09.17.2014  
 

California Addresses Groundwater Regulation

One of several new laws pertains to serious situation in Paso Robles vineyards

 
by Andrew Adams
 
“California
 
California Gov. Jerry Brown signs three bills pertaining to state groundwater management, which has been a hot-button issue during the past several months of drought.
Sacramento, Calif.—As California suffers through a severe drought that has exacerbated groundwater overdraft in several parts of the state, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law three bills intended to regulate the use of groundwater.

The new laws specify that local groundwater management agencies must be identified by 2017, and overdrafted groundwater basins must have sustainability plans in place by 2020. By 2040, all high- and medium-priority groundwater basins must achieve sustainability.

The laws follow in the footsteps of an Aug. 19 report by University of California researchers who said the state had allocated five times more surface water than it actually has, making it difficult for the State Water Resources Control Board to know where realistic cuts can be made. “We have to learn to manage wisely water, energy, land and our investments,” Gov. Brown said in a statement. “That’s why this is important.”

The three bills signed by the governor—AB 1739 by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson of Sacramento and Senate Bills 1168 and 1319 by state Sen. Fran Pavley of Agoura Hills—create a framework for local groundwater management for the first time in California history.

Until recently California had been unique in the west in that landowners frequently had the right to pump as much groundwater as they wanted to either use for themselves or sell on the open market. While many local and countywide water districts have been in place for decades, several other large agricultural areas had no restrictions regarding how to use water.

Tackling the overdraft in Paso Robles
One of those regions included San Luis Obispo County and the Paso Robles winegrowing AVA, which is home to more than 30,000 acres of vineyards used to grow wine grapes. The region has been suffering a serious groundwater overdraft since 2013, with hundreds of agricultural and residential wells going dry.

On Sept. 16, Gov. Brown also signed into law Assembly Bill 2453, sponsored by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, which would allow landowners to form a groundwater-management district after the plan passed a few more regulatory hurdles and won the support of landowners in the proposed district.

The plan calls for a unique “hybrid” water district that would attempt to provide fair representation of all the district’s landowners. Existing groundwater districts in California either base voting rights on how many acres a party owns or limits it to one vote per landowner. Both proved divisive, as one system gives more influence to those with more property, while the other bestows substantial power to those with little at stake.

After wells began to run dry throughout the Paso Robles area, and the need for a district became clear, management of the proposed district became the next contentious issue. Some rural residents had blamed large vineyard owners for wells going dry, while growers griped they were getting a bad rap and the problem was really a result of urban development in agricultural areas.

Creating a ‘hybrid’ district
Grower Jerry Reaugh is the chairman of the group Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, which is comprised of several of the area’s vintners and vineyard owners. He said his group was able to work with PRO Water Equity, led by rural resident Sue Luft, to cobble together a plan that would address those concerns.

The two groups developed the idea for a “hybrid” district, which Luft says allows for local, flexible representation “that gives everyone a voice while allowing no single person or group control of the board.”

The proposed district would be governed by a nine-member board that would include three “at-large” members, two “small” landowners with less than 40 acres, two “medium” landowners holding 40 to 400 acres and two “large” landowners owning more than 400 acres. “The entire reason we went to Sacramento with the special legislation was to have the hybrid board,” Reaugh said.

Lawmakers in the state’s capital respected the effort to ensure the district would be equally representative. “The whole hybrid concept in Sacramento was extremely well received, and people thought it was a great idea,” Reaugh said.

But state lawmakers made some changes to how the district would become a reality, such as making the votes to petition the local agency in charge of forming the water district and the vote to create the district based on a “one landowner, one vote” basis.

Several steps to forming a district
Reaugh said lawmakers in Sacramento added a provision allowing the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors to directly petition the area’s Local Agency Formation Commission (or LAFCO) to form a district. He said that’s a big help because otherwise it would have required a vote of 10% of the district’s landowners.

If the district plan is approved by LAFCO, landowners will need to vote to create the district, approve the funding to support it and elect a board. “This really needs to have broad support from throughout the county, and the Board of Supervisors’ support would be crucial for that,” Reaugh said.

Luft also said the key next step will be to ensure the Board of Supervisors puts its support behind the district proposal to create a local district to oversee groundwater. “Who better than locally elected people who live and work here have a direct and vested interest in management of our common resource, and have the focus and accountability needed?”

While establishing the district is a convoluted process, Reaugh said the result would be a locally elected board to oversee the area’s groundwater—and that’s crucial, as the other laws signed by the governor allow Sacramento to dictate to counties how groundwater is used. Residents and officials in the area have until 2019 to get a district in place.

Reaugh said growers are at the tail end of the crop year in Paso Robles, and he was thankful that water issues haven’t appeared to cause any major problems. He said salt buildup is definitely becoming more worrisome, but he hasn’t heard of many more residential wells failing.

The proposed district would certainly help manage and preserve the area’s groundwater, but it can’t do the one thing that is desperately needed: make it rain.

“There’s a slight relief we didn’t have any major problems,” Reaugh said. “But if we don’t get some rain—and I think we’re like the rest of the state—it’s going to be a critical situation.”

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