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A Watershed Moment: Californian Droughts Invite Compromise

It is abundantly clear to anyone visiting California this year that the state is in the midst of a catastrophe. The Central Valley is filled with parched fields; Northern California is wracked with fires; and the Sierras — the source of vital snowpack that feeds rivers and streams throughout the state — are bare. California is in the third year of its worst drought since the state began water recording in 1895. Some scientists have labeled it the worst drought in 500 years. Though catastrophic, the drought’s impact on California agriculture — an industry that depends on roughly 80 percent of the state’s water supply — has not been fully realized. This is thanks to the huge underground aquifers that farmers use to supplement an estimated 75 percent of lost surface water.  It is a technique that has been used for decades and is now dangerously unsustainable due to drought. In a normal year, groundwater accounts for about 40 percent of all water used in the state. Recently, that number has been as high as 65 percent. Farmers are pumping water out of the ground at a rate that can’t be replenished. In the San Joaquin Valley, water tables have been shrinking by as much as two meters a week. Many aquifers have dried up completely. California’s predicament exposes a veritable blind spot in the state’s environmental planning. Unlike every other western state, California has yet to implement a statewide groundwater management program.

Why is California, a state known — and often mocked — for excessive regulation, so behind on regulating this valuable resource? Part of the reason is historical. The current groundwater laws in California are largely the same as those in place during the Gold Rush, and it’s difficult to change laws that people have relied on for 150 years. In 1978, Governor Brown commissioned a review of Californa water laws, and stressed the need to pass comprehensive groundwater reform. And while many local governments, such as Orange County, have instituted their own management plans since then, statewide policy still treats underground water as private property rather than a public resource. In most of the state, residents are free to drill everything beneath them, without so much as a permit. In fact, recent years have become a groundwater gold rush in California. Drilling companies are flooding the state, working overtime to offset water lost from the drought. A UC Davis report found that California farmers will spend $500 million more than usual this year drilling for water.

Politically, the drought has created some beneficial corollary effects in the form of bipartisan cooperation. On August 13th, legislators approved a $7.12 billion water bond that would help to mitigate the drought in future years. In the past, political differences were too great for the legislature to pass any substantive water reforms, but the current disaster has spurred cooperation between the two sides. Republicans and Democrats alike voted for the bond, which included infrastructure improvements, a new reservoir, and environmental protections. The bill heads to voters this fall for approval. Noticeably absent from the bond were any provisions that would regulate groundwater, a perennially contentious issue in California politics.

Two identical bills — Senate Bill 1168 and Assembly Bill 1739 — drafted with support from the governor’s office, were passed by the Senate and the state Assembly. The bills, called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, will require local governments to develop management plans by 2020, with the goal of having a sustainable water supply by 2040. In the Senate, Democrats have a supermajority and were able to pass the bill with ease. The Assembly, where bills require Republican support, could have posed a problem. Republicans in the state have historically fought for individual water rights, preserving the state’s libertarian approach to groundwater policy. State senator Jim Nielsen, for instance, recently wrote an op-ed in SFGate saying “Historic and sweeping changes to laws that threaten treasured ways of life and fundamental property rights should not be rushed through in the final four days of the legislative session.” Thankfully, the two bills passed were passed in the final days of the legislative session. Due to the pressing nature of the bills, lawmakers managed to pass what for years had been too politically divisive for any bipartisan consensus.

Though Senate Bill 1168 and Assembly Bill 1739 made the cut, GOP resistance to ground water regulation will be a continuous obstacle to long lasting reform. In conjunction with the GOP’s libertarian tilt, lobbyists are a driving force behind Republican opposition. The California Farm Bureau, one of the biggest lobbyists in the state, released a statement saying the bill would “devalue land and impact farms’ and businesses’ viability and in turn impact jobs.” The Bureau donates roughly 70 percent of their money to Republican officials. In addition to agriculture, oil companies use groundwater at a rapid pace, an estimated 2.14 million gallons a day for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”. The oil lobby has a long history of influencing California environmental policy. The Western States Petroleum Association ranks as the biggest individual lobbyist in the state, spending $4.67 billion on lobbying in 2013. As a whole, oil lobby spending in California has increased by 400% in the last 15 years. In May, the oil lobby spent $15 million to defeat Senate Bill 1132, which would ban fracking in the state. The bill failed, despite majority support from California voters. Recently, the Bureau of Land Management approved oil companies’ request to expand fracking in California even further.

With more than 80 percent of the state in extreme or exceptional drought, the two highest classifications, California’s groundwater supply can no longer be left ignored. Despite the huge obstacles the bills faced from interest groups and legislators alike, the current spat of legislative cooperation in the face of a catastrophe has spurred unprecedented reform. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and the $7 billion water bond passed earlier this summer, won’t solve California’s water problems entirely. But they’re an important start in a state that for years has been unwilling to do much of anything about increasingly dire water problems. The old political adage says “never let a good crisis go to waste.” That’s truer than ever in California, where almost four years of the worst drought in state history is finally leading to necessary water reforms.

About the Author

Mitchell Johnson '18 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.