Amid a third year of drought, state lawmakers began pushing legislation Wednesday that would begin to regulate groundwater for the first time in California history.
The Senate passed AB1739 on a 26-11 vote, returning it to the Assembly. The bill by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, is part of a sweeping legislative package that would require some local governments to start managing wells and authorizes the state to step in under certain situations if they don't.
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AB1739 authorizes groundwater sustainability agencies to install meters and charge fees.
California is one of the last states in the West with a pump-as-you-please policy. This means that while surface water from reservoirs, rivers and streams is regulated, wells are not.
Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, who is carrying companion legislation in SB1168, said over-pumping has led to land subsidence, a major problem that contributes to crumbling infrastructure, and billions of dollars in damage to roads, aqueducts, canals and pipelines. SB1168 is expected to be taken up in the Assembly this week.
"We even have some canals where the water flows backward because of depressions in the canals' streambeds," Pavley said. "We have a lot at stake."
Declining groundwater tables already have contributed to mandatory water restrictions for some cities, and many farmers have been forced to drill deeper wells. According to bill supporters, groundwater makes up about 40 percent of the water used by Californians in normal years and up to 60 percent during droughts.
In the water-thirsty Central Valley, farmers use 80 percent of the state's water to grow crops that make it the most productive agricultural area in the nation.
Senate Republicans objected to the legislation, warning about the creation of state and local "water police."
"New layers of bureaucracy, additional fees and the disruption of existing water rights are not the answer to effective management of our local underground water reserves," said Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield.
She said groundwater management is better administered at the local level.
Opponents also said the new rules could conflict with property rights. While other states treat groundwater as a commonly shared resource, California landowners have enjoyed unlimited use of their groundwater since the Gold Rush days.