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California Governor Brown Signs Senate Bill 252 Into Law—Applications for Well Permits in Critically-Overdrafted Groundwater Basins Will Now Require Greater Transparency

On October 7, 2017, as regulatory oversight over sustainable groundwater management expands in Sacramento and across the state, Governor Brown signed Senate Bill (SB) 252 into law. The bill requires applications for new water well permits in “critically-overdrafted” groundwater basins to include information about the proposed well such as location, depth, and pumping capacity. This information must also be easily accessible and available to both the public and groundwater sustainability agencies. [Senate Bill 252, 2017-2018 Reg. Sess., (Cal. 2017)]



Some in the state have complained that California farmers, ranchers and landowners have received permits to drill new water wells in areas with dangerously low groundwater levels without publicly revealing how much water they intended to pump. SB 252 seeks to address this perceived issue by bringing transparency to this process by requiring every city or county overlying a critically overdrafted groundwater basin”:

…to request estimates of certain information from an applicant for a new well located within a critically overdrafted basin as part of an application for a well permit.

SB 252 focuses solely on the 21 groundwater basins across the state, from Paso Robles to Oxnard to Borrego County in the desert, that are designated as “critically overdrafted” and in need of immediate assistance. The bill is designed to be a temporary uptick in regulation of these specific basins until the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act’s (SGMA) provisions can be fully implemented. SGMA requires local agencies with jurisdiction over these 21 groundwater basins to adopt 20-year groundwater sustainability plans by 2020 to combat aquifer overdraft and achieve sustainable groundwater management. However, some in the Legislature lobbied for this additional temporary measure by pointing to the many household wells in the San Joaquin Valley that went dry during the drought. In 2015 alone, farmers in the San Joaquin Valley dug about 2,500 new wells in critically overdrafted basins.


Summary of SB 252

The bill requires every new application for a well permit in a critically overdrafted basin to contain an array of information, including the following: a map of the location, the depth, proposed capacity, estimated pumping rate and pumping schedule, the geologic siting information, and the distance from ponds, lakes and streams within 300 feet. However, there are several exceptions; for example, the bill does not apply to any de minimus extractor, any city or county municipal well that provides water solely for its residents, or any applicant for a new well that is not located in a critically overdrafted basin.

Critics of SB 252 raised concerns relating to the level of government overreach and tangled regulatory history relating to groundwater basins—if we already have SGMA, the reasoning goes, why take additional measures when the SGMA has yet to take full effect? Why take control out of the hands of cities, counties, and local groundwater sustainability agencies when the SGMA, a hard-fought legislative victory, was supposed to empower local regulation?

The Sierra Sun Times reported that Senator Andy Vidak, who urged the Governor, via letter, to veto the bill, stated the following:

SB 252 undermines the promises made by those involved in the creation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014, and violates the primary goal of the Act which was that groundwater should be managed at the local level….SGMA represented the single biggest change in California water policy in the last 100 years. If we allow each successive Legislature to poke holes in this overhaul, the policy will collapse before it has time to establish itself as the new law of the land. This would be akin to allowing multiple new categorical funding projects to be established the year after your Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) was unveiled to the state….SB 252 violates the spirit of the SGMA agreement, and undermines your role in negotiating a complicated water package that will enact major change for the Central Valley and the state. SB 252 also failed to earn support from a bipartisan group of Central Valley legislators, including Assemblymembers Dr. Joaquin Arambula, Heath Flora, Vince Fong, Adam Gray, Devon Mathis, and Rudy Salas, and Senators Tom Berryhill, Anthony Cannella, Jean Fuller and myself…. Finally, SB 252 ignores the simple fact that groundwater basins must be managed as a whole, not piecemealed together pitting well owners, cities, and counties against one another. Groundwater is not restricted by property lines and county borders, and must be appropriately and fairly regulated basin wide. (See:


Conclusion and Implications

Ultimately, however, it would appear that the threat of long-term damage to groundwater levels across the state and the alleged benefits of greater transparency pushed the bill through the Legislature and across Governor Brown’s desk.

SB 252 requires applicants for new water wells in critically overdrafted groundwater basins to provide information regarding their estimated usage and the nature of their usage. It is only a temporary measure, meant to expire when groundwater sustainability plans for critically overdraft basins are to be submitted to the California Department of Water Resources in 2020. In the meantime, however, cities, counties, and local groundwater sustainability agencies overlying these basins must be prepared to implement this new permitting system. The transparency promoted by this bill is intended to help local communities manage their groundwater and set California up for sustainability success. More information about Senate Bill 252 can be found at:

(Holland Stewart, Steve Anderson)