All of a sudden, we have groundwater regulations. What the heck?

That's what a lot of us were thinking (maybe some of us used stronger terms) during the end of the session when state lawmakers rammed through last-minute legislation creating a whole new set of laws, possibly a whole new batch of bureaucracy and a whole slew of questions.

Most practical-minded observers believe groundwater regulation was inevitable. In fact, it was sort of unbelievable this state was one of the last to rely on something more than private property rights, where anyone who could afford to drill a deep enough well could draw as much water from under their land as they wanted.

But this seems something like an inexcusable way to throw together something of such great importance, leaving water users and local governments with mostly just an option to grin and bear it. Seems more like dictating than legislating.

Legislators (ours opposed it) passed a three-bill package enacting the "Sustainable Groundwater Management Act," completely overhauling the state's groundwater policy. Pretty much. We think. Water people are busy trying to fathom the contents and the ramifications of the bill.

From a Saturday story by Appeal-Democrat reporter Andrew Creasey, it's hard to avoid the groundwater issue — with the state in its third consecutive drought year, groundwater pumping is said to account for 60 percent of the state's water use, now. It certainly isn't unexpected that people around the state would start questioning the sustainability of that.

The bills, waiting for the signature of the governor, give local managers two years to form "groundwater sustainability agencies." Those agencies then have five years to develop plans for sustainably managing aquifers — that being a requirement of basins and sub-basins designated "high" and "medium" priority by the Department of Water Resources. That could be a lot of territory, and it could grow as drought continues and as the department plays with the ratings.

Those local agencies would have a good deal of authority to require groundwater monitoring and metering, limit extraction and enforce fees, we're told. And if things don't go as the DWR likes, the state can step in and assume control. But the DWR has yet to draft the guidelines for what would necessitate that sort of action.

In fact, there's a lot that has to be drafted. It's too bad the Legislature didn't allow for more statewide discussion of the need for and type of groundwater regulation and for intricacies of the regulatory process to be worked out before the vote.

The Sutter County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to oppose the new regulations and are to vote today on sending a letter urging Gov. Jerry Brown to veto the bills. The letter would state the bills violate property rights of landowners who have relied on groundwater when surface supplies are curtailed. And the bills could subject landowners to the costs of measuring and reporting. Also, use restrictions could lower the value of their property. Those are exactly the sorts of issues that should have been thoroughly considered in the weeks or even months (not days) leading up to the vote.

It's highly unlikely Brown will heed their advice. He's expected to sign.

The next "huge question," according to Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, is how all of the regulatory process will be funded. "Our hope is that they give us the time and the funding," he said in Creasey's story. Of course money is one of the important items that must be figured out, along with what pumping limits might be, what role the DWR and state agencies would have versus local agencies and how those are actually formed.

Regardless, at this point, it might be best to look ahead to what will eventually have to happen.

"The legislation is done. All you can do now is move on," Bettner also said in the article. "We're going to work with our counties and other agencies and form governance to show the state we can do this locally."

That's probably the wise thing and a good plan for counties to follow. Whether you like it, are neutral on it, or absolutely hate the new act, it's pretty likely to happen and getting out ahead of it all might be the best local option. 

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