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Farm Bureau opposes.

"In the meantime, we're doing all we can to help our members understand the new SGMA law and how to comply," Merkley said.

Given the current onslaught of legislation, he said, the best thing farmers and ranchers can do is remain in contact with their representatives at all levels of government.

"During this drought, there are real stories about real lives playing out that farmers need to tell," Merkley said. "Our representatives need to understand the impact of the bills they propose on farms, families and local communities."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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