The Legislative Landscape for Current Water Issues in California

In my Post last week, I focused on the groundwater depletion that the Colorado River Basin faces. During the historic drought that California and many western states face, water users have increasingly turned to groundwater to make up for the utter lack of rain or surface water supplies. Despite the torrential rains that some areas of California received in early August, the Los Angeles Times reports that these rains did little to dent the drought in the state. The rains either fell on areas that were not seeing the worst drought conditions in the state, or the rain did not permeate the soil effectively. As such, the state still has large areas stuck in severe and exceptional drought. Please see the picture below for a comparison of the drought in California on July 1st (on the left) versus August 12th.

CA Drought July 1 vs Aug 5

In this context, the California legislature has either passed or is assessing two important pieces of water legislation. Last week, Governor Brown signed the revised water bond legislation to get onto the November ballot. Second, the legislature is reviewing and amending the legislation pertaining to groundwater regulation in the state. I will review both of these legislative items in this post.

A “Watered Down” Water Bond?

After weeks of intense negotiations with a host of parties, on August 13th, Governor Jerry Brown signed a revised $7.5 billion water bond package. The water bond, years in the making, now will go onto the November ballot.  But first, a bit of history.


In 2009, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed the initial water bond for consideration. At the time, the proposal called for $11.1 billion in debt. The original measure was postponed twice. First, California and the US were in the beginning stages of recovering from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Second, critics expressed concerns that the original project list contained too many pork barrel spending projects that would do little to alleviate the drought issues California faced. Discussions to put a replacement on the ballot this year faced similar hurdles.

The continued drought and Governor Brown’s desire to compromise on the components of the water bond helped to get the 2014 legislation onto the ballot in November. Overall, the new bond proposal will issue $7.12 billion in new debt and re-allocate $425 million from previous bond debt. Highlights of AB 1471 include:

Fund Allocations


Amount (mil)

Clean Drinking Water


Protecting Rivers, Lakes, Streams, Coastal Water and   Watersheds


Regional Water Security, Climate & Drought   Preparedness




Water Recycling


Groundwater Sustainability


Flood Management





In his remarks at the signing ceremony, Governor Brown said that he was optimistic about the bond’s passage because the legislation had bipartisan support and the support of many stakeholders. Indeed, AB1471 passed by a vote of 77-2 in the Assembly and 37-0 in the Senate. “We’ve got a real water bond,” Brown said. “And we’ve got Democrats and Republicans that are more unified than I’ve ever seen – probably in my life.” While the water bond legislation received broad bipartisan support in the legislature, it remains to be seen if California voters will warm up to the bond. Senate President Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg pointed out that because of the drought, “there is no better time than now” to address the bond issuance because the issue is at the forefront of every Californian’s mind. While the Legislature and the Governor will have to wait until November for the outcome of the water bond, legislators are getting back to work on just as pressing an issue related to California’s water supply: groundwater management.

Groundwater Management Legislation

As I mentioned in a July Post, the California Department of Water Resources curtailed all junior surface water rights in California. Further, the State Water Project is only delivering 5% of its total allocations to end users, and no deliveries will take place before September 1st. Most agricultural water users who rely on the Central Valley Project are also getting no water supplies. Many farmers and municipalities rely on surface water diversions to irrigate crops. When surface water supplies are cut off, they must rely on groundwater to provide crops with needed supplies. Unlike many western states, California in most instances does not regulate groundwater supplies. With the exception of adjudicated groundwater basins, overliers (essentially meaning landowners) above a basin can extract groundwater with little oversight. In the midst of the historic drought, this massive reliance on groundwater has put serious strains on the long-term groundwater supply. New legislation moving through the California legislature aims to put some regulations on the on groundwater supplies.

At the current time, 2 pieces of legislation are moving through Sacramento. The bills, SB 1168 (Senator Pavley) and AB 1739 (Assembly Member Dickinson) differ slightly in their approach. However, each bill contains similar new regulations to manage groundwater. By January 1, 2017, the state would be required to determine the priority of each groundwater basin in the state and rate it as either a low, medium or high priority basin in terms of groundwater management. By January 1, 2020, the medium and high priority basins would have to have a groundwater sustainability plan in place to return the basin to a sustainable water level. The bill would give local jurisdictions the authority to become a groundwater sustainability agency and lead the effort to bring the basin back to a sustainable level. Finally, according to the Siskiyou Daily News, local jurisdictions must take into consideration the groundwater sustainability management plans before making any adjustments to a city’s general plan.

As of August 14th, AB 1739 moved out of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday and is headed to the full Senate floor. Assembly Member Dickinson said that now is the time to address groundwater overdrafts before it is too late. “California faces a groundwater crisis,” Dickinson said. “The cumulative overdraft of our groundwater basins is equivalent to the entire amount of water stored in Lake Tahoe. In many areas of the state, local groundwater managers lack the tools and authorities to manage their groundwater basins. Without improved management, the overdraft in many parts of the state will get even worse over the next several years.” It will face some opposition, particularly from farming communities and water districts that do not want to lose local control of their groundwater basin. Farmers are worried that new regulations will cut off their access to groundwater reserves they need to weather droughts like we currently face. Local water districts are mostly concerned that arbitrary new legislation will not take into consideration the unique challenges each water district faces in managing its groundwater supplies.

All of these issues will have to be addressed before a bill passes both sides of the legislature, and it is unlikely that everyone will be happy with the outcome. What does it mean for California’s aquifers and the jurisdictions that control them? Some local governments are concerned that the State will step in to manage groundwater if local regulators do nothing. For example, The San Luis Obispo Tribune ran an interesting story about how Supervisor Frank Mecham is trying to get the local regulators to reach consensus about managing the Paso Robles groundwater basin before the state steps in. The State identified the Paso Robles Basin as a high priority basin. As the bills I mentioned are currently written, the State Water Resources Control Board would be able to hire a third party to implement a water management plan if no local group takes the lead to manage a groundwater basin in a timely manner. This potential loss of local control has many local politicians concerned. “I’ve said this many times,” Mecham said. “If we don’t do something about managing the basin, the state will step in and do it for us.”

It will be very interesting to see how these pieces of legislation progress and how local authorities react to the new regulations. Stay tuned in an upcoming piece to see the resolution of these debates.







This entry was posted in California 2014 Water Bond, Economic Impact, Supply Reliability on by .

About Jeff Simonetti

Jeff Simonetti is the Vice President of Public Affairs at the Capitol Core Group and provides project management, business development, and policy/lobbying expertise to a variety of federal, state and local clients. During his tenure at Capitol Core, Jeff has among other projects helped a renewable energy company to secure authorizing resolutions in cities across Southern California. Prior to joining Capitol Core Group, Jeff was a Vice President at the Kosmont Companies, a real estate and economic development consulting firm. At Kosmont, Jeff was the project lead for cities looking to implement financing strategies such as Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFDs) and other post-redevelopment funding mechanisms. He also was the project manager for the Economic Development element of the Fontana General Plan Update. Jeff gained significant state and local government affairs experience as the Government Affairs Director at the Building Industry Association (BIA) of Southern California’s Baldy View Chapter. During his tenure at the BIA, he helped to found the annual San Bernardino County Water Conference, an event that gathers over 400 elected officials and business leaders in the region to discuss the pressing water policy issues that affect the community.