Welcome to the party, California! In September, Governor Jerry Brown signed three pieces of legislation that for the first time in 164 years will try to regulate California’s use of groundwater, something other Western states have been doing for decades. For a state so fond of regulating activities involving natural resources, a state which often adopts environmental standards far more stringent than those of EPA, the lack of attention devoted to groundwater is astounding.
So do the new legal structures cement California’s cutting edge reputation as ferocious protector of the common good and state resources through heavy-handed regulation and oversight? Well, not so much. Everything will be decentralized. The laws assign responsibility for regulating groundwater pumpage and new wells to several new local “sustainability agencies.” In rural and agricultural areas these boards are considered likely to be comprised of those entities pumping the most groundwater. Their incentive to restrict their own withdrawals might be a bit limited. The boards must first prepare a sustainability plan for their jurisdiction, and they have seven years to write and implement it. Then they have 20 years to achieve sustainability, a rather lethargic approach given that California’s new first name is “drought-stricken.” If they have trouble, the California Water Resources Control Board and the state Water Resources Department can step in to help—except they don’t have enough technical staff to review and approve (or improve) such documents for the entire state, nor are they likely to get more hydrologists and planners in a state facing massive budget deficits. And here’s the real kicker: no requirement for well owners to report their groundwater withdrawals. They get to keep secret how much, where, and when they are pumping. That’s right; no one will know what shape the aquifer is in. Think of the sound science and regulation that gem will generate.
Even though it has critical weaknesses, it’s a laudable first step, and California at least acknowledges that groundwater and surface water form one interconnected hydrological system. But their attempt should make us thankful that 35 years ago, Arizona had leaders, including a Governor and Legislature willing to do what was necessary to protect the future and pass the Groundwater Management Act — still the gold standard amongst state regulatory frameworks.