Proposed law makes new well permitting process permanent

AB 2201 would require groundwater agencies to analyze every new well drilling permit before they are approved by county government

SACRAMENTO – New legislation introduced in the State Assembly aims to make the Governor’s March 28 order on new water well permits permanent. 

Assemblymember Steve Bennett (D-Ventura) and representatives from Visalia-based Community Water Center (CWC) introduced Assembly Bill 2201 on March 31 requiring local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) to evaluate new well drilling permits to ensure those wells will not negatively affect domestic wells nearby before the permits can be approved by county government. The law would codify Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order, which is temporary.

The Community Water Center cited an investigation by the LA Times which revealed 6,200 new agriculture wells have been drilled since the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) was passed in 2014. The landmark legislation created GSAs in overdrafted groundwater basins and tasked them with bringing their basins into balance by sinking more water into the ground than they pump out.

AB 2201 is supported by environmental justice groups and opposed by agriculture grower and water associations as well as municipal water agencies. 

“Without increased state and local oversight, over-pumping of groundwater will continue to cause shallow domestic and community water wells to run dry, threatening the water supply of disadvantaged communities throughout the state and is in direct opposition to the goals of SGMA and the Human Right to Water,” says Community Water Center Executive Director Susana De Anda. “Given what we know about the future of our water in California and the challenges of Climate Change, there is no excuse for us to leave our communities in a situation where their drinking water supplies are stolen from underneath their feet.”

The bill passed its first hurdle on April 26 when it was approved by the Assembly’s Water, Parks & Wildlife Committee. At the hearing, Ruth Martinez, a board member for the Ducor Community Services District, said her community had already been affected by new agriculture wells being drilled in the area. Martinez said the rural community of mostly Latino farmworkers relied on costly bottled water for years because its well was contaminated with nitrates, a chemical that is both naturally occurring and a byproduct of past agricultural practices, which is harmful to humans. 

In 2016, the community of 600 people received a new, deeper well thanks to a $1.8 million state grant “providing safe water for myself and neighbors for the first time in many years,” Martinez said. But last year, a new agricultural well was drilled across the street which she claims has increased the salinity, reduced pressure and lowered the water level in Ducor’s new well.

“The county approved this new well without thinking about the impact on our community,” Martinez said at the April 26 hearing. “There was no notification given to us that a new well was being drilled and no public process for us to comment on the well being drilled.”

If approved as it is currently amended, AB 2201 would require county agencies to obtain written verification from the local GSA that a well would not interfere with its adopted groundwater sustainability plan or affect wells in the area before approving permits for new wells or alterations to existing wells. Additionally, the bill would require the GSA to post a notification of the permit application on its website to allow for public comments on the well at least 30 days prior to issuing its decision. Exceptions would be made for private domestic wells, which produce less than 2-acre feet of water per year, or wells for public water systems, such as cities, counties and special districts. SGMA also does not address wells of less than 2-acre feet per year.

“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.” 

Groundwater accounts for about 40% of the water used by California’s farms and cities, and significantly more in dry years, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. About 85% of Californians depend on groundwater for some portion of their water supply. Some communities rely entirely on groundwater for drinking water, and it is a critical resource for many farmers in the Central Valley and Central Coast.

Dennise England, water resources manager for the county, said the bill as proposed would change little of the existing process for the majority of new wells. The law would establish a groundwater extraction permit issued by the GSA authorizing a property owner to pump water out of the aquifer and will likely cap the amount of water production wells can pump out. Even for commercial production wells, the kind the law is intended to check, most GSAs have already established, proposed or are discussing pumping restrictions per acre per year in order to bring their subbasins into balance.  The county would still have the authority to issue permits for well construction without the GSA authorization, especially for repairs to existing wells which may have failed for reasons other than going dry. England said county well drilling permits may be issued for wells that collapse due to the age of casings or if a well is contaminated and the water cannot be used for agriculture use.

“The GSAs don’t have the time or the resources to police every well,” England said. “Even some carve out funding for the [Department of Water Resources], they are not staffed for that either.”

Aaron Fukuda, general manager for Tulare Irrigation District and manager of the Mid-Kaweah GSA, said GSAs do not have the staff to do the implementation and monitoring required under SGMA while also evaluating well permits. The Mid-Kaweah alone has more than 1,000 agriculture, industrial and commercial wells but only one employee, a director position split between two people. At most, local GSAs employ two full time people to implement the GSP. Under the law, costs associated with evaluating the wells are not eligible for reimbursement by the state.

“At any given time, TID has two or three people working on the GSA, but I have to take them off other priorities to have them work on this,” Fukuda said.

The governor’s order and the introduction of the law come at a time when all of Tulare County’s GSAs are rushing to rewrite and resubmit their groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs) by July 27 and then implement them. The state deemed eight Valley GSPs to be “incomplete” in January and required the GSAs to revise three major areas of the plan’s data and monitoring in just 180 days after spending the previous two years drafting the documents. Fukuda said there could be a scenario where AB 2201 is asking GSAs to evaluate well permits under a plan the state has not yet approved.

“It’s just the wrong time to be doing all of this,” Fukuda said. 

Even if the GSAs received additional state funds for well evaluation, Fukuda said it would be difficult to find enough people qualified to do the work. 

“There is a limited number of people who understand the context of how to apply that knowledge in the field,” Fukuda said. “SGMA is a whole new industry and we would have to find those interested in the field, train them and get them up to speed.”

With triple digit temperatures expected to begin this week, England said, regardless of SGMA and proposed new laws regarding groundwater, Tulare County itself is better prepared for drought conditions than it was during the last multi-year drought from 2012-2016. At the height of the drought, 2014-2015, thousands of wells went dry in Tulare County. So far this year, the county has only seen a slight increase in the number of properties relying on above-ground water tanks for their homes. In March, England said there were 178 properties enrolled in the county’s water tank program. As of May 9, that number was 180. And while 2022 is dry overall, it pales in comparison to 2014, one of the driest years on record.

“It’s a program where the number is constantly in flux,” England said. “But we have done a lot of work to prevent a 2014 catastrophe. We have been very proactive since then in bringing individual wells onto community water systems.”

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