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Governor Brown Signs Assembly Bill 321 Into Law—Farmers and Ranchers Now Considered Beneficial Users under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

On July 17, 2017, as part of the state’s efforts to further implement its groundwater management policies, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 321 (AB 321) into law. Intended to clarify prior uncertainties, this bill specifically adds farmers, ranchers and dairy professionals as “beneficial users” under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), thereby requiring public agencies to consider these agricultural interests when drafting and implementing Groundwater Sustainability Plans. [Assembly Bill 321, 2017-2018 Reg. Sess., Ch. 67 (Cal. 2017)]

Background

California’s groundwater is used by 85 percent of the state’s population and the majority of the state’s $45 billion agriculture industry. As a result of several factors, however, many groundwater basins are at a critical point of overdraft. Thus, in 2014, SGMA was enacted with the goal of establishing more sustainable groundwater management policies in California, particularly by empowering local and regional agencies to tackle problems at their source. Historically, water rights and regulations have focused only on surface waters. This law was the first major attempt to regulate and manage groundwater in California on a comprehensive basis. SGMA’s target is to establish sustainable groundwater management in California by 2042 or earlier. In total, nearly $1 billion has been earmarked in various bond measures for sustainable groundwater management and various projects like groundwater cleanup and storage.

Under SGMA, groundwater basins are categorized relating to priority—for example, in general terms the lower the basin’s rate of groundwater recharge and the higher the use of its waters, the higher the basin’s priority. The Department of Water Resources had until January 31, 2015 to categorize basins as high, medium, low, or very low priority. 127 basins were identified as “high priority” or “medium priority” throughout California. Pumping from these basins accounts for nearly 96 percent of the state’s total developed groundwater. To implement SGMA, Groundwater Sustainability Plans must be developed in medium and high-priority basins that are designated in a state of critical overdraft by Jan. 31, 2020, and in all other medium and high-priority basins by Jan. 31, 2022. Groundwater Sustainability Agencies must also be formed and will be charged with drafting and implementing these Groundwater Sustainability Plans, subject to review by the Department of Water Resources and oversight by the State Water Resources Control Board. The deadline for the formation of these GSA’s was June 30, 2017.

Assembly Bill 321

Under SGMA, Groundwater Sustainability Agencies are directed to consider the interests of all beneficial uses and users of groundwater when implementing the law. Under prior iterations of SGMA, Water Code § 10723.2 identified several key parties in its definition of “beneficial uses and users of groundwater.” Specifically, users identified included holders of overlying groundwater rights, municipal well operators, and public water systems. In recognition of the significant interests agricultural users have in groundwater usage AB 321, introduced by Assembly Member Devon Mathis (R-Visalia), amends Water Code § 10723.2 to expand the “agricultural users” category of interests to specifically include farmers, ranchers, and dairy professionals. As a result of this expanded/clarified definition, Groundwater Sustainability Agencies and other interested parties will need to work to ensure that the voices and institutional knowledge of those engaged in the agricultural industry are included in the SGMA planning process.

Conclusion and Implications

As discussed above, AB 321 clarifies/expands the “agricultural user” category of interests that an agency must consider under Water Code § 10723.2 to specifically include farmers, ranchers and dairy professionals. Groundwater sustainability plans must be developed in high-priority basins that are designated as critically overdrafted by Jan. 31, 2020, and in all other medium- and high-priority basins by Jan. 31, 2022. The plans will undergo scrutiny by the Department of Water Resources and oversight by the State Water Resources Control Board. If plans are deemed inadequate, agencies will have opportunities to cure any deficiencies, but ultimately state intervention in the basin could occur if state concerns are not addressed. The full language of Assembly Bill 321 appears here: https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180AB321

(Matt Collins, Holland Stewart, Steve Anderson)