California Sets Stage for First Groundwater Regulations

California lawmakers have sent Governor Jerry Brown legislation that would for the first time regulate groundwater use as the most-populous U.S. state suffers from a record drought.

The proposals would require local governments to develop groundwater regulations and give the state the power to step in and enforce restrictions if necessary.

Three years of record low rain and snow have left more than 80 percent of California in extreme drought. With reservoirs at less than half capacity and water supplies to the nation’s most productive agricultural region rationed, well drilling has doubled and even tripled in some counties.

“A critical element of addressing the water challenges facing California involves ensuring a sustainable supply of groundwater,” Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, a Sacramento Democrat, said in a statement yesterday. “Overdrafting our groundwater leads to subsidence and contamination -- consequences we cannot afford.”

California agriculture faces the greatest water loss ever seen because of the drought, with surface water for farms reduced by roughly one-third, according to a July study by the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California at Davis. Groundwater is being pumped to replace most of the surface water loss, the study said.

Farmers have left fallow an estimated half-million acres because of the drought, and the dry spell is likely to boost the prices of food nationwide, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Brown has called for a statewide voluntary reduction of water use by 20 percent, and residents now face fines of as much as $500 a day for wasting water.