No Easy Path To Implementing California Groundwater Law

Jun 17, 2016

Map showing all 21 critically overdrafted groundwater basins in California. Agencies charged with managing the basins must be created by June of next year. California Department of Water Resources / Courtesy

The state’s new groundwater management laws mean Californians no longer have unfettered use of water underground.

State law will require the creation of local agencies with sweeping powers to meter wells, tax, and penalize anyone who overuses groundwater.

If agencies aren’t created by next year, state regulators can take over.

The wine region of Paso Robles is among the 21 groundwater basins the state has deemed critically overdrafted. That means more water is pumped out than can be replenished.

“There is just a lot more demand,” says Sue Luft, a homeowner who grows a few acres of Zinfandel grapes just outside of Paso Robles. She’s seen water levels in her well drop more than 100 feet.

“The wine industry, which has been wonderful and drove a lot of us to come here, the vineyard growth, has just been tremendous,” says Luft.

Sue Luft stands in front of her well on her property just outside of Paso Robles. She helped push for the creation of a water district that would manage the critically overdrafted Paso Robles groundwater basin.  Amy Quinton / Capital Public Radio


But blaming the wine industry for all the groundwater problems in the Paso Robles basin would be an oversimplification, says Mark Hutchinson with the San Luis Obispo County Public Works Department. 

“The city of Paso Robles has grown substantially in the last 20 years. I think since 1970 it’s more than doubled in size,” says Hutchinson.

Population growth and predicted future demand helped drive the critical designation for the basin. In 2013, homeowners like Sue Luft and large vineyard owners began an effort to create a groundwater management district. But when it finally came to a vote this spring, Paso Robles voters overwhelmingly rejected it.

“I think the experience in the Paso Robles area has demonstrated that that’s not going to be an uncontroversial or easy process,” says Rick Frank, Professor of Environmental Practice at UC Davis School of Law.

“The authority that these new groundwater sustainability agencies have, is quite broad in terms of the ability to tax and to regulate," says Frank. "Just the fact that they have the potential sweeping political and fiscal authority that they have is going to be very controversial.”

Voters in Paso Robles didn’t want a new layer of government, didn’t want to fund it, didn’t believe the groundwater was overdrafted. Many property owners over the basin want to stick with the historic way of managing groundwater and get a judge to decide who has a right to the water. But Frank says going through the courts can take too long.

“Those adjudications take many years and lots of lawyers and lots of dollars to get done,” says Frank.

Meanwhile, the new state law dictates if no agency is created to manage basins like Paso Robles, the county should manage it. 

“It’s not a one-time cost," says Frank Meacham, with the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors. He says it may be too expensive for the county. "You have to establish the plan and then you have to implement that plan. Then you have to manage this basin over time. So that means there’s a cost every year.”

  This maps shows the Paso Robles groundwater basin, the largest basin in San Luis Obispo County. State regulators say it's considered critically overdrafted.  Map / San Luis Obispo County Public Works Department


County officials say it could cost $950,000 a year. That cost could be shared by cities and districts within the county. But it’s complicated because five other groundwater basins in the county also have to be managed.

Rick Frank says Paso Robles sets an example of just how hard it will be to create local agencies. He says it’s likely not all overdrafted basins will have them in place by next year.

“I think there will be pressure on the state to step in if the statutory deadlines are not observed and local groundwater sustainability agencies are not created on time," says Frank. "The current overdrafted groundwater basins are in my opinion a clear and present danger for California’s environment.”

No one knows how much water is available in California’s aquifers. But there have been grim accounts of dried up wells around the state and sinking land in the Central Valley. The thought of the state taking over groundwater management is exactly what worries former vineyard owner Jerry Reaugh, who led the effort to keep the basin under local control.

“I hope they don’t make a poster child out of us because that would be the worst thing that could happen," says Reaugh. "In five years, I think people are going to say ‘Geez, we had a chance to be in control of our future and we turned it down.’”

The state’s groundwater law requires the creation of new local management agencies in 127 basins around the state. Then, the battle to come up with a plan to manage the basins will begin.