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California well water bill survives Senate committee

A bill to let local groundwater sustainability agencies regulate groundwater wells survived a committee vote.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — A bill which would change the way groundwater wells are approved in California took a step forward Wednesday as it survived a fight in a California state Senate committee.

The legislation was introduced by Assemblymember Steve Bennett, Democrat from Ventura, and would change the way new and expanded water wells are approved in California; focusing on areas that are experiencing rapid decline in groundwater reserves. Bennett told the committee that the goal of the bill is to provide some teeth to groundwater sustainability agencies (GSA), which are tasked with coming up with sustainable groundwater discharge plans under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed in 2014, to oversee new and expanded wells.

Under the proposed legislation, any new or modified groundwater well proposed in water basins that are deemed medium or high-burden basins will need to to undergo a review by the local GSA for review and public comment. After review the local GSA will then determine whether the new well fits within the SGMA plan for that basin or if the proposed well would not be sustainable.

“Right now GSAs do not have any teeth to either review new wells or stop new wells from going in,” Bennett told the committee. “This legislation would provide the GSA some power to determine whether a proposed well meets the goals of SGMA and whether it should be approved or not.”

Opponents argued that the proposed legislation would have the state of California impose rules on new and existing wells from Sacramento and take away any local oversight. Bennett disagreed with that contention and said the legislation would provide local control and oversight as the GSA knows their area the best.

“There are a number of out of state and well monied investors coming in buying up land which has had no wells; they then plant almonds and dig a number of wells with no oversight of whether the new wells meet the SGMA goals, leading to basins being further overdrawn,” Bennett told the committee.

Since the legislation was introduced, it has been amended a number of times and because of those amendments, a number of farming groups have now changed positions and support the legislation. The amendments exclude low-flow wells for domestic use and shallow wells for existing small farmers from needing to undergo the GSA review.

Even with the amendments, a number of farm bureaus, central California counties, communities and other groups expressed their opposition to the proposed legislation. A number of GSAs said the current SGMA provides opportunities to block future wells if they prove to be unsustainable and would like time to go through that process before legislation is passed.

Both sides agreed that the continued issuance of executive orders by Governor Gavin Newsom regarding wells for groundwater use — the executive orders do not allow new wells to be drilled — is not sustainable or the preferred method for the future.

“The democratic process allows for conversations like this to happen and for changes to be made to address concerns raised by opponents. This is a better process than the current executive order which underwent no consultation and provides only a short-term solution. This legislation will make sure that there is enough groundwater for both farmers and communities for future generations,” Bennett told the Committee.

Assembly Bill 2201 passed the California state Senate Governance and Finance Committee 3 -1. The legislation now moves to the California state Senate Appropriations Committee.

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