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Farm groups: State should act deliberately on groundwater

Issue Date: June 11, 2014
By Kate Campbell

Drought-driven efforts to increase groundwater regulation in California feature a variety of studies, regulatory proposals and legislative solutions vying for attention. But agricultural experts told the state Board of Food and Agriculture last week there's great economic and environmental peril in hastily adopting rules that could come freighted with unintended consequences.

During presentations before the board meeting in Sacramento, farm group representatives agreed a rigid, one-size-fits-all regulatory scheme would hinder—rather than help—sustainable storage and use of underground water.

Chris Scheuring, an environmental attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation, told the board that California should move "deliberately and slowly" when contemplating new groundwater legislation.

"There are groundwater basins throughout the state that are in pretty good shape," Scheuring said. "It's often said California is the only state that does not regulate groundwater, which may be true in terms of a statewide framework, but there are many groundwater basins throughout the state being effectively managed at the local level."

Those efforts could be enhanced under existing law, he said, as part of a larger solution to problems with statewide water supply reliability. Scheuring emphasized the tie between groundwater and reliable supplies of surface water, which he said are necessary for groundwater recharge and aquifer management.

Another farm group representative, Dave Puglia of Western Growers, also stressed the tie between surface water and groundwater. With declining supplies of surface water, groundwater is the only water many farmers have left, he said.

"That's the real risk of getting this (regulation) wrong. We'd better not rush it and we'd better get it right," Puglia told the board.

Scheuring called groundwater "absolutely critical to the agricultural economy."

"For agriculture, groundwater is the last line of defense, the safety net," he said.

Farm Bureau groundwater policy, Scheuring said, is based on members' support of local management and protection of individual groundwater rights.

"Overlying groundwater rights are very important to agriculture," Scheuring said. "Water rights are tied to the soil and guarantee access to water, just as riparian rights do. They are property rights."

Scheuring also said Farm Bureau is concerned about adequate due process when it comes to determining groundwater rights, as well as triggers for groundwater adjudication and the role of the state in any "backstop" for local management. Along with the connection between groundwater management and the availability of surface water supplies, he emphasized the policy implications in defining the safe yield of aquifers and potential water transfer rights in any basin-management approach.

Tim Quinn of the Association of California Water Agencies—which has circulated one proposal for state groundwater oversight—told the board, "We're for maximum flexibility to let the locals figure it out. And we believe there has to be a strong backstop that almost never needs to be used."

The "backstop" refers to regulatory proposals that would allow the state to step in to prevent permanent damage to an aquifer by taking over authority to protect a groundwater basin and its users until an adequate local program is established. The state would also be responsible for providing technical support for local sub-basin management plans, which under some proposals would be required by 2020.

Improving California's groundwater sustainability requires strong oversight by local entities with backup support from the state, said Lester Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation, which has also circulated a regulatory proposal. He called the state's groundwater problem a "slow-moving disaster that's picking up speed."

Snow said it's important for the state to adopt a definition of sustainable groundwater management. He added that local entities may need to be created to cover so-called "white spots"—areas that are not represented by water agencies or other entities.

Tim Parker of the Groundwater Resources Association said the state also needs to work on efforts to help local entities develop ways to set groundwater management goals and that they will need assistance with monitoring and testing technology.

There are about 515 groundwater basins in California, experts said, with about 126 of those basins experiencing medium to high levels of overdraft. In an average water year, groundwater provides about 40 percent of the state's total water supply. But in dry years, groundwater can account for as much as 60 percent of overall supply.

In a very dry year such as this one, about 65 percent of water supplies are coming from underground pumping, according to Gordon Burns, state Environmental Protection Agency deputy secretary. Reliance on groundwater is highest on the Central Coast, 86 percent; the southern Sierra Nevada, 66 percent; and the Tulare Lake Basin, 54 percent. More than 9 million Californians rely exclusively on groundwater for domestic use.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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

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