"This is a big deal," Brown said at a signing ceremony in the Capitol. "It's been known about for decades that underground water has to be managed and regulated in some way."
Since the state's founding, water has been considered a property right; landowners have been able to pump as much water from the ground as they want. But increasing reliance on underground water, particularly during droughts, has led to more pumping from some basins than what is naturally being replaced.
Some areas already have begun managing their groundwater sources, but other key basins remain unregulated.
Even with the management structure in place, experts say it could be decades before the state's most depleted basins recover.
The regulatory plan signed by Brown is broken up into three bills: SB 1168 by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) instructs local agencies to create management plans. A measure by Assemblyman
A third measure, SB 1319, also by Pavley, seeks to allay some concerns of farmers by postponing the state's action in certain places where surface water has been affected by groundwater pumping.
Brown touted the plan's emphasis on local agencies, which he described as "pushing the responsibility to where people really are."
He insisted his administration and lawmakers did not "shove aside those who were not totally comfortable" while crafting the legislation.
"We've made some concessions, we've taken into account concerns that farmers throughout California have," he said, adding "we've gone as far as we thought was appropriate" to address those concerns.
But many agriculture interests remain staunchly opposed to the bill. Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the bills "may come to be seen as 'historic' for all the wrong reasons" by drastically harming food production.
Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) said the legislation did not go far enough in protecting local interests because the state can step in to enforce regulation.
"Waiting in the wings is the all-powerful reach of state government," Patterson said in an interview. "That should scare anybody.
"There's really going to be a wrestling match over who's going to get the water," Patterson said, predicting the regulation plans will bring a rash of lawsuits.
Groundwater will likely remain on the agenda for the Legislature next year. In a signing statement, Brown indicated he would also propose legislative tweaks next session to streamline the process in which courts determine groundwater rights.