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No Easy Path To Implementing California Groundwater Law

This map shows 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
This map shows all 21 critically overdrafted groundwater basins in California. Agencies charged with managing the basins must be created by June of next year.

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

No Easy Path To Implementing California Groundwater Law
No Easy Path To Implementing California Groundwater Law GUEST:Amy Quinton, environment reporter, Capital Public Radio

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Two years ago California became one of the last states in the West to pass a law to manage one of its precious resources, groundwater. The political will to put the law into place to decades. The bigger battle may be putting the lot into practice. Environment reporter for capital public radio, Amy Quinton went to Paso Robles to see a perfect example of how hard it's going to be. Paso Robles is known mostly for its more than 200 wineries. Admits the hills and vineyards it's not unusual to see tanker trucks delivering water. Stephen Joel Hansen with proper water is feeling storage tanks, he says businesses booming. We've had 20 customers within the last two months to add on. There is no water here. Next-door, Sue Luft a retired engineer started to see her well fail before the drought started. We had a good well, 135 feet of quality water, now we're down to 200 and -- 285 feet, a new well. She spent $30,000 drilling a new well pulling water up that's filled with sulfur. They've drilled and drilled. He's only watering part of the vineyard at a time. Water levels in the Paso Robles bases have dropped more than 100 feet , more water is now pumped out then can be replenished. The state is deemed the basin in critical overdraft under the sustainable groundwater management act. Frank Meacham with the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors says the first step in the recent law, requires the regression of a local agency. Based upon the signal requirements, you are going to have to manage the basis -- basin. How it's managed and who manages it, those are still trying to be put together. Before the state law, San Luis Obispo County appeared to be on the way to managing groundwater. In 2013, the county prevented new plant cropping's, vineyard owners and homeowners came together to form a groundwater management District, around the state time the law passed. Jerry Ray supported the proposal. We were doing what the state wanted people to do. They put the local district plan to a vote in more than 70% of voters in the basin rejected it. Jaclyn plant Mason walks among the 40 acres of wine grapes she grows in the basin. She opposed the water district. It's another layer of government, that's all it is. It's another layer of control. Landowners have sued, they believe the court should decide how to manage the groundwater Mason -- basin. The basin has major problems. We don't have a significant issue. The arguments against the local water district became ugly, rumors circulated about up plot to steal water. Frank Meacham. There was a trend -- tremendous amount of care assassination -- character assassination. Regardless of why the election with the way it did, state law requires San Luis Obispo County to come up with a solution, otherwise regulators can take over, meter wells and charge fees. All without approval from the voters. Joining me is Amy Quinton with capital public radio. We just heard in your story that Paso Robles represents how difficult it is to solve the problem of managing the resources. Why is this issue so controversial? I would say, first of all its water its precious resource, it's vital to our economy it's a constant debate in California. We've had unfettered use of groundwater and I think a lot of people, not does -- not just those in Paso Robles's should come in and tell them what they can do with their water. Some see it as a property rights issue. Legally the public owns the water, it's a public resource and benefit. Private parties can establish a right to water, and they do, even rights as we've seen in this drought can be cut back. Part of the controversy, seems to be people cannot agree if there is a problem with groundwater depletion. How do we know for sure this is a problem? The science, shows groundwater basins are being depleted. Not just during the drought, we've seen subsidence in the Central Valley for a long time, for decades. We've had homeowners whose wells have gone dry, we've had water levels in those wells drop, basins across the state, some have monitoring wells so they know exactly how much water they are losing. San Luis Obispo County has more than 300 monitoring wells . This is something that California Department of water resources looks at in determining which basins are in critical overdraft. If the counties, where these basins are, if they can come up with the management plan, what does it mean to have state intervention? Bottom line, the state can come in, the resources control Board and they can, but an interim plan until an agency is formed to manage the groundwater. That could include, metering wells, taxing those who use that water, they can penalize or pose fees on people who use too much water. You would not have the county or the residents are the voters in that local region having a say in how much their text or how much water they use. This would be a whole long involved process, before got to that point. State intervention is really a last resort. When the legislature was talking about this law, a lot of people said the only reason it got past was because they didn't want this regulatory approach, the legislation specifically says the state should provide -- preserve the authority in regions and counties to manage the groundwater. It does sound like, at least in Paso Robles could be going to court. I do think it will go to court. There's an adjudication process in effect and we may see this happen in a lot of areas in the state. It's controversial, because these agencies that are forming, have lots of powers to tax and regulate. There's lots of confusion and complication over these basins that are in different parts of counties. The basins don't it here to political boundaries, you have that complicating it as well. From what you're saying, this isn't just an issue in Paso Robles, there are groundwater basins across the state, I believe there is one near San Diego and Borrego Valley, are we going to be seeing issues like this popping up in all of these areas? Yes. There's 127 basins, that the state says they need to be managed. You could have these issues coming up, I know in San Diego County, they've applied to be a groundwater sustainability agency for the Borrego Valley groundwater basin, also Borrego Valley water District has filed notice that they want to manage the basin. They are going to work cooperatively, to come up with a plan. Many areas have not and it will end up in court. So far, there have been, I just talked to the Department of water resources, they've at 94 proposals or 94 notices of people who basically want to be groundwater sustainability agency's. A lot of them are overlapping, which means they're going to have to work something out or the state will come in and help them work something out. I've been speaking with Amy Quinton with capital public radio.

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
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.

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,” Hutchinson says.


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, an environmental practice professor 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," Frank says. "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 and 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 at 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.
San Luis Obispo County Public Works Department
This maps shows the Paso Robles groundwater basin, the largest basin in San Luis Obispo County. State regulators say it's considered critically overdrafted.

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," Frank says. "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," Reaugh says. "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.