marr.olivia.043Local Implications of California’s New Groundwater Legislation    

By Olivia K. Marr, Associate

Governor Jerry Brown recently signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (Act). Passage of the Act marks the first attempt by California to regulate groundwater usage and such a historical shift in policy is understandably causing some of our clients concern.

The Act calls for groundwater management at a local or regional level and grants local agencies the power to take action to protect against long term over-drafting.   The intent of the legislation is to develop sustainable groundwater management throughout California to protect against what it calls an “undesirable result.” Such a result would include chronic lowering of groundwater levels, seawater intrusion, or other significantly degraded water quality, and significant land subsidence.

While existing law allows local agencies to adopt and implement groundwater management plans, the Act mandates such plans be developed for high and medium priority groundwater basins. Of the 515 basins in California, 127 basins have such a priority and account for ninety six percent (96%) of California’s total groundwater pumping.

Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA) will be formed in these priority basins and will be tasked with implementing the provisions of the Act. The GSAs are given broad authority to (1) investigate and adopt management plans, (2) require registration of wells and monitoring/annual reporting of extractions, (3) impose extraction fees, (4) impose well spacing requirements, and (5) even limit extraction. Note, however, that any domestic user that pumps less than two acre feet of water per year (or less than 652,000 gallons) is considered a “de minimis extractor” and will be exempt from reporting requirements. To put this exemption in perspective, the average household uses 400 gallons per day or 146,000 gallons per year. Thus, one would have to use over four times that average amount to be subject to the Act’s reporting requirements.

While the current basin rankings may change in the next few months, only one of the Santa Barbara County groundwater basins is included in the 127 basins of concern. Goleta is exempt from the Act as it was the subject of prior legal adjudication of water rights.

The remaining basins are designated low and very low priority, and while they are encouraged by the Act to develop groundwater sustainability plans, they are exempt from State intervention.

It is possible that the County and/or water districts may see this legislation as authorization to further regulate local groundwater pumping and extractions. Fortunately, however, the Act is written to respect proprietary rights to groundwater and any attempt to overly-regulate extraction would be subject to legal remedies.

In conclusion, the local impacts of the Act presently appear minor. As the State and local authorities navigate their way through implementation of the Act, that could change. During this uncertain process, there will be plenty of opportunities to become involved with groundwater management and the development of local regulations through public input. Our office is here to answer any questions you may have about your Santa Barbara property or property located in areas of higher concern across California.

Olivia K. Marr, Attorney

(805) 966-7199 (Direct)