Assembly Bill 2201 only creates more confusion in the already complicated process for sustainable management of groundwater basins. Sacramento needs to entrust groundwater management to local experts.
By Louise Lampara, Special to CalMatters
Louise Lampara is the executive director of the Ventura County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, a nonprofit advocating for rational regulatory oversight and a healthy economy in Ventura County.
Assemblymember Steve Bennett’s proposed Assembly Bill 2201, which would create a new permanent permitting process for groundwater wells, negatively affects local water districts, municipalities and California’s agricultural community.
Despite recent amendments to the bill language, AB 2201 would force a strict new mandate on how groundwater sustainability agencies must operate. The bill removes the ability of locally based groundwater experts to decide for themselves what management options best address local conditions. Instead, the bill would require local experts to make specific findings and determinations for new and modified groundwater wells before they may be allowed.
Sacramento legislators need to entrust groundwater management to the local experts.
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed in 2014, recognized that it is critical for water issues to be managed and resolved at the local level. When he signed the act into law, then-Gov. Jerry Brown stated that, “groundwater management in California is best accomplished locally.” The act achieves this by requiring individual local basin groundwater sustainability plans to identify the challenges and solutions unique to each local groundwater basin.
As a Ventura County supervisor, Assemblymember Bennett supported robust local groundwater management. He was instrumental in the adoption of Ventura County Well Ordinance No. 4468, which established policies to ensure that wells are “executed, operated and destroyed in such a manner that the groundwater will not be contaminated or polluted, and that water obtained from the water wells will be suitable for use and will not jeopardize the health, safety or welfare of the community in Ventura County.”
But through AB 2201, Bennett has disregarded the importance of local management and expertise in favor of a “one size fits all” statewide authority, adding yet another layer of bureaucratic red tape to an already arduous process.
Only three months ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted Executive Order N-7-22 to protect health, safety and the environment during this drought emergency. The order directs local agencies to work collaboratively with local groundwater agencies when considering new and altered well requests. Under this order, public agencies cannot approve a permit for a new groundwater well (or for altering an existing well) in medium- or high-priority basins subject to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act without first obtaining written verification from the local groundwater agency that the proposed well would not negatively impact the sustainability goal for that specific basin.
AB 2201 would codify — and complicate — the directives of the governor’s executive order.
Right now, an advisory committee of more than 80 representatives from a broad range of sectors and geographic areas within the state, each with expertise in well permitting, design, construction, maintenance and destruction, are revising the state’s well standards to ensure the protection of California’s groundwater quality. At the same time, municipalities, water users and groundwater managers are actively working through the challenges of implementing the executive order’s directives.
We must allow our local community experts the time and opportunity to work through the order and the upcoming changes to the state’s well standards to determine how these requirements will be implemented in their own basins before the Legislature complicates the process by permanently reducing the local control guaranteed in the original act.
AB 2201 creates more confusion in the already complicated process for sustainable management of local groundwater basins. Well applicants would face significant new costs. Counties and groundwater agencies would be exposed to increased threats of legal challenges for well-permitting decisions.
AB 2201 will not increase water accessibility for small, impoverished communities. By adding permitting and reporting requirements, the bill adds cost-prohibitive burdens to smaller communities, making it more difficult for them to provide water to their residents.
The bill takes well-permitting decisions out of the hands of local experts and drops them in the lap of politically appointed representatives with little, if any, expertise in groundwater management and even less local community knowledge.
We must maintain local management of groundwater and sustainability planning — including permitting and enforcement — as intended by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and other state statutes. Local county agencies and water districts understand their communities’ needs. They have the technical expertise and knowledge necessary to make the critical decisions to ensure groundwater sustainability in collaboration with local GSAs.
Read an opposing viewpoint on this issue here.