The late professor Joseph Sax once wrote about California that “they don’t do groundwater,” referring to the absence of a statewide scheme for the permitting and regulation of groundwater. It is true that there is no centralized state regulatory entity governing groundwater like the California State Water Resources Control Board’s (SWRCB) administration of surface water rights. But California is not Texas, as has been suggested by those that would like to paint California as a backwater of water resource management. To the contrary, California abandoned absolute ownership of groundwater more than 100 years ago and it was the first state to develop “safe yield” management as complete limitation on the extraction of groundwater.
For the most part, California’s regulation of groundwater has been relegated to ad hoc management by local agencies with mixed results and by the courts. There are a plethora of special districts that have some authority over the production, treatment, storage and transmission of water. These districts have been formed under the general statutory authority set forth in the Water Code or the Government Code.There are also a host of special act districts that have been established directly by the legislature with unique authorities that include powers to “manage” groundwater that are more customized to the described region. However, none of these districts have the power to determine the relative water rights of existing and potential users of groundwater. Nor do they possess a general police power.
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