Governor Brown Signs Landmark Groundwater Legislation

California’s groundwater will be regulated for the first time under a package of three bills signed by Governor Jerry Brown on September 16, 2014. Together, the bills  establish the “Sustainable Groundwater Management Act” and impose mandates aimed at overseeing and managing California’s groundwater on a sustainable basis into the future. The California Legislature passed the historic legislation on August 29, 2014.

Until now, California was the only state in the nation that did not comprehensively manage and regulate its groundwater. The state could regulate water diverted from reservoirs and above-ground streams, but did not have authority to limit underground pumping prior to the new legislation’s passage and signing by the governor. According to a recent report by the California Water Foundation, groundwater is used to meet 40 percent of the state’s water demands in an average water year. That number can rise to 60 percent or more during droughts such as the one currently gripping the state. A recent study by the California Department of Water Resources revealed that extractions are exceeding replenishment rates in many places, resulting in unsustainable drainage of underground aquifers.

The bill package includes AB 1739 by Assemblymember Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento), and SB 1168 and SB 1319 by Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills). The legislation focuses on local and regional control of groundwater supplies, with eventual direct state intervention if local management falls short. The new act assigns local agencies the authority and responsibility for managing the groundwater basins upon which they rely through various investigative, regulatory, and enforcement tools. “Backstop” provisions allow the State Water Resources Control Board to develop interim plans for basins when local communities fail to prepare or enforce their plans. The legislation expressly states that local agencies and the state must respect all existing rights to surface water and groundwater.

Under the Act, the Department of Water Resources is tasked with ranking groundwater basins as high, medium, low, or very low priority to characterize the seriousness of groundwater problems. Local and regional agencies with “high” or “medium” priority basins that also have critical overdraft conditions must adopt “groundwater sustainability plans” by 2020. Basins ranked high or medium but without critical overdraft conditions must adopt such plans by 2022. In basins ranked as low and very low priority, sustainability plans are optional. “Sustainability” is characterized as the volume of water  that can be pumped without causing long-term problems such as degraded water quality or significant and unreasonable supply depletion. The plans, in limiting groundwater extractions, must also take into consideration economic, social and environmental effects. Sustainability plan approvals are exempt from CEQA.

Senator Pavley’s SB 1168 contains provisions related to local and regional agencies and the creation of sustainability plans. Assemblymember Dickinson’s AB 1739 contains complementary provisions for state intervention where local and regional agencies fail to comply with the new act. Pavley’s SB 1319 amends AB 1739 to place certain limitations on the state’s enforcement authority. The bills were designed to function in tandem, and all three needed to be signed by the governor for the new act to become operative.

To read the bills and related analyses, go to

The California Water Foundation report can be viewed here.

The DWR study can be viewed here.