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Calif. Says Locals Must Police Groundwater

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - With California on the verge of "bankrupting" some of its most important aquifers, state officials Tuesday reiterated the responsibility local water agencies have in enforcing the state's new groundwater-monitoring laws.

During a legislative oversight hearing, state officials updated implementation plans for the newly enacted Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, telling lawmakers it will largely be up to local communities to monitor and prevent further depletion of California's vital underground water supply.

"Our job is to write the rules of the game," David Gutierrez, groundwater project manager for the California Department of Water Resources, said. "Groundwater should be managed at the local level; we've certainly bought into that."

The hearing at the state Capitol examined the department's progress on creating sustainability plans for California's 515 underground water basins as required by the state's first groundwater regulations. Lawmakers passed the act in 2014 to address concerns over collapsing aquifers being siphoned by farmers and water agencies.

While its neighboring states have long monitored groundwater use, for over a century California has allowed farmers and water suppliers to take as much underground water as they could find.

But thanks to California's extended and unrivaled drought, Gutierrez said communities are being forced to drill new water wells and are putting more pressure on the state's underground water savings account.

In a normal year, California receives approximately 38 percent of its water supply from underground aquifers. But during the last few years the amount has jumped to 60 percent and - due to the drought and unchecked pumping - scientists say the Central Valley floor is sinking at a historic rate.

Over the last year, the department and the State Water Resources Control Board have been meeting with cities to help them create groundwater sustainability agencies. The local agencies must be formed by June 2017 and will be tasked with creating action plans by 2020 to protect their local aquifers from overdraft.

As part of the new law, the department also placed each of the state's basins into priority tiers. The majority of the state's most critical basins were assigned to the Central Valley, home to California's largest farming operations.

Critics claim the new groundwater rules are developing too slowly and provide no immediate relief to the state's severely damaged aquifers. California's prominent farming lobby has blasted the act, claiming property values have declined due to speculation over future pumping restrictions and that similar laws in Texas have not prevented overdraft.

State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, asked the state officials if they had the authority to control or shut down water wells under the act if the drought continues.

"No, not really," Guiterrez said.

Water board executive director Tom Howard agreed that regulators are unable to prevent new wells from being drilled or restrict the amount of water pumped, despite the new law.

"It's not something we've ever done in the past with respect to groundwater extractions," Howard said. "I don't think there is anything specific in our statues that would authorize us to restrict groundwater pumping."

Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-Madera, said the new groundwater regulations will be "difficult to unwrap" and that he doesn't want "people to get hammered" by the new rules. Bigelow recently petitioned state and federal officials to release more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Central Valley farmers, claiming the state is allowing water from recent storms to run off unused through the delta.

While cities must create their groundwater sustainability agencies by 2017, groundwater restrictions won't go into effect until January 2020 at the earliest.

In the meantime, Howard said the most productive way to recharge water basins is through capturing stormwater and routing it back into the ground.

"It's not just a legitimate way, it's the way to try to maintain a groundwater imbalance," Howard said.

In June, the water board approved a plan that revises Los Angeles County's stormwater discharge plan and allows the city to capture and divert water into holding areas to be used for irrigation. Proponents say capturing more water makes Los Angeles more water independent, while critics claim the project is expensive and could degrade water quality.

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