California's water rules: Easing or aiding drought?

California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed into law the first measure in the state's history to regulate groundwater supplies.

It's no small accomplishment in a place that's battled over water rights for decades—and is the last Western state to finally have groundwater rules.

What forced the change is the ongoing drought.

A digital traffic sign informs travelers southbound on Interstate Highway 5 to conserve water, as they pass through Del Mar, Calif.
Mike Blake | Reuters

Staring at a fourth year of severe drought—and increasingly dependent on groundwater sources that are in danger of drying up—there was enough agreement among California's politicians to get a law on the books.

But controversy lingers—from those who say the regulations go too far, to those who say they don't go far enough. And by the way they are written, there is the question of whether they will actually help ease the pain of the drought.

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"The new laws will have no impact on the drought or current water shortages," said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau.

"In general the laws will potentially worsen water shortages for farmers in future droughts by restricting their ability to use groundwater to nurture their crops," he said.

But Michael Hanemann, a professor and environmental economist at Arizona State University, said the laws should be tougher.

"We know that groundwater supplies are under stress in California, and these measures, while long overdue, are only the first step," he said.

Laws too slow?

The regulation plan is designed to stop the over-pumping of groundwater and to bring those supplies up to sustainable levels.

To do that, the laws are broken up into three parts.

One part instructs local water agencies to create sustainability plans for groundwater. Another measure establishes when the state government can intervene if the agencies don't do their jobs in making the plans.

However, the third part postpones the state's intervention in certain areas where groundwater extraction depletes connected surface waters.

This section was designed to help ease some of the concerns raised by farmers who have become more dependent on groundwater for crops and livestock, as surface water sources have dried up.

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Some 80 percent of water used in California is for agriculture.

The laws don't take effect until Jan. 1, and some water agencies where groundwater supplies are very low have until 2020 to submit their plans for water sustainability.

As bad as that may seem to some observers, it's the right approach to a long-term problem, said Andrew Fahlund, deputy director of the California Water Foundation., a water sustainability group.

"A lot of people look at the time line of this as too slow," Fahlund said. "But it took a long time for us to get into this fix about groundwater, and it will take us a long time to get out."

Who owns the water

Just as important as water is to California, so, too, are water rights.

In most areas of the state, land owners have been able to extract percolating groundwater and put it to beneficial use without approval from the State Water Board or a court.

That's hard to give up, even in limited form.

"We will be watching the process (for implementing groundwater rules) carefully to make sure state and local agencies respect water rights, property rights and privacy rights, as the bills require," California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger said in a statement on the bureau's website.

But ASU's Hanemann said the whole idea of water rights is misunderstood—and that there are no walls or fences underground keeping water in one place.

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"The groundwater is not just from your property. It could come from your neighbors, or theirs comes from under your property," he said.

"All of the groundwater in California belongs to the people of the state, not just one person," he said.

Groundwater supplies at risk

Even as he signed the new regulations on Tuesday, Brown said they will likely be altered next year to streamline the regulation process.

But for the farm bureau, solutions to California's water problems should come from outside the state's legislature.

"If we want to make groundwater supplies truly sustainable, we must make sure all water needs can be met through addition of more surface water storage and better management of the storage we already have," Wenger said.

And Fahlund said the laws won't help now but in future droughts—when groundwater sources would likely be at higher capacity and able to replace dried up surface supplies.

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Meanwhile, the state's continued dependency of groundwater is putting sources at extreme risk now and in the future, according to a report released in July.

That risk, plus the likelihood of continued drought, is reason enough for even more regulations, Hanemann said.

"We need additional steps to control water use. We've muddled through this drought but we can't do that anymore," he said.