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Governor Brown Signs Historic Groundwater Legislation

Unlike almost all other states in the arid West, California has never had a comprehensive system for the regulation of groundwater. This came to an end on September 17, 2012, when Governor Brown signed into law the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (the "Act"). The Act will become effective January 1, 2015. It is actually a combination of three bills passed by the California State Legislature on August 29, 2014.

The Act states it will not alter, establish, or determine groundwater or surface water rights, but rather govern how those rights are exercised. Regulating those rights will be local agencies; each labeled a groundwater sustainability agency ("GSA"). Once a GSA is formed, it will have the power to:

  • investigate the need for groundwater management in a basin or subbasin
  • prepare and adopt a groundwater sustainability plan
  • propose and collect fees
  • monitor compliance and enforcement
  • register wells
  • require well extractions to be measured
  • import, store and conserve water
  • establish a program for voluntary fallowing of lands

Groundwater basins and subbasins within the State have been classified into categories. The Act requires that medium and high priority basins and subbasins, which include the basins and subbasins in the area of the Tulare Lake Basin, must form a GSA within two years. Local agencies need to begin work on the structure and formation of their GSA. Once a GSA is established, it will commence work on a groundwater management plan, which for some basins must be effective by January 31, 2020.

Together the bills are nearly 100 pages in length. The legislation was written in a relatively hurried manner and many critics believe that it will need amendatory language to be workable. There is also concern that the Act will spawn litigation, including expensive and time-consuming basin adjudications, by landowners, environmental groups, and others. In any event, the Act will certainly have long-term impacts on farmers, groundwater pumpers, and groundwater management agencies.

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