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State Considers Regulation of Wells

We officially closed out the precipitation year on June 30 with a very wet total of 47.25 inches, which is 70.5% of our historic normal of 67 inches in the greater Laytonville area.

So we are in great shape compared to most of California where drought conditions range from “Severe Drought” to “Exceptional Drought” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The rain that fell during the July Fourth holiday period was a rare phenomenon.

The historic average for month of July is only nine-hundredth (0.09) of an inch. The two-days of light rain totaled a little over a quarter of an inch at 0.26 inch.

Proposed Regulations Of Water Wells

The governor of our state and the state legislature are getting into the act of exercising never-before-seen public control of privately owned groundwater wells.

Assemblyman Steve Bennett (D-Ventura) and representatives from Community Water Center (CWC) are sponsoring legislation that would change the way new and expanded water wells are approved in California, and focusing on areas that are experiencing rapid decline in groundwater reserves.

“New water wells and groundwater extractions are being approved without adequate analysis of their impact on the drinking water of disadvantaged communities,” said Bennett. “Approval without that analysis can cause significant negative impacts on over-drafted water basins and disadvantaged communities drinking water.”

Bennett’s bill, AB 2201, took a step forward last week as it survived a fight in a California state Senate committee.

The proposed law passed the California state Senate Governance and Finance Committee on a 3-1 vote. The legislation now moves to the California state Senate Appropriations Committee.

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 usage 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 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.”

In the past few months, Governor Gavin Newsom has issued several Executive Orders that do not allow new wells to be drilled. But those orders are specific to this drought period and will sunset when the drought is deemed over.

According to Court News Service, 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 Newsom banning new well drilling is not the way to solve the problem.

“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.

(Jim Shields is the Mendocino County Observer’s editor and publisher, observer@pacific.net, the long-time district manager of the Laytonville County Water District, and is also chairman of the Laytonville Area Municipal Advisory Council. Listen to his radio program “This and That” every Saturday at 12 noon on KPFN 105.1 FM, also streamed live: http://www.kpfn.org)

3 Comments

  1. Robbie wyre July 18, 2022

    Very timely article. Right now the board of supervisors and some other interested parties are working on groundwater protection for Mendocino county. I/ we have been pushing this for over a year from our round valley county Water dist. If we don’t get this passed in our county before the state takes the lead we will be at the mercy of legislators in sac. And we will have to deal with their burocracy every time we want to make a local adjustment to our ground water policy. If you don’t think this is important just look at the lawsuit the Coast Keepers Alliance brought against Sonoma county this time last year! It is all about over drafting groundwater in the Russian river area in Sonoma county and the next obvious step is a law suit inMendo county if we don’t get our act together and pass groundwater protection and controls based on science and not sidestep the equal requirements for hydrologic study for all commercial wells preexisting and/or new. If we only require hydrologic study for new wells we will fall victim to what happened in Siskiyou county and loose the same kind of law case they did in 2018 that has set the precedent for the case in Sonoma county!

    • George Hollister July 18, 2022

      This is an easier concept where there is a groundwater basin. Much of Mendocino County’s wells are into hard rock, where there is no basin. It appears the intent of state law was to focus on basins, not upland wells getting water from undefined rock fracturing. The county does not seem to know the difference, or care to know.

  2. Robbie wyre July 19, 2022

    Hi George, I don’t think that the county isn’t aware that there are many different types of geologic areas and substraights, I think they are trying to figure how to address commercial water pumping and sales. The hydrologic test for any commercial well would be the same no mater where in the county it was located. You are right that the state through SGMA is focused on ground water basins and that is why I am concerned with the trend toward tying groundwater extraction to SGMA through the law classes like National Audubon V Superior Court 1983 and Environmental Law Foundation V State Water Resources Control Board 2018. Both these cases have tied groundwater to surface waters setting new precedent in calif water law. What that means is water law is changing in California. The county is starting to work to protect our groundwater, a resource that is as basic as our air to all our lives. No one should be allowed to overdraft our water, weather it is extracted from an aquifer of fractured rock or one of gravel in the valley floor! In either case any commercial water extraction permit in Mendocino county should be required to complete a hydrological study to the standard we set!

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