Drought-Stricken California Makes Historic Move To Regulate Underground Water For The First Time


At least one in four Californians get their water from underground aquifers, and up until now, use of this water has been totally unregulated, with disputes about overuse settled in court. California is one of the few where it’s “pump as you please” with groundwater. That is about to change.

As the California State Legislature wrapped up their session, they passed the state’s first-ever plan to regulate underground water supplies. Urban Democrats, water district managers, and environmental advocates gave the measure enough support to pass it over the opposition of Republicans and farm-area legislators. The legislation now goes to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature.

Clean Water Action’s Jennifer Clary said, “the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management legislation takes an historic first step towards ensuring that our groundwater will remain a resource for future Californians.”

Three bills make up the groundwater regulatory plan: one tells local agencies to come up with water management programs, another establishes parameters for state intervention, and the third delays that intervention in areas where groundwater pumping has affected surface water. Some agricultural interests fear regulation of the groundwater reserves that many farmers have turned to in the midst of the worst drought in a generation. State Senator Fran Pavley, author of two of the bills, said she worked with farmers to draft them, gaining the support of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.


“The state cannot manage water in California until we manage groundwater,” said Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego. “You cannot have reliability with no plan to manage water.”

If you are eating a fruit, vegetable, or nut grown in the U.S., there’s an almost 50–50 chance that it came from California. At the same time, it’s the only western state that does not exercise some sort of control over its groundwater.

Groundwater has become even more crucial as surface water supplies have dwindled. In fact, according to a study released last week, while only 70 million acre-feet of water flow through the state during a good year, 370 million acre-feet worth of water rights have been given out in the last hundred years. Yet even adding groundwater supplies to the equation still leaves the state with a water deficit, according to a recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pacific Institute.

In fact, the Central Valley is consuming twice as much groundwater as can be replaced through normal precipitation. The Valley is the center of gravity to the state’s $36.9 billion agricultural industry because it contains the world’s largest mass of ultra-fertile Class 1 soil.

“It’s our savings account, and we’re draining it,” Phil Isenberg of the Public Policy Institute of California, told the San Jose Mercury News. The former Sacramento mayor and assemblyman continued: “at some point, there will be none left.”


In a normal year for precipitation, California receives about 40 percent of its total water from under the ground — in a dry year, that jumps above 60 percent. It’s gotten even worse this year, with wells drying, fields lying fallow, and most dramatically, the land actually sinking up to a foot a year as the water underneath it gets sucked dry.

Over 95 percent of the state is in a “severe drought” according to the latest data from the U.S. Drought Monitor — and 100 percent of the state has been in at least a “moderate” drought for the last three months.

In the rural San Joaquin Valley, hundreds of residents ran out of tap water as the drought dried up the flow of the Tule River which normally provides the area with water. Wells dried up and the county had to deliver bottled water supplies to affected residents last week — supplies that are meant to last only three weeks.

Separately, the legislature also passed a $7.5 billion water bond proposal to invest in improvements to California’s water infrastructure with a nearly unanimous vote. This will go on the November ballot.

Lawmakers also passed a statewide ban on free single-use plastic grocery bags. Stores will be able to charge customers ten cents per bag in order to cut down on unneeded usage that results in bags strewn across neighborhoods and along coastlines.