Drought-Plagued California Stops Treating Groundwater Like Private Property

Receding water levels can be seen around the San Gabriel Reservoir Photograph by Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

California is finally joining the rest of western U.S. states to regulate how it pumps and protects its groundwater. Governor Jerry Brown signed a trio of laws passed by the legislature in late August that, for the first time, require the amount of water pumped out of the ground be balanced against how quickly the water supply is replenished.

Groundwater typically provides (pdf) about 40 percent of the water used in the state, but during periods of drought—like now—groundwater jumps to 60 percent, making up for shortfalls from surface water sources such as rivers. Before the new laws, local water districts could voluntarily come up with ways to oversee groundwater. But in general the people who own rights to the water could more or less pump as they please and sell the water in the private market. “This is a big deal,” Brown said at the signing.

The new laws, which go into effect in January, operate under the premise that groundwater isn’t just a private matter, connected only to land under which it sits. Instead, in the words of University of California Davis law professor Richard Frank, the laws recognize “that California’s surface and groundwater resources are in many respects part of a single complex, interconnected water system.”

Senate Bill 1168 requires local water districts to devise their own plans to regulate groundwater with the goal of using the resources in a sustainable way. To add some teeth to the requirements, Assembly Bill 1739 lets the state step in if local authorities aren’t doing enough to maintain that equilibrium, and finally Senate Bill 1319, in a concession to farmers who say this will impede their ability to grow food, delays state oversight by a few years in areas where using groundwater has already depleted surface water.

Taken together, the bills will overhaul how groundwater will be used in the state—eventually. They phase in different requirements, with the final piece not kicking in until 2040.

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