Lawmakers approve landmark groundwater regulation plan

Water driller Steve Arthur's crew works on a well that will provide water for an orange grove in Terra Bella, Calif.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Lawmakers approved Friday a package of bills that would lay the foundation for regulating California’s groundwater statewide for the first time in its history.

Supporters said the landmark proposal would bring much needed oversight to the underground water sources that more than three-quarters of the state’s residents rely on for some or all of their drinking water.

“California has no comprehensive groundwater management statute. Amazingly, this fact sets us apart from all other western states, including Texas,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento), the author of one of the measures.


“By the way, I often hear around this building that we should be more like Texas. For those of you who believe in that, here’s your chance,” Dickinson said prior to the vote.

The regulatory plan is broken up into three bills: SB 1168 by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) would direct local agencies to create management plans, while AB 1739 by Dickinson would set conditions for when the state government can intervene if the local groups aren’t up to the task.

A third measure, SB 1319, also by Pavley, aims to address some concerns of agricultural interests by delaying the state’s intervention in certain places where surface water has been affected by groundwater pumping.

All three bills must be signed by the governor for the management scheme to take effect.

It is the second time this year that lawmakers, in the midst of an historic drought, have acted on significant water policy. Earlier this month, legislators approved a $7.5-billion water bond to be put before voters on the November ballot.

But while the water bond ultimately passed with near unanimity, supported by both parties and by lawmakers from throughout the state, the debate over groundwater management exposed the deep regional schisms that still exist when it comes to water.

Many urban and coastal legislators, almost entirely Democrats, supported the measure, which was also backed by environmentalist groups and water district managers.


“We are in a crisis,” Pavley said on the Senate floor. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”

But farm interests were staunchly opposed to the plan, arguing it could lower their property values and restrict water use for their crops. The bulk of Republicans, as well as Democrats from agriculture-heavy districts, sided with them.

Sen. Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto) said of the proposal, “in the farming community, this is war.”

“To have all the legislators from the San Joaquin Valley off of this bill -- Republicans and Democrats -- and to have most of the agricultural community in opposition, it’s just not the way to do this policy,” said Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced) in an interview Friday. “I think we could have pushed a little harder, a little farther, got people a little closer together.”

Staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

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