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New Groundwater Legislation Takes Effect January 2015

drought

New laws will soon change the way one of the most significant sources of California’s water supply is governed. In the wake of the worst drought in California history, the state’s legislature adopted a three bill package at the close of the 2014 legislative session that regulates California groundwater. The new laws take effect on January 1, 2015. While the California Constitution requires the reasonable and beneficial use of water, California was one of only a few states that did not significantly regulate groundwater until now.

AB 1739, SB 1168 and SB 1319 establish new regulations over groundwater extractions. The bills enunciate the policy of the state that groundwater resources be managed sustainably for long-term reliability and multiple economic, social, and environmental benefits for current and future beneficial users. According to the California Department of Water Resources, groundwater makes up 30 to 46 percent of the state’s total water supply depending on the amount of rainfall in any given year.

SB 1168 enacts the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act with the stated intent of empowering local groundwater agencies to manage groundwater basins through the development of groundwater sustainability plans. This bill requires the Department of Water Resources to categorize each basin as high, medium, low or very low priority. Locally, and likely the most well known, the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin has been classified as a High Priority Basin. There are a few other basins within San Luis Obispo County that have also received high or medium classifications. All basins designated as high or medium priority and subject to critical conditions of overdraft have to implement a groundwater sustainability plan by January 31, 2020; all other high or medium priority groundwater basins have until January 31, 2022. The bill encourages and authorizes low or very low priority basins to be managed under groundwater sustainability plans, but does not require it.

SB 1168 also authorizes any local agency to elect to be a groundwater sustainability agency. If an area remains unmanaged by such an agency, the county within which the area lies becomes the groundwater sustainability agency for that area by default, unless the county declines. If no local agency or county serves as the groundwater sustainability agency for a given area by June 30, 2017, the State Water Resources Control Board will step in as the regulator of any subject basin therein. In addition, SB 1168 provides specific authority to a groundwater sustainability agency to (1) require registration of a groundwater extraction facility, (2) require that a groundwater extraction facility be measured with a water-measuring device, and (3) regulate groundwater extractions.

The second bill, SB 1319, authorizes the State Water Resources Control Board to designate certain high and medium priority basins as probationary if prescribed criteria are met, including determines determination that the basin is in a condition where groundwater extractions result in significant depletions of interconnected surface waters. If a local agency does not remedy the deficiencies that caused the basin to be designated a “probationary basin,” the State Board may adopt an interim plan for the basin.

The third bill, AB 1739, requires a groundwater sustainability agency to submit a groundwater sustainability plan to the Department of Water Resources for review upon adoption. It also requires the Department to review such submissions every five years.

For those interested in learning more about the new legislation, the California League of Cities has prepared a Summary of the Groundwater Management Legislation. Please email Carmel & Naccasha’s Marketing Director, Courtney Kienow, to see those documents at CKienow@carnaclaw.com.

The author of this article, Heather Whitham, is a partner at Carmel & Naccasha LLP whose practice focuses primarily on representing public agency clients. Carmel & Naccasha represents numerous public agencies that are grappling with the water issues created by the drought. Heather can be reached through her email address which can be found on her biography page or at 805-546-8785.