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Calif. reaches first milestone in crafting groundwater regulations

The California Department of Water Resources has set up a process for resolving discrepancies over the boundaries of groundwater basins that will be affected by new pumping regulations.
Tim Hearden

Capital Press

Published on November 17, 2015 1:50PM


SACRAMENTO — State officials say they have reached their first milestone in carrying out groundwater regulations passed by lawmakers last year, setting up a way to resolve discrepancies over the boundaries of basins that will be affected by the new rules.

Beginning on Jan. 1, local agencies will have 90 days to apply to the state Department of Water Resources for changes in maps that outline California’s most important groundwater basins and sub-basins.

Establishing that process now will give local entities more than six weeks to prepare their appeals, DWR spokeswoman Lauren Hersch said.

“If you as a local agency have reason to think the boundary isn’t correct ... the regulations spell out what you need to do,” she said.

Identifying basins and sub-basins is a key provision of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, a package of bills passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last fall.

The companion bills by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, will give the State Water Resources Control Board sweeping oversight over groundwater use and empower local agencies to regulate extraction from aquifers through “groundwater sustainability plans” while charging fees to implement the new rules.

The three bills require local groundwater management agencies to be set up by 2017, sustainability plans for overdrafted basins to be in place by 2020, plans for other high- and medium-priority basins to be established by 2022 and sustainability in all high- and medium-priority basins to be achieved by 2040, the governor’s office explained.

In addition, the legislation identifies objectives and milestones for achieving sustainability and enables the state to intervene when local agencies are unable or unwilling to adopt management plans, according to Brown’s office.

According to maps unveiled last year, the state has designated 127 of California’s 515 groundwater basins and sub-basins as high or medium priority. These basins account for 96 percent of the state’s annual groundwater pumping and supply 88 percent of the population that resides over groundwater basins, the DWR explains.

High- and medium-priority basins stretch through most of the Central Valley as well as parts of the coastline and the Los Angeles area. A basin doesn’t necessarily have to be overly depleted to be considered high-priority, Hersch said.

“The reason a basin might be listed as high priority could be the size of the population that overlies that basin, or if a community relies on groundwater for 100 percent of its drinking water,” she said.

The groundwater-control measures came as environmentalists have long maintained that California was the only state in the country not to regulate use of groundwater, which accounts for 30 percent of total water usage and 43 percent of residents’ drinking water, according to state water officials.

The legislation elicited a mixed reaction among farm groups, with some, including the California Farm Bureau Federation, expressing concerns about the rules’ broad scope and specific impacts.

The DWR is writing regulations for how local groundwater agencies must be established and what they must do. It expects to have those rules available for public review in January, Hersch said. Final regulations for local entities must be in place by June 1, she said.

Reaching a consensus on basin boundaries is crucial for implementing the other rules, she said.

“This is what the rest of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act hinges on,” Hersch said. “Until we’re all on the same page and know exactly where the basin boundaries are and where they should be, we can’t move forward with the formation of groundwater sustainability agencies.

“It’s the first major milestone, but it’s really the keystone,” she said.



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