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Drought Spurs Historic Laws to Limit California Groundwater Extraction

In the final hours of a two-year legislative session, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a package of bills on Sept. 16 which are designed to regulate groundwater extraction for the first time in the state's 164-year history.

The historic push in creating a statewide management plan for vital groundwater basins has been met with approval by many water agencies but has raised an eyebrow of concern from several California farmers who depend on groundwater to maintain their livelihood during harsh and unrelenting drought years.

"We knew this time was coming," California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said.

Wenger, a third-generation farmer, has experienced the challenges facing California farmers and ranchers firsthand.

"There is a lot of demand on our water infrastructure," he said, adding that the demand for California's agricultural commodities has soared in the past four decades, along with the state's population.

In that time, agricultural production has doubled with the same amount of water, which is a feat in technology and growing, Wenger added.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service Pacific Region Office Deputy Director Dave DeWalt, more than 11 percent of the total value of all U.S. agriculture commodities comes from California.

Wenger said that the Legislature should be applauded for recognizing the state's water challenges by putting a revised water bond before voters after gaining bipartisan approval but feels the groundwater legislation was rushed through before the Legislature's deadline.

The legislation for the revised water bond will provide water recycling, groundwater cleanup and an additional $2.7 billion for water storage and watershed restoration; it was signed by Gov. Brown just days before the groundwater package, according to the state's website.

Wenger said the biggest concern for ranchers and farmers regarding the new groundwater legislation package is that it will result in a major water loss for those who need it most before they see additional water from the revised water bond.

"There are going to be winners and losers," he said.

Restrictions on extraction could drastically reduce property values as well, Wenger added.

If drought continues to persist and snowmelt lessens each year, it will be harder for water to percolate into the ground to recharge aquifers.

"They won't allow you to use surface water to recharge aquifers," he said. "Surface water is not considered a beneficial use in recharging groundwater, so how do we recharge our underground aquifers?"

The three groundwater bills signed by Gov. Brown will create a statewide framework for groundwater sustainability and management while providing regional and local agencies with the tools needed to create their own management plans, Association of California Water Agencies Spokeswoman Lisa Lien-Mager said.

The Association of California Water Agencies, a statewide coalition of public water agencies, supported the groundwater legislation. According to the organization's website, its 430 members are collectively responsible for 90 percent of the water delivered to cities, farms and businesses in the state.

With more than half the state locked into exceptional drought conditions, 20 percent more of the state's water supply is dependent on groundwater this year, California Environmental Protection Agency Communications Director Alex Barnum said.

During typical years about 40 percent of the state's water supply comes from extracted groundwater out of California's 515 basins. However, in dry years, nearly 60 percent of the state's water supply is dependent on groundwater, Barnum said.

While some are concerned about the new legislation, local agencies will have time to prepare and adopt management plans for the state's most important groundwater basins in order to prepare for future droughts, Lien-Mager said.

"It will be a gradual implementation," she said. "It is a complicated process and will take a while; this is no small undertaking."

Of the 515 basins in the state, less than 100 will fall under the priority of the new legislation, according to Barnum.

Between 2017 and 2040, local agencies will have access to tools and resources provided by the state to meet objectives in order to reach sustainability for high and medium priority groundwater basins.

"It is something that does need to be assessed on a local level," Lein-Mager said.

Monitoring how the laws are implemented on a local level is where the Farm Bureau's grassroots strength lies, with the support of volunteers and staff engaged in groundwater management, Wenger said.

While managing and conserving surface and groundwater resources will help alleviate some of the state's water challenges, Wenger said conserving your way through prolonged drought does not solve the overall problem of an increased demand on the state's existing supply and infrastructure.

"Farmers and ranchers from throughout the state must put our regional and commodity differences aside," Wenger said in a statement. "We must work in favor of the water bond; we must work together to pursue more new storage and better management of existing storage; we must work together on the implementation of the new groundwater laws; we must work together to pursue every reasonable alternative to solve our state's ongoing water crisis."

Gov. Brown and the administration have also formed a Drought Task Force and a Water Action Plan.