Everything you need to know about California's historic water law

Susie Cagle

California began regulating surface water in rivers and streams in 1914, but it took the state another 100 years to look underground.

In 2014, for the first time in its history, California passed a law regulating the use of groundwater – the resource on which 85% of its population and much of its $50bn agriculture industry rely.

2020 marks the first big deadline for the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (Sgma), as dozens of agencies complete initial plans to protect overdrafted water resources.

Related: ‘Surviving is a real question’: can small farms endure under California’s landmark water law?

Here’s what you need to know:

What were groundwater rights like before Sgma?

California’s underground basins are a key component of the state’s complex and fragile water system. For all of the state’s history, the rights to groundwater had come with land ownership: If one had an access point to an aquifer, one had the right to drill into it and pump out its contents. No regulatory entity would track, let alone limit how much water any pump sent up.

This anarchy persisted for decades. Aquifers were drained lower and lower and the land above them sank – a phenomenon called “subsidence” that wreaks havoc on infrastructure and compresses the soil, making it even more difficult for some aquifers to recharge with water.

What prompted lawmakers to take action?

Pumping reached a fever pitch during the drought that began in 2011, when growers across California received less and less water from the rivers and canals meted out by regulatory agencies and irrigation districts. To make up the difference, farmers who could afford it drilled new wells and lowered existing ones.

Aquifers became increasingly overdrawn as more and more water was pumped out without being replaced by rainfall. As the drought continued for the next six years, smaller farmers and domestic water users with more shallow personal wells found the groundwater had retreated past their pumps, many of which now sent up only sand.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act or Sgma (pronounced “sigma”) aimed to address this seemingly sudden crisis, which in reality was over a century in the making. The package of three bills was passed over vocal criticism from some local governments in the Central Valley – California’s agricultural heartland – agribusiness and the California Farm Bureau Federation, which warned of “huge long-term economic impacts”.

What does Sgma do?

Sgma essentially upholds the right to groundwater access and use, but considers water to be a shared asset and imposes rules on its use. Those restrictions also apply to California’s powerful agriculture industry, which uses roughly 80% of all the state’s water.

Sgma relies on local oversight. The law established local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies to oversee the development and implementation of plans to manage groundwater resources in California’s 450 underground basins. The first round included more than 260 agencies for more than 140 of the state’s most high priority basins, 21 of which are “critically overdrafted”. Of those, 11 are in the San Joaquin valley.

Related: Dry February sends California back to drought: 'This hasn't happened in 150 years'

Those agencies are tasked with developing and overseeing Groundwater Sustainability Plans, with the power to gather data on how much water is being pumped and where and set limits on it. Analysts have estimated that between those limits on groundwater pumping and less available water due to climate change, anywhere between 500,000 and 1m acres of California farmland will have to be fallowed.

Many of the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies in the Central Valley share their borders and board members with the local irrigation districts, reflecting agriculture’s interests. But these agencies and plans must “consider the interests of” beneficial users, including groundwater rights holders and disadvantaged communities served by private wells and small community water systems. Those communities won’t face pumping limits like their farming neighbors under Sgma, but they will face impacts nonetheless. Some of the sustainability plans call for allowing aquifers to drain to the worst levels seen during the drought before pumping limits would be imposed – levels that left many residents without any water at all.

A water canal used for irrigation running along a newly planted vineyard is nearly dry, near Bakersfield, California, April 2015. Photograph: Michael Nelson/EPA

When does it go into effect?

Although Sgma was passed in 2014, agencies in particularly high priority, overdrafted basins had until 31 January 2020 to file their plans to make groundwater resources sustainable by 2040. Those plans are subject to review and approval by the state’s Department of Water Resources, and will be reassessed every five years.

That doesn’t mean the sustainability process will begin right away. Instead of imposing immediate limits on new wells and water pumping, the plans will “glide” toward sustainability in 2040.

Why does Sgma matter?

A framework for healthy groundwater resources and storage is key to California’s ability to weather the more extreme drought and flood cycles the state will experience due to climate change. With less water stored in the form of snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, there will be less surface water to meet agricultural demand – putting yet more pressure on overdrafted aquifers.

Sgma was widely hailed as a necessary and long overdue regulatory step toward making California’s water usage remotely sustainable. But it will also have significant impacts on the state’s agriculture industry, rural communities and endangered wetlands.

What else is California doing to solve its water problems?

Over the last near-decade of drought and recovery, California has tried to plan for a drier future. Just weeks after the state passed Sgma in 2014, voters approved a $7.5bn water bond to pay for water infrastructure upgrades for storage, ecosystem protection and drinking water. It was not enough.

More than one million state residents live with water too toxic to drink. In 2019, the state passed the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, which allocates $1.4bn over 11 years to projects and programs to bring clean water to disadvantaged communities statewide.

This January, Gavin Newsom, the California governor, released his Water Resilience Portfolio, “a comprehensive strategy to build a climate-resilient water system”.

“California’s water challenges are daunting, from severely depleted groundwater basins to vulnerable infrastructure to unsafe drinking water in far too many communities. Climate change magnifies the risks,” Newsom said in announcing the plan.