Governor’s Office Looks To Fix California’s “Unsustainable” Groundwater Management System


Last week, the Office of the Governor released the first draft of proposed legislation intended to address the state’s “unsustainable” groundwater management system. According to the Governor’s Office, several factors make California’s current water management system unsustainable, including the inability to reliably meet human, economic, and ecological needs, exposure to wet and dry climate cycles and natural disasters, and inadequate capacity to handle the pressures of climate change and future population growth.

Although groundwater is a critical resource—accounting for more than one third of the water used annually by cities and farms—politicians and concerned stakeholders have stated that many of the state’s groundwater basins are not sustainably managed. The proposed legislation is intended to ensure local, sustainable management of California’s groundwater resources. 

The proposed legislation has seven primary components. 

  •  First, it would establish sustainable groundwater management as a policy of the state, with sustainability being based upon the best available science, monitoring, forecasting and use of technological resources.
  • Second, it would amend the California Water Code to clarify that the diversion of water to underground storage (e.g. diversion for groundwater recharge) is a diversion for beneficial use. 
  • Third, it would require that the Department of Water Resources provide technical assistance to local groundwater management agencies for data collection, assessment, and development and implementation of sustainable groundwater management plans. 
  • Fourth, it would significantly expand the regulatory and enforcement authority of groundwater management agencies.     
  • Fifth, it would require an exchange of information between land-use planners and groundwater management agencies, including a requirement that cities and counties share General Plan amendments with groundwater management agencies. 
  • Sixth, it would enable the State Water Resources Control Board to act as a backstop when agencies fail to adopt a groundwater management plan, fail to implement a plan, or adopt an inadequate plan. In such circumstances, the State Board would be permitted to take several incremental steps to encourage and incentivize agencies to establish sustainable groundwater management locally. If necessary, the State Board would be authorized to adopt and implement a temporary groundwater management plan.
  • Finally, the proposed legislation would include provisions that the Governor believes would make groundwater adjudications more efficient. However, this component is still being developed and the current draft does not contain any specific proposed language on this topic. 

Prior to releasing the draft legislation, the Governor’s Office held several workshops focused on improving groundwater management and received legislative proposals from the Association of California Water Agencies and California Water Foundation, among others.

The Governor’s Office noted that the proposed legislation is intended to help foster the ongoing discussion about sustainable groundwater management. It indicated that these discussions will extend beyond the state budget that lawmakers will take up in June.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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