California and an Uncertain Future in Groundwater Regulation

California’s lakes and rivers were the first to display the current drought with their growing banks and plunging surface area, but the state’s hidden groundwater is also losing volume and feeling the effects of the drought. California relies on groundwater for forty percent of all fresh-water consumed in California. Recently, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation, the first of this kind in California history, regarding groundwater. The Governor stated that the severity of the drought is what allowed this legislation to pass in the legislature and onto him to be signed; policy about water is of utmost concern in the state.

The passage of this trio of bills about groundwater use and management solidifies California’s status as the last Western state to regulate groundwater. This new legislation turns the state away from its previous system of landowners being able to pump as much groundwater as they please, which has been in place since the gold rush. Rather, this new legislation moves to emulate other Western states in considering groundwater a shared resource that must be managed by state agencies.

The three bills: Senate Bill (SB) 1168, Assembly Bill (AB) 1739, and Senate Bill 1319 are the foundation for the new regulatory plan. SB 1168 instructs local agencies to develop management plans. AB 1739 creates the possibility for state intervention when local agencies do not do a satisfactory job at managing. SB 1319 postpones state action for areas where surface water has been depleted previously by the pumping of groundwater. Many urban and coastal legislators supported the bills, but the agricultural communities opposed the bills because they fear property value loss and heavy water restrictions. SB 1319 was introduced to alleviate the concerns posed by legislators from agriculture-heavy districts. While SB 1319 was an attempt at finding a common ground, voting for the bills still displayed a regional divide.

This legislation arises out of concern that an ever-drying California is over-pumping groundwater; the results of which could be quite detrimental. Over-pumping can compress rocks and soil to the point that it permanently reduces the storage capacity for groundwater. The compression of soil and rocks can also lead to sinking and shifting land, which can damage infrastructure like roads, canals, and building foundations.

While environmentalists and water managers are excited for the new legislation, many involved in agriculture have large concerns with the new bills. Agricultural groups, like the California Farm Bureau, fear the bills will infringe upon private property rights and farmers ability to get adequate amounts of water. The President of the California Farm Bureau, Paul Wegner, said the bill could potentially become “historic” for all the wrong reasons, such as by destroying California’s ability to be a world-leader in food production.

These new bills will not create any type of immediate relief, nor will they be implemented quickly. It will take years for the state to create, introduce, and oversee local management plans. Local planners have until 2017 to create or choose a groundwater agency. Those agencies then have until 2020 or 2022, based on how dire their groundwater situation is, to create sustainability plans. California will not feel the effects of these sustainability plans and recovery of the over-pumped basins until at least 2040, creating a long wait for a state amid a historical drought.


The title picture is a depiction of a dried out California riverbed. This image is in the public domain because it contains materials that originally came from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, taken or made as part of an employee’s official duties. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration does not endorse this blog.



Melanie Mason, Brown signs bill to regulate pumping of underground water, The Los Angeles Times, (last visited September 20, 2014).

The Associated Press, Things to know about California groundwater law, (last visited September 20, 2014).

David Siders, Jerry Brown signs groundwater legislation, The Sacramento Bee, (last visited September 20, 2014).

Dairy Today Editors, California Farm Bureau Will ‘Actively Monitor’ Implementation of State’s New Groundwater Law, (last visited September 20, 2014).